The Dyed Image
The art of patterning cloth with dye techniques has been practiced since at least the second millennium BC. The earliest evidence comes from the Indian archeological site of Mohenjo Daro. This is no surprise, as it was in India that the art of dyeing was perfected. Prior to the invention of chemical dyes in the nineteenth century, coloring agents were obtained from natural sources: plants, minerals, shellfish, and even insects. All of these dyes were applied by immersing the cloth in a bath, and many required additional chemicals called mordants to set the color. The difficulty of directly applying dye to cloth in selected areas necessitated the development of a variety of patterning techniques, most of which involve the protection of certain areas so that they resist the dye. This may be done by applying wax (as in the technique now known as batik) or paste made of starch, such as rice. Areas of cloth may also be protected by tying, binding, or stitching the cloth tightly. The use of mordants has been exploited to pattern cloth as well. They may be applied using printing blocks or by hand. When the cloth is subsequently dipped into the dye bath, the color only adheres to the areas where the mordant was applied.
Indian dyers combined all of these techniques to create intricately patterned textiles that became a primary trade good throughout Asia, Egypt, and much of the Roman Empire. When Europeans began trading with the East in the sixteenth century, textiles quickly found their way onto westbound ships.
The Indian cloth fragments exhibited in the central case are examples of some of the earliest printed textiles in the Museum's collection. They were found in excavations in Egypt and probably date from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, when trade between Egypt and India flourished. They illustrate two of the basic techniques developed by the Indians to pattern cloth-the use of resist paste and of mordants. The more elaborately patterned cloth is from the early eighteenth century and is a type loved by the Europeans. It shows how the Indians combine the techniques of mordant- and resist-dying to create sumptuously patterned cloths. The textiles exhibited along the south wall of the gallery are Indian cloths used in both the home market and throughout Asia. Examples of the resist-dying techniques of tie-dye and ikat are also on view.