Connected Histories

'Textiles' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

An article on textiles in the Islamic world provides background to Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair's Islamic Arts, the documentary film Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World, and other resources. The article by Irene A. Bierman is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


The achievements of the weavers, dyers, embroiderers, and pattern designers in the lands of Islam have been acclaimed for more than fifteen hundred years. Textiles were the mainstay of many premodern societies, and they continue to be important in many modern ones. They are woven into the workings of societies in complex ways, distinguishing groups within areas and linking the practice of specific groups across significant geographical expanses. The textile culture of the Islamic world emerges as we view the influences of three strata of society—the official, the mercantile, and the local—on the products of the loom. Differences in materials and techniques, in patterns, and in palette are dictated by group needs and desires. International trade, especially with Western buyers and manufacturers, shaped the output of the premodern loom and influenced the modern one in significant ways.

Textiles in the Islamic world are first of all weavings. Products of the loom, they share the basic principles and techniques of weaving all over the world. Fibers, dyes, and patterning techniques vary over time and place, as do the social functions of the textiles. That textiles from the lands of Islam range from exquisite silk and gold velvets, to nomad wool and animal-hair bags, to sheer embroidered muslin, is not only an indication of the diversity of the loom 's production—a sign of how the loom served various groups within Islamic societies—but is also evidence of how central the art and craft of weaving has always been in the civilization of Islam.

Official society, primarily court society in the premodern period, demanded from the loom not only textiles for daily use but also weavings for magnificent display within the court, for gift-giving, and for ritual processions. One official use of textiles found at all premodern Islamic courts, as well as in the traditions of some modern governments such as Morocco, is the tradition of the khilʿah, commonly understood as a “robe of honor.” Usually more than simply a robe, the khilʿah often included whole outfits of appropriate court clothing. ʿAbbāsid and Fāṭimid caliphs, Ottoman sultans, and Mughal shahs alike honored favorite courtiers and visiting dignitaries with gifts of textiles. Elaborate silks with gold and silver threads, and richly embroidered belts, sashes, and bands usually constituted the khilʿah. However, khilʿah practice varied by court and according to the recipient; medieval sources indicate that finely woven black wool garments were given to judges at the ʿAbbāsid court, where black was the official court color. Closely associated with khilʿah was the tribute of clothing that governors of provinces often gave to the central court, a practice continued in India into the eighteenth century. The governor of Bengal, for example, sent yearly gifts of clothing and textiles to the Mughal emperor Awrangzīb.

In addition to draping reception rooms, sumptuous textiles were hung along the routes of official processions in most Islamic courts. In Fāṭimid practice in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, white textiles, the official Fāṭimid color, were displayed along the route from the royal city of Cairo to Fustat for the caliphal ritual procession during Ramadan. Likewise, elaborate multicolored silks were hung along the route between Córdoba and Madīnat al-Zahrāʿ for the Umayyad caliph in the tenth century, between Fatehpur-Sikri and Agra in the sixteenth century for the Mughal emperor Akbar, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries along the main ceremonial street in Istanbul for the Ottoman sultans. Magnificence was the norm, and while contemporary writers often described such elegant display in general words of praise, they took care to describe the unique in specific terms, such as the kites carried by soldiers in twelfth-century Fāṭimid processions, shaped like lions and made of yellow and red textiles, puffed out by the wind through devices inserted into the lion 's mouth. Colors such as saffron yellow and kermes red were often distinguished because of their costliness, and fibers such as silk, fine linen, and gold and silver filament, as well as techniques such as velvet and shot silk, were singled out for the way they emphasized the sumptuous bounty of the court.

Another use of textiles shared by almost all groups, especially in the premodern period, was the fabrication of textile tents for official functions. Often very elaborate, such tents were used as mobile residences, headquarters for army commanders, and temporary retreats. Starting in the fifteenth century, rulers in the eastern lands of Islam held court in elaborate, large-scale tents set up in gardens. Timur 's tent court in Samarkand is well known, and the Mughal emperor Akbar lived in a tent city in the later period of his rule. This court “city” moved from place to place, a practice facilitated by the employment of two complete and identical tent cities, one being assembled at a new location while the other was in use. At each location, the residences of the emperor, his generals and court officials, as well as assembly halls, were placed according to a well-established protocol of spatial relationships. In the Mughal and Ottoman courtly practice, the ruler 's tent was further distinguished from those of the members of his court by a textile fence completely surrounding it. Tents used on ceremonial occasions were sometimes fabulously ornamented: for example, in the tent of the tenth century Fāṭimid caliph al-Mustanṣir, the known regions of the world were depicted in emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and seas of sapphires stitched onto the interior walls. Most official tents were woven of heavy fabric, and kanṭhās are still made by Muslim women for use as wraps, cushions, and Qurʿān holders. In Cairo, tents with appliquéed designs are used for funeral receptions for Muslim leaders. In many other places, traditional weaving and patterning techniques are used to fashion new kinds of objects for contemporary use.

