Report of the workshop “Dutch Textiles in Global History”

By Corinne Boter, Aditi Dixit, Kate Frederick and Faheem Rokadiya

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Dutch Textiles in Global History was a well-attended, stimulating two-day online workshop which saw both historians, art historians, and curators come together to discuss Dutch textiles in both the West and East. It was kickstarted by John Styles (University of Hertfordshire, Victoria and Albert Museum, London) who presented his talk “Fibres, yarns and fabrics: cotton textiles in the Netherlands and Britain before mechanisation, 1600-1760”. He aimed to show why mechanization occurred first in Britain and not elsewhere, by comparing its cotton trade and industry to the Netherlands. He showed how both the supply chain for cotton was distinct, with the Netherlands mostly importing yarn rather than raw cotton. Cotton was spun in Lancashire at competitive prices, but there appears to be little evidence for the same in the Netherlands. State policies in both countries were compared as well as British and Dutch East India Company imports of calicoes. The quality of calicoes was explored, accounting for its predominance in Europe. While previous studies focused on Anglo-French comparisons this talk was novel in that it was an Anglo-Dutch comparison.

The second speaker was Keiko Suzuki (Ritsumeikan University Kyoto), who presented her talk: “Kimonos” and their Inspired Products as Embodiments of Global Interconnectivity” proposing new angles for analysing the Japonse Rocken in the Netherlands. This was a fascinating talk with a range of beautiful imagery looking at elites all over the world in various outfits such as the padded “yogi”, the less padded “kosode” (a prototype of present day kimonos). The many nuances between outfits deemed as “kimonos” were astounding. One yogi outfit that weighted 14kgs was presented – too heavy to move around in! Japonsche rockken and their many varieties thus feature in Dutch paintings and were distinctive. They embody global interconnectivity and have a long history of exchange and trade.

The third talk was by Bianca Du Mortier (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) on “the origin of the Japanse syde rocken or Japonsche rocken: from imperial gift to status symbol.” She went into detail on the aforementioned Japanse rocken, discussing the import of wadding from Tonkin, China where a large population of traders were Japanese. The Dutch East India Company (VOC)procured this wadding as well as a large supply of silks and wadding from India. Notably, the VOC went for the cheapest fabrics rather than those of the best quality such as silk wadding in Japan.

This was followed by Maria Wronska-Friend (James Cook University, Cairns) who gave a talk on “Jawa sarasa. The Dutch agency in introducing to Japan batik and batik-related textiles.” Maria’s talk began with explaining the batik technique and went on to discuss the Dutch–Japanese trading and knowledge interchange. She outlined the role the Dutch played in introducing batik to Japan, as well as industrial imitations of batik produced in the Netherlands. Following her talk a discussion took place where she made clear that Javanese batik, although it may have been treated like an heirloom, also functioned as a commodity.

Finally, Chris Nierstrasz (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) gave a talk titled “Rivalry for trade in textiles revisited. The Dutch East India and English East India companies and the European market for Indian textiles (1700-1800).” One of his hypotheses, supported by a vast amount of data, was that the Dutch Republic was an important market for Indian textiles exported by the British East India Company. This in turn supported his second thesis, that Britain’s industrialization may have accounted for deindustrialization in the Netherlands. One key difference between the British and Dutch were that the British imported a large amount of muslins (fine cloths) and the Dutch did not. These goods along with tea were most likely exported abroad or smuggled. Unbleached “white” calicoes made up for the largest amount of imported and later re-exported goods, stimulating industrialization.

Friday 12 March 2021

The second day of the Dutch Textiles in Global History workshop began with a stimulating presentation by Jeremy Prestholdt, a specialist on the trade and consumption of textiles in the Indian Ocean World. In a talk entitled “The Fabric of Global Commerce: Reimagining Imported Cloth in Indian Ocean Africa,” Prestholdt first discussed the rising consumption of imported textiles among East African consumers from the nineteenth century onward, highlighting the practice of locally reworking plain imports into elaborate products to suit East African tastes. He then zoomed in on the spectacular twentieth-century growth of Japanese textile exports, which claimed a large portion of the East African market as Japanese producers adeptly accommodated the complex demand patterns of African consumers.

Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk subsequently presented joint work with Corinne Boter, Sarah Carmichael, and Kate Frederick on the relocation of global cotton textile manufacturing during the past 250 years. She made a strong case that most existing studies on this topic have focused too much on global market forces and institutions in seeking to explain these shifts and that we need to pay more attention to the role of the people who actually made the textiles. They were not only producers but also consumers, and their consumer demands and choices regarding their labor allocation were instrumental in determining how and why these shifts in global cotton textile production have taken place. She illustrated this point by describing how the factory imports of white cloth from the Netherlands to Java stimulated the local batik industry, contradicting previous claims that these imports set Java on a pathway to de-industrialization. Meanwhile, the Dutch found a ready market for colored cloth in West Africa, where brightly colored patterns became increasingly popular. Indeed, the Dutch Vlisco brand remains in high demand in Africa today.

The third presentation was by Miki Sugiura who presented a paper entitled “Grof Grijn and Polemieten: Dutch Worsted Textiles in East Asia in the Eighteenth to Nineteenth Centuries.” She showed that in the process of opening up of the Japanese and Chinese market during the mid-nineteenth century, a boom for import wool textiles occurred having Dutch grofgrijn – a type of worsted textile long traded for East Asia – and British camlets as its initial center.  The Netherlands made an early decision not to promote their grofgrijns before Japanese treaty ports opened, and let British camlets take their way.  Thereafter, consumer preference rapidly shifted to  British cotton mixed worsted textiles and  French mousseline de laine.

Aya Ueda of the Kyoto Institute of Technology gave the final presentation of the workshop, based on her fascinating paper “Dutch Textile Designs and Japanese African Prints, 1950s-1980s” in which she explores the world of high-stakes competition for lucrative consumer markets in twentieth-century Africa. As Japanese-made textiles increasingly entered Africa, competition between “wax print” manufacturing firms in the Netherlands and Japan ramped up. She showed how producers in both countries replicated the designs of their competitors in an effort to capture African markets. In doing so, she illuminated complex global design dynamics linking Africa, Europe, Japan and Java.

The workshop concluded with a discussion by Maarten Prak, who synthesized the presentation papers and brilliantly identified overarching themes and contributions of the workshop. As he pointed out, this workshop brought together the expertise of art historians and economic historians who focus on the history of textile manufacturing but from different angles. Together, they provide a more comprehensive and complex picture of the global history of textile manufacturing and trade. Moreover, he pointed out, this workshop beautifully illustrated two variants of global history, while maintaining coherence though a strategic focus on a handful of connected regions (i.e., the Netherlands, Japan, Africa, and Java). Several papers highlight the connectivity brought by the global trade in textiles, as communities have been brought closer together via world market exchange of both goods and sartorial ideas. Meanwhile, the workshop has also provided scope for comparison of how different regions have been impacted by the global textile trade over time. Finally, Prak highlighted several innovations in perspective offered by this workshop. First, the presentations and discussions have highlighted the need to extend analyses of commodity and value chains beyond the traditional focus on trade and production into the realm of consumption and design. Second, this workshop has chipped away at long-held views of the global trade in textiles as a relatively straightforward story of mechanized production ousting national handicraft traditions. Rather, a more complex history of simultaneity and connectivity has been brought to the fore: indeed, handicraft and machine-based manufacturing existed alongside each other, as did regional and global markets. Rather than actively displacing each other, domestic and global industries and markets interacted, revealing the complex interplay of the global and the local.

The Dutch Textiles in Global History workshop offered two rich days of stimulating discussion and inspiring ideas. The presentations and exchange of perspectives showcased original approaches to global history and illustrated the immense added value of taking an interdisciplinary approach to the study of textile history.