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TRC Blog: Textile Moments

Chasing embroideries in Delhi

Detail of a Chinese-style Parsi embroidery from India, made in 2017 for the TRC.

Detail of a Chinese-style Parsi embroidery from India, made in 2017 for the TRC.

For the last week Willem and I have been in New Delhi, India. Willem for work (leaving me here in Delhi while he went to Thailand for a few days) and me for, well, work if you call hunting for hand embroidery work. Actually it has been quite difficult to find any good quality items. Much is quickly made and sold at relatively high prices by and to people who have little knowledge of the subject. I was offered printed, woven and machine embroidered pieces, even a brass elephant at one point, but little hand embroidery.

But as the week went on life has improved and I have been talking with various groups about hand embroidery. This information is needed for the new encyclopaedia the TRC is working on, as well as for a possible exhibition about Indian and embroidery. One of the groups I have been talking with are the Parsi, a Zoroastrian group from what is now Iran that has lived in India for a thousand years. They have long been merchants especially with China and not surprisingly, there is a strong Chinese feel (design, colour and technique wise) to much of their embroidery. In the past they also produced European Berlin wool work designs, and amazing portraits worked using ultra-fine single stranded silk threads, as well as their own versions of the Chinese embroideries. The latter combine Chinese, Persian, Indian and European elements.

In addition to talking about embroideries we also talked about Zoroastrian clothing and I have ordered some special items that are worn under normal garments, plus a beaded toran, a form of decoration that goes over the doorway to welcome visitors and protect the home. And, although it is only at the early stages, we have been discussing the possiblity of having one of their students come to the TRC for a month to learn about creating and running a small collection. Interesting days ahead!

I have also been talking with Jasleen Dhamija, the Indian grande dame of textile and embroidery studies. It has been a great privilege to meet and talk with her. Her comprehensive knowledge of Indian and indeed Asian textiles is amazing. She has also very kindly offered to help with the new encyclopaedia, which gives a lot of confidence in what we are doing. Tomorrow Willem and I go to Lucknow to look at chikan embroidery (a form of white work), and then onto Agra to see the Taj Mahal and local embroidery, and then finally onto Jaipur, which has another form of embroidery called gota (which is more of an appliqué technique than embroidery). I am beginning to wonder whether it will be necessary to buy another suitcase for the trip back....

We will certainly miss the hotel we are staying, Lutyens Bungalow along Prthviraj Road; the meals around the long table in the garden, surrounded by squirrels, birds and bats, and the ever so friendly and helpful staff have been a great support, certainly while I was on my own.

Gillian Vogelsang, 25th July 2017


Buddhist robes

Two Buddhist nuns in pink. Photograph by Shelley Anderson.

Two Buddhist nuns in pink. Photograph by Shelley Anderson.

I attended an international conference on Buddhist women recently and was fascinated with the variety of robes Buddhist nuns wore. It made me want to learn more.

Buddhism began some 2,500 years ago in northern India. There are three main traditions, each with a distinctive dress, and hundreds of denominations within each tradition.

The oldest tradition within Buddhism is Theravadan, practiced today mainly in southeast Asia. A Theravadan monk’s robe comes in three pieces: a sarong-like piece that falls from the waist to the ankles, tied by a cotton string; a rectangular piece (from two to almost three metres long) that is wrapped like a sari around the body, and draped over both shoulders or only the left shoulder; and a similar extra robe that can be worn in cold weather (called a sanghati robe). The nuns wear the same, plus a bodice underneath the robe.

“There’s a lot of fiddling and readjusting with Theravadan robes. They’re always slipping, as there’s no buttons or knots,” said an Australian Theravadan nun.

The colour of Theravadan robes ranges from orange to yellow to ochre. In Thailand, where there is a controversy about women’s ordination (hence, who can legally wear ordained robes), it can be a radical act for a nun to wear these robes.

Many Buddhist women in Thailand and Cambodia who want to renounce secular life wear a less controversial long white skirt, long-sleeved white blouse and a white rectangular cloth draped over their left shoulder. In Burma, nuns wear a saffron-coloured ankle-length skirt, a pink long-sleeved blouse and a pink rectangular cloth, again draped over their left shoulder.

