Teachers' resource: Plant motifs

Man's embroidered nightcap, 1600-1624, Museum no. T.258-1926

Man's embroidered nightcap, linen with coloured silk, spangles, silver-gilt thread and bobbin lace, England, 1600-1624, Museum no. T.258-1926

Introduction

This resource is intended for secondary Art & Design and Design & Technology teachers. It contains information about plant motifs in textiles from Tudor England, Mughal India and Qing China. There are ideas about different ways of looking at objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as suggestions on preparing for your visit and follow-up activities. You will find sections on the following:

  • About plant motifs
  • Plant motif projects
  • Find out more
  • Botanical illustration resource box

The same plants often recur in English, Indian and Chinese textile design. By selecting the simple theme of plants, you can help your students identify their distinguishing features and analyse the links, similarities and differences between motifs from different places and times. In this resource, sections on each culture look at these issues by examining common aspects, such as technique, style and production.

About plant motifs

How does a motif move between cultures?

Woven Buddhist picture, about 1740-1800, Museum no. T.97-1966

Woven Buddhist picture, woven silk, China, about 1740-1800 (Qing Dynasty), Museum no. T.97-1966

Plant ornament on textiles travelled extensively through trade, colonialism and the spread of religions. In 1498 Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route to India and in 1600 the East India Company was established to control trade between Britain and the East. Its imports included porcelain and silk from China, lacquer from Japan and cotton textiles from India.

Such was the demand for these new and exotic goods that craftsmen in Europe set out to imitate them, in a style known as 'Chinoiserie'. But many of the imported goods had been made specifically for a European market. Their designs had been adapted to suit western tastes and were not an accurate reflection of Indian or Chinese design. Instead, they created a romantic idea of the East that had little to do with reality.

The influence of trade and colonialism is particularly striking in the case of Britain and India. The colonisation of the subcontinent began as a trading relationship. Initially, the British bought chintz and other textiles to use as barter in the spice trade with the East Indies, but there was soon a growing demand on the European market for Indian fabrics, in both dress and furnishings.

An example of a motif travelling through religion is the lotus flower. It originated in India and reached China through the spread of Buddhism, with which it was closely associated.

Herbs, fruit and flowers in English embroidery

'The Great Herbal', 1526, Museum no. L.1059-1901

'The Great Herbal', book with woodcut illustrations, printed by Peter Treveris, 1526, Museum no. L.1059-1901

In England, embroidery was specially popular in the Tudor period (1485-1603). It was worked professionally, by both men and women, and also in the home, where it was seen as a refined activity suitable for well-off, educated women.

Plant motifs were common, reflecting the widespread interest in horticulture. One of the main sources of plant motifs for Tudor embroiderers were 'herbals', which contained descriptions and illustrations of herbs, flowers, fruit and other plants. Compiled by botanists and specially trained artists, herbals were used by apothecaries and gardeners as well as designers. Embroiderers would often copy a plant from a herbal, showing it in fruit and flower and completing the design with insects. There was no regard for scale or season.

Pattern books, both printed and drawn, were another source for plant motifs.
They showed a design repeat or ornamental motif that could be used in a variety of different media, not just embroidery. Motifs clearly derived from the same source can be found on objects made in very different materials.

'The Shepheard Buss' wall hanging, 1570-1600, Museum no. T.219-1953

'The Shepheard Buss' wall hanging, linen embroidered with silk and bobbin lace border, England, 1570-1600, Museum no. T.219-1953

The amateur embroiderer would often engage a professional 'broderer' (embroiderer) to help her design and start the work. Motifs were selected from pattern books, herbals and other sources, then assembled into a design and drawn out on paper or parchment. The 'prick and pounce' method was used to transfer the design onto the fabric. Small holes were pricked along the main lines of the design, then chalk mixed with charcoal was shaken (pounced) through them. To make the design easier to follow, the dots were blended into a line using a wet brush. The main lines were embroidered first, then the other areas of the motif were filled in, often with counted thread work. In this technique, the stitches were formed over a set number of ground fabric threads, using the paper or parchment design as a guide.

Some of the most frequently used plant motifs were sweet pea pods, pansies, roses, strawberries in fruit and flower, honeysuckle, grapes and vine leaves. These can all be found on objects in the British Galleries. Particularly interesting is a piece of blackwork (white linen worked with black silk) called The Shepheard Buss ('buss' means 'kiss' in 17th-century English).

It shows a young man surrounded by plants and animals. The inscription around the edge suggests that he has been disappointed in love and so is in a melancholy frame of mind, though much of the symbolism is very obscure and open to debate. A pastoral retreat - to study, compose music or simply contemplate - was considered essential to the development of a refined young man. It features in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' and other plays of the period.

