Gallery 1

Court robe
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), late 17th–early 18th centuries
Silk brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 34-168

This court robe accompanied art lover Prince Guo (Guoqinwang, 1697–1738) to his grave. The son, brother, and uncle of three consecutive Qing dynasty emperors, Prince Guo served in several imperial positions. Despite the faded colors and missing collar band, this robe still exhibits excellent craftsmanship. The front and rear vents and standard images adhere to the official dress code of the court. An artist enhanced the formal style with nine lively dragons and cloud patterns along the hems. These images carried positive associations that served as a blessing for the prince.

This robe is one of many works of art from Prince Guo’s tomb that came to light in the early twentieth century, the precise circumstances of which are unknown. This textile was acquired in China in 1934 through the agent and eventual curator Laurence Sickman and has since been in the collection the Nelson-Atkins.

Ancestor portrait of a noblewoman
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 18th century
Hanging scroll, ink, and color on silk
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 35-161

The sitter of this portrait is rigidly clad in a heavy formal outfit with a long vest, jewelry, and a high crown over a robe similar to the nearby winter ceremonial robe. According to the Qing dress code, imperial women would wear this type of layered ensemble during the most important court ceremonies.

Winter ceremonial robe for an imperial consort
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 18th century
Silk and metallic thread embroidery on silk satin with sable or sea otter fur trims
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 43-41 A

This type of costume, called chaopao (robe to pay homage), was the most formal garment among all court uniforms in the Qing dynasty. Greenish beige, called xiangse (incense color) in Chinese, this chaopao was worn by a low-ranking consort. Each Qing dynasty emperor had consorts with whom he lived and had children, in addition to his empresses.

This robe’s animal-hair trim evokes the furs Manchu people wore in their homeland in northeast China. During winter ceremonies, the consort wore this robe under a long vest with a fur hat, long necklace, and other accessories that followed the dress codes. Between ceremonies, Qing court staff carefully stored the treasured robes—a practice that preserved this one in pristine condition.

Court robe with twelve symbols
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 18th century
Kesi (silk tapestry) woven with silk and metallic threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 35-273

Only an emperor could have worn this resplendent robe. Its yellow color is at the top of the hierarchy of red, green, blue, and other hues assigned to court members. Twelve imperial symbols are tightly woven among other complex designs, such as the nine dragons. Passed down from around 2000 BCE, these symbols represent natural phenomena and declared the emperor’s right to govern China.

Outercoat for an imperial woman
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 18th century
Embroidery on silk satin
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 35-139

During warm seasons, a court woman would have worn this full-length, front-opening outercoat over a matching dragon robe or festival robe. The embroidered images, such as bats, butterflies, lotuses, peaches, and peonies, often appear in these types of garments because of their association with good fortune, happiness, and harmony. The colors of the embroidered threads would have been more vibrant when the coat was new.

Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), late 18th–early 19th centuries
Bast fiber (asa) dyed with indigo and natural dyes and embroidered with silk and gold-wrapped silk thread
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-142/17

Decorated using a labor-intensive technique called chayazome, this katabira (summer robe) represents a type of luxurious clothing only available to women who belonged to the top tier of Japanese society, including the military elite, during the Edo period. To create it, a design inspiration was chosen from a pattern book, then a dyer covered the negative space with resist paste before dyeing the fabric. The two different tones of indigo indicate that the fabric was dyed more than once to achieve a range of color. The dyer also drew streams and other design elements with indigo. Finally, an embroiderer embellished the textile with motifs such as the bamboo blind, gate, and string instrument.

Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), late 18th–early 19th centuries
Silk satin with stencil dyeing, embroidery, and brush drawing
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Dan Casement, 44-30/15

An uchikake is a winter robe for high-ranking warrior-class Japanese women, who were required to follow dress codes set by the military government. Worn over other layers of robes like a coat, it displayed the wearer’s high social status at a formal gathering on a cold day. The robe’s decoration expresses hopes for the well-being of the wearer and the people around her. The motifs represent a dynamic array of techniques—stencil dyeing, embroidery, and brush drawing—each one requiring the talents of different artists.

Gallery 2

robe (atsuita-type)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 18th century
Brocade with silk threads and paper-backed gold threads, silk embroidery
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-142/21

An atsuita is a heavy silk robes made for theater. Many examples, including this one, are embellished with a sumptuous brocade. Weavers wove high-quality dyed silk threads and paper-backed gold threads to create the dynamic design, featuring a zigzag cypress fence pattern over which peonies and imaginary Chinese flowers bloom. Bold costumes like this robe were suitable for performers playing authoritative male roles like deities, demons, or warlords. The actor would don a pair of equally extravagant trousers. On a minimally decorated stage, this robe’s arresting design would impress upon audiences the intimidation of a commanding character.

