Friday, June 22, 2012

Hankie History

Last week I wrote about men’s neckties, and also, that I used to give them as Father’s Day gifts, or sometimes I gave him handkerchiefs.  So this week we’ll talk about the history of the hankie.

Excavation in Egypt reveal entombed women of the second and first century BCE had finely textured linen handkerchiefs. In Greece, handkerchiefs were made of fine cotton or linen and often perfumed.  The Romans had several cloths, used by the male sex.  By the reign of the later Roman emperors, the cloths were no longer plain white, but richly embroidered with gold, and fringed.  They became a sign of high rank and position.  In Byzantine courts they took on ceremonial functions.

The lace handkerchief first appeared during the reign of Elizabeth I.  By the 1600’s handkerchiefs became showy and costly for both men and women.

In the 17th and 18th C handkerchiefs were oval, round and oblong.  The story is told that Marie Antoinette happened to mention to King Louis XVI that she was tired of such haphazard shapes, instantly the king decreed the “length of the handkerchief shall equal its width throughout the kingdom”.   One would think that the king had better things to ponder.

Printed hankies

Handkerchiefs with crochet and tatted edgings
Note the detailed crochet work for the butterfly and girl motif

Children’s hankies are particularly charming. 
The Scotty dog was designed by Tom Lamb (note the signature).  Lamb was born in New York in 1896.  As a young man he invested in his own textile studio.  His household fabric designs were seen in department stores in NY.
In the 1920’s Lamb designed a series he called “Kiddyland”.  Besides a cartoon series he introduced a line of children’s toys and accessories.

Today these once fashion accessories are becoming very collectible.  They can be found at flea markets, antique shops, and yard sales.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Father's Day Tie

When I was a child the choice of a gift for Father’s Day was simple.  Either handkerchiefs or a tie was wrapped and presented at breakfast.  Handkerchiefs have been replaced with paper tissues and since “casual” Friday now means “don’t wear jeans with holes” these choices of gifts have mostly been replaced with personal electronics and at a greater price tag. While there a several career positions that require the “coat and tie” dress code most tie collections have been put aside.  This fashion accessory doesn’t look quite the same when worn with a tee shirt.

There have been many types of neckwear worn by men: bandanas, fancy lace ruffs and collars, cravats, ascots, bolo and bow ties.  But since my gifts were traditional “ties” I decided to learn a little more about their history.  The internet information is quite broad but the general consensus is that 1. The Terracotta Army of the first Chinese Emperor (221BC) wore as part of their uniform a cloth tie around their necks and 2. The Croations wore such neck cloths and the word “cravat” came from this source.  One resource even showed a demonstration on how to properly tie the “tie”, the most common knot being the “four in hand”.  Perhaps the most famous knot is the Windsor Knot named after the Duke of Windsor.


The modern tie is made of three pieces of fabric, cut on the bias and sewn together.  Besides the patterned fabric there is also lining and interfacing fabrics. The standard length is 57 inches but the widths vary with the style of the day.  Remember the super wide and the very skinny ones?

Tie fabric, mid 20thC.

This tie fabric shows a man doing housework while his wife reclines on the sofa.  I can imagine the reaction when this gift was opened.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Flag Day

The idea of celebrating our national emblem occurred to several school - teachers in the late 19thC. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington D.C. school children celebrated organized patriotic programs and in 1916 President Wilson officially established Flag Day and in 1949 President Truman signed a congressional act proclaiming June 14 as National Flag Day.

Tatted flag, early 20thC.

Tatting is a type of knotted lace made of a series of double knots over a core of thread held by a small shuttle forming rings and chains, which are combined to form the lace patterns. It has been suggested that its origins began with knotting techniques of the 16th and 17thC but we know it reached popularity in England and Europe in the early 19thC.
The subject of flags is a fascinating one, going back centuries in countries all over the world. In 1957 a word meaning the study of flags, vexillology, was coined by Whitney Smith, who today is a flag scholar and a founder of the North  American Vexillological Association. A vexillologist designs flags. A vexillographer studies flags and what their images and colors represent. These terms are derived from a Latin word, vexillum, which means a standard or banner.

These textiles contain dramatic symbols that have great meaning to the peoples of the countries they represent. They are sources of great pride, a show of their allegiance and a descriptive of their culture. Each flag tells a story, each is unique. 

Denmark’s flag is the oldest national flag in the world, having been flown since 1625.

The flag of Nepal is unique in that it is the only such banner that is not a quadrilateral. It is composed of 2 triangles representing the Himalayan mountains, the highest mountain chain in the world. The triangles also represent the two major religions of the Nepali people, Buddhism and Hinduism. The two designs represent the sun and the moon.

There are many reference volumes available on world flags and their meanings . Perhaps you will recognize some of these banners while watching the Olympic Games in July

Friday, June 1, 2012


I have always said that textiles have power.  They not only symbolize power as in military uniforms or papal vestments, but they have an inner, intrinsic power.  One of the powers that textiles have is eliciting emotions from viewers and, naturally these emotions are individual.  Another power of textiles is that the cloth can have different meanings depending upon circumstances. An excellent example of this is Arpilleras.

Arpilleras are handcrafted, appliquéd cloths depicting village life, scenes from nature and, sometimes a fantastic assortment of surreal plants and animals. The name comes from a word that means burlap, the cloth often used as backing material. The images are created from cotton cloth of vivid colors and accented with contrasting threads usually in stem or straight stitch, occasionally in blanket stitch. The composition is definitely not to scale, plants and flowers larger than houses, children leading small llamas or tending large sheep.

 In Peru the arpilleras feature stuffed human figures that are clothed in native style dress and carry baskets, flowers or bags of grain. These 3 dimentional figures are sewn onto background that has already been appliquéd with buildings and landscapes.

The quality of workmanship varies considerably from elaborate vignettes with much embroidery and added details to plainer cloths with raw edges of the applied fabric apparent.

So what emotional power do these patchwork pieces possess? When my husband and I travel we try to take time to visit beyond the large cities, spending a day driving through the country and visiting, if we can small towns and villages. Sometimes we are lucky to catch a market day, festival or religious procession. We have even come across a wedding and actually were invited to join the outdoor celebration. So when I saw and acquired my first arpillera I was joyfully reminded of these travel adventures. However, in researching these textiles further, I was surprised to find that this sentiment of bucolic village life was not universally shared. You see the women that create them are nearly all very poor, their families depend upon the extra income generated when the arpilleras are sold. So some believe that they represent a difficult life, not the pleasant scene under the large South American sun.

Perhaps the most different meaning attached to these cloths comes from Chile. While there had been some use of narrative handwork used to express political and social dissatisfaction in the 1950’s and 60’s in Chile the events of September 11, 1973 (yes, it seems that 9/11 is a fateful date) saw the military takeover by General Pinochet of the government and the years of terror that followed. Thousands of Chileans thought to be unsupportive of the regime were taken from their homes and were made to disappear. The simply ceased to exist and their families had no recourse. The wives and mothers of these “detained and disappeared” were left in extreme poverty. Many turned to workshops, often sponsored by churches to create handworked pieces, which were then sold. The women used the arpilleras to tell their story. In more muted colors, their loss and demands for justice were stitched. Often scenes from a home depicted empty chairs around the eating table or the names of the missing family members.

Today, arpilleras (also called “cuadros” in Peru) can be found in many South American tourist areas. Regardless of how we interpret their meaning, they are a truly views into the lives of their makers and voices of their thoughts and feelings.