Vibe Maria Martens – University of Copenhagen

Indian Textiles in 17th and 18th Century Denmark

Colonialism and the Rise of a Global Consumer Culture

By PhD student Vibe Maria Martens


The aim of this project is to examine the significance of Indian textiles in the economy and culture of Denmark and the Danish colonies between 1660 and 1830. It will address three interrelated issues: colonial trade, consumption in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Denmark, and the changes to Danish material culture. The project includes written archival material as well as actual textiles from museum and archive collections.

Overview and Historiographical Context

This PhD project will highlight the importance of the trade in Indian textiles in the Danish colonies (in India, Africa and the West Indies) and Europe. It will explore the role that textiles played in the Danish colonisation of India, and as objects of global consumption and material culture in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Danish society. The history of clothing and textiles offers unique insights into economic and social developments, the priorities of politics, economics and fashion within national communities and in global interactions (Styles 2010, Lemire 2009). Subsumed within the seemingly banal acts of acquiring, wearing and fashioning of garments lie important economic, cultural and political forces that tie together individuals, communities and wider global forces.   

We know a great deal about English, Dutch and French colonial exploits, but less about those of the Nordic countries. This thesis will redress that gap in the scholarship. By focussing on textiles, it will also highlight their fundamental importance to the changes that took place in Europe in this period. The arrival of Indian textiles set off pivotal changes in the British economy and industry, and in the material culture of the elites and the rising bourgeoisie (Berg 2004; Lemire in Riello & Roy 2009). Recent scholarship has shown that France and the Netherlands were similarly affected by the global trade of Asian textiles (Gaastra 1996; Riello 2009). This project will test if similar processes were also present in Denmark.

Like other European colonial powers, Denmark took possessions of a series of (small) colonies that formed a global network: Serampore and Tranquebar in India, trading stations in today’s Ghana, and three islands in the Caribbean (St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. Jan, today’s US Virgin Islands - collectively known as the Danish West Indies). Textiles produced in India and Europe were an essential item in the West African slave trade as they were used as a medium of exchange to purchase slaves. Slaves were in turn an all-important factor of production in the sugar colonies of the Danish West Indies. In short, textiles lubricated the wheels of colonial production and trade. Indian textiles are thus a key component in the articulation of eighteenth-century global economic and colonial networks. Goods and people travelled further and more extensively than ever before, and the taste for exotic items meant closer ties between economies, people, technologies, trade and politics of an increasingly global world.

Purpose of the Project

The aim of the project is threefold and will consider:

    1. Colonial and inter-colonial textile trade

    The trade in Indian textiles in and between Danish tropical colonies, Denmark and Europe will be assessed in terms of its importance to the Danish economy. This analysis will be based on extensive archival research. The project will also examine the role played by textile production and trade in the establishment of Danish colonies in India, viz-à-viz the strategy used by the Dutch, English and Swedish East India Companies. It is significant that, despite their frequent failures (bankruptcy), Danish companies were consistently resurrected suggesting a desire to maintain the trade links and the associated political prestige amongst other European colonial powers. Production and trade of Indian textiles was based on an intricate network of Portuguese middlemen, Indian textiles dyers, spinners and weavers, as well as other colonial personnel such as missionaries and sailors. In short, the textile trade was formed on a basis of a mix of people, cultures and religions.

    2. The influence of Indian textiles on eighteenth-century Danish consumption patterns

    The project will question if the Danes were attracted by Indian textiles for similar reasons and to the same degree than English and other European consumers. To respond to these questions, my research will produce a comprehensive analysis of the uses of cotton textiles (for furnishing and dress), of how they featured in newspapers and fashion magazines, as well as in general consumption patterns and in conjunction with other fabrics. My thesis will contextualise textiles within the cultural, social and economic relations of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Danish society with a distinct focus on textiles as a catalyst of cross-cultural commercial exchange and their significance to cosmopolitan culture.