Flowering plants in Indian chintz

'Babur supervising the laying out of the Garden of Fidelity', about 1590, Museum no. IM.276-1913

'Babur supervising the laying out of the Garden of Fidelity', illustration from a Mughal book of manuscripts, watercolour and gold on paper, India or Pakistan, about 1590, Museum no. IM.276-1913

The display in the South Asia gallery (Room 41) concentrates on Indian art from the Mughal period (1525-1858). Many of the objects include floral designs because the Mughal emperors loved nature. This miniature with a decorative floral border shows Babur, founder of the Mughal empire, who was responsible for many beautiful gardens.

Gardens occupy a special place in Islam. They are closely related to the concept of paradise, which the Qur'an describes as a wet, shady, spacious and beautiful garden. Paradise is formal in character and includes not only an abundance of flowering and fruit-laden trees, but also shimmering fountains and rivers.

Another factor in the use of floral imagery was the trade between India and Europe. This can be seen especially in the painted cottons (chintz) made in India for the European market. Their brilliant colours, exuberant floral patterns and fast dyes made them very popular in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. To create goods that would sell on the European market, Indian textile workers borrowed design motifs from western sources. In the palampore,  the stylised tree and leaves show the influence of European textiles, especially the tapestry and embroidery of the early 17th century.

In Room 56c in the British Galleries there are two contrasting chintzes with flowering-tree motifs, one English and the other Indian. This flowering tree motif was a particularly popular and recurring image on export chintz. It usually consisted of a tree with a serpentine trunk, entwined branches and highly stylised leaf motifs.

Part of a floor spread, late 17th or early 18th century, Museum no. IM.69-1930

Part of a chintz floor spread made for the Mughal court, resist and mordant dyed cotton, India, late 17th or early 18th century, Museum no. IM.69-1930

The manufacture of an elaborate, multi-coloured hanging or bedspread was a complicated undertaking. It involved many different processes and could take months to complete. The equipment was quite simple but the workers were highly skilled. Their techniques of dyeing and painting cloth were much more advanced than those used in Europe at that period.

The dyeing required mordants (metallic compounds that formed a chemical 'bridge' between the cloth and the dye), along with resist techniques to prevent the dye penetrating certain areas of the design.

Before dyeing, the design was pounced or drawn onto the fabric. Then the cloth was put in a series of red and blue dyebaths. If the dyebath was red, the areas that were to be coloured were first painted with a brush dipped in mordant. Where there was no mordant, the dye would did not adhere to the fabric. By adjusting the mordants in the red dyebath a range of shades could be produced. A weak alum mordant gave pink and a stronger one deep burgundy. An iron mordant gave purple to black.

Blue was produced from indigo, which does not need a mordant. To protect parts of the design from the dye, beeswax was painted on to the cloth, as in batik.

There were no good dyes for green so the last stage of the dyeing process was to paint yellow dye over the blue to make green. Unfortunately the yellow tends to fade, so green leaves are often now blue as you can see in this floor spread.

Symbolic plants in Chinese textiles

Woman's birthday robe, 1870-1911, Museum no. T.231-1948

Woman's birthday robe, embroidered silk, China, 1870-1911 (Qing dynasty), Museum no. T.231-1948

Apart from a man's robe which may be as recent as 1930, all the textiles in the China gallery (Room 44) date from the Qing (pronounced 'Ching' ) dynasty (1644-1911).

The decorative motifs used on Chinese textiles almost invariably have a meaning that would have been understood at the time they were made. The meanings of Chinese plant symbols have a variety of sources. Sometimes they are based on myths, legends or traditions. The peach, symbol of long life, is a good example of a symbol based on a legendary plant, in this case the peach tree of immortality - which stood in the gardens of the fairy goddess Xi-wang-mu, the Royal Mother of the West.

Very often, the meaning of a symbol is derived from a verbal pun, in which different words sound similar when spoken. For instance, there is a phonetic similarity between 'chrysanthemum' and 'to remain' in Chinese. In addition, the chrysanthemum is the flower of the ninth month of the old Chinese calendar, and 'nine' and 'long time' sound identical. Consequently, the symbolic meaning of the chrysanthemum is 'long life and endurance'.

The characteristics and properties of some plants determine their symbolic meaning. The pine tree represents 'long life and steadfastness' because it can withstand cold and does not shed all its needles at once.

The social context for symbols was particularly important in traditional Chinese culture, and plant motifs were often used to communicate something in a situation where words would have been regarded as unsophisticated. For instance, there is a woman's robe in the China gallery that was probably given as a birthday gift. Its symbols convey birthday wishes: bats for happiness, peonies for wealth and distinction, and chrysanthemum, the Chinese character for 'long life'.

Most of the plant motifs used on Chinese textiles are fairly stylised. This is because they are mainly embroidered, and the techniques and style favoured by the Chinese did not offer much scope for naturalism, however skilled the embroiderer.

One of the hallmarks of Chinese embroidery is satin stitch, in which straight stitches are worked closely together to fill a solid shape. Shading is achieved through 'encroaching', whereby one line of stitches breaks into the next, which is of a lighter or darker tone of the same colour. Every new stitch is positioned between the bases of the two on the row before. Nonetheless, the individual colours do not merge in the way they might if they were painted.

