The Mapping of Indian Textiles



More than 150 years ago, a former East India Company surgeon decided to try something new... to create a portable museum on the famed Indian textiles that British mill owners in Manchester and Lancashire were desperately trying to copy.

While this documentation was to help the British factories, we do have to thank Sir John Forbes Watson for creating an extraordinary 18-volume catalogue, Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India (1866). This work remains a window to many Indian textile traditions that have since died. But, then, did this book also sound the death knell of these very weaves?

John Forbes Watson
John Forbes Watson|V&A Museum

As the name suggests, Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India was a hard-nosed attempt at cataloguing. It was created under Watson, who was by then Director of the then India Museum in London, which later evolved into the famous V&A Museum.

Watson was a British surgeon who first came to India in 1850 and worked at the JJ Hospital and Grant Medical College in Bombay. Life took a turn for him when he returned to England in 1853 on sick leave. Thanks to his extensive work in India and meticulous working style, he found a job with the East India Company on his return.

The brief was to ‘investigate’ the food grains of India. After the dissolution of the East India Company soon after the Great Revolt of 1857, Watson was appointed Director of the India Museum and ‘Reporter on the Products of India for the Secretary of State for India in Council’ under the British government in 1858. He was supposed to catalogue and research Indians and Indian produce.

People of India, Kanyang Hill Tribe, Assam
People of India, Kanyang Hill Tribe, Assam|V&A Museum

The first big project he undertook was to document the people of India through a photographic series. The People of India was published in eight volumes from 1868-75. But Watson was a curious man and his research interests were varied. He was most interested in botany and the plant life of India. He went on to study various types of cotton in India, which led to further interest in the study of Indian textiles.

The mid-19th century was an era of ‘Industrial Exhibitions’ across Europe. These were aimed at flexing imperial muscle and helping manufacturers in Europe familiarize themselves with products from different parts of the world and exploiting the potential of the empire. Watson was closely involved in the Indian sections of the international exhibitions held in London (1862) and Paris (1867). It is then that he came up with the idea of a ‘portable industrial museum’ on India in the form of a great catalogue of Indian textiles.

The portable museum as envisaged by Watson
The portable museum as envisaged by Watson|V&A Museum

This set the stage for his monumental work – the 18-volume Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India, which contained 700 samples of fabrics, published in 1866. This series was accompanied by a companion volume titled The Textile Manufactures and the Costumes of the People of India, also published in the same year.

Title page of the book
Title page of the book|MET

The catalogue contained thorough documentation of Indian fabrics. It contained many technical and practical bits of information, like the use of the fabric, cost of production, material requirements, etc. The volumes were divided on the basis of use, type of fabric and the style of print or embroidery on it. For example, there were volumes on turbans, fabrics for men, fabrics for women, cotton, silks and woollens, and these went into great detail about different fabrics used in different places, locations and people. Having been trained as a doctor and deeply interested in botany, Watson approached the exercise more like a natural historian than a museum curator.

Page from the book
Page from the book|V&A Museum

For each of the fabrics mentioned in the main catalogue, a 34 x 19 cm sample was included in the book along with a separate 4-cm sample, which was added for ‘the examination of texture’. The companion volume contained explanatory text and illustrations of how the fabrics were worn as clothing in India. A second series was published in 1873-77 but it was never completed.

The idea behind this great textile catalogue was not altogether altruistic or academic. It was to inspire textile mill manufacturers in England to imitate these patterns and penetrate the vast Indian market.

As Watson wrote in the companion volume:


The 700 specimens… show what the people of India affect and deem suitable in the way of textile fabrics, and if the supply of these is to come from Britain, they must be imitated there. What is wanted, and what it is to be copied to meet that want, is thus accessible for study in these museums.

Watson didn’t include all the fabrics manufactured in India in the catalogue, only those he thought British manufacturers could produce. His work wasn’t intended for the scientist or scholar but was for practical use by manufacturers or administrators.

The Paris exhibition of 1855
The Paris exhibition of 1855|Wikimedia Commons

The way the catalogue was compiled is a fascinating tale, and almost sacrilegious for a museum expert. Watson wasn’t a textile or crafts expert and his knowledge of textiles itself was rather limited. The India Museum had a large volume of samples of Indian textiles in its collection. Most of these samples had reached the museum through the Paris exhibition of 1855 and some had been acquired through trade. Watson and his assistants cut up the collection to create these books.  The information too came from the labels which had already been attached to the fabrics. His role was that of a compiler.

Page from the book
Page from the book|V&A Museum

Twenty copies of this great catalogue were created, of which 13 were distributed in England and 7 were sent to India. They were sent to the public libraries in the textile manufacturing towns in the United Kingdom like Bradford, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh, and in India like Allahabad, Nagpur, Bombay and Calcutta.

Although the impact of the book hasn’t been studied or understood much, British historian Sonia Ashmore, an expert on Indian textiles, has written about how soon after the publication of the book, many British textile manufacturers registered new designs that were exact copies of the designs published. These were cheap imitations of intricate tie-and-dye and weaves. Indeed, we see many cheap printed fabrics in the Indian subcontinent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which devastated the local handloom and textile industry here.

Page from the book
Page from the book|V&A Museum

A book, a portable museum, documentation of India’s treasures, an injurious endeavour of the empire… The Collection of the Textile Manufactures of India is many things. Although the intent or the immediate impact of the book may have been anything but benign for India, it is now an invaluable resource to understand the people of 19th century India through one of the most integral aspects of life – cloth.

Today, one can find some volumes of the book at the V&A Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Cooper Hewitt Library of the Smithsonian Museum and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

All eighteen volumes of the first edition have been made digitally available at http://www.tmoi.org.uk/.

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