    3. The material culture of Danish imported cottons

    The National Museum of Denmark, the Designmuseum Denmark and the Danish National Archives own extensive collections of Indian textiles such as palampores (bedspreads), calicos and textile samples. To establish their origin, a new methodology of identification will be developed through the medium of dye analysis in collaboration with The Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Textile Research (CTR), the KIK-IRPA laboratory in Belgium and the Conservation Centre in Vejle, Denmark. In collaboration with conservator Christina Ritschel (Conservation Centre in Vejle, Denmark) I aim to produce a unique body of evidence of Indian textiles from which to investigate changes to Danish material culture. This will also allow me to identify the ways in which the European market created counterfeits, and how these copies were produced, i.e. if early attempts sought to transfer the scientific knowledge of textile dyeing from East to West. In addition, Funding for the dye analysis has already been granted by CTR upon securing funding for this PhD project.


    My thesis will integrate established methodologies used in the humanities with methods and research tools from the social sciences (quantitative and qualitative) and the natural sciences (such as dye analysis and spectroscopy).

    Within the humanities, my project makes particular use of material culture studies methodologies, especially Appaduarai’s concept of the social life of objects (Appadurai 1986) which will be put into perspective by applying a historie croisée approach (Werner & Zimmermann 2006); second, theories of consumption and their ability to provide information on economic, social and cultural history (e.g. Lemire 1997, 2010; Berg 2005; Harvey 2009; Trentmann 2009; Riello & Parthasarathi 2009; Riello 2012). This will be put into a global perspective by comparative analysis with existing works on other European countries (e.g. Riello 2009; Lemire 2010). Finally, the innovative use of natural science is a new addition to the study of material culture, consumption and Indian textiles and will produce new methodologies for the analysis of historical textiles.

    This project is thus an investigation of the relationship between local consumption, national history and global patterns of trade and an additional contribution to the history of taste and consumption of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This project will adeptly illustrate how the study of local and national histories is enhanced by applying a global history viewpoint. It will apply an object-based and primary-source based analysis.


    Archives: The Royal East Indian Government records which include various account books; Danish Customs and Merchants books of commodities and imported textiles; Danish government records which include records of thefts of textiles in Denmark; newspapers, fashion magazines and plates. Interestingly, the Dainsh National Archive also holds examples of the textiles that the traders in Guinea requested for use in exchange for slaves as well as detailed accounts of cargoes and merchant’s account books.

    Artefacts: Indian textiles from the collections of the National Museum of Denmark and Design Museum Denmark as well as textiles from the Danish National Archives. The identification of Indian textiles in the museum and archive collections is important since there is not yet a clear sense of how many surviving artefacts are present in Danish collections.

    Dye analysis: The National Museum of Denmark, Design Museum Denmark and the Danish National Archives have expressed an interest in the project. For the dye analysis, samples of max 5 mg, i.e. a very small piece of textile (measuring a maximum of 5 x 5 mm from one single textile) are required. 150 samples will be taken (approx. 80 euro per sample). More excitingly, there are options to apply other new innovative techniques to establish origins such as spectroscopy, a project which CTR and I are currently working on in collaboration with a business partner, Videometer A/S. Spectroscopy allows a non-destructive analysis of differences of dyes. This technology has only recently been applied to historical textiles, but offers yet another method of analysis.

    The main body of sources is archival materials in Danish archives and museums. These will be contextualised in an international perspective. This will include research produced by other scholars from the India Office, the British Library, the Archives Nationales de France, and the Dutch National Archives as well as major museum collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes in Mulhouse, France; Royal Ontario Museum, Canada; and Staatsliches Textil- und Industriemuseum in Ausburg, Germany who all possess a large collection of Indian textiles produced for the European market as well as later European “copies” or textiles similar to those of Indian origin.

    Contacts and partners

    In Europe and the world: Giorgio Riello (Professor, University of Warwick & Director of the Pasold Research Fund), Beverly Lemire (Professor, University of Alberta), Evelyn Welch (Professor, Queen Mary University and PI of the HERA Project Fashioning the Early Modern), Vijaya Ramaswamy (Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi), Dr. Lotika Varadarajan (Development Commissioner Handicrafts, Ministry of Textiles, India) as well as scholars of the ERC funded project Europe’s Asian Centuries based at the University of Warwick such as  Dr. Jan Nierstrasz and Dr. Hanna Hodacs.

