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Volume 12, Number 5May 1961

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Elegance by the Yard

For generations Eastern weavers have loomed luxurious brocade, the fabric that is truly a work of art.

History closed in on the Midwestern visitor to Damascus on a spring afternoon some years ago. She was on the Street Called Straight in the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. In rather typical feminine fashion, however, she headed for a shop famed for its brocades. What better place to buy brocade than Damascus? The courteous shopkeeper brought out tall bolts of shimmering fabrics—what to choose with limited time and funds? An ivory satin woven with golden lovebirds caught her eye. The owner explained that it was a special design, a gift of the Syrian Government to Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her wedding in November 1947. There were only a few meters of the material left. The extra length of the 39-inch meter over the 36-inch yard appeals to any woman. So two meters of truly royal cloth went into the tourist's suitcase for a later appearance as an elegant evening jacket.

Behind this purchase lies a long legacy of luxury. Brocades started out as royalty's special property for splendid robes, draperies, banquet covers and furniture. Its opulent appearance, its price (it is still expensive—the Midwestern buyer paid twenty-five dollars for her brocade even in Damascus) and the skill required in its weaving contrive to keep it a luxury.

It is almost certain that the first brocades were woven in China. In 238 A.D. a Chinese emperor presented the Empress of Japan with five rolls of crimson silk, patterned with gold dragons. Brocades began to figure in historical records of Eastern courts. Perhaps the most famous of these descriptions were those of Lady Murasaki, the eleventh century Japanese poet, who noted patterns and colors of brocades in her diary with the zeal and pleasure of a modern fashion editor.

The Chinese exported these ornate fabrics via the caravan routes that introduced the exotic wares of the East to the West. Across these classic paths the lavish bolts found their way to Persia, to the Arab lands, to Byzantium (the early name for the Turkish city known as Constantinople and now as Istanbul) and finally to Europe.

In the Middle East brocades found their most illustrious niche on the looms of Damascus. The weavers there dipped into the designs and legends of Persia and came up with lengths of such splendor and such variety that "damask" became a term for any richly woven, silken material, no matter where it was produced. In the shops of contemporary Damascus, small human figures and animals portraying a story line and the birds, flowers and trees of Persian rugs and miniatures still find their way to textile immortality.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries brocades were being woven throughout the Middle East. The peoples of this part of the world appear to possess an affinity for diligent arts. In the love-labored miniatures of medieval Persia, the figures appear clothed in brocades that repeat the profusion of flowers in the gardens in which they are painted. These sun-strewn gardens in turn provide the artist the opportunity to furnish the designer of other brocades with new fancies, new colors, new arrangements.

The Arab peoples carried the skill of this special weaving to the coasts of North Africa and to Spain. This in part explains the origin of our English word. Brocade is derived from the Spanish brocado, which is a corruption of the vulgate Latin for "embroidered." The first brocades worn in England, however, were probably of Italian origin. The 1480 funeral inventory of Edward IV listed a robe of "Satyn broached in gold," and this is descriptive of fabrics woven in Florence and Genoa at the time.

The Italian city-states had a great investment in the glittering fabrics. Venice was the importer and, to rival her, Florence, Lucca and Genoa became manufacturers, just as in its turn, in the seventeenth century, Lyons became the French center for brocade weaving.

The Medici, a family of statesmen and merchants, swathed themselves in brocade to advertise the craft of Florence as much as their own importance. And their artists were commissioned to clothe the figures in paintings in brocades. The celebrated Van Eyck brothers, devoted to depicting detail, have left us a glimpse of the detailed brocades that were the dress of the wealthy in North Europe, and indeed all artists of the Renaissance, from Bellini to Titian, gloried in depicting the rich material in paint. In general, the patterns are heavy and opulent. As their use extends from dress to furniture, design becomes less complex in the seventeenth century. Eighteenth-century designs are loose and almost careless; it had become poor manners to make a display without appearing frivolous or casual. Yet neither the gentleman of taste nor his lady swerved far in their devotion to brocade. They had walls hung with it, used it for draperies, sat on it, ate from it and wore it. Sometimes domestic, sometimes imported brocades were the common symbol for a wealth of elegance and the elegance of wealth.

Modern brocades, limited by their expense mostly to dress stuffs, are still woven in the cities famous for the skill. Lyons provided the copies for the newly refurbished petits apartments of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, just as two centuries ago it provided the original floral brocades. Florentine and Milanese looms are still active, and, following a much older tradition, Damascus weavers continue to produce their wares.

The whole craft is bound to the past. The looms do not differ much from the type illustrated in the first manual on weaving that was published in China in 1210. Today, the craft faces the competition of machines which level the difference in quality by means of an increase in quantity, and it may be that new generations will have to create a new luxury to replace one of the oldest.

Nonetheless, the weavers continue to sit before looms following the intricacies of the cardboard master-pattern or, with a show of bravura, working from memory. They can be seen in Damascus weaving a variety of patterns, some of which have been in use for centuries. Each shop tries to maintain its own designs, but they are modified and copied from studio to studio. The merchant will guide visitors through the workshops and explain how the fabrics are woven. Then, at a counter, as though casually illustrating some point in his description, he will display two or three bolts and the visitor's will-power is weakened by the dazzle.

The choice is impossible; the display increases, and glints of silver and gold, and brocades of pure silk only add to the confusion. There are menageries of animals, Byzantine arches, Saracen boats and interlocked floral medallions culled from Persian miniatures. He who had resolved not to buy—"There's no harm in looking"—is soon convincing himself to buy a little, and then, since these brocades sell themselves enthusiastically, he finds himself buying more.

If his memory is good, he can still his conscience by recalling that Shakespeare said, "Beauty itself doth of itself persuade," and if his memory is not too good, he will forget, when paying for his purchase, that Shakespeare also said, "Beauty too rich for use, for earth too rare."

This article appeared on pages 14-17 of the May 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May 1961 images.