Friday, August 4, 2017

Magic Clothes of Power:- Episode 1, The Wild Swans

Magic Cloths of  Power

For many years I have been asked to present lectures on various textile topics.  One of my very favorite topics I will share with you over several months : Magic Clothes of  Power.

I once had read a book by Barbara Michaels about a “bad” quilt.  It was not poorly constructed, not green and purple and orange, it was EVIL. and very dire consequences befell anyone who came to be associated with this textile.  So I began gathering stories and information about textiles that had intrinsic powers.  Not represented power, such as flags or military uniforms, but possessed actual , beyond the norm, abilities.

Folklore and literature abound with these legends.  However there are equally as many accounts of peoples and cultures that, today, believe that certain textiles have been empowered in some way either by their creator, or the fibers and materials used in their manufacture, or by some divine intervention.

                                                      Fabric-  England, Chintz, c.1835

Today, I go to literature for such an account: “Wild Swans”, Denmark, Hans Christian Anderson.
In this story, a beautiful princess weaves shirts made from the fibers of the stinging nettle plant for her 11 brothers.  It seems that their evil stepmother had cast a spell upon the boys, turning them into wild swans.  A good witch told the princess the completed shirts, when worn by her brothers, would turn them from swans back into young men again.  These wonderfully soft shirts made of something so unlikely could reverse magical spells and would endow their wearers with magical powers. And so it was.

There is, usually, in the background of such  stories a grain of truth.  In this case, it is the fiber of the nettle plant.  Stinging nettle – Urtica dioica, is a herbaceous perennial 1-2 meters in height, found abundantly in boggy areas in northern Europe and Asia, less commonly found in Canada and US.  The underside of the leaves are found with slender hairs containing several toxic chemicals which are released when brushed against causing itching and pain.

The textile fiber is a bast fiber found in the stem and is processed like flax.into very soft , supple fabric. Nettle, which was still used in northern, central and eastern Europe well into the 20th C, was found in a tomb in Denmark dating to 1,000 BCE.  White fibers originally believed to be flax by archeologists were later shown to be nettle.  When Germany and Austria ran short of cotton during the war, the value of nettle was recognized and 2 species were chosen for textiles.  It is estimated that Germany harvested over two thousand tons of wild nettles to weave fabric for their shoulders.

Several years age, my husband and I were dining in a restaurant in Istanbul which served us steamed nettle, apparently the toxins are eliminated by cooking.  Frankly , it tasted much like any cooked green.

I will share more of these textile tales in upcoming blogs.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"E" is for Eyelet


Eyelet fabric can be described as a combination of lace and embroidery.  It can be found in a variety of patterns which cover the fabric surface from selvage to selvage.  Usually produced in white but occasionally it can be found in colors.

The design is punched into the fabric ground by a series of knives called bohers.  The “hole is then stitched to prevent fraying. 

In the 1860’s an early hand-operated embroidery machine was developed, subsequently, a 24 needle machine was produce which could be powered by hand or electricity..  This machine was known as the “schiffli”, German for boat.   Programs were written in punch paper( somewhat similar to Jacqard weaving and computer punch cards).

Early schiffli machine circa 1910.  Note the machine operator is following the punch pattern.

Today a modern schiffli machine is 65 feet long and 16 feet high, containing 1,020 needles.. Most manufacturers in the US using these embroidery machines are in New Jersey.  These machines are computer run.

Friday, June 30, 2017

A Celebration- 250 Years of Hand and Lock

Hand and Lock

I love textile embellishments: embroidery, beading, appliqué.  I greatly admire those superior crafts-persons who produce these exciting, artistic creations which add so much aesthetic value.

This year, 2017, marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most prestigious embroidery firms, Hand and Lock of London.

Their history tells of their initial services to the military for badges and embellishments for uniforms.  Today they offer their exquisite talents to the Royal House and Family, international fashion houses, designers of costume for theater and television.  You can read more of their story on their web page.

Hand and Lock also offers educational opportunities, with courses and workshops in beading, goldwork and other embroideries, worldwide.  If you are in London you may visit the atelier and view archival pieces and embroidery samples.  They also have a large assortment of laces and designs, appliqués, embroidery tools and kits available from their on-line shop.

I would love some gold-work letters.  I can see my initials on an evening bag or made into a small broach.

