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The last few days have been spent in Antwerp attending the 9th Textiles from the Nile Valley conference (27-28 November 2015) at the Katoen Natie Museum, Antwerp, Belgium. This is a biennial event that brings together specialists in many different fields, but all connected by their scholarly interest in the early history of Egyptian textiles. The range of papers presented was equally diverse and included excavation reports, particular textiles of note, art historical comparisons, museum collections, and the work of various people in the past, notably Louise Bellinger, a grand dame of textiles from the 1940s and 50s. Most of the papers referred to textiles from the first millennium AD, and in particular those linked to the Coptic period.

There was also a fascinating example of why replicas are important, both in terms of learning how they are made and how they are worn, namely in the form of a sprang cap that was re-created during the re-cataloguing of part of the Louvre Museums collection of Egyptian textiles. This talk (with practical demonstration) came shortly after a fascinating discussion about the history of nålebinding in Egypt and the making and repairing of socks made in this manner. Both of these talks stressed the importance of non-woven forms of decorative textiles within the textile repertoire of Egypt. Something that tends to be lost among the vast numbers of decorative woven forms, notably the so-called Coptic tapestries.

As with all conferences it was the chance to meet 'old' colleagues, as well as new ones, which played an important role in the event. It is good to know that there are so many students working at various levels who are opening up new areas of research within the field of Egyptian textiles. The conference papers are regularly published in a series of well illustrated volumes that are available from the Katoen Natie web shop. These are well worth having for the range of information presented in a 'proper' book form. A big thanks goes to both the staff of Katoen Natie, and Caroline Dekyndt and Cäcilia Fluck in particular for their organisation of such a pleasant, informative and inspiring weekend.

1 December 2015, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood

Photograph of Abdelhamid Abu Oud, wearing a pakol.Photograph of Abdelhamid Abu Oud, wearing a pakol.Following the horrific attacks in Paris last week Friday, photographs were published in the media of the alleged ring-leader, someone called Abdelhamid Abu Oud, of Belgian/Moroccan origins. He seems to have been killed by the French police, last Wednesday in Saint-Denis. What struck me, when looking at some of the photographs of him taken in Syria or Iraq in the company of his ISIS friends, was his headgear. He is shown wearing a pakol, which is a cap with a rolled brim. It has an interesting history in the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands, a background which is not really in line with Abdelhamid's radical beliefs. But I am sure he had no idea.


Because of its likeness to the typical headgear of the ancient Macedonians, the pakol has actually often been Ahmad Shah Massud, wearing a pakol, killed on 9 September 2001 by (apparently) Moroccan followers of Osama bin Laden, carrying Belgian passports.Ahmad Shah Massud, wearing a pakol, killed on 9 September 2001 by (apparently) Moroccan followers of Osama bin Laden, carrying Belgian passports.described as a relic of the distant past, which was allegedly brought to the East by the soldiers of Alexander the Great. The idea is not as weird as it sounds, since many leaders in this part of the world used to tell the British conquerors that they descended from the terrible Alexander. Actually, Marco Polo who may have crossed these lands in the late 13th century, mentions the same thing.

But fortunately for the ISIS adherents, the cap does not have a western origin. The pakol was first introduced in Afghanistan among the Nuristanis, in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Nuristan is a mountainous and very secluded part of Afghanistan, in the extreme east of the country, northeast of the capital Kabul. The pakol cap derived from the mountain valleys in the extreme north of neighbouring Pakistan. It soon became the 'national' dress of the people of Nuristan (who converted to Islam, not entirely voluntarily, after 1896 when they were subdued by the Afghan amir). The pakol, which basically is a tube of wool that is rolled up around the head, was later also adopted by many Westerners working in the 'golden age' of Afghanistan, in the 1960s, and also among the Tajiki people living in the Panjshir valley north of Nuristan.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at Christmas 1979, and a wide-spread revolt broke out all over the country, the people of the Panjshir took a leading role under Ahmad Shah Massud, who became an iconic leader of the Afghan resistance, the so-called Mujahedin. His headgear, the pakol, was subsequently adopted by many of the (young) Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds, all over the country, who were fighting the communist regime and the Red army (I donned it as well when I walked around there with the Mujahedin in the 1980s, so much easier to put on than the turban). Among many of the (young) Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group of Afghanistan, the pakol slowly replaced the turban, as it also did among the Pashtuns living in neighbouring Pakistan.

