Asian Textiles in Trade
Throughout recorded history, Asian textiles have been important international trade commodities. Chinese silks began arriving in Europe over the Silk Road through Central Asia in antiquity. Indian printed cottons were exported to Egypt at least as early as the 13th century and to Europe in the 17th century. Indian silks and cottons were also sent eastward to Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Chinese and Indian textiles have found their way to Japan since very early times. Shawls from Kashmir and carpets from Turkey graced the elegant women and the great houses of Europe. After the Revolutionary War, merchants brought silks and cottons from India and China back to both North and South America. Markets existed for both simple functional textiles and for elaborate luxury goods, both generally the output of organized manufacture.
The development of trade and transmission of design and technology affected both the producing and consuming cultures. Although the novelty of exoticism frequently contributed to the initial popularity of a new product from afar, importers often later requested color and/or pattern modifications from producers in order to cater to specific markets. Demand for some fabrics became so great that new processes were found to accelerate production. The popularity of Asian goods spurred the growth of new textile industries in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The textile trade has remained vibrant into the 21st century. Some Asian countries have developed large mechanized textile industries to manufacture for global markets. Then again, some entrepreneurs and organizations have continued or re-established craft businesses, providing opportunities for sustainable local development and preserving traditional skills. Examples from the permanent collection illustrate the artistic and technical excellence of Asian textiles and how their trade has connected cultures throughout the world for hundreds of years.