Ottoman Laurel Scroll – The Beginnings

One of my very dearest friends, Mistress Behiye, got her Laurel a couple of years ago and has been patiently waiting for my wrist to heal and for me to get back to work. She is the queen of Ottoman studies, even learning Turkish to be able to have better access to research materials. She is ridiculous. And the best ever. Clearly, I can’t just make her any old scroll. Over the past 3-ish years, I’ve learned some about Islamic calligraphy and art, looked at miniatures, and tried to find a direction for the project. Earlier this month, I went through all the digitized Ottoman manuscripts (1300-1620) in the British Library. Obviously, there are a lot of religious texts that are beautifully decorated, but they are not figurative due to the restrictions in Islam about depicting holy figures. When there are people in manuscripts, they’re mostly manly men fighting battles or hunting or celebrating something. Sometimes, there are women, but they are generally concubines or from the harem. There weren’t a lot of men willing to let their wives be seen and painted by strangers. Most of what we know about the appearance of royal women in the Ottoman court comes from preserved garments in the Topkapi Palace collections, some descriptive writing, and some triangulation with images of concubines. We can recreate specific garments, but the total package is a lot of “we can’t be totally sure, but I think it might look like this?” educated guessing. Can you guess where I’m going with this?

OR 3714 in the British Library boasts a great many fine illustrations that depict the life of the Mughal Emperor Babur. The book was made in Turkey, translated into Persian in 1589, and the museum holds a Turkish imperial copy that was made over 1590-1593. There are 143 illustrations in all, and 1 illustration on f. 13v that features – wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles – the Emperor’s royal marriage ceremony! Complete with three whole noble women dressed for a royal occasion! YES! To make it even better, Behiye had never seen this image and was super excited to see it for art and costuming reasons. It’s a fantastic setup for a Peerage scroll, because it makes a great two-page spread with text on one side and illustration on the other. The ceremony was easy to tweak so that she is the bride being crowned with a wreath, and that the Emperor and his other person are the King and Queen. And the people standing around can be made into people who took part in the ceremony. Perfection!

I got to work immediately. May is totally dead at school and work, so I have time to spend on this. Getting it right will be a test, though. I got it drawn, started putting the flats in, felt good…….and then I went and looked at the original. Not only was my start at shading all wrong, but the source piece looks unlike any European manuscript when it’s zoomed in tight.

This is how far I got before I decided I should really look at something higher quality than my bad color printout. HEY! This is definitely not done in the European way…and I may be way out of my depth but can’t exactly give up on the project. NO BETTER WAY TO LEARN, AMIRITE???

The original has a lot more depth and detail and finesse than the earlier period and European sources I’ve worked from. The shading looks almost like fur! There are so many impossibly fine strokes in sheer layers of color that I doubt my ability to pull it off. This won’t be my first Ottoman piece, but it will be the first that utilizes the specialty techniques from Levantine miniature painting. These techniques are still in use through the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. I’ve been able to find a few video tutorials (with a little help!). None of the ones I’ve found in English have enough depth to help me feel confident, but watching people do the work, even briefly, has helped. The idea is to lay in flats and then shade over it with increasingly delicate strokes using a dry brush technique called pardakht. Not knowing it was A Special Thing until today, it used to be my main shading technique when I started doing scribal. Now, all I have to do is remember how to do it well (if I ever actually did it well!).

This may require setting up new palettes with gradients of each shade of paint pre-mixed so that I can do this consistently across an area. The special shading on something like those orangey barrier walls might take a couple of days, and the trees and grass will take even longer. Currently, I work dark to light, adding white or yellow or whatever to lighten as I work. This is probably wrong somehow. Palette setup isn’t something I’ve thought much about, but whatever I’m doing now isn’t working very well for this project. I’m not really sure what the right approach is. I hate not knowing how to do something right the first time I attempt it… #perfectionistproblems

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 term 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.

The Start of Something Big

I’ve been missing from the blog. Apologies. We bought a house and renovated it during October, then there were holidays and loads of house guests, and now it’s January. I haven’t been inactive, though! An uncomfortable but highly effective dose of steroids injected directly into the nerve bundle in my wrist has given me mostly normal use of my hand back. Temporary, but its success tells us that surgery will fix it permanently – and that’s a massive relief for this calligrapher.

Since I have no way of knowing how much I’ll be able to do, or how long the shots will last, I picked a new project to start that has some projects at the beginning that are more research than hands-on work. It’s going to take a long time to do, and it’s a little bit crazy to take on. What is it? I’m making an Ottoman talismanic shirt. Most people have no idea what that is, so let me show you.

Oct 2015 Jama 2
This shirt was auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 2015 and sold for £185,000. It’s from 1583, Ottoman, and in especially fine condition. The gold in the gilding is still very shiny, and the colored inks are bright and crisp.

A talisman is an object that has magical protective powers. They come in many forms, are found all over the world, all throughout history, across all religions. Crystals, St. Christopher medals, lucky rabbit’s feet – all things that anthropologists would consider talismans. The shirts are based on Qur’anic verses that talk about shirts imbued with magical powers.

The shirts feature elaborate calligraphic decorations that include the 99 names of Allah, verses of protection from the Qur’an, magical seals and squares, and decorative motifs of various shapes. Most of the shirts are cotton, which was a luxury fabric in the Levant. Some are dated, so we know that they took a long time to make: 1-3 years, depending on the shirt. Some of that may be due to the shirts being begun and finished under especially auspicious astrological circumstances.

Talismanic undershirts are a rare thing. There are fewer than 100 of these known to exist in the world right now. There are examples of them from Mughal India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and there’s even one in Spain. Turkey has the most shirts, because the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul has preserved the royal garments for hundreds of years. Nothing in my research has turned up how far back the practice goes, but it is seen throughout the middle/late medieval period.

A friend showed me one three or four years ago, and I’ve been quietly obsessed ever since. The shirts are such a complex and unusual calligraphic challenge, which is appealing to someone who has grown up surrounded by medieval European manuscript pages and aesthetics. Arabic calligraphic art is some of the finest in the world. I love to look at it. Do I speak or read Arabic? Nope. So there’s a giant language barrier making this harder. Still, I’m going to do the research and make a thing. My plan is to do everything but weave the fabric and make the lampblack ink, as both are outside my skill set. Plus, I don’t think the calligraphers were likely to be the ones weaving fabric anyway.