Linen Towel with Indigo Woven Border
Italian noblewomen presented soft, absorbent, linen towels with indigo woven borders to birthing mothers during the 14th century and later. The cultural context of the towels is illustrated in Italian paintings of the period depicting childbirth customs such as presentation and use of the towels. For example, this fresco by Paolo di Giovanni Fei, Birth of the Virgin Mary (1380) displays several uses for the towels. Women used these soft, fringed cloths as head coverings, tablecloths, and for wrapping household items. The towels were originally imported from Egypt, a center for linen and indigo dye production and weaving. Weavers finished the white body of the towels with fringe and woven border designs featuring Arabic inscriptions called tiraz. Tiraz bands alternated with geometric, plant, or animal designs. Like other luxury textiles from the East, imported Egyptian towels were copied by Italian weavers, eventually becoming a specialty of Perugia and other weaving centers. In place of the tiraz, pseudo-Arabic and then Latin lettering with Christian motifs appeared in the European border designs.
Paolo di Giovanni Fei (Italian, act. 1372-1411), The Birth of the Virgin with Saints, 1391, Tempera on wood: 259 x 204 cm Siena: Pinacoteca Nazionale, image at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, (accessed June 1, 2009); Towel, Italy, Perugia (?), late 15th-early 16th Century, Accession Number:1917.281 Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio (accessed June 1, 2009).