Now when the ultra-conservative Taliban in Afghanistan, most of whom were Pashtuns, overran the country after 1994, their fiercest Afghan opponents were the non-Pashtuns in the north of the country, among whom the Panjshiris under Ahmad Shah Massud (he was eventually killed two days before 9/11 in a suicide attack by some (apparent) Moroccans with a Belgian passport....). The Panjshiris, who live just north of Nuristan, and many of their allies, were still wearing the pakol; the Taliban thereupon 'adviced' their Pashtun followers to stick to the turban. Actually, in many places, including Kabul, the wearing of a pakol was forbidden when the Taliban were controlling the town between 1996 and 2001. This only changed again when in late 2001 the Taliban were defeated, and people in Kabul in large numbers started wearing a pakol again, discarding the turban (and shaving off their beards).

And now I see an ISIS follower in the Middle East wearing the pakol ! Abdelhamid is unlikely to have had any knowledge of the history of his headgear, but he may not have liked the idea that the Taliban in Afghanistan regarded the pakol as the typical cap worn by their Western-supported opponents. Beware what you wear.

Willem Vogelsang, 19 November 2015


A dress from Socotra, Yemen. TRC collectionA dress from Socotra, Yemen. TRC collectionA friend of the TRC came to see the current exhibition about Yemeni garments and jewellery. In addition, she came with three dresses and a child’s cap from Yemen as a gift for the TRC. One of the dresses in particular is special. It comes from the island of Socotra, which lies several hundred kms south of Aden. The garment comes from the city of Hadibu. It was acquired in 2006 actually on the island by the donor and her husband. The dress is made of green satin and decorated with broad, silver coloured bands. The garment reaches to just above the knees, but it has a very long train, and our question is HOW WAS IT WORN?

My first reaction was to have the train at the back; it could then be lifted as a headcovering, but I was told that by the donor this was wrong. So how was it worn? Another possiblity was that the train could be wrapped around the lower body to make a skirt, but how was it fixed in place? A telephone call to her husband led to the information that the train was at the front of the garment, and that it went between the legs to create a pair of very loose, knee-high ‘trousers.’ The rest of the train was placed over the right shoulder. Is this correct? We would like to find photographs of women wearing this type of garment to confirm all the details, or better still someone who has worn such a garment or knows it well, so that we can drape it correctly.

Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 4 November 2015

TRC volunteer Shelley Anderson continues her blog about her recent visit to China and the Silk Road: Famen Temple lies some 100 kilometres outside the busy city The Famen pagoda, south of Xi'an, China. Photograph Shelley AndersonThe Famen pagoda, south of Xi'an, China. Photograph Shelley Andersonof Xi’an, China. It is a huge complex of modern-day Buddhist temples, a college and conference centre. It also includes a restored ancient pagoda, or Buddhist temple, that was first founded during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 CE). This pagoda has been destroyed and rebuilt many times in its history. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) it enjoyed royal patronage, as the imperial capital was based in Chang’an, now modern-day Xi’an. Chang’an is considered the starting point westward for the Silk Road, where the huge international trading network for textiles, especially silk, and other valuable commodities began their journeys to India, Persia, Damascus and Rome. Thanks in no small part to this trade, China during the Tang dynasty was one of the most powerful and richest countries on earth.