Although some subtlety is possible with encroaching, the Chinese habit of leaving a thin line of unembroidered material between each motif or area (voiding) creates an outline effect that adds to the overall stylisation.

The pared-down nature of Chinese pictorial conventions also influenced the rather abstract appearance of the textiles. In China, botanical sources such as herbals do not seem to have been used, as they were in England and India. Certainly by the 19th century, Chinese embroiderers were using standardised plant motifs from pattern books. They transferred them to the fabric either by tracing, or by the 'prick and pounce' technique familiar to English embroiderers and Indian textile workers.

Plant motif projects

Before your visit

Practical work in the classroom will give your students direct experience of developing and using plant motifs. Drawing is a powerful tool for understanding the principles of abstraction from nature, as well as the imaginative development of fantastical plant forms. Ask students to make drawings of flowers, plants and fruit from direct observation and then redraw them in a simplified form. Get them to develop random ink splodges into plants, and make drawings from imagination or in response to written descriptions of weird and wonderful flora. All of these can be compared to plant motifs used in textiles.

The idea of plant motifs having symbolic meanings should be introduced, together with the Chinese habit of aural puns, where the Chinese word for the symbolic meaning of a plant sounds identical or very similar to the name of the plant.

Make sure your students are aware of some of the methods and results of different textile techniques.

In the Museum

Purse and pincushion, 1600-1625, Museum no. 316-1898

Purse and pincushion, linen with silk and silver thread embroidery, England, 1600-1625, Museum no. 316-1898

It may be a good idea to spend most of your time in one gallery and draw out cross-cultural and comparative issues back at school using other resources. Alternatively, you may want to divide your class into three groups and allocate each group one gallery. Students could then share their research back at school. If you are bringing older students, you may want to start them off as a whole group in one gallery and then allow them to identify their own point of focus within the area outlined in this resource.

Younger students will need to know how they will be using their museum research back at school. Depending on previous experience, older students should be able to handle more open-ended research on the topic of plant motifs. The proposed outcome can be negotiated later on an individual basis.

Ideas for projects

  • A printed or constructed textile incorporating Chinese, British and/or Indian plant motifs, together with appropriate designs from other sources

  • A resist-dyed and painted textile on the theme of colonial India or the life of Asian people in the UK, using plants as a central part of the design

  • A painting or mixed media piece that explores differences between English, Indian and Chinese cultures through plant forms 

  • A ceramic or sculpture incorporating elements of English, Chinese and Indian plant motifs

When they are in the museum, your students will be concentrating on looking at the objects. They can record their visual research through drawings and written notes. Some may enjoy using a handheld tape-recorder instead of writing things down. The following page of Chinese plant symbols can be photocopied and used for reference in the China gallery.

View and print the Chinese Plant Symbols sheet (PDF file, 37 KB).

Below are some questions to help your students develop their visual skills in the museum:

Identify

  • Which of these techniques have been used to represent plant motifs on textiles: embroidery with silk, embroidery with gold thread, beadwork, mirrorwork, printing, brocade, weaving, cut velvet, resist dyeing, painting?

Compare

  • Look for the same plant motif on textiles made with different techniques or from different cultures, then compare them (for example, Tudor and Qing embroidered flowers)
  • What were these textiles used for in Tudor England/Mughal India/Qing China? Was the technique used on the textile appropriate to the function?

Analyse

  • Find a flower motif on a textile. How many different colours are there on the petals? Make a drawing to show the range of colours on one petal. Do they blend into each other, or does each colour stand out? What technique was used?

Select

  • Pick one plant motif that you particularly like. What do you like about it? Make a drawing of it. Can you find any examples of it on objects other than textiles? Make drawings of some of the variations of your chosen motif. Write down the name of the object on which you found each one.

Examine

  • Make a close-up drawing of an embroidered plant motif. Try and show the relative size and direction of the stitches.

As part of your project on plant motifs you may want to take your class to the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is about 20 minutes walk from the V&A at 66 Hospital Road, London, SW3 4HS. To book a visit please call +44 (0)20 7352 5646. It is an excellent resource for unusual and dramatic plant forms and has a section devoted to plants used to make dyes.

Back at school

Cross-cultural issues and changed perceptions about the use of plant motifs in textile design could be discussed. When the students have had time to reflect on their experiences, they might begin to make more detailed evaluations of the objects they looked at in the museum. They could investigate the cultural and historical context of textile production, or explore colour, form and texture using the information gathered from direct observation.

A gift in your will

You may not have thought of including a gift to a museum in your will, but the V&A is a charity and legacies form an important source of funding for our work. It is not just the great collectors and the wealthy who leave legacies to the V&A. Legacies of all sizes, large and small, make a real difference to what we can do and your support can help ensure that future generations enjoy the V&A as much as you have.

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