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Colour has different meanings to different cultures. Red wool tradecloth is prominent in ethnographic collections. Red has symbolic importance. Dark blue is also highly valued. Many of the Hudson's Bay Company's orders were for dark blue cloth.

North America
When they first came into contact with Europeans, the Indigenous Peoples of north-eastern America preferred certain colours for artistic and religious reasons. The Anishnaabe people favoured dark blue tradecloth as the background fabric for large items. Red was often used for smaller parts of clothing along with other bright colours such as white, yellow and light blue.

Why are we seeing red?
Red may be over-represented in European ethnographic collections because:

  • Collectors preferred small, decorative and unusual items. Small items were easily transported and stored.
  • Indigenous Peoples, such as the Anishnaabe, often chose red for small items. Smaller items are more likely to survive than large items, which were recycled.

Hindus believed that the spirit of red cloth could transform a person's soul so that a "red man" might become a sorcerer.

Red was the colour traditionally worn by Indian warrior classes. Indian rulers in the 1700s used English scarlet broadcloth for their soldiers' uniforms. These copied the "red coats" of the East India Company. One of the Nawabs of Awadh adopted red serge uniforms for his 60,000 man army and other armies copied him.

China and Japan
In China red cloth was used to furnish temples. In Japan broadcloth was used for weapons, armour boxes and saddle blankets .

Farrington, A., 2002, Trading Places: the East India Company and Asia 1600-1834. London: British Library, 45

Pacific Islands
In 1865 the English plant-hunter, John Gould Veitch, visited islands in Polynesia and Melanesia with the Royal Navy. He noted:

The prospect of "lighting for the first time upon some fine plant previously unknown to English gardens" was exciting and he prepared eight wardian cases, took hatchets, knives, fish hooks, red cloth, and much else to barter with the natives.
Shephard, S., 2003, Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty. Bloomsbury

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