A chance discovery in the ancient Famen pagoda helps to illustrate just how wealthy the kingdom was. In April 1987, during the pagoda’s rebuilding, a remarkable archaeological discovery was made. A forgotten underground chamber was discovered, full of Tang-era treasures, including glassware imported from the Middle East, over 100 gold and silver objects — and over 700 silk textiles. Many of the textiles had been folded and bundled together. Due to the damp inside the stone chambers, the textiles in the outer layers were decomposing and in very poor condition. There were damasks, leno, gauzes, brocades, plain silks and embroideries, all over 1,000 years old. A small silk blouse (6.5 cm in length, with 4.1 cm long sleeves), made to adorn a statue, was found with couched gold embroidery. The average diameter of the gold thread (made of extremely fine gold foil, wrapped around silk fibres) was 0.1 mm.

Also discovered was the reason for the collection of goods. A relic, a finger bone of the Buddha, was discovered in a niche in the last chamber. The bone was found inside a series of nested boxes, the last a small box of white jade. There were traces of gold thread from the embroidered silk cloth the box had been wrapped in. The rich goods were all offerings by worshippers to the Buddha, in order to ensure good luck and to gain merit for future lives. Two stone steles were also in the chambers, one of which was an inventory with a list of all the textiles, their names and weight, and the names of their donors on it.

The silks can be divided roughly into two categories: silk garments that had been offered by members of the imperial court (including an embroidered skirt given by the Empress Wu Zetian [624-705 CE], China’s only female ruler), and silks used to wrap other precious objects. Some of the silk fragments and other artifacts are on display at the nearby Famen Pagoda Museum. The bundles, however, are still being separated, layer by layer, at the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.

It was a privilege to meet Associate Researcher Lu Zhiyong, head of the Institute’s Scientific Research Management Department, in a special laboratory for the silks built in collaboration with a German institute. “This is a unique case,” he said of the find. “The textiles were folded layer on layer and were most tightly packed. Our first job was to refrigerate the silks, to preserve them and to deal with a heavy mould problem. There were gold threads, samite, twills and tabbies. There were also a leather boot and lots of coins. We tried to X-ray the bundle but it was too thick—only the boot or coins or bamboo could be seen. So there was no new information from that.”

According to the stone stele, the Buddha relic was removed from the chamber every thirty years and taken by ceremonial procession to Chang’an. On its three-day journey back to the pagoda, offerings were presented. People were probably still trying to catch glimpses of the relic as the chamber was being shut. Many coins were found just inside the sealed chamber, possibly thrown in by poorer people who could not afford to offer textiles, Lu explained. All the textiles seem to date to the same period in the 9th century. “The chamber was last closed in the year 874. We don’t know why. There have been surprises: some of the cloth is printed, not embroidered. The textiles include early examples of the use of gold thread in weaving. There is a very early example of silver thread, too. The silver thread has a paper substrate. We have found socks, trousers, a skirt, a hat — these are high quality textiles, that all belonged to the Emperor’s family.” The silks used to wrap other objects are “not as high quality as the costumes,” Lu said. One such wrapper, used to cover a sutra (Buddhist scripture), was a silk gauze with a silk floss embroidered phoenix outlined in couched silver thread. Lu and a German colleague use flat Teflon sticks in the slow task of separating the layers. No chemicals are used. If they find they cannot separate a layer “we stop. We focus on climate control, on conserving the textiles and we wait for new techniques. I don’t do this work just for me but for other generations.”

