Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2022
Amanda Phillips Sea Change: Ottoman Textiles between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean Oakland: University of California Press, 2021. 360 pp.; 69 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520303591)

Amanda Phillips’s Sea Change: Ottoman Textiles between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean is a welcome intervention in the fields of Ottoman material culture and global textile studies. Building on surveys of Ottoman silk and weaving such as Nurhan Atasoy, Walter B. Denny, Louise W. Mackie, and Hülya Tezcan’s İPEK: Imperial Ottoman Silks and Velvets (Azimuth Editions, 2001), Phillips delves deep into the silk-weaving industry in the early modern Ottoman empire (ca. 1400–1800), informed by expert readings of archival sources and material evidence alike. Two chapters in each of the book’s three parts are framed roughly chronologically and thematically, with case studies of varying length explored therein. While the introduction states that the focus of the book is primarily silk weaving, with only marginal discussions or mere mentions of other fibers or textile-construction methods, it is precisely these limitations that allow for the depth and nuance necessary to analyze such a wealth of material. Throughout the book, Phillips emphasizes that textiles must be studied “on their own terms” and viewed as primary sources for evidence of their own making. Through this method, she not only successfully demonstrates textiles’ worthiness of art historical study, but also adroitly complicates the perceived linear trajectory of progress that ends in decline. Instead, Sea Change presents a historically and technically nuanced history of Ottoman silk weaving.

First, Phillips lays important groundwork for the emergence and crystallization of the Ottoman silk-weaving industry. Chapter 1 explores the early Ottoman capital of Bursa as an important silk-weaving center—one that would remain so for centuries—within a world where textiles from the Italian peninsula, the eastern Mediterranean, and Persian spheres were freely circulating. But before delving into the history of weaving in Anatolia in the subsequent chapter, Phillips fastidiously surveys textile terminologies and their definitions, etymologies, and variations. Phillips uses these specific and specialized textile terms throughout the book—a welcome challenge to the nonspecialist reader to familiarize themselves with the technical aspects of textiles that the author aptly demonstrates are inextricably bound to the analysis of the material. 

Weaving centers in Ottoman Anatolia—chief among them, Bursa, which was well established as such by the 1460s—emerged into an already active transregional textile trade across Eurasia. It was no accident, Phillips argues in chapter 2, that Bursa developed a successful center of silk trade and weaving, as the city met an ideal set of criteria: liquid capital, access to overland and maritime trade, sericulture, access to raw materials, and a population skilled in craft, a large portion of which had migrated to the region from Syria, Egypt, and Iran. This chapter also explains a number of key technical aspects of weaving, such as the constraints of the loom that necessitate repetition in pattern, as well as the role of the nakşband, or designer. Throughout the book Phillips demonstrates that technical aspects of the medium led to innovation and virtuosity on the part of the skilled artisans. While little material survives from the from the early Ottoman period, a few key extant objects are explored in some depth, such as a renowned silk hanging banded with small patterns and inscriptions, made for Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389–1402).

Chapter 3 begins with the victories of Sultan Selim I (r. 1512–20), which brought a number of important silk-weaving centers under Ottoman control, including those in Egypt and Syria, in addition to expanded trade routes via the Red Sea. This shift is likewise manifest in the techniques and styles of Ottoman silk weaving, which adapted to new circumstances. For example, the kiswa—the monumental fabric draped over the Ka‘aba in Mecca—the production of which had been under the purview of the Mamluks (1250–1517) until the Ottoman conquest, was now the responsibility of the sultan. The design of inscriptions arranged in a chevron pattern persevered, strategically forging a visual link with the past—to the Mamluks and the Abbasids (750–1258) before them. But over time Ottoman artisans explored variations on this theme through technical changes. By weaving the kiswa in lampas rather than damask—the latter a simple weave with a reversable pattern, in contrast to the former, which combines two weave structures to create the pattern—more colors could be introduced to the previously mono- or bichromatic fabric. Such adaptation is a prime example of what Phillips continuously demonstrates to be the interdependent nature of textiles: “Materials, structures, and style cannot be easily disentangled, nor should they be” (85). For example, the development of Ottoman court styles including the characteristic “Four Flower Style”—which comprises tulips, carnations, hyacinths, and roses—seems to relish in the repeat necessitated by the loom, whereas contemporary Safavid (1501–1736) textiles were designed in such a way as to conceal this technical aspect of the medium.

