The countless yarns of a fabric chronicle a civilisation's epic journey in its customs, rituals and social mores. In vibrant hues and shapes textiles have served mankind as clothing, home furnishings and portable architecture (tents). Ever so often it is seen as an index of religious vitality. Whereas the turban and the skull cap is a head covering of the Islamic world during prayer, a veil is a manifestation of virtue for a woman.

From the sacred world of the mosque to the profane world of the exchange on the street, fabrics have symbolised culture and Silks were the most expensive manifestation of textiles.

While Egypt's ancient tradition of linen weaving was first produced along the banks of the Nile, Indians alone had mastered the complicated chemistry of cotton dyeing, involving proper permeation of the fibres.

Velvets from Europe and Iran, broadcloth from Turkey, cotton from Mesopotamia and Yemen were especially imported to the workshops within the precincts of the imperial palaces. Rich floor coverings, awnings, carpets, screens and panels for imperial tents, silk and brocade cushions, curtains, draperies, sacks, pillows and spreads bursting with exuberant colours, formed a unique array of exotic and unique masterpieces that were celebrated for their texture, colours and woven patterns.

Passed down from generation to generation as a precious heirloom, the Kashmir shawls from pashmina wool exude a warmth and beauty that is beyond comparison. As a result of the very fine, soft, flossy under-wool, called 'pashm' that is obtained from the underbelly of the wild goats of high Himalayan altitudes. Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, a Kashmiri ruler of the fifteenth century is credited with popularising the skill which began as a cottage industry centuries back. Under his patronage Kashmir became a "garden of crafts".

Capturing the glory of nature are the famous Jamawars. The designs are skillfully woven on the loom itself. Yarns of various colours are held by 'tojlis' or smooth light wooden bobbins for making patterns with the weft threads. Each fabric length takes as many as fifty colours. Months of hard work go into preparing one, with no more than an inch being added per day. Motifs of 'chinar' leaves, apple blossoms, vines, creepers and paisley patterns blend in harmony amidst the golden eyed bulbuls and kingfishers to match the soft pastel hues and designs of embroidery.

The unmatched 'kani' weave and the graceful needle work together with their luxurious and sensual softness is a testament of its universal appeal. The craze for Kashmiri shawls in 19th century Europe was seen next to diamonds and laces. The likes of Mary Antoinette boasted of owing the purest ring shawls, soft enough to be passed through a finger ring.

Perfected through generations, the fine fabrics blended by gifted hands, continue to fascinate.


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  © 2011 MIRAJ Islamic Art Centre, Dubai, U.A.E.