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A printer applies mordant alum after dying with plant roots using carved wooden blocks.Sophena Kwon/Handout

Textiles are among the most fragile artifacts in any historical museum collection. The rule of thumb – or of professional museology – is that you can only show a textile once a decade if you want to preserve it for future generations. Well, the collection of 300- and 400-year-old Indian chintz at the Royal Ontario Museum has not been on display since 1970, so no worries there. When last exposed to the light of day – or rather, low-level museum lighting – the colourful hand-painted and block-printed cotton fabrics were used to explain how Europe fell in love with Indian chintz, imported it by the baleful and ultimately supplanted it with its own copies.

Today, in a more globalist moment, a new exhibition at the ROM uses the same collection, now strategically enlarged, to track the influence of Indian fabrics as they moved around the world. The earliest examples in a show titled The Cloth that Changed the World: India’s Painted and Printed Cotton are fragments found in Egypt and date back to the 1400s. Remarkably, they still display strong blues and reds. In the adjacent cases, there are similarly patterned Japanese clothes associated with the tea ceremony and dating to the 1700s. Yes, Western markets mimicked India, from English floral chintzes to French “Provençal” fabrics, but by the 18th century, Japanese printers were also producing books of Indian patterns for their local artisans to copy.

Still, the Egyptian and Japanese imports on display here are small things. What is really impressive about this show, organized by ROM curator Sarah Fee and installed in the fourth-floor Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles and Costumes, are the soaring banners, long cloths and big dresses that Indian artisans produced for export to Thailand, Indonesia and the Netherlands (as well as pieces for Iran, Sri Lanka, Britain and France). With vibrant reds, sunny yellows, deep blues and more muted shades, their creators traced patterns of pleasing geometry, flowering trees and epic heroes. The visual effect of these luxurious pieces is irresistible.

The trick was a series of finally tuned developments in the application of dyes. Sure, the Indian artisans had remarkable colours – yellow from turmeric and pomegranate skin, blue from indigo and red from chay root – but the real secret was the mordant, the agent made from metallic salts that bound the colour to the cotton fabric so it did not just wash away.

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Mother-goddess hanging by Chitara Chandrakant, Ahmedabad, 2018. Cotton, hand-drawn, mordant-dyed, painted details.Brian Boyle, FPPO/Handout

Today, synthetic dyes can be printed directly on to a fabric, but India’s natural dyes were part of a lengthy process that involved pretreating the cotton to receive the colour, and applying resistant waxes and intensifying mordants before dunking it in multiple dye baths. The patterns themselves, delineated using the resists and the mordants, were either images painted by hand or repeating motifs printed in sections using carved wooden blocks. Copying these techniques in the 18th century, the English textile industry began by using larger copper plates to print the patterns and then, in the development that would make these fabrics affordable to the middle classes, rolling plates that could print long bolts of cloth.

Using mass production, England replaced India as the leading textile manufacturer in the world, and the influence came full circle: One of the most poignant pieces here is a colourful handkerchief bearing the figure of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh and dating to 1880. It was printed in Britain to be sold to the Indian market. Its colours are mainly synthetic: The invention of synthetic dyes in Britain and Germany in the 19th century industrialized the textile business yet further, and mass fashion was born.

While Indian block-printing was repopularized in the 1960s by Western fashion’s taste for the exotic, it’s only recently that Indian designers are returning to hand-painting and natural dyes. They are represented here by several striking contemporary saris as well as a magnificent men’s suit designed by Good Earth of New Delhi.

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Woman's jacket made in coastal southeast India, for the Dutch market, eighteenth century. Cotton, hand-drawn, mordant-dyed, resist-dyed. Tailored and woven ribbon added in Europe.Brian Boyle, FPPO/Handout

The suit is indigo, but part of the new designers' impetus is green. As this exhibition briefly discusses, the environmental implications of industrial manufacture have been disastrous: From the pesticides used on cotton plants and all the water needed for the dyeing process to the cheap clothes that wind up in landfill, mass production may be democratic but it’s not kind to the earth.

It was also not kind to the enslaved African-Americans who picked the cotton needed to weave all that cloth. Another display explains how the demand for cotton drove the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It includes a 1910 photograph of an unknown African-American family, still picking cotton by hand 50 years after emancipation, and a long sack that would hold 45 kilos, or 100 pounds, of cotton. A cotton-picker was expected to fill his or her sack twice a day; this example, a long, drab shapeless thing dating to the 1950s, was donated to the ROM in 1986 by a relative of Gus Green of Louisiana, one of the last African-Americans to pick cotton by hand.

The curators could easily make two more exhibitions here, one about fashion and the environment, and the other about cotton, the slave trade and labour, but the textile department was squeezed into an illogical space on the fourth level of the ROM’s Michael Lee Chin Crystal by architect Daniel Libeskind’s 2007 renovation. The gallery’s barn-like roof is too high for collections that are mainly human sized, the walls are awkwardly sloped and the floor plan is irregular. This is the rare show that fits more naturally in the tall space because of the large-scale clothes and banners, even if finding the right path through the exhibits in this lozenge-shaped room is tricky.

In a postcolonial era, museum collections can be successfully re-examined through the lens of race, as this one does. Increasingly society demands it. But let’s be blunt here: It is also revealing to view museum practices through the lens of gender. If the appeal of floral chintzes and flowing saris is stereotypically female, then ambitious building projects and the so-called starchitect phenomenon are stereotypically male. The men who imposed such inefficient spaces on the ROM have departed, and ironically it now falls to four female curators – Fee is assisted by Deepali Dewan, Deborah Metsger and Alexandra Palmer – to turn sows' ears into silk purses in the textile gallery. (Meanwhile Metsger, a botanist, has also curated a companion show, Florals: Desire and Design, identifying the flowers in various chintzes in the collection.)

Once the pandemic closings become a distant memory, museums will still be deeply challenged to justify colonial-era collections while remaking themselves as community centres. If you want to be reminded of why the institutions exist in the first place – to conserve material culture and intelligently reinterpret it for subsequent generations – book a timed ticket, don a mask and check out an exemplary piece of programming.

The Cloth that Changed the World continues at the Royal Ontario Museum to Sept. 6, 2021.

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