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Lesson 4.7: Conspicuous Consumption and Competitive Trade: The Story of Silk


Lesson 4.7: Conspicuous Consumption and Competitive Trade: The Story of Silk


Topic 3: Networks of Trade, Technology and Taste: Sugar, Coffee and Silk


This lesson on silk covers a wide range of concepts related to the uses of silk for international elites over a millennium and more, the growth of import/export trade in a luxury good, the establishment of European manufacturing centers for silk as import substitution, and how growing demand led to innovation in production. Using primary sources, students explore the continuing relevance of Mediterranean trade for Europe after 1500, and the importance of competition and changing terms of trade. The history of the drawloom and its Asian origins is described, and how 18th and 19th century innovation related to drawloom patternmaking were related to the invention of computers.

The documents in the handouts trace ways in which both technologies and new tastes and fashions moved from one region to others throughout the Mediterranean through the manufacture and trade in silk textiles. They also demonstrate the tension between the “snob value” of expensive luxury fabrics created far away and the resulting urge toward import substitution, or copying and manufacturing similar items for the local market (and sometimes re-export) that would cost less and create jobs and tax revenues at home.


Barbara Petzen and Susan Douglass


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


2 class periods


• Students will analyze the significance of silk as a luxury product consumed by the wealthiest classes, the Church, and royalty as “power dressing,” and the plant and animal patterns that evolved from symbols of royalty to elegant home furnishings and costumes.

• They will explain how imports of silk fabric from Asia, Egypt and Muslim Spain stimulated demand and import substitution, giving rise to Italian, French and later English silk manufacturing that depended on the Levant for sources of silk cocoons.

• They will describe the technology of brocade weaving on a drawloom and explain how the process of weaving highly complex, multi-colored patterns in silk is related to the technologies of digitizing design, mechanization of weaving, and ultimately the early development of computers

• They will analyze changes in the direction of flow and terms of trade in luxury silks in the Mediterranean region from the 14th to the 18th centuries, and cite evidence that the Mediterranean region remained a vital arena of the textile trade after 1500 CE.


• Student Handouts 4.7.3a, 4.7.3b, 4.7.3c

• Projection device for color images, laptops or tablets

• (Optional) fabric samples of silk of different types, as swatches or silk garments, silk cocoons (available online)

• Video from Qantara: Mediterranean Heritage at for background on medieval silk imports and uses

Lesson Plan Text

1. The first part of the lesson investigates the phenomenon of “Power Dressing” as a way for elites such as ruling groups and nobility to demonstrate and confer power, and as a driver of imitation among lesser elites. Ask students to describe what “Power Dressing” means today, who dresses for prestige and how they do it. If rulers long ago put symbols of themselves on clothing, what power symbols are put onto clothing today? (Think of the celebrity red-carpet question, “Who are you wearing?”)How are such symbols marketed today? The lesson looks at the heritage of silk brocade as a high-prestige fabric that was introduced to the Mediterranean via Persia and the Silk Roads, from where it was first produced in China. In Sassanian, Byzantine, and later Islamic royal workshops, silk brocades were for the ruler and the court, and were inscribed with designs that reflected power and other personal kingly qualities. These luxury fabrics were often given as robes of honor. Samples of surviving silk fabrics show the similarity of designs. The use of inscriptions—in Arabic, tiraz—that included blessings on the ruler or the wearer are a design element that helps trace the spread of brocade technology across the Mediterranean region from east to west, and into Spain, Italy, France, and later England. The images show surviving silk fragments and paintings depicting luxury fabrics, demonstrating how these fabrics crossed cultural and religious boundaries. For example, Islamic motifs were used as burial shrouds, altar cloths, and vestments, and as clothing and backdrops to depict sacred figures in Christian settings. Discussion can focus on the way these fabrics enhanced the wearer, how they are evidence of sophisticated information exchange as they were traded and imitated, and as drivers of demand that engendered new manufacturing centers to produce “import substitutes.”

2. Aesthetics: Have students note common elements in the color and design of the fabrics shown in Handout 4.7.3a. How do they become symbols of power and elegance? What qualities of silk fabric make it the highest form of power dressing? What sorts of garments were made of silk? How were they used in homes and religious ceremonies? What role do symmetry and animal and floral motifs play in the design, and what role does lettering play? Looking at the fabrics, do some aspects of these ancient and medieval designs remind us of luxury domestic fabrics for curtains, sofas, and rugs today? Are they still symbols of domestic comfort and luxury?

3. How are words used on fabrics today in ways that confer status? (Designer labels and monograms as part of the design of handbags, shoes, etc.; sports figures’ names, message t-shirts and symbols of ideology can be included.)

4. Students use handout 4.7.3b to learn about the origins of brocade looms and their transit across Asia to the Mediterranean, and the innovations made to meet growing demand in Lyons, France that led to the Jacquard loom and early automation and machine programming technology. It also includes information on the artisans and workers in the silk industry over time, and how they were affected by changes in production and technology. The lesson includes a short graphic lesson on the principle of brocade weaving as digitized design (i.e. a drawing mapped onto a grid with woven thread as “pixels”). The handout instructions call upon students to:

a. Read the short passages, watch the UNESCO video of the Chinese drawloom arts of Nanjing (see handout for YouTube link), and sketch out a storyboard that traces the steps from hand loom to automated loom to early computers.

b. Take notes on the intertwined stories of the weavers and inventors, and the social changes that resulted from these technologies.

c. Track the places on a map of the eastern hemisphere that make up the trail of technology and silk brocade design in this lesson.

5. The third part of this lesson is about how silk was traded during the 18th century, as French, Italian, and English manufacturing centers imported raw silk, cocoons, and thread for silk manufacturing centers developing in Europe. First, the activity shows that the Mediterranean did not die out as a trade emporium with the opening of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean to European trade. Second, import substitution and protection of domestic manufacturing made the trade highly competitive, and changed the terms of trade between Europe and the Levant, from exports of finished goods at high prices to exports of raw materials, with very little export of finished silk fabric. European traders were, however, still at the mercy of local conditions, and had little to export from England except woolen fabric. This trade reflects changing markets and balance of power and involves wealthy middlemen who purchased from the rural silk producers and sold to European exporters (many of whom were non-Muslim minorities later brought under the capitulation treaties and given extraterritorial rights).

6. The handout (4.7.3c) consists of texts from economic historian Ralph Davis’ book Aleppo and Devonshire Square, featuring letters from merchant houses to their factors in the Levant, describing conditions of life and trade for agents and indigenous merchants, and competition with French and Italian silk traders. Student handout 4.7.3c includes a “scavenger hunt” through these excerpts that should set the stage for discussion of these concepts.



Barbara Petzen and Susan Douglass, “Lesson 4.7: Conspicuous Consumption and Competitive Trade: The Story of Silk,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed January 19, 2018,

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