Connecting Threads is a born-digital interdisciplinary humanities project devoted to exploring the influence of under-represented actors in global fashion history. It does so by investigating the consumption of Indian and Indian-imitation fabrics by communities of the global south, amplifying the impacts of Indian producers and global south consumers on international networks of design, trade, and taste.
Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Indian cotton textiles and their European mill-made imitations infiltrated markets all over the world, catalysing radical shifts in fashion, commerce and technology. However, while the history of these textiles and their global circulation has received considerable scholarly attention, we believe there has been a generally imbalanced focus on the roles of White Euro-Americans as traders and consumers of these textiles, to the exclusion of other actors. The objective of Connecting Threads is to reorient the global history of Indian textiles and their imitations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries away from Euro-America and towards markets in places like the Caribbean, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.
As a proof of concept, over the past year we have focused our research efforts on the Madras handkerchief, a checked cotton textile imbued with significant cultural meaning by communities across the global south. A famed product of South India, over the eighteenth century Madras became an international commodity, reaching Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. European traders controlled much of its commerce, shaping a Eurocentric historiography that has diminished the influence of non-European actors on Madras design, production and trade. Connecting Threads has been seeking out subaltern histories of Madras, initially focusing on the ties between South Indian Madras production centres and Black consumer markets in the Caribbean. Our findings are the result of our uniquely cross-disciplinary expertise as digital, global, fashion and textile historians working across academia and museums. Our core project team has been further supported by a global network of generous colleagues sharing their expertise in trans-atlantic textile trade, Madras handkerchief circulation, and Caribbean dress history.
The project has now been in train for one year, enabled by Level 1 funding from the AHRC-NEH New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions scheme. The goal of the UK-US collaborative funding scheme was to advance digital scholarship in cultural heritage organisations by enabling projects with transformative digital approaches to collections engagement. Connecting Threads is built on a partnership between the University of Edinburgh, home of the Edinburgh Centre for Global History, and George Mason University in Virginia at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the oldest digital history centre in the United States. Working alongside these two institutions in the first phase of the project are our museum and archive partners; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York, and the Glasgow University Archives & Special Collections.
Our goal is to build a digital platform which brings together examples of extant checked cottons in museum collections with contemporary images and archives documenting their production and use as fashion articles in the global south. Our hope is that by connecting these objects, or ’threads,’ our platform will serve as a gateway to more and deeper explorations of the impact of south-to-south fashion networks on global history.
In the coming months, we will be sharing more about our discoveries so far, and about our plans for the future. We look forward to sharing our journey with you.