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Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade,
1500–1800

September 16, 2013–January 5, 2014

The Portuguese Trading World

Wholecloth Quilt (detail). Italian, possibly 17th century. Silk, cotton; 101.5 x 87 in (257.8 x 221 cm). Winterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont

In the late fifteenth century, Portugal became the first European nation to successfully navigate around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Portuguese merchants then initiated what would become a vigorous trade with China (centered particularly in the southern coastal areas around Macau) and India on both coasts. These merchants recognized the superior skills of local textile workers and introduced them to Western imagery in order to create products that would appeal to European tastes.

The designs on European-made textiles and engravings often served as models for Chinese and Indian artists, and the combination of Asian and European motifs resulted in novel designs that were especially popular in the West. Early exports included intricately embroidered textiles from Bengal that became status symbols, and their popularity stimulated European workshops to produce copies. In China textile producers applied traditional weaving and embroidery techniques along with European artistic methods learned from local Jesuit missionaries.

Vibrant oversized flowers and mythological creatures from Indian or Chinese legends shared space with Christian religious symbols and images of Portuguese hunters. This innovative hybrid style eventually came to be identified with products made for export to Europe and remained popular long after Portugal's trading dominance was overtaken by its European rivals.

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