Bugaku costume (-type)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), first half of the 19th century
Silk gauze embroidered with silk thread
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-142/4

The symmetrically embroidered floral motifs seen here continue design traditions from the Heian period (794–1185). Similar motifs appear on the textiles favored by nobles of the period, suggesting that Bugaku evolved as a court dance performance. The large sleeves and long train of this -type robe also derived from the formal attire for male aristocrats.

The robe’s deep green color indicates its wearer performed in a school of Bugaku that integrated performance styles from northeastern Asia. The light, semitranslucent fabric would softly define the performer’s graceful movements.

mask of a Kasshiki (youthful attendant)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), early 19th century
Painted wood
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein in memory of Mrs. George H. Bunting, Jr., 81-63

Kyōgen mask of Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868),late 18th–early 19th centuries
Painted wood
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Jacob L. Loose, R48-42/4

Kyōgen mask of a fox in the guise of the Buddhist priest Hakuzōsu from the play Tsurigitsune (Fox Hunting)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), late 18th century
Painted wood
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: Acquired through the Earl Morse Fund, F63-56

Move around these masks to see how they catch and reflect the light. Onstage a masked actor changes positions carefully, expressing the character’s shifting emotion through the interaction between the mask, light, and shadow.

Actors put on their masks just before going onstage. At that moment, they conceal their identities and take on different personas, whether animal, deity, demon, or spirit.

 robe (kariginu-type)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), first half of 19th century
Brocaded silk
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-142/9

This type of robe was worn by actors playing male characters such as courtiers, goblins, gods, and ministers. The zigzag geometric pattern depicts a cypress fence, and the encircled water plantains symbolize victory.

During the Heian period (794–1185), aristocratic men wore kariginu, or “hunting robes,” as informal garments. Kariginu were later used as formal attire by military men from the late twelfth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Although originally made of lighter materials, kariginu like this robe for theater are often made of thick brocade.

costume (hangire-type trousers)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 18th century
Brocaded silk and gold-paper thread
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-142/12

Voluminous hangire-type trousers give actors a sculptural presence. The bold design of these trousers suited powerful characters such as bandits, demons, high-class warriors, and strong gods.

Nue, from the series 100 Nō Dramas
Tsukioka Kōgyo (Japanese, 1869–1927)
Japan, Taishō period (1912–1926), ca. 1922–26
Color woodblock print
Collection of Kathryn Richardson and Bruce North

Kochō, from the series Pictures of Nō Plays, Part II, Section I
Tsukioka Kōgyo (Japanese, 1869–1927)
Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), 1899
Color woodblock print
Collection of Kathryn Richardson and Bruce North

Tsukioka Kōgyo specialized in woodblock prints of Japanese theater at a time when its audience was expanding beyond the elite to include the middle class. Pictures of Nō Plays, a horizontal series of 261 prints showing one or two characters onstage, and 100 Nō Dramas, a vertical series of 120 sheets with compositions set in nature, are the artist’s most significant works. His prints illustrate the essential features of : masked actors wearing voluminous costumes performing melodramatic plots on sparse stage sets.

Dragon robe for theater
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 17th–18th centuries
Silk and metallic thread brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 35-184/1

Found in a Qing dynasty palace, this theater costume featuring nine dragons resembles the dragon robes of the Qing court. The fitted sleeves and horse-hoofed cuffs derive from the horse-riding lifestyle of the Manchu, founders of the Qing dynasty. The plain collar band and the creamy white ground, however, would have excluded it from court dress codes. An actor playing a high-ranking martial character would have donned this robe to entertain the emperor and empress.

Flag for theater
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 17th–18th centuries
Silk and metallic thread embroidery on silk satin
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-187/2

When an acrobatic actor waved this large flag, as seen in the image below, the embroidered dragon would have appeared to leap to life. The dragon—a common symbol representing good luck and strength in Chinese textiles—wriggles to catch a flaming pearl in the upper right. Under the spotlight of a stage, the gold embroidery would draw the audience’s attention.

This pennant flag was modeled after a banner erected for an imperial parade or ship. The red band, a modern replacement, would hoist the flag up a pole.

Lady’s coat
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), early 18th century
Kesi (silk tapestry) woven with silk and metallic threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 37-25 A, B

An actor may have worn this coat to perform the role of a woman in a Chinese opera. On or off stage, this coat, paired with a matching skirt, would have been perfect for a woman to don for formal events and festivals. The separated panel may be one of the outfit’s accessories.

