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.