Shelley Anderson, 1 November 2015

Banner for the conference "Silks from the Silk Road". Photograph: Shelley AndersonBanner for the conference "Silks from the Silk Road". Photograph: Shelley AndersonTRC volunteer Shelley Anderson writes: There were many textile moments on a recent visit to China, where I attended the symposium “Silks from the Silk Road: Origin, Transmission and Exchange”, organized by the China National Silk Museum in collaboration with, among others, the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Textile Research (CTR). The symposium opened with a weaver weaving damask silk on a large hook-shaft pattern loom, with a connecting rod. This sophisticated loom was built based on the remains of four model looms, made from wood and bamboo, uncovered in a Chinese tomb in 2012. This remarkable discovery included baskets of silk threads and dyes, and several wooden figurines that represent weavers. The artifacts have been dated to the Han dynasty, or late second century BCE. It’s a “truly exceptional” find, said CTR Director Marie-Louise Nosch. “It’s unique because finding organic matter so well preserved is rare. It bridges many gaps in our knowledge, as until now we did not know what type of looms were used. This shows the high technology of Han China, and will become a landmark in archaeology and textile research.”

Beautiful examples of silk fragments and textile tools were also on display in a special exhibition in the West Lake Museum (Hangzhou, China), where the symposium took place. Silk was a vital part of early Chinese economy, and the economies of other cultures that lived along the Silk Road. It was durable and light-weight, unlike dried fruits or gold, which were also traded up and down the Silk Road, along with jade, furs, spices and other commodities. You could buy camels, horses, slaves or servants with bolts of silk; soldiers’ salaries were paid in silk and debts settled with the textile.

One highlight of the exhibition for me was Yingpan Man. This richly dressed corpse was discovered in the abandoned city of Yingpan in 1995. Yingpan was an important Silk Road trading centre until it was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s troops. The arid desert atmosphere mummified the corpse and preserved the textiles he was buried in. And what textiles they are! He has a long double weave red woolen robe over purple silk trousers, another light yellow silk robe, and felt socks. He wears a funerary mask with a gold diadem, and a miniature silk caftan of embroidered damask silk had been placed on his chest. The motif of his red robe (of bulls and naked putti) leads some scholars to believe it was produced in the eastern part of the Roman empire. DNA tests, his brown hair and height (he is over six feet tall), and the non-Han Chinese custom of a funerary mask, point to European ancestry.

Shelley Anderson, 30 October 2015

Monument in Leiden along the Vliet, marking embarkation point of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving Leiden for Plymouth, and hence to America, in 1620.Monument in Leiden along the Vliet, marking embarkation point of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving Leiden for Plymouth, and hence to America, in 1620.I have lived on and off in Leiden for more than forty years, and regularly take groups of foreign friends and colleagues through this beautiful town. Perhaps it helps that my office is right in the centre of town, along the magnificent Rapenburg canal. When doing so, I always tell people about the (English) Pilgrim Fathers who in the early seventeenth century fled to Leiden and lived here for some time before boarding the Mayflower and sailing to America. I show them the places where they lived, and died. I also show them the various plaques in Leiden dedicated by American descendants to commemorate the stay of their ancestors (real or imaginary) in my town.

Two weeks ago I walked with one of my colleagues along the canals. I noticed a new monument, marking the spot where in 1620 some 102 Pilgrim Fathers boarded a boat to take them to the nearby North Sea, and ultimately to America. The monument also bears the names of the families that were involved. I spotted one name in particular: Standish. I had been looking for references to that man for some time. I knew he was one of the Englishmen who stayed in Leiden and left for America. He was called Myles Standish, and he eventually became the military commander of the new colony, a function he held until his death in 1656. He is, you will be thrilled to know, the main character, although highly romanticised, of Longfellow's narrative poem, The Courtship of Myles Standish (1858).

But what has this to do with textiles? Myles Standish was the father of Loara Standish, who was born in America and died before 1655. Around 1640 she made a sampler which has become the oldest extant example in the USA (for more information, click here). It is now kept in the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts. It is embroidered on fine linen (c. twenty threads per cm) using blue, green, pink and red silk thread. It is 60 x 18.5 cm in size. The sampler is decorated with bands of stylised flowers (roses and carnations), acorns and intertwined ‘s’ designs. Stitched at the
bottom is:

"Loara Standish is my name Lorde guide my hart that I may doe thy will also My hands with such Convenient skill as may Conduce to virtue void of Shame and I will give The glory to thy name."

