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Textiles

Source:
The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Textiles

    Textiles serve many functions in the Islamic world. In the Middle Ages, weavers in nomadic communities made woolen fabrics and animal-hair bags for personal use and for trade. In cities and royal courts, artisans who specialized in spinning, weaving, and embroidery created luxurious fabrics of silk, velvet, and even gold. These fabrics adorned palaces and became valuable trading goods. In the 1800s, when Europeans began colonizing the Middle East, Western demand for Islamic textiles exploded.

    Local Production and Function.

    In traditional farming and nomadic societies, the needs of the family determined textile production. In nomadic communities, which were often based on raising sheep or goats, weavers made woolen cloth for dresses and robes, tents, bedding, pillow covers, wall coverings, sacks, and animal trappings. They wove items that they could easily pack and move from place to place. In farming communities, weavers had access to cotton. They created bags and draperies out of coarser material, reserving the softer weaves for robes and other garments. Nomadic groups often traded woolen goods for cotton clothing. Traditional communities rarely had access to materials such as silk or metallic threads.

    In all Muslim societies, textiles had important functions in everyday life. Different styles of clothing distinguished rich from poor, nomads from urban peoples, and Muslims from Jews, Christians, or members of other groups. Clothing could also indicate family lineage or a certain affiliation. Descendants of Muhammad , for example, wore green and white turbans, and members of the Iranian Safavid dynasty wrapped their turbans around a red baton. Mystics wore scratchy woolen garments to signify rejection of worldly comforts, earning the name Sufi, meaning “one who wears wool”. Textiles also played a large part in meals, gatherings, and home life. Muslims sat on mats, slept on rugs, ate from trays spread on a cloth on the floor, and reclined against cushions. Tents made of woven cloth housed nomads and traveling rulers.

    Royal Uses.

    Textile makers at imperial courts created luxurious fabrics for display as well as cloth for daily use. Muslim rulers established the tradition of the khilah, or “robe of honor,” giving courtiers and visiting dignitaries gifts of splendid clothing. The khilah featured outfits made from elaborate silks with gold and silver threads, along with belts, sashes, and bands embellished with rich embroidery. Khilah rituals varied from region to region. At the courts of the Abbasid dynasty, black was the official color, and rulers gave judges finely woven black wool garments. In courts of the Fatimid dynasty, state officials received white garments. Provincial governors often sent tributes of clothing to the imperial court. The governor of Bengal, for example, provided the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb with yearly gifts of clothing and textiles in the 1700s.

    Fabrics were used to drape the court's reception rooms and to decorate the routes of official processions. During the Fatimid rule in the 1000s and 1100s, white textiles were hung along a route in the royal city of Cairo for the ritual procession of the caliph during the holy month of Ramadan. Likewise, elaborate multicolored silks festooned routes in Andalusia (Muslim Spain), India, and Turkey. Textile objects were used for brilliant displays. Fatimid ceremonial parades included bright yellow and red kites shaped like lions. Wind puffed out the skillfully designed kites and made the animal shapes three-dimensional. The colors, too, indicated wealth: the yellow came from saffron, an expensive dye made from the crocus flower. Ceremonial tents also featured ornate decorations, sometimes with gold and precious jewels. The tent of the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir displayed a world map on its inside walls stitched with emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and sapphires.

    Certain religious practices required textiles as well. A ritual developed around the kiswah, the cloth used to cover the Kaaba in Mecca during the annual pilgrimage. In medieval times, the government of the city of Mecca supplied the kiswah each year. Various rulers also placed covers on the Kaaba, each made of a cloth representing a different part of the Muslim empire. Some covers had stripes, others were patterned or plain, but most displayed Qur'anic verses lettered in gold. In modern times, the government of Saudi Arabia provides the kiswah, which is embroidered in Egypt.

    Clothmaking After Colonization.

    The growth of colonization in the 1800s and 1900s gave rise to a flourishing international trade. Europeans began to demand large quantities of textiles from the Muslim world. Made in Iran, Afghanistan, and India, chintzes—high-quality cotton fabrics patterned with flowers or birds—became popular in England and the United States. Weavers and other textile artisans had to learn more efficient manufacturing techniques to boost production. At the same time, cheap fabrics from Western nations flooded markets in Islamic countries. This competition threatened traditional textile industries, which almost died out in some areas.

    By the late 1900s, however, textile artists had begun to revive traditional designs and techniques, although they sometimes worked with materials produced overseas. Traditional textiles continue to attract a large market both internationally and within the Muslim world. In Morocco, for example, tea drinkers often use embroidered cloths to cover their tea trays. Muslim women in Bangladesh continue to create richly embroidered fabrics to use as wraps, cushions, and Qur'an holders. In Cairo, weavers make tents with raised designs for the funerals of Muslim leaders. See also Art; Trade.

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