Amanda Phillips, Sea Change: Ottoman Textiles Between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Amanda Phillips (AP): For many of us interested in material culture, objects themselves—visual, haptic, even olfactory—are as compelling as the stories they tell. Taking this as a given, Sea Change asks what textiles—in their materials, thread counts, weave structures, and decoration—have to say about the people who made and used them. I was really interested in how actual extant stuff supplemented the written historical record, and even more interested in how it contradicted it. Should we believe what we see and touch, or what we read?

For Ottoman textiles, I was convinced that contacts with Iran and India, in terms of textile trade and also exchange of styles, were as important as the oft-vaunted relationship with Renaissance Italy. The book makes a first attempt at sketching some of these many connections, and I hope that it will encourage more research and publishing on the topic.

In a similar vein, Sea Change also de-nationalizes the history of Ottoman textiles, considering the migrations of master weavers and other textile workers from many places, taking into account how imported textiles engendered local responses, and looking beyond the court and elites. More than a decade of research—in archives, museum collections, and libraries—taught me that there is no tidy trajectory for textile history, but rather overlapping modes of production and consumption. In some cases, subjects of many faiths and ethnicities made or sold or bought the same kinds of things. But workshops making Ka’ba hangings, or altar cloths, or fulled woolens around Thessaloniki in modern Greece, or even cottons with pious imprecations, attest to the role of many distinct Ottoman communities.

Lastly, I thought that an interdisciplinary approach to textile studies was long overdue, and I hope that Sea Change models some of the ways in which authors in any number of fields can integrate a range of source types and approaches to art history, material culture studies, and allied fields.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

AP: Most obviously, Sea Change is about textiles and their place in early modern history. There is, of course, work on this topic, mostly from social-economic and art historical perspectives. Earlier interest was engendered and encouraged by the opening of the Ottoman archives, which overlapped with the rise of the Annales School and its emphasis on the longue durée and on quantifiable data. Excellent work in this mode and well beyond it has propelled the field forward. Sea Change adds to this by asking what the material record can tell us that the written record cannot or does not. And, it turns out, this is quite a bit. For instance, when a case documented in the sharia court states that weavers making velvets are required to adhere to certain material types and thread counts, the actual extant velvets show that the stated standards were ignored. This finding is a useful corrective for the sometimes positivist approach historians bring to archival sources. More importantly, in the same velvets, the actual fabric—properly analyzed—shows how artisans resisted central and local authorities in defense of their livelihoods. This is all the more important because weavers and other craftspeople left little other evidence of their activities. The focus on artisan agency also moves us beyond centrist, court-focused works, which often suggest that the Ottoman Sultan and his minions drove all change and controlled all artistic production.

Continuing with the theme of palace focus, art historians studying the decorative arts often publish on the most luxurious objects—maybe about two percent of total production. This is true for textile studies, too; such tendencies are related to the art market, where otherwise mass-produced goods may fetch a higher price when connected to a court or court style. A more major issue here, of course, is the other ninety-eight percent. Can we really discount it? What does that do to our arguments—and, equally potent, how did the ninety-eight percent and two percent interact in the historical context? As historians of material culture and even art historians, we need to move beyond the beauty question, and ask why people made, traded, and purchased the plain, the un-beautiful, the poor quality, or the frankly weird. This is a much more compelling topic, though admittedly one not destined for major exhibitions or laudatory catalogues.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AP: Sea Change both moves beyond and narrows in from my previous book, Everyday Luxuries (Berlin National Museums and Verlag Kettler, 2016). That book looked at a wider range of objects, from ceramics to carpets to illustrated manuscripts. Both works, however, treat expanded landscapes of consumption and production. On the one hand, Ottoman subjects were surrounded by many types of goods and had choices about the material, color, and even style of their objects. If they were well-to-do, they could choose from stuffs imported from around the world, from Chinese porcelains to Italian velvets to Egyptian carpets. On the other hand, Ottoman artisans—whether potters or weavers or illuminators—were working in local contexts while surrounded by these goods brought from all over, with which their own products had to compete. Sea Change applies these ideas to textiles, paying more specialized attention to technologies of making. It also continues the focus on the experience of materiality—for instance, how lighter weight fabrics responded to and encouraged new kinds of clothes, or how wrapping oneself in a silk figured with Quranic inscriptions was part of powerful and otherwise unattested personal piety.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AP: Everyone should read this book! Joking aside, I hope its major impact will be to bring some ideas from economic and social history to both technical and art historical textile studies, on the one hand, and on the other, to emphasize the importance of textiles in all parts of the study of history. From inscriptions on medieval mosques, stating that their endowments were supported by profits earned from sericulture, to robe-of-honor ceremonies, to women giving and receiving presents of embroidered linen, to customs duties collected at ports or caravanserais, it is clear that textiles made the world turn. In its interdisciplinarity, I also hope the book will serve as a model or a starting point for those working on other material culture topics, such as bookbinding or ceramics, or by those working on textiles made in other parts of the world. If such evangelical efforts fall short, at least the glossary will assist scholars working with primary sources.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AP: There remains so much work to be done on Ottoman textiles, and on textile history in general. I plan to follow up Sea Change with some supplementary articles about a few of the objects and questions that merit more treatment. For one, a giant hanging made for Sultan Bayazid I (circa 1400) is the earliest known Ottoman textile—or really object or piece of art of any kind—and deserves further research and publication. And because one can and should be expansive when thinking about textiles, I also have a current project on the relationship between velvet weaving and terrycloth weaving, and how transfers of technology between the Ottoman Empire, the United Kingdom, and the United States played out during the Industrial Revolution. For my next longer and larger project, I will be returning to the Ottoman Empire in all its eighteenth-century glory and thinking more about how decorative arts interacted with an interest in botany.