Loara Standish is believed to have died young, but exactly when is unknown. She lies buried, as far as can be ascertained, in the Myles Standish Burial Ground, Duxbury, Massachusetts, USA. The sampler was kept in her brother Josiah’s family until it was donated to the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1844.

Willem Vogelsang, 28 October 2015

Part of a sheet with embroidered designs waiting to be cut out for the WW I postcards. The war ended in November 1918, before these designs (dated 1919) could be used. TRC collectionPart of a sheet with embroidered designs waiting to be cut out for the WW I postcards. The war ended in November 1918, before these designs (dated 1919) could be used. TRC collectionSince a child, and after listening to my grandfather who actually fought at Ypres ('Wipers,' as my granpa called the place), I have been fascinated by a particular type of silk embroidered postcard that British troops in Wold War I used to sent home from France to their loved ones. Because of the TRC having a series of mini-exhibitions in its workshop it was decided to create a small exhibition about these cards to coincide with the anniversary of the ending of the War on the 11th November. And just last week, the TRC received three panels with series of embroidered designs intended to be used for these postcards. I would like to thank Dr. Ian Collins from St. Albans, England, for his help in acquiring these fascinating items.

This type of card is decorated with a wide variety of designs and messages worked in floss silk in various bright colours. The decoration is worked in small, silk gauze panels with colourful, free style embroidery. These embroidered panels were stuck to a card frame that was embossed with a decorative edging. These cards were a popular form of communication from the early 1900s until the 1950s. They were especially favoured during and just after the First World War. During the war, the range of designs worked was very varied and included obviously military subjects, such as the flags of the allies (notably Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, and the USA), names of regiments, figures of famous generals, and more popular subjects such as Christmas, birthday and New Year best wishes. In addition, many cards included butterflies and flowers, as gentler, more sympathetic images. It has been estimated that up to ten million embroidered cards of this type were produced during this period, mainly in France. Comparable cards were made in Germany, but with different designs!

In the past, various questions have been raised about these cards, especially as to how the cards were decorated, and by whom. There are several possible answers. It has been suggested that the images were hand embroidered by Belgian and French women who had been afflicted by the war. But would they have really been able to hand embroider millions of cards ? Another explanation, and far more likely, is that they were machine made, but this brings us to the question, which type of machine was used? The vast majority of these embroidered postcards were made using what appear to be hand stitches of various kinds, including the back stitch, basket weave stitch, individual cross stitches, herringbone stitch, reverse herringbone stitch (to create a shadow work effect), double running stitch (Holbein stitch), satin stitch, stem stitch, as well as various composite stitches.

A machine that could imitate the appearance of these hand stitches is the hand-embroidery machine that was invented in 1829 by Josué Heilmann in Mulhouse, France. It was developed over the following decades by various engineers and companies in Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland. Basically, this hand-embroidery machine used a pantograph system to transfer the stitches. Each stitch is drawn out on a large scale design and then its position traced by an operator using a point on one arm of the pantograph. A series of needles responds to the movement of the pantograph arm. Each needle has an eye in the middle for the thread, and two sharp ends. The needle is passed backwards and forwards through the ground cloth using a pincer system, so imitating the action and appearance of hand embroidery. Each colour in the design is individually worked (so all the blue parts, for example, are worked, and then the machine is re-threaded with a new colour), until the design is complete. This machine, in various sizes, was used in both domestic and factory settings.

There were both home and factory versions of this machine. Based on surviving examples, it would appear that wide strips (domestic) and very broad sheets (factory) of organza cloth were embroidered. Using hand-embroidery machines it was possible to produce hundreds of images on a sheet in one go. Once embroidered, the strips/sheets were cut up and the individual images were stuck into an embossed card frame. They were then sold to the public, especially the soldiers, at a very high price. The companies making and selling these cards could well have made a considerable profit. Perhaps this is the real reason behind the stories of poor refugee women working all hours to hand embroider these cards in order to feed their desperate families.…... Wouldn't you be more willing to buy such cards thinking you were helping the needy as well?