Fortunately for Theravadans, the earliest Buddhist strictures around the appropriate cloth for robes no longer apply. Originally only cloth that had been thrown away was allowed: cloth soiled by childbirth or menstrual blood; gnawed by oxen or mice; burnt; or shrouds for the dead are specifically mentioned as permissible. Embellishing the robes by adding cowrie shells or owl feathers was prohibited. The cloth was scavenged, washed and then dyed with turmeric or saffron. These colours were supposedly considered unattractive. When I asked a Tibetan nun why her robes were maroon-coloured, I got a similar response: “It’s an unattractive colour.”

Theravadan nun from Thailand. Photograph by Shelley Anderson.

Theravadan nun from Thailand. Photograph by Shelley Anderson.

As Buddhism spread to northern Asia, robes changed. Exposing the right shoulder, a sign of respect in India, was considered indecent in China. There, nuns started to grow their own food rather than going on alms rounds. A grey long-sleeved tunic and loose trousers were practical to work in; a long-sleeved, ankle-length grey robe (adapted from Daoist robes), tied left over right; and an often differently coloured sanghati robe completed, and still completes, a Buddhist nun’s outfit. . “It’s very convenient and quick, if a visitor comes. Your clothes might be dirty from gardening but slip on a robe and you are ready to receive visitors to the temple,” a nun from Singapore told me.

It is the same in Korea, with some different details: a long grey cloth belt is knotted in front to close the robe. In some orders novices wear brown on their collars and cuffs for their first four years. A grey sun hat, grey tennis sneakers and grey knapsack may complete the nun’s every-day wear.

In Japan, a nun’s dress frequently consists of a white undershirt, and a short tunic and baggy trousers in grey or blue. A black ankle-length robe wrapped left over right (“You would frighten people if you wore it right over left—that’s for a dead person,” a young nun told me) can also be worn. This robe is made of a gauzy material for summer and a heavier material for winter (“It’s all polyester!” the same nun said).

Different denominations are shown by wearing different colored sashes over a shoulder, embroidered with the symbol of the denomination. More adaptations can be expected in robes as Buddhism spreads to the west. One Japanese teacher has suggested that American Buddhist robes should be made of blue denim, as it is inexpensive and common.

Shelley Anderson, 11th July 2017


Hand & Lock Embroidery exhibition

Some military embroidery on show at the Hand & Lock exhibition. The jacket to the right is the TRC's Bethlehem jacket from Palestine, based on a British military uniform. It dates to the 1920s.

Some military embroidery on show at the Hand & Lock exhibition. The jacket to the right is the TRC's Bethlehem jacket from Palestine, based on a British military uniform. It dates to the 1920s.

I have just been to the Hand & Lock "250 Years of Embroidery" exhibition at the Bishopsgate's Institute (230 Bishopsgate) in London. It is only on for two days, so if you have the chance to see it tomorrow (13th July) then please make the effort, it is worth it.

It is a small, intense and thought provoking exhibition that includes a wide range of embroideries from various collections, including the Hand & Lock archives. There are some amazing examples of gold thread embroidery for military and general use, as well as beaded haute couture dress and jumpers, and letters and designs associated with the famous of the fashion and film world. There is, for example, a series of handbags made by Hand & Lock and designed by people such as Vivienne Westward. The handbags will be auctioned later in the year at Sotheby's with the process going to various charities (if only we had €20000 .....).

The exibition includes various themes, such as the history of craftsmanship and working with designers. It includes items from the following, very diverse sources: the Hand & Lock archives, the Diana Springall Collection, the Bishopgate Institute archives, the Lightfoot archive, as well as 'our' TRC Collection (lotus shoes from China, and the 'Bethlehem jacket' with imitation British military decoration; see illustration). The exhibition accompanies a one-day conference (13th July) at the same address about the history of embroidery, past, present and future.

For more information, click here.

Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 11th July 2017.


Visit to the Monastery of St. Ephrem the Syrian (pt. 2)

Statue of Bishop Julius Yeshu Çiçek at the Monastery of St. Ephrem the Syrian, Glane, the Netherlands.

