As embroidery is currently back in fashion, it is very interesting to see what were the tendencies some centuries ago. The Medieval embroidery exhibition at V&A looks closely at the old masterpieces, skillfully crafted to tiny details, hundreds of years ago.
It is rather remarkable how intricate handwork this is – so much that one may suspect it being painted instead. The smallest stitches are created by hand in varieties of colour, over the presumably long period of time. The exquisite attention to details is rather outstanding, giving glimpses of both Medieval reality and imagination of the time. From the grim torture of martyred saints to the scenes with baby Jesus and other saints, scenes are depicted with a meticulous precision that the sophisticated embroidery techniques made possible.
Latin for ‘English work’, the phrase ‘opus anglicanum’ was first coined in the 13th century to describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread, picturing complex imagery.
From the 12th to the 15th centuries, England enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries, which were sought after by kings, queens, popes and cardinals. The exhibition will present an outstanding range of rare, surviving examples – both ecclesiastical and secular. Although documents show that many embroideries were made for secular use at the time, very few survive today as they were either worn out or became unfashionable and were discarded.
This is the largest embroidery exhibition of this kind in half a century, depicting over 100 pieces of work Medieval period of time. Sponsored by the Royal Embroidery specialists of Hand and Lock who carry the traditional craft into the modern day.
I recently had an amazing opportunity to visit Dents gloves factory in Warminster, Somerset and take a peek at the glorious gloves collection of their museum.
The display ranged from the most extraordinary and special gloves in the world to a wide selection of fashionable gloves of different eras, tracing back several hundred years.
The most honorable one was the royally embroidered Queen Elisabeth II Coronation glove, from 1953. Remarkably, the glove is made just for one hand and was barely worn at the ceremony. Being so special it is kept in a special sealed display cabinet with personal temperature management system.
Among most extraordinary gloves were the tiniest ones, of just 2-3cm in length – named the world´s smallest hand knitted gloves. The smalles leather gloves were not much bigger and meticulously hand stitched.
In Medieval times glove´s fingers were made to look extra long by extending the gussets way into the gloves, as extremely long fingers were considered elegant in early 17th century.
My personal favourites were the hand painted Victorian era gloves, 1880-1900.
Up to early Victorian days gloves were often made to individual requirements of ladies of fashion. Not just size wise, but also also design wise. The selection of points, crests and embroideries were made from specimens exhibited in glove shops.
There were even some sequence embroidered gloves from those times.
Kanchipuram, the Silk City, is also known by its abundance of temples from ancient times. I would like to point out two of the most memorable ones.
Ulagalantha Perumal Temple looks so colourful, you could imagine it would fit well in Disneyland or a cartoon-like world. Nevertheless this temple is about a thousand years old(although I believe not all parts of it). The brightly coloured building was rather spectacular.
I stayed in Kanchi just for two days. On the second morning I got up at 6 am to visit almost 1400 years old Kailasanathar Temple. The oldest temple in town was practically deserted early in the morning(it is open from 5.30am). I had the most serene blissful moment for myself, meditating in one of the ancient mini shrines, soaking up the very special energy of this holy place that has generated over the centuries.
Here´s my tip for travelers in hot countries: as for me it was usually too hot in South India between 12-4pm, I used to get up at 6am and do the sightseeing before the big heat arrived. So by midday I would be chilling out somewhere cool and dare to come outside again when the heat had given in, later in the afternoon. It is also a brilliant way to avoid the crowds, especially in touristy places.
Coming back to Indian fabrics, I would like to write about my visit to Indian saree capital a few years ago – a small town by the name of Kanchipuram, based on the East coast of India, just a few hours train ride from Chennai. This little town is known as a “Silk City”, as the main profession of the people living in this town is manual weaving of silk sarees, with more than 5000 families engaged in this industry for generations.
Every saree made in Kanchipuram is like a piece of art. The saree designs are traditional, inspired of temple sculptures – as Kanchipuram is also well known by its ancient temples.
I had an opportunity to meet Mr.C.R.Krishnan, the owner of „Sree Swamy Silk House”. Their family has been in the silk industry for five generations already. He told me more about Kanchipuram´s history as a silk city, its present and future.
He told me that all of the silk is hand made, with real silver and gold used for decorative patterns and images. Unfortunately on the day of my visit it was raining earlier, so i did not get to see the making process – too humid for weaving.
Saree is made up of a piece of fabric – 1m wide and 4-9m long that is wrapped around body in a specific manner, making it into a dress. Saree is worn on top of a long underskirt with a short top, called choli. Being almost 4000 years old fashion, it is still widely worn nowadays on auspicious occasions, such as weddings, festivals or on temple visits. Before it used to be that almost all women were wearing sarees daily, but fifteen years ago the number reduced to 30%, these days coming up to barely 5%. Traditional saree is being replaced by rather more practical salwaar kameez outfit(consisting of leggings, tunic and a scarf).
Mr.Krishnan sees the future of his company in preserving the fabric handmaking tradition and moving into lifestyle products market, producing curtains, bedspreads and furniture covers. Silk is marketed within India, as well as abroad – for example in London as fabric.
Victoria and Albert Museum is currently having India Festival and that got me reminiscing about my own travels in India. I will write down some of my memories later on, but for now a few words about the beautiful fabrics exhibition.
The show space, that just half a year ago was overtaken by Alexander McQueen´ s masterpieces is currently filled with the best gems from extraordinarily rich history of handmade textiles from India. The exhibition observes the development of the textile design from the earliest known fabric fragments of naif applique designs to contemporary fashion and the growth of traditional textiles to modern day.
All of the 200 objects displayed are made by hand – from ancient ceremonial banners to modernized saris.
The exhibition also sheds the light on how these handmade masterpieces were created, from the point of raising silk worms to gold weaving. Ancient natural dyes, such as chai plant roots for red color, tumeric for yellow and indigo for blue, originate from this country. Indigo even gave the name to this country!
The beauty and complexity of Indian fabrics has spread around the world and inspired many Western designers, as well as made the local ones reinterpret their own traditions. I would say my own personal favorite is New Delhi-based fashion designer Manish Arora, who has been successful showcasing at Paris Fashion Week. His innovativeness of combining traditional handicraft elements with crazy fantasy, using bright colors is quite remarkable.
The display reviews the history of how European industrialization made it possible to produce similar cloth at lower cost, especially in British mills, threatening to wipe out Indian handmade fabrics production completely. This lead to consequences where Indian fabrics played an important role in Indian independence. By the early 20th century, Indian textiles became a major symbol of resistance to colonial rule and a political tool, with people spinning and weaving their own yarn and fabric by hand, to produce a cloth known as Khadi. It is quite surprising to know that the wheel on Indian flag actually derives not from the “Samsara” – the circle of life – but it is the spinning wheel that has been incorporated into the design of the flag.
The history of Indian fabrics is extremely rich and is worth discovering!