Robert Shaw Textile Collection at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Robert Shaw Textile Collection at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

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Copyright Ashmolean Museum

We had a most enjoyable time at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford last week.  Thanks to great organisation by Ann K, a coach collected us from Lockeridge and set us down around the corner from the museum with 10 minutes to spare before our guided tour.  We were divided into two groups, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Jude Barrett was our guide and took us to the Jameel Centre on the first floor. On entering we were all thrilled to see a wonderful collection of quilted coats, hats and shoes on display. 

In her presentation Jude explained that Robert Shaw was an Englishman who had a tea plantation in India.  It was a period in history known as the Great Game when the British and the Russian Empires were challenging each other with regard to territory in Asia and between 1868-9 Robert Shaw travelled from northern India to Eastern Turkestan (now Xianjian, China). His journey was partly to help the British India’s secret service explore central Asia.  We understand that Shaw was the first European to visit Yarkand and Kashgar and the explorer, George Hayward stood back to allow Robert Shaw to enter the city first.

On his arrival Shaw was presented with gifts of coats and other garments by the ruler, Yakub Beg and as a result, Robert Shaw started this wonderful collection of textiles.

After his death, Robert Shaw’s sister donated the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and in due course the garments were transferred to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.   Ruth Barnes who was a curator at the Ashmolean Museum, decided to do some research into the collection and I have found an interesting presentation which she gave in 2014 when she was working at Yale University.  It can be downloaded from this link:

After Jude’s presentation we then had the opportunity to look at the collection on display.  Colourful patterned Indian cottons were layered with Ikat borders and cuffs and silk from China.   Fine hand stitching was used to secure the various layers in place and it was interesting to see the choice of stitches.  The embroidery on the hats was superb and it was useful to have a magnifying glass to see the detail.  In addition to the quilted coats and hats there were two pairs of boots on display.

I was particularly interested to see the construction of the quilted coats as several years ago I visited a workshop where they produced double Ikat on narrow looms in Patan, Gujarat.

To complete our visit we were taken to the main part of the museum where several other coats were on display for the public to enjoy.

Thank you to everyone involved for making this such an enjoyable and memorable day.

Report by Ros

Thanks to the Picture Department at the Ashmolean Museum for letting us use their images.  

Details of the Robert Shaw Collection on the Jameel Centre website:

Robert Shaw’s book: Visit to High Tartary and Kashgar –

Double Ikat in Patan, Gujarat:

Fabulous Festival Costume – Ruth Smith

Fabulous Festival Costume – Ruth Smith

The Miao & Dong ethnic minorities of South West China

Ruth Smith has travelled extensively in Guizhou province in south west China which is home to many ethnic minorities including the Miao and the Dong.  She told us that it is a very mountainous area with lots of rain and the people wear over 100 different costumes. To show us examples, Ruth brought a great variety of photographs and embroidery samples beautifully displayed for our members to enjoy.

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During Ruth’s presentation we were shown village scenes and pictures of women working in fields wearing their local costumes many of them with children and babies strapped to their backs in embroidered baby carriers. Market days are special because it is an opportunity for the women to wear traditional costume and show off their embroidery skills. At festival time silver head dresses were worn in the more affluent villages and Ruth showed us photographs of the Long Horned Miao Festival and explained that the ladies would wrap their hair and wool around a wooden structure to create an enormous and spectacular hairstyle.  

Indigo is harvested each September in the area and made into a paste which is later re-constituted.  I was particularly interested to hear that the Miao like a distinctive shine to their fabrics and this is done beating egg white, seeds and even water buffalo blood into the indigo dyed material.  We saw photographs of young girls wearing this shiny fabric.  Once the fabric is prepared a wax resist is added.  Paper patterns which can be bought from the market, are laid on the fabric and then embroidery is stitched over the paper.   A lot of the designs are quite narrow so can easily be added as borders to jackets and skirts.

Braid is used a lot in the embroidery and Ruth explained how two ladies would twist horse hair with silk using a weight to create a thread.  The Miao used braid pleated up to create traditional patterns especially  dragons.

Ruth edited a book on Gina Corrigan’s Chinese collection and the traditional textile processes.  Part of the collection is in the British Museum and Ruth has become particularly interested in what she calls, “Folded Secrets”.  Ruth showed us several of these folding books which were created by the Miao for storing threads, embroidery and precious family mementoes.  She has subsequently gone on to write four books giving instructions for creating these.

Ruth concluded her talk by bringing us up to date and explaining that technology has taken over a lot of the processes now.  Computerised machines create some of the embroideries, silver head dresses are hired for festive occasions and ready made costumes are available to buy in the shops but I do hope that the embroidery skills and techniques are passed down from one generation to the next and that family heirlooms are not lost for ever.

Thank you Ruth for an inspiring and informative talk and we hope that you will get the opportunity to return to China one day.

Pinterest link to Ruth’s book – Miao Embroidery from South West China:

Instagram – Folded Secrets:

Book review:  Folded Secrets:

Text: Ros

Photos:  The majority of the photos were taken by Ros with Ruth’s permission however a couple were taken from the presentation and were taken by Gina Corrigan and P. Cross