The level of craftsmanship is exceptional, compared to other Chinese theater costumes. Talented weavers incorporated colorful imagery into all eight roundels. Because the Chinese words for individual images are pronounced like positive words, these designs have auspicious meanings. Bats, which symbolize blessings, carry chimes, signifying celebration. A fish hanging from the jeweled chimes represents prosperity.

Kyōgen costume (suō-type)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), first half of the 19th century
Bast fiber (asa) with stencil dyeing
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-142/60

This unlined, long-sleeved jacket, dyed with a dynamic “sandy beach” pattern filled with pine needles, likely had matching trousers. A Kyōgen actor would have layered this jacket over other robes to play the role of a father-in-law, high-ranking official, or landowner.

Kyōgen costumes were often made of plant-fiber fabrics and decorated using stencils. To produce durable threads, thread makers process the inner fiber of the plant stalk in multiple labor-intensive steps, such as boiling and beating. Before sewing each piece together to make the jacket, skilled professionals dyed the fabric at least three times, using a stencil each round to add colors.

Gallery 3

Pair of high-back armchairs
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), late 17th–early 18th centuries
Huanghuali wood and woven fiber seat
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. George H. Bunting, Jr., 81-27/40 A, B

This pair of elegant chairs sported different decorations depending on the day. The owners would have placed cushions on them for comfortable use. On special occasions, they draped colorful, celebratory textile covers over the chairs (see the video nearby).

Hanging with lantern design
China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 15th–16th centuries
Silk and metallic thread brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: acquired through the bequest of Mrs. Jacob L. Loose from Charlotte Horstmann, Ltd., 70-28/1

This brightly colored hanging consists of two panels sewn together. The panels may have belonged to a larger set of wall decorations or furniture covers. The elaborate lanterns at the center of each panel—along with clouds, corals, flowers, and jewels—signify wealth and happiness. This type of wall hanging (depicted in the upper right of the image to the right) decorated elite homes during the Lantern Festival. Many Asian people honor the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day after Lunar New Year by displaying elaborate luminaries in public spaces.

Chair covers with crane design
China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 17th century
Kesi (silk tapestry) woven with silk and metallic threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Earl Morse, 59-18/4, 5

Over the centuries the owners of these chair covers treasured them, using them only for special celebrations such as birthdays and festivals. When hung on a chair, dignitaries would sit on the diamond-shaped section and lean against the seat back containing the primary image of a crane—a bird symbolizing longevity and good fortune. Viewed from behind, the crane at the top hangs over the back of the chairs, right side up.

To create this pair of chair covers, weavers used a silk tapestry technique called kesi, integrating cranes, lotuses, and peaches in the design with great technical precision.

China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), early 18th century
Silk brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 33-817

This valance, a short piece of drapery, consists of many different fabrics quilted into the shapes of coins and curved designs known as ruyi (which means “as you wish”). During ceremonies or rituals in a Buddhist temple, it would be hung between two columns or paired with banners.

Temples repurposed fabrics donated by their communities to make new textiles. The practice of cutting and tearing the secular fabric, derived from Buddhist monasteries, symbolizes the separation of secular and monastic life.

Pillar rug
China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), mid-18th century
Cotton warps and wool knotted piles
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 33-605

The dragon on this rug would have coiled around a pillar in a Buddhist temple. Framed by the island and sea on the bottom and the jeweled pendant on top, the dragon winds upward as if linking prayers from earth to heaven. These images, woven in a beige, blue, and yellow color scheme, indicate that the rug was created at the confluence of many cultures, including those of China, Tibet, and Central Asia. The colors fading from the lower section tell of the rug’s sustained use.

Uchishiki with green peony vine design
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), first half of the 19th century
Silk brocade with gold-paper threads and brocade lining
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-142/37

An uchishikiis made to drape over an altar or table in a Buddhist temple. The practice of gift giving is an essential tenant of Buddhism, and lay people often donate altar cloths and other ceremonial objects to priests and temples.

Evoking springtime, this blue, green, and gold uchishiki features a brocaded peony motif surrounded by leafy vines. To create the flowers, artists wove paper threads backed with gold leaf paper.

Gallery 4

Velvet fragment of hunting scene
Designed by a court painter, possibly Siyavush Beg Gurji (Persian, active mid-16th–early 17th centuries)
Probably Tabriz, Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), ca. 1540–70
Silk cut and voided velvet with silk pile with metal-wrapped thread brocade velvet
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-80/3

In this lively scene, a central figure fights off an attacking lion. The imagery of a lion hunt—an act forbidden to all except for the king—reinforced ideas of royal power. Through hunting, rulers surveyed lands, honed martial skills, trained troops, and forged alliances.

