I was looking for a project that involved embroidering pigs, for a themed A&S competition when I came across the Boar’s Head Roundels piece at the MET. It was exactly what I was looking for, pigs and embroidery… perfect. Even better it wasn’t one of the usual suspects for SCA embroidery projects. A 7th century Buddhist piece from Central Asia. Something new and interesting. There wasn’t a whole lot about it on the museums website, but not everything has to research project, right. Then I made a critical error. I mentioned the project in passing to an Iranian friend of mine. “hmm” she said, “Is the MET certain it’s Buddhist? The Zoroastrians use a boar to represent the Masculine and a peacock to represent the Feminine. Are you sure its not Persian?” … Dang it Minuo. Four years later I finally feel that I am finished researching this project.
I’m not entirely sure that I know much more about this particular piece, who made it, or why than I did when I started. Don’t get me wrong I’ve learned a ton of stuff. I’ve learned about: pearl roundels in art, the diffusion of weaving
techniques along the silk road, shifts in ethnic populations in the western Chinese desert during the 5th -8th centuries, sericulture, Zoroastrianism, the spread of Buddhism from India to China, how to tell a Tang era Bodhisattva from a Sui era Bodhisattva, where Afrasiab is, all kinds of things. I’ve also gotten wicked good at split-stitch. I would be more than happy to sit and discuss any of these with you at any time. But I’m going to try and keep this short.
What I still haven’t been able to answer are the questions I had at the beginning of this journey. Who was this piece for? Were they ethnic Iranians who practiced Zoroastrianism? Or maybe they were ethnic Chinese Buddhist. In the 7th century the loose conglomeration of city states known as the Sogdian Empire was the center of the world. Every Race, color and creed was represented. Every piece of trade goods moving along the Silk Road was brought to and disseminated back out from the great trading houses of Sogdiana. Constantinople wished it was as cosmopolitan as Samarkand. In this heady mix of humanity ideas and doctrines and aesthetics where borrowed and influenced by everything around them by the 7th century everyone in the region used both boars heads and peacocks in their symbolic imagery. There is a mural in Samarkand that shows a Zoroastrian government official, wearing a robe clearly covered with boars head in pearl roundels. There are also statues of Buddhist avatars inside Buddhist temples wearing garments with boars head pearl roundels. Civic and religious iconography blend together. Each influencing, and being influenced by the other.
So the Zoroastrians used boars. The Buddhist used boars. The Manicheans used boars. Even Vishnu is sometimes represented with a Boar’s head. Further clouding the issue is the fact that this region changed hands politically several times during the 600’s. And had several different ethnic migrations during the same period. There simply isn’t at this point enough evidence one way or the other to indicate who this textile would have been meant for.
I do feel that the maker was most likely ethnic Han Chinese. During this period, and for several centuries to come, the skill of the embroidery houses of Suzhou far outpace anyone else in the world. (with the possible exception of the Peruvians) The Tang expansion into the western desert that occurred during the middle of the century brought many merchants and skilled artisans into the area between Dunhuang and Samarkand.
The quality and fineness of the stitches in the few embroidered pieces we do have, strongly suggest Chinese artisans.
What is this textile a fragment of? The piece is woven selvage to selvage, so we know its finished width. The original length is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t appear to have been sewn into a constructed garment. There are however several sculptures depicting men wearing dohti’s (a sarong like garment worn by men in south east Asia, and the Indian sub-continent) that have pearl roundels painted on them. It could have just as easily been a banner or curtain or decorative cover. There are very few other extant textiles of this size that have survived the intervening 1400 years. Consequently, not enough evidence exists to make a definitive statement about its original use.
And perhaps the question that most haunts me. Why is this one piece, this one fragment embroidered? There are hundreds if not thousands of woven textiles with pearl roundel motifs from this period that still exist today. In the last four years I have found two other extant embroidered roundels from central Asia (see appendix A for extant examples) The Coptic Egyptians have a couple as well but, they’re just cheap knock offs. Why so many of one production method and so few of the other?
Was it a high value gift from a Tang dynasty official? Or, could it be an attempt by someone to replicate the more expensive and valued weaving on a limited budget? The quality of the materials, stitching, and art work along with the labor involved to make a piece like this leads me to believe the extant cloth was a high value item.
There seems to be very little academic research into Buddhist embroideries from the 7th and 8th centuries currently. That may change soon, the British Museum has just done a huge promotion of the restoration done on its “Vulture Peak Sakyamuni Buddha” embroidery for an exhibit in Nara, Japan next year. That may increase the general interest in these textiles and lead to more being written about them.
So that is where things stand at the moment. Let’s talk about process shall we. What did they do, and how did I try to reproduce it?
Deciding on the scope of work and design elements.
The embroidery fragment at the MET is approximately 22x 19 inches in size. There are a total of 6 complete and 2 partial roundels. I had initially planned for this to be a quick fun project so one roundel was enough. I could make it into a little bag or cushion.
