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    Indian Textiles at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

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    Comprising over fifty thousand specimens, the collection of Indian Textiles at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London, constitutes the greater part of its collection of South Asian Art. The textile collection has its origins in the eighteenth-century Oriental Repository or India Museum of the British East India Company, which later merged with the South Kensington Museum. Both the Repository and the Museum (renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899), were initially constituted for the purpose of aiding imperial commerce and colonial enterprise. Indian textiles were the cornerstone of the Company’s trade monopoly and therefore continued to occupy a prominent and defining place in subsequent imperial collections. They were also sought as models for industrial and art schools and workshops to improve the aesthetic values and expand the design vocabulary of Victorian industrial modernism.

    Under the stewardship of John Forbes Watson, director of the India Museum from 1858–79, the collection was reorganised to serve the immediate and prospective interests of scholars and commercial parties alike, in the model of a trade museum. In 1866 and 1873, Watson also published a two-part textile album series, The Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India. consisting of mounted samples and photographs of their traditional uses, for circulation in design schools and chambers of commerce. The South Kensington Museum was established in 1857 with a collection of objects purchased from the Great Exhibition of 1855. A considerable portion of this came from the textile exhibits of the Indian Pavilion. After the closure of the Indian Museum in 1879, much of its collection was transferred to the South Kensington Museum. This included a wide repertoire of textile objects, which included Kashmiri shawls, kinkhwabs, turbans, trimmings, rugs, carpets, and rare specimens of beetle-wing embroidery. In addition to the Indian Museum objects, were loaned articles returned from schools of art at Nottingham and Macclesfield. In 1881, Caspar Purdon Clarke, who had curated the Indian section of the Museum, was sent to India to enlarge the collection with a systematic focus on everyday art manufacturers from various regions. He was specifically instructed to collect textiles from Madras (now Chennai), Masulipatam (now Machhlipatam), Jaipur, Lucknow, Delhi, Kashmir, Sindh (now in Pakistan), Mirzapur, Jabalpur, Tanjore (now Thanjavur), Bangalore (now Bengaluru) and Warangal, among other textile centres. His purchases, made over two years and consisting of over a thousand textile, embroidery, block-printing and garment samples — apart from tools such as spinning wheels and wood blocks — constitute the Museum’s largest single acquisition of Indian textiles to date.

    The V&A’s collection of Indian textiles is representative of both India’s long textile and sartorial tradition and its wide geographic and socio-cultural diffusion. The broad-spanning collection includes rare courtly pieces as well as ethnographic and common garments and textiles from the sixteenth century to the present. In 2015, the museum held the exhibition The Fabric of India, a comprehensive study of Indian textiles, co-curated by textile scholars Rosemary Crill and Divia Patel. The exhibition showcased a wide range of textiles across categories, from temple hangings such as pichwai and decorative textiles such appliqué wall hangings from Gujarat, to costumes and dress, such as a riding coat attributed to the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The exhibition also featured contemporary works by fashion designers such as Manish Malhotra, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Rajesh Pratap Singh. Several of the exhibits were drawn from the Museum’s own collection, notable among which were Tipu Sultan’s tent from the eighteenth century; a large Mughal floor spread from c. 1850; a talismanic cotton garment from between 1480 and 1560; and a chintz wall hanging depicting the crucifixion of Christ.



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