This velvet fragment, and two others displayed nearby, once decorated the interior of royal tents—defining and enriching the living and meeting spaces used by Safavid rulers and their families. The fragments belonged to the so-called Vienna Hunting Tent, which may have actually been a group of several tents gifted by Shah Tahmasp (ruled 1524–74) to an Ottoman sultan. The hunting velvets sheltered seventeenth-century Ottoman rulers during their conquest of eastern Europe and were captured in the 1600s, possibly at the Siege of Vienna in 1683, by members of the Polish-Lithuanian Sanguszko family, who kept them in their personal collection until the 1920s. Now, disassembled and dispersed, the original appearance of the tent or tents is unknown.

Hunting scene
In the tradition of Aqa Mirak (Persian, active ca. 1525–1576)
Tabriz, Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), ca. 1525–40
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 43-6/3

Figures emerge on foot and horseback from all directions in this chaotic hunting scene. On the left, a standing hunter fends off an attacking tiger, while others stalk their prey with bows and the help of a hunting dog and trained cheetah. Hunting was a favorite subject of Persian artists and their princely patrons. It was incorporated in multiple media, including textiles like the velvet tent fabric nearby.

Velvet panel with carnations and palmettes
Bursa, Turkey, Ottoman period (1281–1922), late 16th century
Silk cut and voided velvet with silk pile with metal-wrapped thread brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. J. F. Downing, R57-9/26

Imperial silk-weaving workshops in Bursa, a city in eastern Turkey, made this narrow velvet panel as a cushion cover for a bolster pillow (a long and thick decorative pillow). The central design features rows of alternating carnations, one of the standard forms of floral decoration associated with the Ottoman court in the sixteenth century. Velvet was perfect for interior furnishings such as cushions because the silk pile stood up to heavy wear. Look closely and you will see traces of metallic threads that once filled the voids between the red silk pile with gold and silver.

Hanging in the form of a prayer carpet with millefleur design
Kashmir, India, ca. 1770–1800
Wool and double interlocked tapestry twill
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 35-299

Floral blooms burst from three vases, filling the central field of this textile and giving the style its name: millefleur (a thousand flowers). This weaving shares the composition of a prayer carpet, with its design anchored by a central niche formed beneath a lobed arch. The delicacy of this light, finely woven textile, however, suggests that it was intended to be a wall hanging, enlivening an interior with garden imagery. Made in Kashmir, India, the Islamic design indicates this hanging was likely created for the domestic market, unlike the Kashmir shawls displayed later in this exhibition.

Tent panels
Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), ca. 1540–70
Silk cut and voided velvet with silk pile with metal-wrapped thread brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-80/1–2

These triangular panels were once sections of a royal tent. Bold plant designs illustrate both panels. Large floral blooms are interspersed among vining stems arranged in the form of a lattice. Originally inspired by both Mediterranean and Chinese sources, these patterns represent a cross-cultural synthesis that formed the foundation of Persian design.

Gallery 5

Carpet in the “Polonaise” style
Isfahan or Kashan, Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), early 17th century
Tapestry-woven silk and cotton with silk pile and gold and silver metal foil-wrapped thread, and brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 33-460

Like the medallion carpet on display nearby, this monumental carpet was made in a royal workshop during the reign of the Safavid ruler Shah ’Abbas I. Flower blossoms, scrolling vines, and curling, serrated leaves emanate from a central lobed medallion. Most luxury carpets of this type left Iran as diplomatic gifts or custom orders for aristocratic patrons. They were called “Polonaise” because a Polish prince lent one of his family’s carpets to the 1887 Universal Exposition in Paris. Scholars misidentified the textile, which had the prince’s family crest added to it, as being Polish rather than Iranian. Similar “Polonaise” carpets were used for coronations in the Rosenborg Palace in Denmark and were placed under the throne of King Louis XIV (1638–1715) in Versailles, France.

Masulipatnam (now Machilipatnam), India, 19th century
Printed, painted, and mordant- and resist-dyed cotton
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Ross E. Taggart, F88-11

This small and portable cotton textile was likely a summer jainamaz (prayer cloth) used by Muslims. Here, the lobed central arch references a mihrab, the empty niche in a mosque that orients the faithful toward the Holy City of Mecca while they pray. Masulipatnam was one of the port cities on the southeast coast of India famous for its colorful painted and printed cotton textiles known as kalamkaris or chintzes. This textile may have been made for trade within Asia. Many similar Indian prayer mats were exported to Iran.