The peacocks scattered between the roundels often appear to be supporting the circles on their wings or tails. So I used one bird for each “corner” following the pattern in the original. The spaces between the birds and the boars is filled with flowering vines. The vines meander and have no particular spacial orientation. I decided to have my vines come from the bottom center and encircle the pearl roundel as a nod to the traditional use of the Tree of Life motif in the art of this region.
Since I knew the size of the extant piece I projected its image on the wall until it filled a 22”x19” rectangle. I then traced one of the 6 boars heads onto vellum to use as my cartoon. So the roundel, boars head and peacocks in my piece are pretty close in size to the original.
The Color Scheme
The extant piece that I was inspired by is approximately 1400 years old. It would have been dyed using natural plant based dyes, that frequently fade or shift over time. I chose to represent the piece as it is now. Rather than try to guess what the original colors would have been. The dark blue is the most likely not to have changed over time. Indigo is a stable dye. The pistachio green may have been darker or brighter in the past. Green dye stuffs are rare, green is most commonly produced by over-dying blue with a yellow dye. Its color fastness would depend on the source of the yellow dye. I’ve done a little research into yellow dye stuffs used in Asia. But I haven’t found anything time and space specific. The medium browns are the most likely to have shifted significantly over time. It is quite likely that the brown used to fill the boar’s head in the top right roundel was ruddier in the past.
The ground fabric is currently a cafe au lait color. I chose a base that is lighter. My reasoning was that over time the fabric would have become darker because of staining. Since finding the second example of an embroidered boar’s head roundel, I now think that the color has faded from a darker brown. I would probably choose a darker fabric for the base if I was going to do another one.
The ground fabric- The ground fabric on the original piece is a tabby weave silk. Similar in weight and structure to a modern linen table cloth weight fabric. I was not able to source a perfect match to the original. I struggled trying to decide if it was better to use a fabric that had a similar texture, but wasn’t the same fiber. Or the same fiber but a different texture. Before you ask weaving it myself was not an option.
Because I was having a difficult time finding a silk fabric that was close to the original, I almost went with a liturgical weight linen. At the last minute I was able to find a source for silk Matka in “Oatmeal” that is much closer to the original than habotoi or taffeta. It is a beautiful fabric but I found that it was a little “soft” for embroidery, and lined it with a linen gauze which gave it the stability needed. Also the fabric has a very soft hand similar to a cotton flannel. It has a tendency to pill if not handled gently.
The threads- The original piece is embroidered with a flat filament silk. That is a thread reeled directly from the cocoons in one continuous fiber with as little twist as possible. Flat silk produces the highest sheen and luminosity available in silk threads. It is considered the finest possible silk to embroider with. It also takes the most skill to work with and is famously temperamental. Snagging on the slightest rough spot on your hands and nails. The thread looks grubby and worn quickly so you have to work with very short lengths and be immaculate in your work area. When I started this project I was still pretty intimidated by flat silk (I’m mostly over that now) so I chose to use a pre-twisted filament silk floss instead.
I chose to work with a stranded floss from Needlepoint INC. Silk. I picked this particular silk thread because my local embroidery shop carries the line in a wide variety of colors. The quality is comparable to Au Ver A Soi’s Soie de Paris line and I was able to pick colors in person rather than playing the “guess how much your monitor tint is off” game.
The colors I used are:
#565 Iris Blue Range
#352 Pistachio Green Range
#986 Taupe Range
#984 Taupe Range
#867 Pumpkin Range
#992 Black & White Range
Over all I am very happy with the way the colors work together in this piece. The only thing I might chose to change is picking a slightly deeper cream thread (#867). It ended up being very close in color to the base fabric.
Transferring the Pattern
Very rarely in embroidery are we able to know how the embroiderer put the design on their fabric. Sometimes there are clues, ink lines drawn on the fabric where the embroidery has worn away. Those are few and far between. For the most part we have to assume that they were able to transfer drawings in the same ways we currently do.
Taking into account modern technology that would not have been available in the 7th century. You can stitch directly onto the fabric with no drawn guidelines. You can draw free hand onto the ground cloth. You can stamp the design on. You can draw the design onto another material, paper or velum and either prick and pounce your design or darken the back with something and trace the design with a stylus. Or you can take your predrawn material and baste the design onto your ground fabric, then tear away your original.
In the original extant piece I think they have used more than one method. The boar’s heads and the roundels are very consistent in their execution. Each head is stitched uniquely from the others, but the size, shape and outline of each one is virtually identical. This leads be to believe that the original artisan used some sort of template or stamp to place them on the fabric. There are no visible drawn lines on the original. They have either been covered by the embroidery or worn away, lost to time.
The birds and the vines however, don’t have the same constancy to them. Each bird is totally unique. And they appear to have been stitched to fill the space available.
I personally really hate when I can see ink lines peeking out from under my embroidery. It seriously bothers me. Because of that and since this piece isn’t covered entirely in stitches so that the ground is seen, I decided to use the basting method of transferring the boar’s head roundels. I then did a hybrid method of basting and free-hand stitching the birds. For the vines I sketched in some rough motion lines then free stitched the rest.