                                           Photo courtesy of Hand and Lock website

Quality workmanship is not always easy to find. Just browsing their site is a joy,

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary - An Extraordinary Man - LLoyd Cotsen

Too often we are blinded by the bling of our culture. For some reason . perhaps a trait of our competitive  human nature, we feel compelled to strive for stature by obtaining objects, many of which are “only for show”.  This results in over-extended finances and households brimming with unappreciated “stuff”.  Undoubtedly, there are many examples of outstanding articles : luxury cars (that I would be fearful to drive), crown-worthy jewelry (that I would be uneasy to wear) and medieval manuscripts ( that I could only touch wearing gloves and would not understand the language at any rate).  These extraordinary objects have much merit, of course, however, they are eclipsed, in my opinion, by those I can touch, admire and appreciate within my lifestyle.  The most frequently asked question I receive when asked to identify  a textile is:”What is it worth?”  My answer is always the same: “It is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, nothing more”  There is a difference between worth and value.  One might value a family keepsake, its “worth” may be negligible. 

These thoughts are the result of my learning of the death of one of my favorite people: Lloyd Cotsen, (1920-2017).  I was not a family friend, nor had I ever met the man, but he had a passion, a passion for the everyday, the little things that told a story. He was a man I could relate with, at least in a small way..  Cotsen was a collector..of many, many things.  An outstanding business man, he was CEO of Neutrogena and marketed the brand to every dermatologist and into most households.  His business successes enabled him to financially add to his collections.  However, his collections were of a broad interest and a result of a lifetime study of archeology.

He was also a great philanthropist and a benefactor to many museums.  His donation to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco consisted of Japanese bamboo baskets, to the Firestone Library at Princeton his collection of more than 40,000 children’s books.
To us in Santa Fe he is very highly regarded for his contribution of over 3,000 articles from his collections to the International Folk Art Museum and the endowment funds which provide support to the museum.  This very varied accumulation of articles include many textiles ( an arctic parka of walrus gut, as an example).

“I buy things because they strike an emotional bell, they appeal to my curiosity, to the thrill of discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary.”
Lloyd Cotsen, 1998

It might be a worthy exercise to follow Cotsen’s ability to see the “extraordinary in the ordinary”.

                  The Extraordinary in the Ordinary,  Kahlenberg, Mary Ed., Abrams, Inc., 1998

This is one of my most favorite of all the books in my reference collection.  The text is informative, the photographs beautifully printed and the scope of Cotsen's collection is outstanding.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Appropriation

I recently read an internet article “A much needed primer on cultural appropriation”.

So, what does “appropriate” mean?  According to the dictionary the word appropriate means to take as ones own, to take for ones own: hence to steal.  We are all familiar that taking an invention protected by patent  is fraudulent.  Using another’s words either orally or in print is plagiarism.  However, it becomes more murky when we speak of intellectual properties or cultural values.    The reason I was intrigued by this article is that it addressed the issue of fashion and designers that have (and are) using cultural references in their designs with little appreciation to their true significance.

There has always been the idea that design (in whatever form) is derivative,  that is, it is based upon previous concepts , sometimes very explicit references, sometimes  only a vague hint of a precursor.  In Textile Designs (Meller and Elffers, Abrams, 1991) the authors state “…the recycling wheel, which sets the motif of textile designs on a circular road of eternal return.  Nothing disappears, and nothing appears out of nowhere.”  This might be taken to imply certain permission to copy.  But this is not what I am talking about in appropriation of culture.  Certainly we are seeing in the past few years a return to mid-century style, design and color patterns.

Cultural appropriation is very different.  It is taking the values and beliefs of a people, their physical characteristics and/or lifestyle.  It is removing these symbols from their original context and  using them in fashion , let’s be real here, for a profit.  The meaning of these cultural references is nowhere addressed, and, indeed often far, far removed from any original significance.  This is not a new problem.  In the 1950’s there was great interest in so-called “ethnic” designs. Yards of printed fabric presented Mexican senores in sombreros asleep beneath palms or with burros and senoritas with baskets of flowers.  There were “Little Black Sambo” pajamas and “Aunt Jemima” aprons.  Today this is not only considered sooo politically incorrect, but down-right inflammatory.  And yet today it continues with many ethnic groups.

