Cataloguing the South Asian Textile Collection

July 16, 2018

The V&A is home to one of the largest and most diverse collections of South Asian textiles in the world. Over the past 150 years the collection has grown to hold over 10,000 pieces, and all the while curators have been working to catalogue each and every one.

Original paper label attached to the back of a c.1883 textile from Hyderabad giving the price and possibly the name of the weaver or vendor (IS.2131-1883)

It’s a big job: each textile – from the smallest fragment of ribbon to the longest sari – has its own digital record that needs to be filled up with information. We need to record how the pieces are made, what they’re made of, how big they are, where and when they were produced, who might have made them or used them, and how they came to us.

Most recently (at least in the context of the museum’s long history) curators have also started to take record shots. Record shots are photos we take ourselves of objects in the stores, as opposed to having them photographed by the professionals in the photo studio. Record shots help alleviate the demand on our photographers (whose studios are nevertheless home to a constant stream of fabulous things) while allowing us to get images of objects up onto Search the Collections where they can be seen by everyone (not just curators!).

Pieces of trimming from Delhi, c.1855 (05955(IS))

This work takes a lot of time, which is why we are so grateful to the Parasol Foundation Trust for supporting our cataloguing work. Between 2012–14, the Parasol Foundation Trust very generously funded two positions dedicated to cataloguing the South Asian textile collection. Textile historian Sonia Ashmore and project cataloguer Alice Brackenbury worked with then Senior Curator Rosemary Crill to photograph and catalogue over 3000 textiles, making many pieces visible online for the first time.  However the work is not done yet, and once again Parasol is helping to us to meet our cataloguing goals.

Sari from Madurai, c.1881 (IS.1743-1883)

The Second Round

Although Rosemary has since retired, thanks to Parasol’s continued support she regularly returns to continue working with me, adding images and information to the collection’s under-catalogued textiles. This arrangement is not only helping us to make the collection more accessible, it’s also allowing me to continue learning from Rosemary. Rosemary cared for the collection for over 30 years and is one of the world’s foremost experts in South Asian textiles. The time we have to catalogue together is invaluable in helping me to expand my own expertise (and it also lets Rosemary carry on working with the collection she loves).

This time around, we have some extra tools at our disposal. With the help of students from the Royal College of Art’s History of Design programme, over the past two years the South and South East Asia section has been digitising all our old hand-written object registers. This means we can now pull up scans of original records stored at the museum in South Kensington while we are working in the stores at Blythe House.

Original acquisition record for the skirt and bodice below, listing it as ‘holiday dress’ from Birtpore (Bharatpur, Rajasthan) acquired in 1855.


Rosemary and I have been focusing on two groups of textiles in particular need of attention. Both these groups came to the museum in bulk: over 6000 arrived through a single transfer in 1880, and another 1000 in 1883. Because there are so many of them, cataloguing them all up to our modern-day standards is a long process. But it has also revealed some treasures we didn’t know we had.

For example, we have found that many of our garments came to us as ensembles. Hats came in with matching shirts and trousers, skirts with matching bodices and shawls. As the textile stores changed over time these pieces were separated. Shoes went to the shoe store, bodices into small drawers and shawls onto rollers. Through our cataloguing work, we have not only discovered which garments match with which, but are able to link object records so that even when stored separately we’ll always know what pieces belong together.

Matching skirt and bodice of a woman’s ensemble from Bharatpur, Rajasthan c. 1855
Matching skirt and bodice of a woman’s ensemble from Bharatpur, Rajasthan c. 1855

We’re also reuniting pieces of textiles. Long, long ago (way before museum standards of today) it was not uncommon for museums to cut textiles into separate pieces. In an age before the internet, this was done so that single textiles (or at least parts of them) could be seen in multiple locations at once. Lent to institutions around the country, as they returned the pieces sometimes ended up stored in different places. One of the things I have most enjoyed about our cataloguing work has been taking record shots of reunited fragments.

Record shot of the re-united sections of a gold-stamped muslin head cover from Jaipur (08(IS), 08A(IS) and 4483(IS))

Most importantly, cataloguing work gives us time to dig into the collection, do research, determine which pieces need conservation work or a different kind of storage arrangement, and consider which pieces might be good candidates for display in galleries or exhibitions. Watching a textile go from a record shot through conservation, photography and finally to display is deeply fulfilling. I only wish we had the space to show them all!

Record shot taken in store of a brocade jacket selected for display in The Fabric of India (05578(IS))
Jacket photographed in the photo studio post-conservation (05578(IS))

I’m looking forward to what Rosemary and I will discover as we continue cataloguing over the coming months.

We thank Ruth Parasol and the Parasol Foundation Trust for supporting this work. Over the years, The Parasol Foundation has been a key partner of the V&A, donating over $1,000,000 towards a wide variety of important projects at the Museum. Ruth Parasol says, ‘the Trust is proud to have collaborated with a world class cultural, educational and international institute and our cross-border projects will preserve skills and leave lasting educational value in Indian culture and art.’

About The Parasol Foundation Trust

The Parasol Foundation Trust is a philanthropic trust established in 2004 in Gibraltar and is overseen by its principal benefactress, Ruth Parasol. For over 10 years the Trust has been giving to communities in Gibraltar, UK, Israel, India and the United States. To date, the Trust has committed over £20,000,000 on various educational, health, culture and heritage initiatives.

Ruth Parasol says: ‘Our time, success and fortune are borrowed. You can never give or appreciate enough, but every effort helps. Here, at The Parasol Foundation Trust, we enable change by supporting talented individuals and core centres of health and education, in order to create a better future for the next generation. Through education, cutting-edge technologies, advanced medical treatments and culture preservation, we hope to contribute to a better and brighter future.’

Ruth is considered to be one of the world’s wealthier self-made women today. Following the immense, international success of her online gaming company and its IPO on the London Stock exchange in 2005, Ruth sold her remaining interests and dedicates her time to raising her children, philanthropy and to overseeing her international private investment office.

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