Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

01 May 2023

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian Collections: Project Update

A Chevening Fellowship that started in September 2022 with the aim to research and catalogue manuscript textiles in the Library’s Southeast Asian Collections has made good progress during the past six months: over fifty manuscript textiles have been identified and detailed object descriptions with photo documentations have been completed. Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan explains how this project relates to her doctoral research: “My Ph.D. dissertation examines the social life of textiles and what ancient textiles can reveal about human history, beliefs and hierarchy, and especially trade. This project has exposed me to textiles and their trade routes, and I have seen more textiles than usual because most of these manuscripts' textiles were imported from other places than where the manuscripts originate from. These examples help me to explain my dissertation's main point, that textiles are more than just practical goods and can show relationships between communities and time periods”.

Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu
Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu with an over 4 m long sazigyo (ribbon) made in the tablet weaving technique on a backstrap loom with dedicatory inscription in Burmese language, 19th century. British Library, Or 3665 Noc

The focus so far has been on Burmese and ethnic Tai manuscript textiles, specifically sazigyo (handwoven ribbons) and custom-made manuscript wrappers with bamboo slats. More than twenty sazigyo have been assessed; most of them with a length of over two metres and beautifully woven-in geometric designs and inscriptions in Burmese language. These ribbons were traditionally made in the tablet-weaving technique on a backstrap loom. They were used to secure palm leaf manuscripts, and were often given to Buddhist monasteries as a meritorious offering by lay women. The majority of them are of special significance due to the extensive woven-in Burmese text with a dedicatory message and the donor's name. Others were woven solely with geometric or figural patterns.

The manuscript wrappers found with Burmese, Lao and northern Thai (Lanna) manuscripts were traditionally handcrafted by interlacing cotton yarns with bamboo slats. Sometimes pieces of colourful printed cotton fabrics were cut to size and woven in as well, and plain white or red cotton fabric was added as lining and to cover the edges of the wrappers. The bamboo slats were inserted instead of weft yarns to increase the stability of these wrappers. Occasionally, a combination of silk and cotton yarns is found.

Methaporn Singhanan emphasizes the great diversity of textiles she has assessed so far: “I discovered Southeast Asian tapestry and Ikat weaving, as well as rare, high-quality, and opulent imported fabrics. Two of my favourite items are a Japanese silk brocade with gilded paper thread used to wrap Burmese palm leaf manuscripts, and an attractive Indian textile ordered by the Thai royal court to encase Thai texts. To strengthen the textiles and protect the sacred manuscripts, velvet, felt, silk, fabrics with woodblock prints, and European printed fabrics were inter-woven with colourful yarns and bamboo slats. I adore the manuscripts with boards and ivory pegs decorated with gold and religious symbols just as much as the textiles. Their lavish decorations demonstrate the faith and dedication of the people who created and commissioned these precious objects”.

Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).
Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).

In addition to her work with the manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections, the Chevening Fellow has visited various other areas and departments of the Library. Since Methaporn Singhanan has been running a voluntary conservation project for textiles in northern Thailand for several years, visits to the British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC) were of special interest to her. Textile conservator Liz Rose organised a half-day practical session on dyeing nylon net for textile conservation. On another occasion, she also showed a Shan scrolled paper manuscript (Or 15363) with a printed cotton cover that had recently undergone conservation treatment by Lois Glithero, Glasgow University MPhil Textile Conservation placement student 2022, and she explained in detail the steps taken to rescue and preserve the severely damaged textile.

Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session
Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session under supervision of textile conservator Liz Rose in British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC)

An opportunity to learn about the digitisation work at the Library arose during the digitisation of a large Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550). Together with textile conservator Liz Rose, conservation intern Storm Scott and curator for Burmese, Maria Kekki, Methaporn Singhanan assisted the Library’s photographers Tony Grant and Carl Norman with the digitisation process. Due to the large size of the item, many hands were needed to lay out the finely embroidered textile on the floor in order to digitise it with a special large format camera. The Sinar camera produces high-quality digital images using a multi-shot capture system, where each pixel is captured by every primary colour. This achieves an almost unimaginable level of colour accuracy, and prevents the moiré effect on images, which is ideal for textiles.

Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio
Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio.

Much of the textile research is based on comparative analysis, due to the lack of information within the manuscripts themselves (most do not contain a colophon with a creation date or related names) as well as gaps in the provenance documentation. Even if some information is found within the manuscripts, it cannot always be assumed that the textile shares the same history with the manuscript. Therefore, it is necessary to look at similar textile objects in other collections where more detailed provenance documentation may be available. A visit to the Royal Asiatic Society enabled Methaporn Singhanan to study two Burmese manuscript textiles, one of which is thought to be the oldest sazigyo, dated 1792, held in a British public collections. Conservation work had recently been completed to preserve this rare manuscript ribbon, and close examination of this item and discussion with British Library conservator Liz Rose were invaluable for Methaporn Singhanan’s research.

Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society
The British Library’s textile conservator Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society in London to study the oldest known Burmese sazigyo in a British public collection.

Two excellent learning opportunities for the Chevening Fellow were courses offered by other organisations in London. In November, Methaporn Singhanan attended a four-day course “Textile Arts of Asia” at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convened by Dr Fiona Kerlogue of the Oriental Rug and Textile Society. The course gave insights into how Asian textiles and carpets can be explored, drawing on research carried out by scholars who have used literary sources, studied museum and other collections and undertaken studies in the field.

Methaporn Singhanan was also very excited about her attendance of a one-day course on 23 March 2023 at the Victoria and Albert Museum led by textile expert Dr Lesley Pullen. The day started with a talk on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" which focused on the history of the textile trade between India and Indonesia and the wider context of Persian and European involvement. In a show-and-tell session after the talk, the participants had the opportunity to handle the exquisite textiles from Lesley Pullen’s private collection and to ask questions.

Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen
Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen during a course on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A highlight was the visit of a group from the Royal Thai Embassy in London, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi, to the Library on 29 March 2023. Methaporn Singhanan helped to prepare a show-and-tell session for the esteemed visitors and selected an outstanding nineteenth-century manuscript textile (Or 5107) made from fine silk brocade to display on this occasion. She used this item - which had been imported from India to cover a large Thai palm leaf manuscript with gold decorations - to explain her research and work as a Chevening Fellow at the British Library.

a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy
During a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi (2nd left), Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan (2nd right) presented her research on a silk brocade wrapper imported from India to cover a precious Thai manuscript (Or 5107)

This fellowship is made possible through the Chevening scheme which is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. Funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations, Chevening offers fellowships to mid-career professionals to undertake a bespoke short course in the UK.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 Ccownwork