Over the centuries, Gujarat has produced outstanding embroideries both for sale in India and for export. As early as the 1500s, Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese traders brought Indian textiles into the European market, where they continued to be fashionable for the next three centuries. Some of the finest examples of Gujarati embroideries come from the Mochi community; the Cambay area in particular perfected the art of chain-stitch embroidery.
Among the oldest surviving embroidered panels attributed to this seventeenth-century Gujarati production center are those now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum, as well as those in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Other panels have been attributed to the same place of production, and one of them bears an inscription in Gujarati on the selvage, further confirming the provenance of the group.
The decorative motifs found on these textiles resulted from a process that began with a request from exporters, who sent prints and drawings from Europe. These artworks were then used by the Indian artists, who sometimes altered the original design to such a degree that the final results were virtually unrecognizable. When the finished pieces were sent back to Europe, customers appreciated them for the exotic allure they had acquired. This is the case with the decorative motifs on the Museum’s panel, which feature flowers, birds, cats, and a monkey. These fantastical animals barely resemble their original counterparts. Flowers spread naturalistically across the surface of the textile; the animals, sometimes fanciful and unreal, seem to sit on slender branches.
The silk chain-stitch embroidery—executed in red, pink, yellow, blue, and green silk on a thin white plain-weave quilted cotton background—is of a type produced by the Mochi community. It was done with a special tool (the ari), a fine needle hooked at one end that was fitted into a round wooden handle. The ari was easy to use, and with it the embroiderer could produce very fine loops to control the progress of the design, thus allowing for a greater degree of detail and refinement.
1. Irwin, John. “The Commercial Embroidery of Gujarat in the Seventeenth Century.” Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art 17 (1949), p. 51, pls. 7–10.
2. Crill, Rosemary. Indian Embroidery. Victorian and Albert Museum. London, 1999, p. 8, links Duarte Barbosa’s quotation in 1518 regarding the "very beautiful quilts and testers of beds finely worked" with the production of Gujarat chain-stitch embroidery of the Mochi community that was shipped from the port of Cambay.
3. These pieces were part of the Lady Ashburnham Collection in Ashburnham Palace, and at least five of these are mentioned in The Catalogue of The Important English Furniture etc. auctioned by Sotheby and Co. on Tuesday, July 7, 1953. It is interesting to note that one of the pieces was purchased by the Museum for the Arts of Decoration of the Cooper Union, as reported in “Recent Additions to the Museum Collections.” Chronicle of the Museum for the Arts of Decoration of the Cooper Union 2, no. 6 ( June 1954), p. 184.
4. John Irwin (1949, [see note 1 above] p. 54) has identified other panels that undoubtedly belong to this same place of production.
5. The Gujarati inscription is in seventeenth-century characters, and according to Moti Chandra it reads as follows: "Astar jhahmamak na patar ga.9. Khulat ga. 1 1/4 (The lining of jhahmām [?]. Length 9 gaz. Breadth 1 1/4 gaz)" (from India Office Archives, Court Book IV, 135 [London] as published in Irwin 1949, [see note 1 above] pp. 55–56, n. 10, pl. 8).
6. The specific request from the European customer who ordered the present piece is referenced in a note attached to the fragment by Sir Leigh Ashton, who in 1954 oversaw its donation to the Metropolitan Museum by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London: "One panel retained by the Victoria and Albert has an inscription in Gujerati:
‘which is the first time that anyone has thought that this particular kind of embroidery for the European market was made so far north.’ These hangings are completely un-Indian as they never used this kind of thing. They are an example of what English people ordered in the Orient through the East India Company." (Department of Islamic Art curatorial files, gift receipt no. 5947).
7. For an accurate description of the way in which the Mochi community used the ari to execute chain stitch, see Irwin, John, and Margaret Hall. “Glossary of Embroidery Stitches.” in Irwin, John, and Margaret Hall. Indian Embroideries. Historic Textiles of India at the Calico Museum, Ahmedabad, vol. 2, p. 201–15. Ahmedabad, 1973.
Lord Ashburnham, Sussex, England (from late 17th century); Ashburnham family, Sussex, England (by descent, until 1953;sale, Ashburnham Palace, Sussex, through Sotheby's, London, July 7–9, 1953, lot 479; to V&A); Victoria and Albert Museum (British), London (1953–54; gifted to MMA through SirLeigh Ashton, Director)