    In Denmark: The Danish National Research Foundation’s Center for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen; Mikkel Venborg Pedersen (Curator, National Museum of Denmark), Kirsten Toftegaard (Curator, Designmuseum Denmark); Esther Fihl (Professor MSO, University of Copenhagen), Tove Engelhardt Mathiassen (Curator, The Old Town Museum); Maj Ringgaard (Conservator, National Museum of Denmark); Joy Boutrup (Associate Professor, Kolding School of Design); Erik Gøbel (Senior Researcher, Danish National Archives); Christina Ritschel (Conservator, Conservation Center Vejle).

    All of the above are vital partners and contacts for this project as they provide useful and relevant expertise and will be able to secure access to museum and archive collections. In addition, the Indian colleagues, Professor Ramaswamy and Dr. Varadarajan, will be able to ease contact to Indian colleagues and institutions such as JNU, for the study tour and research stay already planned. 

    General bibliography

    Andersen, E., 1977. Moden i 1700-årene: fra 1690 til 1790. Nationalmuseet.

    Andersen, E., 1986. Moden 1790-1840. Nationalmuseet, Nyt Nordisk Forlag.

    Appadurai, A., 1986. The social life of things. Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Berg, M., 2005. In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century, Past & Present, 182, pp.85-142.

    Berg, M., 2005. Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Feldbæk, O. and Justesen O., 1980. Kolonierne i Asien og Afrika. København: Politikens forlag.

    Gaastra, F.  S., 1996. The Textile Trade of the VOC: The Dutch Response to the English Challenge, South Asia, 19, Special Issue, pp.85-95.

    Hartkamp-Jonxis, E., 1994. Sitsen uit India/Indian Chintzes. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum.

    Harvey, K. ed., 2009. History and Material Culture. London: Routledge.

    Kriger, C. E., 2006. Cloth in West African History. Lanham: AltaMira Press.

    Lemire, B., 2009. Review of Ross, Robert. Clothing. A Global History. Or, the Imperialists’ New Clothes. International Review of Social History, 54, pp.513-515.

    Lemire, B., 1997. Dress, Culture and Commerce. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press.

    Lemire, B. ed., 2010. The Force of Fashion in Politics and Society: Global Perspectives from Early Modern to Modern Times. Farnham; Burlington: Ashgate.

    Lemire, B. and Riello, G., Summer 2008. East & West: Textiles and Fashion in Early Modern Europe. Journal of Social History, 41(4), pp.887-916.

    Martens, V. M. (forthcoming 2013) Fashionable thefts: textiles and garments in 18th century Copenhagen. Published in conjunction with the Fashioning the Early Modern programme.

    Martens, V. M. (forthcoming 2012). The colourful qualities of desire. In: Nosch, M.-L. and Feng, Z., eds. Global Textile Encounters.

    Parthasarathi, P. and Riello, G., 2012. From India to the World: Cotton and Fashionability. In: F. Trentmann, ed., 2012. Handbook of the History of Consumption. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.145-170.

    Riello, G. 2010. Asian knowledge and the development of calico printing in Europe in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries.  Journal of Global History, 5, pp.1-28

    Riello, G. and Parthasarathi, P. eds., 2009. The Spinning World. A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

    Riello, G. and Roy, T. eds., 2009. How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500-1850. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

    Trentmann, F., 2009. Crossing Divides: Consumption and Globalization. Journal of Consumer Culture, 9, pp.187-220.

    Styles, J., 2011. Indian Cottons and European Fashion, 1400-1800. In: G. Adamson, G. Riello and S. Teasley eds.. Global Design History. Basingstoke: Routledge. Ch. 3.

    Werner, M. and Zimmermann, B., February 2006. Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croisée and the Challenge of Reflexivity. History and Theory, 45, pp.30-50.

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