The tree of life fabric motif has a long history with many ideas being centered on life, death, nourishment, protection, fertility, knowledge and spirituality. This pervasive motif has been seen in oriental rugs, art, sculptures, paintings, jewelry and different types of fabrics. The tree of life fabric pattern occurs in many variations, naturalistic, geometric and abstract. It can be categorized by any primary design motif with a long vertical axis and horizontal or upward pointing limbs. When the tree of life appears on textiles in history, they were associated with some ritual or rite of passage, for example, marriage or death, or with something of symbolic significance, such as a woman’s hair.
We first saw the tree of life symbol in Indian fabrics in the 17th century. The symbol came to be associated with the Indian palampore, or printed cotton bed covering, which often featured the Tree of Life in its center field. Each palampore was hand-created with natural dyes creating unique one-of-a-kind designs, which made it exclusive to only the wealthiest classes. The early tree of life designs featured animals, peacocks and trailing flowers. As these beddings became popular in European markets, especially English, specific designs which would complement English interiors were relayed back to the Indian makers. Gradually, elements from English and Indian cultures combined to produce designs that reflected the close trading contacts between the two countries and the effect of cross-cultural influences.
In a century-long process of adaptation, the Indian tree of life fabric and textile designs evolved to suit the diverse visual and artistic traditions of European as well as Persian and Chinese markets: motifs grew in scale, backgrounds became white instead of red or blue, floral forms became naturalistic, and the symmetrical design reflected the taste and style of the Western client for whom the palampore was intended. The sinuous lines and enchanting floral designs catered to the 18th-century fashion for the Chinoiserie and Rococo Styles.
In textiles, the tree of life design has also been interpreted in a crewel format. Crewel or crewel embroidery is a surface type of embroidery that is loosely stitched with layers of wool thread to create a thick and less detailed representation of the subject matter. The technique is over a thousand years old and its origins are still unclear although the earliest examples of crewel work are from England. The crewel tree of life fabric form tends to be mostly floral in design, excluding most animals, except birds. The patterns are created with rich, saturated colors or are often tone on tone on a neutral cotton or linen background.
The tree of life fabric pattern continues to be redesigned, re-colored, printed, woven and embroidered. I find it to be a versatile fabric to incorporate into almost any fabric scheme because it’s attractive as drapery, bedding, upholstery, slipcovers and throw pillows. The various colors typically displayed in tree of life patterns allow for flexibility in color directions, as well as layering of colors and pattern types. This pattern is appropriate for traditional, transitional and modern design styles. It’s wonderful for creating Chinoiserie, Rococo, and English Cottage designed rooms.