For thousands of years individual textiles, huge bales of cloth, not to mention people wearing clothes and carrying textiles moved around the world. They travelled in all directions, literally north, south, east and west and everywhere in-between!
Sometimes this movement was voluntary in the form of trade or pilgrimage, on other occasions it was forced, as in the deliberate exile and movement of specific ethnic and cultural groups and craftsmen and women. All of these travels have added to an enormous pool of techniques and skills that make a piece of cloth or a garment, and as a result every textile may entail a long story of travel and development.
The on-line exhibition Textile Travels looks at some textiles with stories of complicated travels . They are told more or less in chronological order and begin with medieval Indian textiles that were exported to the west as part of a much bigger trade in textiles, thousands of years old, that led from the Indian sub-continent to China, Indonesia, Central Asia, Iran, Africa, the Middle East, as well as the Mediterranean and Europe.
The seventeenth century saw many changes in the world, when European trade, and with it military and political power expanded rapidly. This story is reflected in the development of the Madras cotton industry in southeastern India and the British trade in so-called George textiles from Madras, that are also known in Holland as Madras-stof, still popular in West Africa and the West Indies.
Another significant development in the Indian-African textile trade took place in the late 19th century when wrap-around cloths for women were printed and exported from India. These became known as kangas and are now mainly locally produced in Kenya and Tanzania for the East African market. They are characterised by the presence of a saying in Swahili that reflects daily feelings and events.
Feelings and events are also reflected in another group of textiles, namely the so-called Wax Hollandais prints. These textiles are based on Indonesian resist-dyed batik techniques, and they were imitated from the mid-19th century by the Vlisco company in Helmond, the Netherlands and became (and still are) an important and prestigious type of printed textile found in West and Central Africa. They have since been copied by numerous printing companies in Africa, Asia, as well as Europe.
There is an imitation Wax Hollandais that was bought in the late 20th century in Nigeria. The cloth may have been printed in Nigeria itself or possibly in India for the export trade with West Africa. It shows a series of long cloth rolls that reflect the production process of tie-and-dye leheriya cloth from Rajasthan, India. The cloth has a selvedge text that states: VERITABLE REAL WAX 2181", in imitation of Vlisco labels.
Finally, a related story is that of bazin cloth very popular in West Africa, especially in countries such as Ghana, Mali and Sierra Leone. Bazin is a damask cotton cloth made in Europe (the best is said to come from Austria), which is sometimes dyed using West African resist techniques, while others are produced and printed elsewhere, including China.