According to the East Asian calendar, we are living the Year of the Dragon. Among the 12 signs of the zodiac, the dragon is considered the most auspicious and powerful, and “dragon years” typically bring prosperity and change. Boys born during dragon years are thought to be especially lucky, contributing to higher birthrates in countries including Taiwan and China. With the economy on the upswing, and a presidential election on its way, 2012 may certainly bring change and luck for the year ahead in the United States. But aren’t dragons meant to be fearsome and evil?

The current exhibition at The Textile Museum, Dragons, Nagas, and Creatures of the Deep (on view through January 6, 2013), explores the use of dragon imagery in costumes and furnishings around the world. The pieces on view demonstrate that for many cultures, dragons are considered to be powerful, protective creatures.

The Earliest Dragons

For a creature of the imagination, the roots of this mythological beast are older than you might expect. The earliest piece in the exhibition was found in Egypt and dates from 400–500 CE. This panel, perhaps originally part of a tunic, depicts a Nereid (sea goddess) riding a mythical horse-fish beast. The English word “dragon” derives from the Greek drákon, meaning “water snake” or “large serpent.” Seemingly, some of the earliest imaginings of dragon-like creatures were more closely associated with water than fire.

Water dragons are a common theme in folklore and decorative arts throughout Southeast Asia.  In this region, dragons take the form of fantastical snakes, or nagas. Nagas controlled rain—of the greatest importance to these rice-growing cultures—and were considered connections to the spirit world. Complex dragon designs used on a skirt and shawl by the Lao-Tai people of Laos gave their wearer more power. A shaman would have reserved these special textiles for healing or fertility rituals.

In China, dragons were considered so powerful they symbolized the emperor and imperial authority, and only certain people could wear dragon designs. For example, only nobles could wear a dragon that faced the front, and only the imperial family could wear dragons with five claws.  A stunningly woven 18th-century coat made during the Qing dynasty includes several dragons with one claw painstakingly removed from each foot—indicating its second owner altered the garment to suit his social standing.
Whether creatures of good or evil, dragons in every culture were unquestionably powerful, and became a symbol for both prestige and protection.  The exhibition also includes pieces from Persia, the Kuna people of Panama and Colombia, Indonesia and Greece—and the similarities between the dragons on view may surprise you.

In the Gallery

This is a wonderful exhibition to explore with the entire family.

Hunting for Dragons, Nagas and Creatures of the Deep!  All the textiles in this exhibition depict imagery of real and imagined creatures.  How many can you find?  Focus your attention on the mola panels of Panama and the woman’s mantle from Peru, located together in the front left of the gallery. How many animals can you find?  Are they real or imaginary?  Do they have wings or legs?  Fur, feathers or scales? Hunt for the bird sitting on the back of the dragon in the bottom mola.

Compare and contrast: Head to the back right corner of the exhibition. There, a few feet apart, you will find an apron and robe. Both of these pieces use dragons, but they were made for very different reasons. The apron, from the Shidong village in western China, was made by a young Miao woman before she was married. The robe was made for a noble man of the imperial clan of the Qing dynasty of China (1644–1912).

How do the dragons on these pieces of clothing look different? Can you see any similarities? Why do you think they might have different personalities?

Find: Can you find the dragon with the lampshade on its head?

This dragon, on a cape (or mantle) worn by a Buddhist priest, was made in China in the mid-18th century. While it might look to us like the dragon is wearing a lampshade—that shape is actually an umbrella. The umbrella is one of eight symbols of Buddhism, and was perhaps added to this mantle to add to its protective power.

While at the Museum

The Textile Learning Center:  On the second floor of The Textile Museum there is a hands-on activity gallery for children and adults. Take time to explore this space with your child.  The stations “Pattern a Cloth with Embroidery,” “Weave Patterns into a Cloth” and “Introduce Color & Design by Adding Yarns”  help explain the textile techniques most frequently used in Dragons, Nagas and Creatures of the Deep.

Red Room:  Before or after viewing the exhibition, enjoy a drink of water in the red room adjacent to the lobby and look for the historical photo of the Myer’s family fountain.  What do you see?  (Remember: you never know where you may find a dragon. The key to being a good dragon hunter is to always be on the lookout.)

On your way home:  Walk one block east of The Textile Museum to the corner of 22nd and S streets. There you will find PRINCE PANDA, a public art piece.  Look closely at the paintings of colorful swirls and Asian-influenced imagery.  What do you see all over the yellow panda?  Are these creatures friendly or fierce?  What colors do you see?  Why might Prince Panda be covered in dragons?

Try It at Home!

Paper mola:  Draw the outline of a dragon (or animal, flower, etc.) on a piece of construction paper.  Cut it out.  Glue it to a piece of construction paper of a contrasting color.  Cut around the original shape about ¼  to ½ inch from the edge so the second color outlines the first.  Add two to four colors to the original shape and glue to a whole piece of paper.  Cut out various shapes and glue in the negative space of your mola. 

Make a mola with felt and thread: Follow the paper mola directions, but replace paper with felt and the glue with a basting stitch of colorful thread.

Draw a dragon:  Draw a dragon on a piece of paper.  Consider the texture of its skin.  Is your dragon scaly, smooth or bumpy?  Does it have two legs or four?  Give your dragon a special quality.  Is it a water dragon, or can it breathe fire?  Write a story you can illustrate about your dragon’s adventures!

Katy Clune is Comunications and Marketing Manager and Hattie Jo Lehman is Assistant Curator of Education at the Textile Museum.