Sea Change: Ottoman Textiles between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean by Amanda Phillips is a book that is at once a specialist work, and relevant to so many other fields. Covering the textile production, art styles, and trade of the 15th-19th century Ottoman Empire, Phillips is attempting to use this subject to create links to the rest of Ottoman, and even world history.
Perhaps the best way to evaluate the success of this particular goal, is to use an example from the work itself. In the first chapter, Phillips describes the form and production of kadife, or velvet. The main body makes up of warps stretched out by the loom and wefts that weave across them, this “most complicated of compound weaves” is set apart by its use of “piles” – extra warp or weft threads that stick out in tufts or loops to create a more voluminous fabric (p. 39).
Sea Change is like a velvet cloth. A book requiring great expertise and painstakingly rigorous work, it is a rich synthesis of information, the closely studied and helpfully illustrated examples making up the loom-bound warps, while the intricate knowledge of the context provided by written sources weave through these and pull them together like wefts. The pile, however, would be the connection to history outside of the immediate purview of textile production and consumption. These are brought up and used, in part, to contextualize the samples studied; however, oftentimes they do not run through the book and help give it structure, but instead terminate in loose ends, making it hard to see evidence of Phillips’ rightful insistence that material sources such as textiles can be used to elucidate history beyond these sources themselves.
Phillips states her numerous intentions in the introduction, from challenging narratives of steady rise and decline to arguing for the value of textiles and other materials that blur the line between “art” and “craft” as sources in history and art history (p. 7). All in all, Phillips sets out to champion the role of textiles as worthy of research and complicate their histories that at present, whether temporally or spatially, are too readily glossed over. Where the introduction contextualizes the work with art historical terms and references to past works on the subject, the first chapter performs the same function but for the matter at hand: textiles in what would become the Ottoman Empire between 1400-1800. As such, it includes intricately detailed descriptions of looms and weaving, variations of compound textiles present at the dawn of the period studied, and the varieties of names used for them historically.
The chapter 2 progresses the chronology and provides context, but this time within our time frame, discussing the development of weaving in the Ottoman Empire. Bursa is the main focus here, and the various structural, institutional, technological and geographical features are combined with surrounding historical events to elucidate how and why silk weaving in particular emerged from this city, and how this connected Anatolia to the rest of the weaving world.
The remaining chapters have a rough chronology to them, but progress more thematically. Chapter 3 takes the context of production built up by the previous chapter and plugs it into a system of trade and consumers, emphasizing the role of the court in Constantinople, it shows the development of distinct Ottoman styles and the initiatives of court figures such as Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha in patronizing and further cross-pollinating different styles coming out of Bursa. Chapter 4 brings together the threads of disruption via internal and external political developments with an administrative system seeking greater and greater involvement in the textile sector. Phillips shows through the study of court records how authorities worked to keep standards and prices stable where they could and project an image of doing so where they could not. Chapter 5 places the early modern Ottoman textile world into the broader context of developments in trade, production, and consumer preferences, mainly addressing how concerns over smuggling overtook those regarding standards, how Indian cotton was a mainstay in many different contexts, and how older weaves began going out of style. In the final chapter, Phillips covers the period declinist narratives most often reach to find beginnings, tracing instead the lively and multidirectional web of trade and influence in the 18th century.
What holds this work back, and indeed whether it is “held back” at all, is perhaps very dependent on the audience. As Phillips herself notes, that different readers will feel different absences in the work is one of “the perils of textile studies” (p. 14). And it must be stated that, from an art historical perspective, this book undeniably contains a wealth of information. The study of the Studenica silk in the chapter 2 is a prime example of where this work shines (pp. 53-62). This fact is not lost on the art historians who have reviewed the work, and in terms of where other histories intersect with textiles and require a deeper understanding of the styles and their consumption, this volume will definitely be exceedingly useful for reference.
Yet in its focus on its field, the work touches upon the political and social history surrounding textiles seemingly only for contextualization and does not feed information back into this interpretation. Phillips writes of opposing opinions on the propriety of silk clothes for the elite but makes no note of how and whether these views interacted, resolved, or impacted consumption among elites (pp. 146-148). That lighter fabrics took the place of heavier complex weaves is not coupled with attempts to tie this trend into the social and economic histories that must underly it (p. 190). Such absence of a framing history built reciprocally with the sources creates uncertainty as to whether developments should be seen as expansion, rebuilding, or reconfiguration. There is also a gap in trade: the production and consumption of textiles are very deeply investigated, but their transit, where customs, borders, merchants, caravans, interpreters, and diplomats would have been highly active, is unfortunately examined relatively sparsely. Though Phillips does note the need for interdisciplinary work using textiles, to see some examples of this within the book would have been more encouraging.
In short, Sea Change is a deeply researched book full of information on textile production and consumption in the Ottoman Empire from 1400-1800. For the layperson or even for historians of the period looking to add an extra dimension to their understanding, it is perhaps too focused on the minutiae of textiles while not giving enough weight to how these textiles can tell us more about the history surrounding them. For art historians or historians whose research has led them to specific questions regarding Ottoman textiles, however, this book will certainly be a treasure trove to return to time and again.