The problem is, I think, the consumer sees a pleasing, or intriguing design, either in the print of the fabric or the construction of the final product.  Perhaps the offense lies in the glossy advertising.  Because  the real symbolism  is unfamiliar the consumer is unaware that this is perhaps offensive and derogatory to some.  Is there a solution?   Of course, but it may be a complicated one.  The onus is on both the consumer and the producer.  We must be more aware and receptive to the idea that everyone does not live, think and believe as we do.  If there is no market, there will be no further production.  Fashion manufacturers must be held accountable. Apologies after the fact should not be the final word.. If there is an instance of such breach of good faith the public should make their voices heard.  Afterall everyone is entitled to their heritage and beliefs  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"D" is for The Draper Corporation

“D” is for The Draper Corporation

Today, we take technology as a given.  New advances are made daily, increasing the productivity of our endeavors.  These advances are exponential, not linear.  By this I mean the tech wizards do not rely on a step-by-step method of discovery and advancement (starting from the beginning every time) but rather on the entire “mass” of information available.  Because we are so demanding of immediate advances  ( new cell phone technology is a great example) we forget  the difficulties encountered in the past by the pioneers of mechanization, the tinkerers and the inventors.

When the Draper Corporation ceased making power looms for textile production in the mid 1970’s, it had been in operation for over 130 years in Hopedale MA, and was once the largest maker of power looms.

Ira Draper was a wealthy farmer from Weston Massachusetts with an ability to improve heavy machinery, making it more efficient.  His great-great-grandfather, from Boston, was one of the first of the colonists to begin a business weaving and selling cloth, so textile production was an interesting pursuit for Ira.  In 1816 he obtained a patent for an improved flyshuttle hand  loom and the first self-acting temple.  The loom temple was a moving device allowing the weaver to manage 2 power looms at the same time   In 1829 he received a patent for an improved version off his original design and later sold his patents and the business to his son, James.

Ebenezer Draper bought the business from his brother, James, and in 1853 another brother, George, joined the firm of E.D.& George Draper.  Over the years, he created dozens of variations of the spindle.  Following Ebenezer’s retirement in 1868, George directed the company into the developing area of Ring Spinning.  By 1887 the company owned patents of 12 varieties of ring spindles. There are two methods of spinning Mule spinning and Ring spinning.  Mule is a type of spinning frame with an intermittent action.  It was used to a considerable extent for spinning wool, but only in limited usage in this country for cotton.  Ring spinning takes place on a ring frame which drafts the roving, twists the yarn and winds it on a bobbin simultaneously and continuously, greatly more efficient.

Many automated looms had been patented but were found to be impractical and were not used.  The Draper brothers decided to redesign and  manufacture automated looms.  One, the Northrop loom (named after its inventor, James Northrop), was redeveloped, allowing the weaver to run 16 looms at once.  In 1895 the Northrop Automated Loom was patented in England, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Austria and Spain, selling over 60,000 looms by 1900.

For many decades the Draper Corporation continued to make improvements on their products, selling to southern textile companies after the northern mills had closed.  In1967 the company became part of Rockwell International, ceasing production in the mid 1970’s. 

I am a great admirer of these far-sighted pioneers who through their imaginations and hard work have made incredible advances possible.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Holiday

Easter Holiday

This weekend we celebrate Easter.  For those in the northern hemisphere, Easter is synonymous with Spring!  After a long winter season, flowers and trees are blooming, birds are singing.  Easter also means bunnies and baskets of candy.  Of course, Easter has another meaning .  For Christians throughout the world it is the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ following his death by crucifixion as ordered by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prelate.

Many believe that certain textiles have intrinsic powers, not merely symbolic, that provide protection or bring good fortune.  One such textile is the Shroud of Turin.
The earliest legend concerns the “Image of Edessa”.  The king of Edessa (Turkey)
wrote to Jesus asking him to come and cure him of leprosy.  Unable to visit, Jesus sent a miraculous self-protrait imbuded with curative power.  Some equate this story with the Shroud of Turin, however the shroud’s  linen cloth bears the image of the entire front and back impressions of an apparently crucified man.  There has been controversy on whether this textile is the burial shroud of Jesus Christ or a medieval fabrication.  Results of carbon-dating posed the age of this textile to be no older than the 1200’s.  Others suggest the actual date cannot be determined due to contamination by centuries of manipulation.  The 14 ½ foot of linen fiber is owned by the pope, but it is in the care of the archdiocese of Turin, Italy.  The Catholic Church does not make any claims toward its authenticity and has long acknowledged that there are disagreements and questions that have not been successfully addressed.

There are other “miraculous” portraits of Jesus, one of which is known as the Veronica Veil.  Veronica, it is said, was a wealthy woman of Jerusalem who witnessed the journey to Golgatha that Christ made with the cross.  She wiped his face with her veil and his visage was imprinted upon it.  There were many “originals” of the textile and it was assumed that they had been painted, however the legend asserts that the image could duplicate itself miraculously.