Statue of Bishop Julius Yeshu Çiçek at the Monastery of St. Ephrem the Syrian, Glane, the Netherlands.

After a first visit some weeks ago (click here), Willem and I last weekend have spent a little more time at the Syriac Orthodox monastery in Glane, in the east of the Netherlands. We went there to discuss further a display about the life and work of Bishop Julius Yeshu Çiçek, who died in 2005. We are slowly getting closer to the final form and feel, and only need a couple of large showcases..... We have sent letters to various museums and companies to see if they would be willing to donate suitable stands. Hopefully we will have some good news soon.

Following a discussion and demonstration of calligraphy by one of the monks it became clear that this skill played an important role in the life of the deceased bishop and to show his actual writing tools and manuscripts would be an important part of the display. He had a beautiful writing hand and to copy out the various gospels was literally a labour of love and devotion. The display will also include three of his outfits, as well as icons, staffs and objects worn and used by the bishop.

We also discussed the possibility of a book and a travelling exhibition about the Syriac Church, which has the working title, "The Illuminated Church" which will show the relationship between book illiuminations, vestments and embroidery. We have already started talking with members of the Syriac community in the Netherlands as well as nuns, monks and priests about the role that 'Syriac' clothing plays in their lives, at the level of individuals, families and during services. It is written from the outsiders point of view, which means they are going to be asked a lot of questions from two very curious people!

The proposed exhibition is going to include vestments and textiles, from the novice monk to, literally, the patriarch. It will also include manuscripts, book illuminations and texts, as well as embroidered textiles and garments for the congregation, monastic community and liturgical vestments for during a service.

As planned, the book and exhibition will be visually impressive and thought provoking, and hopefully will also inspire people to try a different range of designs and techniques. All being well both the book and the exhibition (which will be available for travelling to suitable venues in Europe and North America) will be ready and available by the summer of 2018.

Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Sunday 9th July 2017.


My grandfather in Cologne, 1919

Embroidered postcard, TRC 2017.2571.

Embroidered postcard, TRC 2017.2571.

Family history tells that my maternal grandfather, Francis Redvers Collings, was one of the first British soldiers to enter the German city of Cologne after the ceasefire of 11th November 1918, which in fact ended the First World War. British troops first entered the German Rhineland on 3rd December 1918. The British Army of the Rhine would remain in Germany until 1929, with their headquarters in Cologne. I mention this because the TRC last week acquired an embroidered postcard with the text "1919 Souvenir of Cologne" (TRC 2017.2571).

This postcard was produced in the tradition of the First World War postcards, which were sent home by the Allied forces fighting in the trenches of northern France and elsewhere. We already discussed these postcards in a blog from October 2015. The cards were often decorated with patriotic symbols, including the flags of the Allied forces. This particular postcard also shows these flags, being incorprated into the year 1919. There are the flags from Belgium, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and the USA.

This silk card, plus others from the TRC Collection, will shortly be part of a series of digital exhibitions that highlight different aspects of the TRC's collection.

Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 1st July 2017.

PS. By the way, my grandfather's middle name refers to General Sir Redvers Henry Buller (VC), the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the first few months of the Second Boer War in South Africa.


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TRC in a nutshell

Hogewoerd 164, 2311 HW Leiden. Tel. +31 (0)71 5134144 / +31 (0)6 28830428

Opening times: Monday to Thursday: 10.00-16.00 hrs, other days by appointment.

Bank account number: NL39 INGB 0002 9823 59

Gallery exhibition, 3 April - 29 June: From Kaftan to Kippa

Entrance is free, but donations are always welcome !

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Financial gifts

The TRC is dependent on project support and individual donations. All of our work is being carried out by volunteers. To support the TRC activities, we therefore welcome your financial assistance: donations can be transferred to bank account number NL39 INGB 000 298 2359, in the name of the Textile Research Centre, Leiden. Since the TRC is officially recognised as a non-profit making cultural institution (ANBI), donations are tax deductible for 125% for individuals, and 150% for commercial companies. For more information, click here
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