Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Silks from Ottoman Turkey

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Ottoman silk textiles are among the most elegant textiles produced in the Islamic world. They are characterized by large-scale stylized motifs often highlighted by shimmering metallic threads. Executed in a range of woven techniques including satin and velvet, these silks were produced for use both within the Ottoman empire and for export to Europe and the Middle East, where they were considered among the most prized luxury objects.


Ottoman textiles produced during this period are unsigned; while we have some data about the inner workings of royal or independent workshops that operated under the guild system, we cannot attribute particular textile designs to individuals or workshops.

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Silk Trade and Production

Bursa was the first capital of the Ottoman state (1326–65) and already an important entrepôt on the Eurasian trade route, allowing the Ottomans to function as middlemen in the trade of raw silk. Cocoons or undyed silk thread produced in Safavid Iran's northern provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran passed through these territories; they were weighed on government-controlled scales and a further tax was levied on materials purchased by European merchants (who were mostly Italian). A decline in the export of Iranian raw silk in the mid-sixteenth century due to political strife instigated the beginnings of domestic sericulture in the Ottoman state, and from that point onward there was a larger variety of the quality of silk and fiercer competition for the European market.


Ottoman weaving workshops in Bursa were well established by the fifteenth century, producing the majority of Ottoman luxury velvets (çatma) and metal-ground silks (seraser or kemha) for export as well as for domestic markets. Compound weave structures consisting of two warps and two or more complementary wefts (seraser, or taqueté) continued to be a preferred pattern structure, while structures such as lampas (kemha), combining twill and satin weaves, were added to the repertoire. Textile workshops under court control in Istanbul were focused on producing cloth of gold and silver (seraser) for use as clothing and furnishings in the imperial palace and honorific garments (hil'at) (2003.416a-e) given to courtiers and foreign ambassadors. Woven silks purchased by European merchants often ended up in palaces or churches throughout Europe as secular or ecclesiastical garments (06.1210) worn by high-ranking officials or used to encase relics.


Development of the Ottoman Style

The stylized floral designs now emblematic of the classical Ottoman style were developed during the reign of Süleyman I, also known as Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), as an alternative to the "International Style" that prevailed in the area during the early period of rule from the mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries. Textile designs feature iconography shared with other decorative media designed by the nakkaşhane (royal design atelier) and adapted to the constraints of the loom to create elegant repeat patterns. The most popular layouts ranged from floral motifs characterized by wavy vertical stems with blooming palmettes (52.20.21), carnations, or pomegranate fruit (52.20.19), to large-scale ogival layouts with delicate peony blossoms creating a lattice pattern (49.32.79). Lattice layouts became popular during the reign of Süleyman I and may also reflect layouts and motifs used in architectural tile decoration from Iznik, or earlier Mamluk silks themselves inspired by Chinese examples.


The so-called saz style (52.20.17) was also incorporated into textile design, featuring the sinuous outlining of motifs and jagged edges on leaves and flowers. Associated with court painter Shah Qulu, an émigré from Iran who served at the court of Süleyman I, saz motifs remained in use throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Kara Memi, Shah Qulu's top pupil and successor as head of the nakkaşhane, added to the painter’s repertoire by developing a stylized iconography of floral motifs including carnations, roses, tulips, hyacinth, and cherry blossoms. These remained favorite motifs throughout the “Tulip Period” of Ahmed III (r. 1703–30).


Another popular decorative motif reproduced on textiles is the chintamani design (08.109.23), usually depicted as two wavy horizontal bands alternating with three circles in triangular formation. Translated from Sanskrit as “auspicious jewel,” the motif originated in Buddhist imagery, including the paintings at the Central Asian Magao caves (ca. 1000 A.D.), and may represent pearls and flames. The design elements of chintamani are alternately referenced as “tiger stripes” and “leopard spots.” Similar iconography is found in sixteenth-century Persian manuscript paintings featuring the Shahnama's hero, Rustam, who wears a garment of tiger skin and a leopard-skin hat depicted in a similar fashion, and possibly represents the fabric in Ottoman documents called pelengi (leopardlike) or benekli (dotted). Occasionally, chintamani is combined with floral elements (44.41.3) in a delicate balance of the two distinctive styles, or the wavy lines and circular elements are separated to create singular motifs (15.125.7). In any combination, elements of chintamani were believed to protect the wearer and to imbue him with physical and spiritual fortitude.


Silk Textiles in Context

Most Ottoman silks produced for use within the empire were used either for garments or furnishings. The outer garments for Ottoman men incorporated trousers and a matching kaftan (52.20.15), a floor-length crossover robe or sleeveless vest, perhaps adapted from traditional tribal riding costumes of the Central Asian and Iranian steppes. The Ottoman sultans were known for their elaborate ceremonies and parades in the capital of Istanbul, during which every member of the court, from child princes to janissaries, would be clothed in a new garment for the occasion. In this context, the large-scale patterning of ogival lattice designs and chintamani would have provided maximum impact. Women’s garments were typically the same style, with more layering, slightly more tailoring, and smaller-scale patterns. The extensive documentation and storage of Ottoman garments and hangings in the Topkapi Palace provide historians with contextual information and extant examples for analysis.


Textiles used for furnishings included cushion covers (yastik, 17.120.123) for seating in the reception rooms (selamlik) in palace pavilions and upper-class homes, as well as interiors for tents during military campaigns. Yastik panels were often designed to fit the width of the loom so multiple covers could be cut to exact dimension from a single bolt without sacrificing any of the precious material.


Epigraphic panels were also woven and embroidered with Qur'anic text for use as architectural coverings. The Ottoman sultans produced a new kiswa for the Ka'ba every year in Mecca during hajj, the month of pilgrimage, which featured large-scale gold embroidery. Textile panels woven with Qur'anic inscriptions were also used as cenotaph covers (32.100.460).


While Ottoman painting workshops produced manuscripts that include figural compositions, the Ottoman textile industry almost never produced figural silks, in sharp contrast to this specialty of the textile industry in contemporary Safavid Iran. Scholars continue to debate the motivation for excluding figures from textile motifs. The arguments range from Sunni debates on figural representation to sumptuary regulations in various firman (edicts) issued by sultans. Unlike Safavid examples that bear designers' names, Ottoman textiles produced during this period are unsigned; while we have some data about the inner workings of royal or independent workshops that operated under the guild system, we cannot attribute particular textile designs to individuals or workshops.


As the central power of the Ottoman state in Istanbul began to wane in the later seventeenth century, royal workshops and commissions began to falter. Textiles once protected by sumptuary laws and produced solely for use by the court began to appear in the bazaar for sale to anyone who could afford them. The upwardly mobile middle class began appropriating the dress and style of the aristocracy, while private workshops took over much of the production of silks.

Nazanin Hedayat Munroe
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art