Spinning yarns from the East

Silk and Empire
September 29, 2006

In the late 1980s, I was involved in an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery called Woven Air: The Muslin and Kantha Tradition of Bangladesh , in which we explored how Bangladesh's weaving industry fell victim to British profiteering policies. Weavers in Bengal were forced to work for cruelly low wages, and Bangladeshi textiles flooded the UK. Brenda King's scholarly and richly researched Silk and Empire takes us on a more complex journey of trade, manufacture and textile design, to explore a different relationship between East and West.

Enormous assumptions have been made about the Orient and Britain's colonial past, not least those embedded in Edward Said's Orientalism . King challenges the argument that the essence of Orientalism is its ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority. What emerges from her book is a variety of cultural exchanges based on mutual respect and admiration.

Key to this study is King's knowledge of silk textiles, gained from materials and documents held in the rich Indian textile archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery, the Nicholson Institute in Leek and the Macclesfield Silk Museum. These underexplored collections testify to the diversity and size of India's handmade silk industry, and reveal skills that played their part in the intense debate in 19th-century England over what constituted good design.

Not only were Indian designs adopted by English silk manufacturers, but curators, theorists, educators and industrialists used them in art and design education. King cogently investigates the work of men such as Thomas Wardle who, with his skills as a chemist and respect for Indian workers, contributed to the role played by small manufacturers in international trade in the 1870s and 1890s. His advocacy of Indian silks benefited India's people and led to new manufacturing systems, which gave the country greater independence from imports. He emerges as a humanitarian who understood the nature of local production and contributed materials to the great exhibitions of textiles that would later become remarkable teaching collections.

Silk and Empire is a major study that assists in a better understanding of East-West silk trade production and attests to the importance of relationships between local producers, designers and sustainability in rethinking global manufacture. My only disappointment is that it lacks sufficient colour illustrations, given that the richness of the textiles is a key element in the narrative.

Janis Jefferies is professor of visual arts, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Silk and Empire

Author - Brenda M. King
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 195
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 7190 6700 6

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