A journey through Indian textiles at Oxford

England might not be the place you first think of when the term “Indo-Egyptian Textiles” is mentioned but, thanks to Percy and Essie Newberry, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has one of the world’s best collections of these stunning fabrics.

Percy Newberry was an English Egyptologist who started his work in Egypt in 1890. Over the course of his career, he held positions at the University of Liverpool and the University of Cairo. He was, as many gentlemen academics of the period were, a fanatical collector. His wife, Essie, joined him in Cairo and shared his interests in textiles- evidenced by her prominent role in the Embroiderer’s Guild, to whom she donated a portion of the collection.

Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Image: Lewis Clarke / CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as his academic notes, Percy left the majority of the collection to the University. Thanks to his fastidious note-keeping and cataloguing, the Ashmolean Museum now plays host to one of the finest collections of Indo-Egyptian textiles in the world.

During their time in Egypt, the Newberrys gathered over 2200 examples of cloth. 1000 or so of these are local pieces and the other 1200 originate much further way- in India.

Thanks to carbon dating we know the age range of some of these fabrics stretches all the way back to the 1000’s- remarkably many of these fabrics are still vivid today, a millennium after they were first weaved and printed.

Example of one of the textiles exhibited on the Egyptian collection at the Ashmolean Museum. Image: Einsamer Schütze (Creative Commons)

How did such a large number of examples of Gujarati cloth end up in Egypt? When you consider the time between their arrival in Egypt and the Newberry’s cataloguing of them, the fact that any remain at all points to the answer- this was big business and there was at one point a huge amount of Indian cloth in Egypt.

During the middle ages, trade boomed across the Indian Ocean. Herbs, spices and all the things which would make the region rich flowed backwards and forwards between the Middle East and India, between India and China- even as far afield as Indonesia. This trade would, in later years, tempt the European powers into the region and even make the Indian Sea a hotbed of piracy in the 1600s.

Of all these goods, perhaps the most important were the bolts of cloth- silks from the Far East and cotton from India.

Gujarat was a major centre for the production of cotton cloth. Cotton production goes back at least 4000 years in the region- there is even some evidence which puts the birth of the industry even further back. By the middle ages, the production of textiles was an international business with demand for Indian cloth driving trade across the region.

“Methods of Conveying Cotton in India to the Ports of Shipment,” from the Illustrated London News, 1861

While the earliest examples in the Newberry collection date back to the turn of the last millennium, there are sources from the Western Roman Empire who comment on the fineness and luxury of Indian cloth much like that which flowed into Egypt through the middle ages and into the period of the renaissance. There is even some evidence that this trade was going on as far back as the second millennium BCE, though unfortunately, none of the cloth from this time has survived into modern times.

What marked these textiles out as different from locally available ones? Perhaps it was the nature of cotton as a cloth- lightweight, cool in the heat and warm in the cold, but most likely it was the vivid colours and stunning patterns- certainly great symbols of status.

The bold colours and intricate patterns mark out the cloth of Indian origin as something special. Dyes such as indigo, morinda and madder produced a stunning variety of deep blues and reds. It speaks to the amazing properties of these natural dyes that much of this cloth is still stunningly vibrant after hundreds of years and the partial disintegration of the fabric.  There is evidence of madder being used to dye cotton cloth in the area reaching back to 1760 BCE.

The intricate patterns which were the trademark of Indian cloth were achieved by block printing the cloth using resist or mordant printing techniques, creating intricate, repeatable patterns which could be made on an industrial scale. Less often, the mordant paste would be applied by hand.

Example of block printing. Image: Puja Mehta (Pixabay)

If you’d like to explore the collection we’re about to talk about for yourself, or any of the other fascinating collections, including other examples of Indian, Egyptian and Middle Eastern art, held at Oxford’s art and archaeology museum, London Strides offer a range of private tours which can encompass the Ashmolean Museum. Our Windsor and Oxford tour and also Oxford and the Cotswolds tour are the ideal excuse to explore this amazing museum.

And if you are in London and get a taste of Indian textile history do visit the V&A’s South Asian collection which has their roots from the East India Company’s Museum, or Oriental Repository, established in 1791  which once stood at Leadenhall Street. It contains a mixed blend of items aggregated by people related to the Company, including a generous number of materials, for example, Kashmir wraps, silks, pieces of cotton, clothing and covers.


The featured image in this blog post is by Well-Bred Kannan (WBK Photography), licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


Shaju Nair is a Blue Badge guide in London and well versed with most of the Indian languages. If you’d like to explore the city’s links with his tours, or any of the many, many other links which bind London and India he is available to show them to you. You can contact him here or through his London guided tours.