Coromandel Coast, India, possibly finished in Iran, second half of the 19th century
Dyed and painted cotton
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 56-86

From their creation to sale, painted cottons such as this hanging frequently crossed international borders. This fabric was made in India, a major cotton manufacturer and exporter. The decoration, with its heavy use of red dyes and choice of imagery—peacocks and tigers at the bottom—also points to India. These motifs were popular among Iranian consumers. Textile merchants frequently took painted and printed cottons from India to Iran for finishing with extra dyeing and printing.

Tekke Turkmen rug
Turkmenistan, ca. 1880
Wool and pile
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank P. Burnap, 48-25/3

Three columns of repeating guls, oval medallions containing geometric shapes, dominate the design of this rug. The gul is more than a decorative motif: it is a tribal emblem, and the form and decoration of the guls depicted here help to identify this carpet as the product of the Tekke Turkmen tribe in Central Asia. Originally Tekke Turkmen textiles were created for use as carpets, saddlebags, and tenting to serve their nomadic population. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, as more people settled in towns and villages in inner Asia, traders found an international market for Tekke Turkmen carpets in Europe, leading to the increased production of these traditional textiles.

Tapestry-woven medallion carpet
Kashan, Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), ca. 1600
Silk, gold, silver, and gilt silver metallic-wrapped thread in tapestry weave
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-70

This Persian carpet, and the materials that made it, traveled the globe. Three of its colors were produced from dyes imported from the Americas. Sourced from trees in South and Central America, logwood is used to create brown and combined with old fustic (dyer’s mulberry) to make black. Cochineal, the pigment used for the raspberry pink, is derived from an insect (see first image to the right). The dark blue dye was made of indigo, which was likely sourced from India. The carpet is further decorated with gold, silver, and gilt silver wrapped threads that are woven directly into the foundational fabric (see second image to the right). Thus, by 1600, Persian royal workshops were incorporating precious materials from around the world.

This rare carpet—one of fewer than thirty of its kind that survive—represents the highest achievement of royal Safavid silk weaving and was not for sale. In the early seventeenth century, the carpet was a diplomatic gift from Shah ’Abbas I (ruled 1587–1628) to a pope in Rome, where it entered the Vatican treasury. Later, this textile was given to Cardinal Deacon Giacomo Antonelli (1806–1876), who kept it in his family estate in Abruzzo, Italy. It passed between cardinals and castles until the early twentieth century before entering the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

End of a sash
Inscribed Agha Mahmood
Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), early 17th century
Silk metal ground textile, gilt foil wrapped silk threads, brocaded 
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 33-549

This elegant panel once formed the end of a man’s sash. The central field contains six isolated clusters of flowers, their vertical arrangement balanced by gently arcing stems and long waving leaves. They are surrounded by a border of scrolling vines that enclose alternating sprays of blossoms. The sash was intricately woven from the finest silk yarns, some wrapped in gilt silver to form the ground. The end panels draped down from the wearer’s waist and the artist’s name, Agha Mahmood, was repeated in each corner for all to see. This type of sash was a popular accessory in many parts of Asia and Europe. In Poland workshops were established to produce imitations of the Safavid textiles.

Metal-ground textile with birds, deer, and flowers
Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), 17th century
Silk, silver and gilt metal-wrapped thread in compound twill weave and brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-23

Safavid ruler Shah ’Abbas I centralized Iranian silk manufacturing as a court-controlled industry that produced luxury textiles such as this one for domestic and foreign markets. This panel traveled to Europe. The round neckline suggests that European designers intended to use it for a court dress or religious garment. The colorful decoration, featuring birds roosting in a rosebush, is an example of the bul-o-bul-bul (rose and nightingale) theme. Commonly referenced in Persian poetry and visual culture, this theme symbolizes a lover and beloved.

Probably Bursa, Turkey, Ottoman period (1281–1922), ca. 1500–40
Brocaded velvet, silk, and silver-gilt threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-81

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, trade was frequent between Ottoman Turks and Italians, and they admired each other’s textiles. As a result, many imperial kaftans (long, belted robes) from this period preserved in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul are made from Italian velvets, while numerous Roman Catholic vestments used in Italy (and other areas of Europe) at the same time utilize Ottoman velvets. Worn during rituals, this cope (an ankle-length processional cloak) wrapped a priest in magnificent fabric notable for its bold floral pattern, crimson color, metal threads, and weight. Using silk probably imported from Iran, this textile was likely manufactured in Bursa, the principal weaving center of the Ottoman Empire and a marketplace frequented by Italian merchants. The fabric would have been cut and assembled as a cope after arriving in western Europe.