Source: COLLINS, Ian (2001). An Illustrated History of the Embroidered Silk Postcard, Radlett: Gabrian Antiques.

Digital source, click here

Videos showing early hand-embroidery machines in use:

Gillian Vogelsang, 18 October 2015

PS: On 21 December 2015 we added a PDF catalogue of the postcards that are held in the TRC collection to our website. Click here to download it.

Example of an arpilleraExample of an arpilleraA workshop on arpilleras was offered recently during a festival on adult education, in Lelystad (the Netherlands). The festival also featured an exhibition of approximately 25 arpilleras, from Chile, Colombia, England, Northern Ireland, Peru and Zimbabwe. Workshop leader Roberta Bacic explained that arpilleras are a South American folk art, which uses colourful appliqués, patchwork and embroidery to depict scenes of everyday life. Small, three-dimensional cloth dolls are a common feature.

Arpilleras are not intended for practical use: the borders are blanket stitched or edged with crochet or a colourful fabric, so that the pictures can be hung on walls. The word arpillera comes from an old Spanish word for burlap, as most of these cloth pictures were originally sewn on a background cloth of burlap or flour sacking. The most famous arpilleras and arpilleristas (the women who make them) are from Chile. “Arpilleras are really an art of poverty,” Roberta explained. “They were originally made from scraps and pieces of used clothing. They were made by poor women working in groups. The conversations the women had while sewing together helped create a sense of sharing and of solidarity.” That solidarity was essential for survival.

In the 1960s there was a cottage industry in Chile of arpilleras depicting happy domestic scenes. These were made from colourful woolen yarns. The military coup of 1973 changed this. Unemployment grew, wool became scarce, and opponents of the Pinochet military dictatorship (1973-1990) began to disappear or be detained. Families of the disappeared (‘desaparecidos’) were banned from many jobs and refused hospital services. Poor women in and around Santiago began making arpilleras in an income-generating project organized by the Roman Catholic Church’s Vicaría de la Solidaridad. Church workers donated clothes as fabric for the appliqués, paid for the finished arpilleras and organized their sale. Many of the women were members of the group Agrupación de los Familiares de los Detenidos Desaparecidos (AFDD), an association for families of people illegally detained and made to disappear by the regime. The women gathered once a week at different workshops and chose a theme to embroider, which they began at the workshop and finished at home. There were rules: torture scenes could not be depicted; the Andes mountains were usually stitched in the background as a symbol of Chile; only one arpillera a week per woman was accepted. If a woman needed more money, she was allowed to make two arpilleras per week. Work was unsigned in order to protect the maker's identity

Over 250 women became involved in the project. The women talked in the workshops about the trauma of missing husbands, sons and daughters as they embroidered the stories of their lives: communal kitchens to feed the hungry; demonstrations in front of police stations or government buildings where women held photographs of their loved ones and demanded information as to where they were; police raids on homes; a family sitting around a table, with an empty chair. The Church smuggled thousands of arpilleras out of Chile for sale elsewhere. The textiles helped raise awareness of the human rights abuses taking place inside Chile. As criticism of Pinochet increased, the government made it illegal to own or publically show arpilleras.

Shelley Anderson, 28 September 2015

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TRC Gallery exhibition:
5 Febr. -25 June 2020: American Quilts

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The TRC is dependent on project support and individual donations. All of our work is being carried out by volunteers. To support the TRC activities, we therefore welcome your financial assistance: donations can be transferred to bank account number NL39 INGB 000 298 2359, in the name of the Stichting Textile Research Centre.
Since the TRC is officially recognised as a non-profit making cultural institution (ANBI), donations are tax deductible for 125% for individuals, and 150% for commercial companies. For more information, click here
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