Finally right, what you actually came here for. The entire piece is stitched using split-stitch. One of the oldest and most basic stitches out there. In Chinese embroidery split-stitch seems to be a transitional stitch. Chain stitch is the most prominently used embroidery stitch prior to the 3rd century ce. The oldest known chain stitch appears impressed on bronze vessels from the Shang dynasty (16th to 11th century bce). (Feng p. 16) During the Han Dynasty(2nd-3rd cen, ce) there is a shift to primarily split-stitch. Then during the later part of the Tang dynasty (618- 907) we see another shift from split-stitch to a long & short stitch style of satin stitch.
The embroidery is worked following the curves of the individual features of the Boar. This gives the illusion of depth as the light refracts off the the silk stitches. We see a similar effect in the later Opus Anglicanum embroidery of England. The boars are stitched a bit differently from each other. Giving each one its own personality if you will. I took some elements from several different roundels to make mine. This felt right for the piece. And I feel it followed the spirit of the original.
The birds in the original piece are less consistent in design than the boars. Each of the birds is unique in shape and coloration. There a couple of different wing shapes used. The tails are all unique variations on a couple of themes as well. I basted the body shape into the location I wanted and then sketched the tails onto them. The wings I kind of eyeballed using some of the ideas from the original.
Over all I couldn’t be happier with the way this piece turned out. I might change a few minor things here and there if I could. But I think this is one of my favorite embroideries I have ever done. I will be having it framed next week. When it comes back it will be hung on my living room wall.
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Appendix A (extant materials)
Hanging fragment with boar head, 600s – early 700s
tapestry weave: wool and linen, Overall: 20.7 x 25.1 cm (8 1/8 x 9 7/8 in.). John L. Severance Fund 1950.509
Cleveland Museum of Art
photo credit CMA web site one of 2 views of object
Boars Head polychrome weft faced compound twill
from the Stein did at Astana site (Stein ast. I.5.03)
I have not been able to find its current location most likely in the collections of either the British Museum or the Indian National Museum. They co-funded the expedition and split the artifacts between them.
Photo credit Meister, The Pearl Roundel in Chinese Textile Design, Ars Orientalis, vol. 8, 1970, pp. 255-67. (fig 30)
I have not been able to find its current location, most likely in the collections of either the British Museum or the Indian National Museum. They co-funded the expedition and split the artifacts between them.
Photo credit Meister,The Pearl Roundel in Chinese Textile Design, Ars Orientalis, vol. 8, 1970, pp. 255-67. (fig 31)
Sketch of garment represented on the cave paintings at Afāsyāb dated to the 7th century
I have not been able to find any photos of the actual cave painting this is taken from. The Abegg-Stiftung is usually pretty rigous in its research.
Photo credit K. Otavsky, Zur kunsthistorischen Einordung der Stoffe, Entlang der Seidenstra�. Frhmittelalterliche Kunst zwischen Persien und China in der Abegg-Stiftung, Riggisberger Berichte 6, Riggisberg, 1998.b, pp. 119-214.
This is very similar but not as well executed at the Astana cave 325 weaving
photo is from a Chinese language website that doesn’t translate well seems to be from a periodical’, still trying to locate
Chinese language website says the photo is from the “Silk Road Silk Road exhibition Catalog”
almost identical to the b&w photo of fragment from cave 325 it is possible that one of them is identified incorrectly.
Bodhisattva statue Mogao grotto #420 Sui period 581-618 ce. Several Bodhisattva statues in this room depicted wearing pearl roundel dhoti’s the roundels depict boar heads, lions, winged tigers, flying horses and hunt scenes. This statue is on the west wall of the room.
Found on Sartor Bohemia’s Sasanin & Sogdian Extant textiles Pinterest page about 3 weeks ago. No provenance provided, dead link. No matches on tiny eye reverse image finder. But it is clearly related to the MET’s cloth. Two fragments of roundels are pictured together. probably from the same piece originally. So now we know that the MET’s cloth isn’t a one off that just happened to survive.
Fig. 10 Buddha with alms bowl- embroidery silk split stitch on plain weave silk, Chinese late 8th century, Qian Fo Dong (Cave of the Thousand Buddhas) Gansu Provence Dunhuang, British Museum
Afrasiab Mural Samarkand Museum (restored) three visiting officials bringing gifts to the King. One is clearly wearing a garment with pearl roundels with boar’s-heads. Finally found the Mural!!! photo credit Samarkand Museum
Śākyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak, embroidery silk split-stitch on silk with hemp backing, Cave 17 Qian Fo Tung Dunhuang, 241cm x 159 cm. British Museum accession # MAS,).1129
The embroidery with the motif of Sakyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak is a magnificent work executed in split stitch with the embroidery worked through the plain weave and the backing of hemp. Most of the stitches are long, around 0.8-1 cm, and split stitches of this sort are similar to satin stitches, perhaps representing a transitional stage between split stitch and satin stitch. Photo credit British Museum