Gallery 6

Metal-ground fragment with floral design
Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), 17th century
Silk metal-ground textile and brocade with silk and metal-wrapped silk threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-126/41 C

Velvet fragment with striped floral design
Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), 17th century
Cut and voided velvet, satin weave foundation, silk pile, silk, and foil-wrapped silk threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-126/31

Velvet fragment with silver ground
Iran, Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), early 17th century
Silk, silk pile, and metal-wrapped silk threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-126/32

Bold stripes and fields of dense, naturalistic, and geometric floral imagery fill these colorful textiles made in India and Persia. Unlike nearly all the other textiles in this exhibition, these small treasures provide few clues about their original size, shape, and function. Often reclaimed from worn or damaged textiles, fragments became highly collectible by the mid-nineteenth century. Collectors mounted them in albums or display boxes for personal study and to share when entertaining friends and guests. This small sampling was once part of a collection of more than three hundred fragments owned by Marczell von Nemes.

Cotton fragment with wool tapestry-woven border
India, 19th century
Plain weave cotton, printed and mordant dyed, wool tapestry weave, tinsel applied with gum
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-126/54

Fragment with striped pattern
India, late 19th century
Satin twill weave, brocaded silk, and silk and foil-wrapped silk threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-126/14

Fragment with floral design
India or Iran, late 19th–early 20th centuries
Brocaded silk, silk, and metal foil-wrapped threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 31-126/29

Hanging with hōō and pine tree
Japan, Meiji–Taishō periods (1868–1926), late 19th century–1920s
Cotton tabby embroidered with silk and gold-wrapped threads
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bequest of Ella C. Loose, 45-70/53

Two mythical, immortal birds called hōō perch on a mature pine tree in this hanging. Hōō have been a recurring motif in Japanese art, including textiles, since the seventh century CE. In the conventional East Asian ideal, hōō represented the good governance of the ruler, and it was believed that the birds appear when society is at peace. Textile makers embroidered these positive symbols with the pine tree, a popular motif in Japan for its associations with prosperity and longevity. Filled with favorable messages, this imagery traveled outside of Japan in export goods. Of the various techniques used in fine art textiles, embroidery attracted American and European customers the most.

Hanging with rooster, hen, and flowers
Japan, Meiji–Taishō periods (1868–1926), late 19th century–1920s
Tapestry-woven silk with partly cut silk velvet pile dyed with the yūzen technique
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bequest of Ella C. Loose, 45-70/48

Look at this wall hanging from different angles and see how it interacts with light. After the velvet was dyed, textile artists fluffed up some spots while keeping others level. Because the velvet has this range of surface textures, each spot catches the light differently. Velvet was introduced to Japan about five hundred years ago by the Portuguese, and Japanese textile makers began producing velvet in the late eighteenth century. They united a centuries-old dyeing technique with velvet-making methods to create textiles that look like paintings but have a more three-dimensional quality.

Pair of tapestries with hōō and paulownia
Japan, Meiji–Taishō periods (1868–1926), late 19th century–1920s
Tapestry-woven silk and gold-wrapped thread
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bequest of Ella C. Loose, 45-70/3, 45-70/49

The tapestry on the left closely resembles a painting of a mythical bird called a hōō that Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800) made between 1755 and 1765 (see image below). Japanese textile producers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries employed painters to design their textiles, sometimes using paintings from previous centuries as inspiration. For instance, Kawashima Jinbei II (1853–1910) had his workshop reproduce Jakuchū’s paintings as tapestries for the Japan Mail Steamship Company in 1904, coinciding with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Imagery from Jakuchū’s paintings became emblematic of Japanese textile design to international consumers.

A leading tapestry workshop made these large hangings suited for decorating the interiors of mansions in Europe and the United States. Textile producers researched what American and European customers liked and designed and marketed their products accordingly.

Man’s white-ground long shawl
Kashmir, India, ca. 1830
Pashmina wool twill and tapestry twill with silk and wool embroidery
Lent by Mr. W. L. Comstock, 82-1934

Kashmiri shawl workshops in India developed this transitional shawl design to accommodate changing tastes. It elaborates upon a traditional Indian men’s shawl, where minimal woven floral decoration bordered a plain field. Here, the elongated panels at the ends, the boteh (paisley motif) in the corners, and the dense, detailed decoration reflect consumers’ desires for more ornate fashion.