J: What is so special about textiles?

AP: In the time and place we are talking about—so, circa 1400-1800 in the eastern hemisphere—textiles were the second most traded commodity, after only grain. They drove world trade. On a regional level, textiles touched everyone, without exception, from women tending silkworms, to dervishes wearing purposefully humble wool cloaks, to brocade weavers employed directly by the Sultan. Within the category of textiles, the range of types is immense. There are dozens of modes of production, and the finished objects were put to hundreds of types of uses, such as sails, storage bags, upholstery, and religious vestments. Most individual textiles, too, were used over and over again; their biographies as they change between owners or between functions have much to teach us. But across the category, they are haptic, somatic, and ubiquitous… it is almost as if they are hiding in plain sight, especially given how little they are treated in most art historical scholarship. But for this reason, it is a wide open field. We might ask, why study textiles? And the answer is, because it is a wide open field. Its initiates can take their interests in hundreds of different directions, across a number of disciplines, as well as around the world and throughout history.


Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion, pp. 241-44)

Copyright protected excerpt from the conclusion of Sea Change, intended only for use by Jadaliyya.


Domestic furnishings, upholstery, and even most clothing may seem to be the most mundane category in the decorative or applied arts, which is in part a function of their ubiquity. The textiles discussed in this book were most often useful: for framing, covering, providing soft surfaces, lining, or insulating. Even in roles where textiles were ornamental—the silks that covered the dome of Sultan Aḥmed I’s mosque, the doublures made for volumes in the libraries of Meḥmed II and the Orthodox patriarch at Fener, the hangings sent to Mecca and Medina—they nonetheless acted in tandem with other objects, or spaces, or bodies, and served functions that exclude them from most definitions of art for the sake of art.

But the categories of useful and expressive are neither antagonistic nor mutually exclusive. Bāyezīd’s hanging and the altar curtain from Tokat both name the individuals for whom they were made. Both were designed for use in spaces where they might be seen by a select public, in order that their patrons or owners gain recognition. The latter mostly uses images to communicate its primary message, while the former employs bands of decoration and calligraphy. An assumption that a picture, or a textile with a picture, is more expressive than one without a picture is not only incorrect, but retrograde. It excludes the nonmimetic by default, following hierarchies set up centuries ago for western European art. Even setting aside the fact that calligraphy was an unmistakable symbol of Islam (and in this case, its spread across the Balkans), the size, materials, format, and motifs of Bāyezīd’s hanging make it a powerful expression of his might as a sultan and legitimacy as a Muslim ruler.

Returning textiles, and other craft, to the center of study acknowledges not only that objects are some of the little evidence for the actions and intentions of their makers and users, but also that they assert otherwise unexpressed values to the largest possible audience. Upholstery, hangings, and garments both reflect and reestablish, whether obviously or subtly, notions of hierarchy, wealth, piety, legitimacy, status, and perhaps even personal preference. Sultan Süleyman’s decision to wear nothing but ṣof or ḳuṭnī isexpounded upon in contemporary histories, but a coarsely woven cotton beledī with kufic inscriptions is equally telling, despite its absence from the written record.

Stepping back from their potentials for telling stories of producers and consumers alike, and turning to their role as goods, I also suggest that the category of textiles was more thoroughly intertwined in global exchange than any other type of art or craft. Nothing else—whether porcelain, ceramics, metal, ivory or gems—was traded at such scale or distance or in such variety. Because textiles were everywhere and were often traded in bulk, those brought from far away, whether rare or beautiful or entirely humdrum, were part of the much larger visual and material landscapes of the empire, as they were elsewhere. In the Ottoman lands, textiles from around the world were part of the fabric of life, though the types and their origins clearly changed over the centuries.

Cottons, and other types of cloth, moved in quantities from Gujarat into the Mediterranean in the 1300s. Extant objects, such as part of a book cover preserved in the Topkapı Palace Museum Library, also suggest that goods were sent west from China to Constantinople in the 1400s. Written sources concur: ibn Baṭṭūṭa wrote about the kaftans given to him in western Anatolia around 1332, identifying the kemḥā from which they were made with Tabriz, Nishapur, and China. But whether ibn Baṭṭūṭa found this surprising is not clear. Because textiles traveled so easily and so often, as we have seen, it is possible that even those from distant places were unexceptional. Perhaps they are not the avatars of cross-cultural exchange that later historians have supposed, but in many cases merely part of everyday life.