Chapter 4 explores the growing bureaucracy, administrative control, and regulation of textiles in the early modern Ottoman empire. This chapter relies heavily on archival sources, chief among them juridical documents detailing court cases involving silk production and trade, as well as imperial edicts and lists of fixed prices. Phillips’s deep and thorough research reveals two main concerns related to the silk-weaving industry: “first, the importance of precedents set in earlier times, and second, consumer protection, which in turn relates to the connection between quality and price” (128). The author’s analysis of these documents also allows the reader to understand the lives and livelihoods of Ottoman artisans, including women and enslaved people. For example, we learn about individuals’ training and the necessary investment in tools—namely, looms—as well as the administration, hierarchies, and conflicts within the guilds. While these documents provide a wealth of information, true to her mission, Phillips returns to the textiles themselves for the full story. Through a case study of çatma (voided-and-brocaded silk velvet) cushion covers, she demonstrates that while documents may speak of rules and regulations, the material evidence shows skillful and strategic choices that challenge such restrictions.

Chapter 5 elucidates different types of textiles in circulation in Ottoman spheres through various archival sources, such as inventories, again coupled with a close analysis of the material artifacts themselves. Whether made in Lyon, Chios, or Ankara, textile trends were sweeping the world from the Mediterranean to South Asia, resulting in a “bewildering number of textiles available to Ottoman subjects in Constantinople” (190). One significant argument made here and elsewhere in the book is that “textiles were, and are, vectors of their own styles” (162). Books and other mobile objects are often credited for the mobility of styles and motifs, but Phillips aptly demonstrates that textiles themselves serve this purpose and thus contribute to their own design and making. In this period, changes not only appeared in motifs and color palettes, but also in materials, weights, and weave structures. An appetite for lighter-weight fabrics and half silks woven with cotton grew, due not to a degeneration of quality materials and techniques but rather to changes in fashions that favored flow and movement. Here again, material, technique, and tastes cannot be disentangled. 

In chapter 6 we move into the eighteenth century, wherein novelty and innovation reigned supreme. At the same time, craft industries including silk weaving were affected by centralization initiatives, bringing artisans and trade into the imperial center. While these imperially funded initiatives were concentrated in Istanbul, the textiles produced and sold in this period, like the century before, reflected global tastes and trends, including, for example, Indian sashes (patka). Some of the shifts in taste, though, may be attributed to changes in the availability of materials and manufactured goods—or vice versa. Written sources are again brought to bear on the material, including sumptuary laws and sartorial regulations, as well as poetry. However, the latter is analyzed with significantly less depth than the archival material—and yet even this cursory incorporation of literary sources in the study of Ottoman woven silks opens the door for future work in this vein.

The conclusion, in addition to summarizing the main arguments of Sea Change, ties up loose threads in the form of a brief analysis of the last century of Ottoman rule and textile production. While this reviewer admits a bias for the nineteenth century, I would have liked to see a little more space dedicated to the textiles produced in this period, exploring in greater depth the continuities and ruptures that define it and thereby demonstrating that the nineteenth century is not as different from the rest of Ottoman history as it might seem. Rather, it fits precisely into the long-term pattern of “fits and starts” (236) that this book reveals. In addition, the conclusion offers suggestions for further study of textiles, namely their haptic and overall sensory qualities. Along those same lines, another way to build on the groundwork established in Sea Change might be to analyze further modes of experience, use, and reuse, as well as cultural or religious value manifest in Ottoman woven silks. In general, the conclusion hammers home the point that not only are textiles material evidence that bears close study, they are also worthy of art historical consideration, as they can be not only masterworks of technique but materials rife with hermeneutic potential and artistic fortitude. 

Sea Change is undoubtedly an important intervention in multiple fields—namely, Ottoman and Islamic art histories, as well as textile and craft studies. The depth of research here is impressive, though at times the author’s approach contradicts her own repeated mantra of textiles as evidence of their own making; at these moments, written sources seem to take precedence over the material artifacts being discussed. Admittedly, however, in lieu of surviving textiles, gaps can be filled to some degree through documents. Indeed, the inconsistency of surviving objects results in case studies that are likewise unbalanced, but this is the nature of research and in fact evinces the difficulties inherent in textile scholarship—and thereby demonstrates the skill needed to accomplish a study such as Sea Change

Ashley Dimmig
Wieler-Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Islamic Art, Walters Art Museum