This textile marketed itself as an example of the best weaving available. The inscription on the large scalloped border reads, “Commissioned by Nauzuhur. . . . superior, finest of the fine.” Whoever Nauzuhur was—a customer, merchant, or head of a workshop—the inscription ensures us that it is the best work.

The following is a translation of the inscriptions on this shawl:

فرمایش نوظهور زنگاری‌کار فیروزه‌کار دوردار کنگره‌دار میناکار ممتاز اعلی اعلی

farmāyish-i Nauzuhūr, zangārīkār, firozakār, daurdār, kangaradār, mīnākār, mumtāz, a’lā-yi a’lā

(Commissioned by Nauzuhur. Rust-colored work, turquoise work, having a border, having crenellations, enamel [blue?] work, superior, finest of the fine)

To the left is the following inscription:


یا حفیظ برکت لنا یا کریم

10 yā ḥafīẓ barakat lanā yā karīm

(10. O protector, blessings to us, O generous one. S)

These translations are courtesy of Wheeler M. Thackston and Hamama Bushra.

Kashmir, India, ca. 1870
Pashmina wool twill and tapestry twill, wool embroidery, assembled
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Ms. Nellie D. Lee, 55-56

This ornate rumal (square shawl), filled with abstract, curving shapes and swirls of color, embodies European high fashion of the nineteenth century. No woman of high status in Europe would be seen without an Indian patterned shawl as an outer layer over formal dress. This shawl’s design evolved from the more understated white shawl with decorative borders displayed nearby. The central field is packed with decorations inspired by European ornamental patterns. To match changing European tastes, English and French agents brought designs directly to Kashmiri workshops. Indian designers thus created a new hybrid product that became the standard of global fashion.

France, 1855
Wool woven on a Jacquard loom
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Frank C. Downing in memory of Mr. and Mrs. John C. L. Sherwood, R62-8/2

In 1783 the East India Company sent Captain Samuel Turner (1759–1802) to Tibet on a mission vital to the British economy: to import pairs of Himalayan goats to England. These prized goats had the softest hair in the world and would enable English manufactures to copy “Kashmir” shawls, named for the territory where they were created. Native to the high altitudes of the Himalayas, the goats rarely survived the journey.

In the early nineteenth century, French farmers succeeded in crossbreeding pashmina goats to create herds of hybrid animals with softer wools. They also advanced weaving technology with mechanical Jacquard looms, which were used to create this shawl’s tight, even weave with no evidence of hand work. The French weavers of this imitation Kashmiri shawl used these looms to speed up production and compete with Indian luxury exports.

Although based on Kashmiri models, the boteh (paisley motif) of this shawl is set within vertical forms that look more like European stained-glass windows than Indian floral designs.

Manufactured by Changri
China, late 20th century
Embroidered satin
Collection of Jen-Jen Lin

A qipao is a straight dress with a high neckline and a slitted skirt. Whereas luxury examples are woven from silk, more economical modern examples use machine-woven satins, sometimes made with synthetic materials. This qipao produced by the Chinese clothing brand Changri features the classic high neck, which fastens with intricate frog closures cascading down the right side. Butterflies and peonies—motifs with a long history in Chinese textile design—have been hand embroidered using hundreds of tiny French knots. Although made decades after the qipao first became popular, it is nearly identical in form to earlier examples, demonstrating the style’s lasting popularity.

Furisode with fukuro obi
Japan, 21st century
Furisode: silk, yuzen-zome (resist dyed), inkin (stamped gold and silver leaf over adhesive), lined with silk
Obi (belt): nishiki-ori (silk brocade)
Obiage (obi sash): silk with shibori (tye-dyed resist)
Obijime (obi cord): silk
Tabi (split socks): cotton
Zori (shoes): leather, dye
Nagajuban (under-kimono): silk blend
Date-eri (collar): silk
Collection of Virginia Soenksen

Furisode—a type of kimono with long, dangling sleeves—is the most formal garment worn by young, unmarried Japanese women. The bright, bold colors reflect the wearer’s youth, as does the way its various elements are worn: the neckline is crossed high, the obi (belt) is tied in an elaborate bow, and the obijime (obi cord) is worn slightly above the center of the obi. The obiage (obi sash) is also visible.

Because they are expensive, furisode tend to have motifs related to more than one season. This example features bamboo, cherry blossoms, flowing water, and pine trees created using yuzen, a dye technique in which patterns are drawn on fabric with resist paste. Dyes are brushed on, then the resist is washed away to reveal a white outline defining the motifs. Here, the decoration is enhanced with inkin, finely applied gold leaf.

The obi is made of silk brocade and ornamented with camellia, hanashippō (cloisonné with a flower in the middle), and wisteria.