Technology transfer and change is different. For silks especially, I have argued that weaving in and around Bursa and in other centers did not develop along linear trajectories. Rather, textile making of several types accelerated at irregular intervals, encouraged by the situation of the city, the importation of different kinds of knowledge, sporadic imperial sponsorship, and artisan innovation. In Salonica, the arrival of Jewish artisans from Iberia helped transform wool weaving. In Ankara, consolidating efforts on the part of the central authorities may have encouraged the migration of s. of workers from Cilicia. The role of Persian artisans pushed west by the turmoil of the 1720s almost certainly had an impact on weaving in Bursa and Smyrna. Equally important was the loss of skill and labor caused by external factors: the sacks of Bursa in 1402 and again in the seventeenth century; the economic hardship of the 1590s; supplies of silk, dye, and precious metal made erratic by climate change, warfare, competition, disease, or other causes; unstable markets; and interference on the part of authorities.

The tale of a steady development of weaving technologies and the consistent production of raw materials and finished cloth obscures the diversity of people involved, as well as the existence of noncanonical objects. Usefully complicating the dominant narratives of crimson-and-gold luxury are printed linens stamped with gold, striped tāfta, and a mode of brocade-ground çatma with fantastic blossoms. In a similar case, while the Persian artisans brought by Sultan Selīm I from Tabriz loom large in the art historical imagination, workshops outside the palace were also filled with Turkish, Greek, Armenian, and Jewish subjects. Sharia court records also mention Indians, Persians, Syrians, and others. The narratives of many textile types across four centuries are stories about Ottoman subjects and visitors alike and about the nature of a multiethnic, multilingual, and multiconfessional empire on one hand and about migration across Eurasia on the other.


As well as their potential to help tell new kinds of histories and art histories of the Ottoman Empire, I also advocate for the place of craft and material culture in larger art historical discussions, and for the place of textiles most of all. As a category, textiles are unique in both their modes of production and of consumption. As noted in the introduction, no other medium spans such a spectrum of production types—from home weavers and spinners to highly professionalized workshops employing dozens of workers with different expertise. No other type of object is created to be altered the way most textiles were: once off the loom, a piece of tāfta from Tokat could be used in a kaftan or a book cover. While the cushion cover format for çatma clearly destined some for use as upholstery, other çatmas were used for garments, floor covers, curtains, hangings, and even turbans. For textiles as a category, the wildly differing materials and modes of production, their sheer numbers, and the sources used to understand their use and reception all present challenges, but also offer scholars new ways of thinking about the sensory qualities of objects, as well as their biographies.

FIGURE 7.1 Coat made of part of a hanging that had been used in Mecca or Medina. Silk, lampas weave with silk tabby lining. Istanbul, TSM 13/658. Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, Presidency of National Palaces Administration.

The afterlives of textiles can be as compelling as their initial or intended functions. The use of Islamic textiles as shrouds for Frankish kings and saints is a well-known example of this phenomenon. In the Ottoman period, a number of çatma cushion covers were repurposed as liturgical garments in Italy and Russia, with their characteristic lappets intact. Pieces of the Kaʿba covering and other silks sent for use at Mecca and Medina were sold or otherwise distributed to the faithful, who kept them as souvenirs and in some cases turned them into new objects. The hanging in the traditional zigzag format represented in Figure 3.1 is a handsome but unremarkable representative of its type, until its later transformation is revealed: it was turned into a coat (Figure 7.1). Patterns of wear along the collar and shoulder seams suggest it was worn, but in what context is unclear. The example of this mantle—made of fabrics designed for use in the Holy Sanctuaries and perhaps suffused with the blessings and virtue of pilgrims and worshippers—provokes a number of questions. Many center around the intentions of the coat’s patron and wearer, but equally important are the frameworks of belief in which she or he was operating. In this way, the coat also suggests textiles might tell us what written sources cannot or do not: here, about sacred and protective motifs, formats, or material; status in palace or other hierarchies; or the experience of the Hajj, whether completed, experienced by proxy, or merely yearned for.

Returning to the nature of textiles as a medium, the coat also presents another facet of what textiles, by their very nature, offer as subjects of study: their haptic and somatic qualities. The coat is lined with pieces of purple and pistachio-green silk tāfta simply embellished with a ṭaraḳli effect—it was probably made in the palace workshop responsible for kaftans. Similar to many garments made of compound luxury silks, it is bulky, stiff, and purposefully unresponsive to the body it enveloped. In this way, its material and tailoring would disguise some of its wearer’s individual physical features, rendering him (most likely) less singular and less easily recognizable or identifiable. Because of the materiality of the textile and its cut and sewing, the wearer conformed to the ideals governing the figures, dress, and behavior of high-level palace functionaries or other members of the elite.