fabrics made of cotton, wool, linen, and silk were so
commonly traded that they were almost a form of currency.
Each country produced homespun, ordinary fabrics for
clothing from available fibers -- in Europe, often wool.
Luxury textiles -- especially those woven, printed, or
embroidered in multiple colors were exactly the type of
goods well suited for long-distance trade -- light in
weight, valuable, and much in demand.
the ordinary people wore drab colors and coarse materials,
the wealthy ruling classes, both religious and political,
indulged in “power dressing,” purchasing robes, vestments,
and decorative fabrics that enhanced their authority.
linens and woolens had been traded for centuries, and the
volume of such trade increased during the Medieval period.
The luxury fabric of choice, however, was silk brocade, in
which different colored threads were woven into complex
patterns. Ever since silk production arrived in western Asia
from China, brocade weaving had been the technique of choice
for luxury fabrics. Sassanian and Byzantine royal workshops
produced brocades for palace, royal wardrobes, and religious
institutions, as well as gifts of honor.
the expansion of Muslim-ruled territory across western Asia
and the Mediterranean, this tradition continued. The typical
brocade motif of mythical and symbolic animals and geometric
shapes was expanded to include geometric designs and Arabic
tiraz. These banded inscriptions, woven or
embroidered in colors and often with gold or silver threads,
were highly prized for garments. Moving beyond the caliphal
workshops, they became prized articles of trade.
became a center of silk production, including both import of
silk thread and cultivation of silkworms. Styles and
technologies from eastern Muslim lands kept pace with
Andalusian fashions at the court and among the wealthy. Silk
textiles became important articles of the export trade.
Andalusian silks at first had similar design motifs like
those of Persian, Byzantine, and Mesopotamian origin.
Andalusian weavers also copied styles popular in Baghdad.
silks were one of those articles that crossed cultural and
religious lines with ease. Brocades with Arabic inscriptions
and eastern patterns are found as altar cloths, church
vestments and even funeral shrouds in Christian possession.
Muslims used them as wall coverings, robes, and
over-garments, despite the prohibition against men wearing
silks. People unable to afford the complete silk regalia
employed woven bands on the edges of clothing or draped neck
the silk designs were fanciful animals like griffins, lions,
eagles, serpents, birds, and exotic plants of the east,
arranged in symmetrical patterns, medallions, and
alternating bands. The inscriptions sometimes attributed the
qualities of these creatures to the wearer, or represented
blessings and praises.
was an early textile manufacturing center, where as many as
13,000 looms were active at one time. From the 10th
century CE, it was producing silk fabrics, and in later
centuries Almería also became an important export center.
Almoravids developed textile production during the 12th
century CE. Spanish weavers became especially skilled at
weaving complex designs with fine lines between the colors,
and very densely woven threads. The surviving examples of
these textiles are still brilliant in color.
appear in Church treasuries, and in early Renaissance Italy,
they are carefully depicted in paintings, often with
religious subjects. Almohad period silk textiles are simpler
in design, reflecting their rejection of the animal motifs
in favor of Islamically acceptable geometric motifs much
like the tiles, bookbindings, woodcarvings, and
architectural patterns of the time. Wealthy buyers in
Christian territories highly prized these textiles, even
with Arabic inscriptions. From Spain, Sicily, and Egypt, the
techniques and styles of brocade weaving later spread into
France and Italy, and then into northern Europe.
famous example of an Almohad textile is the wall hanging
known as the Las Navas de Tolosa Banner, dated between 1212
and 1250 CE, believed to be a battle trophy won by the
Castilians. It has an elaborate geometric design with bands
of Arabic inscriptions and Qur'anic quotations.
rich agricultural land of Al-Andalus was able to meet demand
for textiles with its domestic production in linen and wool.
Both were grown there in Visigothic times, but production
increased with the prosperity of farming under Muslim rule.
Cotton was a new introduction to Al-Andalus from eastern
Muslim lands. The crop was grown in irrigated areas. It was
well suited to the need for cool, washable clothing in
summer and for household fabrics.
Long-fibered cottons were an
innovation in agriculture and textile production, being one
of the important crops that moved across Muslim lands during
the Medieval period. Cotton textiles were traded regularly
between North Africa and Al-Andalus. Historians have found
evidence that linen, wool, and cotton were also imported
into Al-Andalus for weaving and dyeing for export, which
speaks for the skill of Andalusian textile artisans.
In the later period of Muslim rule in
Spain, Merino sheep, whose fine wool is still prized for
textiles, were probably introduced from Morocco. Wool, linen
and cotton were also combined to produce specialized fabrics
that gave the textiles certain qualities, including
combinations with silk thread.
produced and exported fabric dyes that were an important
aspect of high quality silks, linens, cottons, and woolens,
giving them vibrant and lasting colors. Yellows were made
from saffron -- though it was very expensive, since it was
extracted from the stamen of a crocus flower. Reds came from
an insect that produced a brilliant red color from its body.
Cochineal, a similar intense red produced by insects, was
imported from the New World after 1500 CE.
red was produced by the madder plant, whose roots were
crushed and processed, or red from brazilwood. Woad is a
plant similar to indigo that was used throughout Europe for
blue dye. It had to be crushed and fermented to release the
blue color. This blue dye was colorfast when mixed with alum
-- a product of mining that fixed the color onto the cloth
fibers. Alum was an essential export for Iberia and the
Middle East in Medieval times, when Europe began to export
textiles. Indigo was also imported into Spain for the
textile industry from eastern Muslim lands. Andalusian
agricultural books mention dye plants like safflower,
saffron, wild madder and sumac.
Patricia L. Baker.
Islamic Textiles. British Museum Press, 1995.
Bolens. “The Use of Plants for Dyeing and Clothing: Cotton
and Woad in Al-Andalus: A Thriving Agricultural Sector
(5th/11th - 7th/13th Centuries).” S.K. Jayyusi, ed.
The Legacy of Islamic Spain.
Leiden, 1992. pp. 1000-1015.
and Traders in Islamic Spain: The Commercial Realignment of
the Iberian Peninsula, 900-1500. Cambridge
University Press, 1994.
Watson. “The Rise and Spread of Old World Cotton.”
Studies in Textile History
In Memory of Harold B. Burnham. Veronika Gervers,
ed. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 1977.
L. Douglass. “Clothing and Textiles” in Chapter 7: Leisure,
Recreation and Daily Life,
World Eras: Rise and Spread
of Islam 622-1500. Thomson/Gale, 2002. pp.
Countess Jellicoe Patricia.
Art of Islamic Spain.”
Aramco World Magazine,
43:5 (September/October 1992). pp. 29-30.
lampas weave textile fragment, 14th century; Nasrid Spain,
Metropolitan Museum of Art retrieved at
fragment with peacocks and Kufic script, 12th
century Islamic Spain retrieved at
Las Navas de Tolosa banner, 13th century
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