The ensemble was purchased off the rack by its owner at a kimono event in the Tobu Department Store in Utsunomiya, Japan.

Sumak bag face
Shahsevan tribal region, Iran, late 19th–early 20th centuries
Wool, flat weave, sumak (or soumak) tapestry weave with later repairs
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Louis A. Scarpellino, R66-16/6

The bold and complex patterns on this small bag appear at first to be created with embroidery. Look closely, however, and you will see the design is in fact finely woven using a technique known as sumak (or soumak). Using extra weft threads, dexterous weavers—customarily women—wove this kind of intricate textile on small, portable looms.

Meaning “those who love the Shah,” Shahsevan was the name given to a confederacy of several tribal groups in northwest Iran and Azerbaijan. Some historians argue that these tribes were united by Shah ’Abbas I (ruled 1588–1629) to protect the frontiers of the Safavid kingdom of greater Iran. Long a source of regional strength, the Shahsevan tribes deflected Russian advances in the nineteenth century and even challenged Iran’s central authority in the early twentieth century. After the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79, which drove the shah into exile, the Shahsevan descendants officially changed their name to the Elsevan, or “those who love the Tribe.”

Cicim brocaded rug
Anatolia, Turkey, 20th century
Wool, silk, cotton, and chicken feathers, flat woven and brocaded with knotted tufts
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Ralph T. Coe, F73-39

This large textile, consisting of three attached flat-woven panels with geometric designs, is known as a cicim (or jijim). These textiles are woven by members of Kurdish communities in Turkey and other areas in West Asia. Kurdish village women use narrow, portable looms to create textiles like these. The use of modern aniline dyes on some of the yarns helps to date this large hanging or cover to the twentieth century. Look closely and you will also see the downy barbs of chicken feathers inserted into the weave, which add texture and visual interest to the design.

Phulkari chadar
Hazar region, Pakistan, late 19th–early 20th centuries
Cotton plain weave with silk floss embroidery in darning stitch
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bequest of Ella C. Loose, 45-70/87

Phulkari (flower work) is the name for the domestic embroidery practiced primarily by women in the Punjab regions in northwest India and Pakistan. It is characterized by the use of untwisted silk floss threads sewn with satin stitches into a base of coarse homespun cotton.

This chadar—a large veil or shawl—has chevron patterns created with red and green thread on a white ground known as a thirma phulkari. Textiles like this are usually worn by older women.

Shawl with Kharek embroidery
Designed by Godavriben Bhimaji (Indian, b. 20th century)
Manufactured by Shrujan (founded 1969)
Kutch, India, 2010
Wool with embroidery and mirror work
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bipin Avashia, 2010.74.3

The tight geometric patterns on this shawl are not woven—instead, they were created by the embroiderer’s great dexterity and painstaking attention to detail. To make the bold lines and small shapes in the design, the embroiderer works much like a carpet knotter, counting the minute warp and weft threads of the finely woven fabric to pinpoint exactly where to pass her needle through. Forms are filled in with satin stitches known as soof (one thread). This traditional embroidery technique is associated with the Sodha Rajput and Meghwal communities in Kutch, India.

Sari with Mutwa embroidery
Kutch, India, 2010
Silk with silk embroidery, mirror work, and metallic and silk brocade
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bipin Avashia, 2010.74.1

Imagine wrapping yourself in twenty feet of this luxurious silk garment. This heavily decorated sari would be a treasured item in an Indian woman’s wardrobe. Many traditions came together from across South Asia to create this textile. The silk fabric was woven in Kanchipuram in South India. The distinctive Mutwaembroidery and mirror handwork was done in Kutch in the western state of Gujarat. This type of embroidery is associated with Muslim communities who migrated from Sindh, Pakistan, to Kutch, India. Shrujan, an Indian nongovernmental organization, supports the work of village textile makers in Kutch, helping to keep these traditional practices alive.

Gallery 7 (Education Gallery)

Bagh-style phulkari chadar
Punjab, India, or Pakistan, early 20th century
Cotton plain weave with silk floss embroidery
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. K. N. Puri, 61-52

Colorful phulkari embroidery was originally restricted to shawls. The art form nearly died out in the mid-twentieth century but has since experienced a revival. The designs often incorporate geometric forms. This chadar has an embroidered gold-and-white pattern called bagh phulkari. Bagh means “garden” and describes the lush, dense embroidery style, in which every surface is covered in stitches.

Wrapped around the head and upper body, a chadar is used for protection from the elements, modesty, and religious purposes. It remains a common accessory for Hindu and Muslim women in the desert countries of Asia.

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