No such wide-ranging influences are found among the products of local looms until very recent times, when nomadic tribes became settled and took on some aspects of the mercantile function, and electronic media assured a global audience. Before recent times, daily-use demands of the family, the village, or the nomadic tribe dictated that the loom be used primarily to produce items whose size and shape reflected not official or trade needs but the need to store and carry bedding, food, and clothing. For the nomad, the need for light, flexible, multipurpose weaving and the demands of daily life fostered the use of woven techniques for the patterning of textiles. Floor and wall coverings, pillow covers, bags and sacks of all shapes and sizes, and animal trappings are woven on the loom. Patterns are produced in flat weaves, such as kilim or tapestry, in knotted pile, and in combinations of these, often with embroidery. Until recent times, the patterns reflected the traditions and experiences of the tribal and village groups, often distinguishing one from another. The choice of fibers related to the circumstances of the group. Many groups were sheep- and goat-herders and thus had ready access to wool and animal fibers, but had little access to larger markets where cotton and silk fibers were sold. In such circumstances household textile and clothing fabric was made of wool, and cotton items were bought or traded in the market. Still other groups lived in agrarian areas where cotton was harvested, and local looms made cotton cloth for household use, with heavier weaves serving for bags, containers, and draperies, and finer weaves for clothing. If used at all, gold, silver, and silk threads were reserved for ceremonial clothing. Textiles from local looms rarely display the control and complexity of techniques and the luxury of fibers found in the weavings affected by the official and mercantile strata of society, but they are a sign of how the loom served all groups in Islamic society.


  • Allsen, Thomas T.Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire: A Cultural History of Islamic Textiles. Cambridge, 1997.
  • Bacharach, Jere L., and Irene A. Bierman.The Warp and Weft of Islam. Seattle, Wash., 1978. Catalog with scholarly essays about the role of weavings in Islamic society and the West.
  • Baker, Patricia L.Islamic Textiles. London, 1995.
  • Baldry, John. Textiles in the Yemen. British Museum Occasional Paper 27. London, 1982. Scholarly ethnography of dyestuffs and textile-making in Yemen.
  • Gittinger, Mattiebelle. Master Dyers to the World. Washington, D.C., 1982. Excellent catalog of Indian dyed textiles with scholarly essays about historical and market issues, and investigations into techniques and dyestuffs.
  • Goitein, S. D.A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. 6 vols. Berkeley, Calif., 1967–1983. See especially vol. 1, Economic Foundations, and vol. 4, Daily Life, which are rich in detail about the textile industry and the role of textiles in the life of the medieval Mediterranean.
  • Mack, Rosamond E.Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade, and Italian Art, 1300–1600. Berkeley, Calif., 2002.
  • Maxwell, Robyn J.Textiles in Southeast Asia: Tradition, Trade, and Transformation. Hong Kong, 2003.
  • Stone, Caroline. The Embroideries of North Africa. Essex, 1985. Thorough study of embroidery focusing mainly on the traditions of Morocco and Tunisia. Richly illustrated.
  • Tezcan, Hülye, and Selma Delibaş. The Topkapı Saray Museum: Costumes, Embroideries and Other Textiles. Translated and edited by J. M. Rogers.Boston, 1986. Excellent study of the textiles as well as the written sources concerning the holdings of the Topkapı Sarayı Museum. Exceptionally fine plates.
  • Wearden, Jennifer Mary. Persian Printed Cottons. London, 1989. A small book with a short but insightful introduction to chintzes.
  • Woven Air: The Muslin and Kantha Tradition of Bangladesh. Exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1988. This scholarly work of several authors investigates the most prominent weaving and embroidery traditions of Bangladesh.


Bierman, Irene A. "Textiles." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #270: 'Textiles' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024


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