Weaving Splendor title graphic

This exhibition presents extraordinary textiles from the renowned collection of Asian art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Because they are fragile and light sensitive, they are rarely displayed. They show how Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Persian, and Turkish artists have combined innovative and meticulous techniques with precious materials to create luxurious textiles.

Organized thematically, Weaving Splendor explores the many different purposes for which Asian textiles have been made and used. Formal silk robes of the court signified power and status. Striking theater costumes brought characters to life on stage. Textured velvets and exquisite furniture covers defined and transformed interiors. Shimmering tapestry-woven carpets served as diplomatic gifts. Sumptuous pashmina shawls, embroidered wall hangings, and colorful chintzes fueled global trade.

Weaving—interlacing warp and weft threads, often using a loom—is an ancient method of creating fabric that reaches astonishing heights in Asia. Each textile on view, whether woven from cotton, linen, silk, or wool, tells a complex and fascinating story. Dating from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries, they give insight into Asia’s diverse and enduring textile traditions.

Court: Professional Presentation

Members of the ruling class wore formal robes to signify their position and status in the governmental hierarchies of China and Japan from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Specific forms, colors, and symbolic images identify the wearer’s authority, power, prestige, and privilege. Trained artists used labor-intensive techniques and the finest materials available to produce government dress.

Some wealthy officials commissioned artists to customize their robes with favorite images and superb craftsmanship. Although the garments adhere to strict rules of rank, personalized details showcase the wearer’s style and taste.

Theater Costumes: Creating Characters Onstage

Theater costumes transform actors into characters. As performers take the stage and a story unfolds, they invite the audience to enter a different place, a distant time, or an illusionary world.

In Japan, Bugaku, Kyōgen, and performances are conducted for both human and divine audiences. Each type of theater follows a distinct costume convention. Sculptural, voluminous, and often multilayered costumes envelop and obscure performers’ identities. Masks and other props also help actors embody and perform distinct characters.

With dazzling costumes, acrobats, makeup, and songs, Chinese operas entertained audiences that included the imperial families during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. Some costumes resembled garments worn in real life, while others were exaggerated to create a spectacle.

Furnishings: Transforming Space

Asian textile makers created carpets, furniture covers, and hangings durable enough for sustained use and pliable enough to pack for travel and storage. These textiles brought comfort and beauty to private interior spaces. In temples textiles helped worshippers imagine paradise and transcend their earthly surroundings. Throughout the year, textiles marked celebrations, festivals, and personal milestones. Artists wove exquisite images that carried specific messages and imbued these textiles with meaning. Whenever their owners displayed and used them, these textiles defined space and transformed interiors.

International Exchange: Asian Textiles, Diplomacy, and the Rise of Global Markets

The desire for Asian textiles has driven global trade and supported diplomatic efforts. Until the sixteenth century, Asian, African, and Arab traders controlled the transport of Asian textiles to the Mediterranean along the Silk Road and by sea. Seeking direct access to trade, England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain formed bureaucratic trading companies. As the hunger for carpets, embroideries, fine silks, and cotton from Iran, India, Syria, and Turkey sharpened in the seventeenth century, European colonial efforts to control trade with Asia and the Pacific Islands intensified. What started as a bid for direct access to trade and economic growth evolved into territorial claims and empire building.

These new trading networks changed the world. Rulers gave magnificent textiles to broker political alliances across continents. Asian nations and manufacturers capitalized on the expanded market, tailoring luxury goods such as shawls and tapestries for American and European tastes. As a result, Asian textiles revolutionized global style and transformed economies.

Enduring Traditions: Modern and Contemporary Asian Textiles

With direct access to European markets beginning in the sixteenth century, Asian designers, manufacturers, and exporters transformed traditional textiles to adapt to foreign tastes. By the nineteenth century, however, increasing mechanization through inventions such as the Jacquard loom and the acquisition of raw materials from colonized regions enabled European manufacturers to create cheaper local textiles that undercut handmade Asian imports.

Today, fine textile and fashion industries are once again thriving across Asia. Some traditional art forms, like carpet weaving, have survived and continued to find demand in international markets. Asian textile artists and designers frequently collaborate with local communities, governments, nonprofits, and patrons to keep traditional techniques alive. Other contemporary designers and manufacturers inspired by historical Asian textiles create inventive new fashions and furnishings to accommodate both local and global tastes.

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