Experiments with Calligraphy on Fabric

Calligraphy presents enough challenges on its own, without adding the excitement of a surface that makes lettering difficult. Think of papers that are too rough as a road with minor potholes. Frustrating, but if you drive carefully, it can be alright. It’s harder in a tiny sports car (tiny nib), but may not be that noticeable in a truck with off-road tires (a giant nib for lettering posters). In this metaphor, writing on fabric is akin to driving on a washed out caliche trail, and your Porsche has bald tires. Each tiny warp and weft thread catches at your nib. Fabric and ink are a horrible combination where everything bleeds, and even the queen’s own calligrapher’s lettering looks awful.

I’ve known this for ages. Have you tried to write on ribbon? Even with all of our modern fabrics and stabilizers and mediums and acrylic stuff, it’s a nightmare. So naturally, when presented with a project where I’d have to write an entire manuscript’s worth of calligraphy in a foreign language and alphabet on fabric using 500 year-old methods and materials, I said, “SIGN ME UP.” (There should be an cunning┬áterm for calligraphic masochists, but I can’t seem to mash the words together cleverly…) And it’s mostly not big calligraphy. No. It’s T-I-N-Y.

Zoomed in from a pic in the book, Tismili Gomleckler.
Zoomed in from a pic in the book, Tismili Gomleckler.

Look at how small that is compared to the weave of the fabric. The fabric is cotton, and it’s not woven like cheesecloth. I blew up images from one of the Mughal shirts and did rough estimations, and the bulk of the calligraphy on that shirt is 1/4″ high. That shirt in question has THE ENTIRE TEXT OF THE QUR’AN ON IT. Plus other stuff. So tiny calligraphy on fabric is kind of the gating item on determining whether or not I can actually pull off making a whole shirt.

I started my experiments on working with fabric as my calligraphic surface before a friend found this particular image and sent it to me. It’s the most up-close, zoomed in example I’ve seen anywhere. It answered some questions I had, namely:

  1. What writing instrument was being used?
  2. When the work is that small and on such a problematic surface, how fussy were the scribes about perfectly neat writing and painting?

Clearly, they weren’t insanely fussy about how tidy the work was when it was so small and there was so much of it. This is a relief. The writing instrument used here is most likely a brush. I came to that conclusion on my own, through experimentation. It made me happy to receive this photo and see that I was on track. I tried brushes after striking out in the small lettering department with reed pens and quills.FullSizeRender (2)

There’s not much research on these shirts, particularly in English. The V&A did chemical analysis on that one with the full text of the Qur’an, which said that it was cotton treated with starch. My friend and Ottoman ninja extraordinaire, Mistress Behiye, did a rough scan of the Turkish book on the shirts and found that their researchers also said the fabric was sized and prepared like paper. This means that a starch paste was applied, allowed to dry, and polished smooth with a smooth, heavy stone or glass implement. If ink doesn’t bleed on your paper, that means it’s been properly sized. I tried different kinds of sizing and different thicknesses and levels of coating for both rice and wheat. Then I tried to do calligraphy on all of them.

My sample fabrics all laid out.
My sample fabrics all laid out for the competition. I wanted people to be able to touch them and play with them, since it helps with understanding why some work better than others for calligraphy.

I competed with this at Stella Nova, in November. The project was received well, and I got great feedback that will shape the rest of the projects that go into completing the shirt. I also made some cool connections that are helping me learn more about really important things, like doing this in a respectful cultural context and figuring out Arabic calligraphy.

Since these samples are where I’m testing every aspect of the project, one of the next things to do is make up some more of the best performers, sew them into a t-shirt, and stick them on a sweaty fighter. The research on these says the best theory is that these would have been worn next to the skin, under clothing and armor, to protect important people in battle. Before I do the whole thing, I want to test the inks and paints and such to make sure they don’t just run all over the place once they’re in contact with sweat. For now, I’m researching Arabic approaches to making paints and inks while I do sewing preparation for classes I’m teaching at the end of January.

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