Sunday, June 29, 2014

Flax Skirts of New Zealand

Polynesia 2

Last week I spoke of the feathered cloaks of Polynesia, specifically, New Zealand.  I mentioned that while there are many similarities in the cultures of the various island groups within this region, each nation has developed their individual identity.  Today we return to the Maori Arts Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand to see a contemporary example of a flax ceremonial skirt.

Maori Arts Gallery, Boatshed 2, Waterfront Walkway, Frank Kitts Park, Wellington, N.Z.

One of iconic garments of Hawaii and Tahiti is the grass skirt.  Every luau features dancers performing the hula.  The dancers sway with graceful movements and their grass skirts perfectly mimic the swaying motions of the palms and the ocean waves.  In New Zealand,. these ceremonial skirts, piupiu, are worn by both men and women.  Unlike the  long, grass fibers of the other Polynesian skirts, those of N.Z. are made from the long, tightly grouped strands of tubular flax.  These patterned fibers hang from a woven waist band.

     New Zealand flax

The preparation of the flax involves scoring each strip of flax leaves with a dull knife according to the traditional designs, centuries old.  .  Care is taken to only penetrate the green layer of the leaf and does not penetrate to the inner fibers.  In  olden times a mussel shell was used to scrape and rub the scored area to expose the white flax fiber beneath.  The resultant design is alternating bands of green and white.  For a skirt with a waist of approximately 29 inches, nearly 128 scored and scraped fibers are required..  The strips are plied and tied together in preparation for boiling which will remove the chlorophyll (the green bands).  As the strips dry they curl into long tubes.  Dyeing comes as the next step.  Only the exposed fibrous areas will accept the dye, the resulting pattern is alternating black (dyed) and natural white bands.

Vintage ceremonial flax skirt, New Zealand

Contemporary flax skirt

Monday, June 23, 2014

Feathered Cloaks

Feathered Cloaks of Polynesia

Throughout the islands that are part of  Polynesia there are many commonalities, although each island (or island group) may differ somewhat in their customs.  One textile of remarkable beauty is the feathered cloak, but found only in Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand cultures. 

In Hawaii, feathered cloaks denoted rank as the higher the position of the wearer, the longer the cloak.  They were so popular many birds faced extinction, as the demand for their highly colored feathers was intense.  Their method of construction was a ground of netting into which groups of banded feathers were attached with separate bindings.  The rows of feathers overlapped , sometimes forming intricate patterns.

New Zealand is the last of the Polynesian nations geographically and also the last to have been populated by migrating peoples.  New Zealand natives, Maori, also created these glorious textiles.  The Maori, however, initially prized another cloak more highly, and that is the dog skin cloak.  These cloaks were much sought after by Europeans but by the mid 19thC were very rare.  Feathered cloaks, kahu huruhuru,  then became more popular among the Maori and were made from many different types of bird feathers, including native pigeon, pheasant, parrot and kiwi. These garments were made to tribute the forest god, Tane.  The method of construction differed from other islands. The feathers were an integral part of the woven garment, not sewn on after construction.

Feathers and Fibre: A Survey of Traditional and Contemporary Maori Craft, Mick Pendergrast, Penguin Books, Auckland, NZ, 1984 

Te Aho Tapu: The Sacred Thread, Traditional Maori Weaving, Mick Pendergrast, Reed Publishing, NZ, 1987

There are many surviving cloaks in museum collections.  This past year, while visiting our New Zealand relatives, my husband and I visited a shop in Wellington, The Maori Arts Gallery, which featured many contemporary crafted New Zealand native arts.  Among the Jade and bone carvings, flax garments and baskets were several feathered garments, skirts and jackets, photographs below.

Boatshed 2, Waterfront Walkway, Frank Kitts Park, Wellington, NZ

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fabrics and Wallpapers; Textile Cousins

Wallpaper: A Textile Cousin

When I lecture about various categories of textiles I frequently  use an analogy of a family tree.  So, let’s say the nuclear family is apparel and apparel fabrics, furnishing fabrics for curtains and bed and bath linens.  These are the most common textiles and immediately familiar to us.  Next in the family might be carpets and rugs.  Another branch might be ethnic cousins, including costumes.  Also there are textiles for industrial uses.  Further along the family line might be basketry and cordage.  After all they are made from animal and vegetable fibers and are made with similar techniques.  One important, although distant cousin, is paper.  Vegetable fibers (originally cotton, paper mulberry, breadfruit and others) are pulped.  Unlike papyrus manufacture where the fibers are laid parallel to each other to create a smooth surface, paper is a mass of fibers prepared in a mold, heat and pressure are used to provide a smooth surface area.

The history of wallpaper is an interesting one.  From my files I found an article (Early American Life, Feb., 1980) in which Richard Nylander spoke of the use of wallpaper in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Mr. Nylander was the curator at SPNEA, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, of which I was a member while living in New England.  A sample of wallpaper from a house built in the early 1700’s was in the collection but this wall treatment did not become popular until later in the century except among the very wealthy.
 Early paper was made entirely from rag, as wood pulp was not in use until 1850.  Sheets of paper were formed in a mold (like hand-made paper is today) , the molds being approximately 2x3 feet.  When dry the sheets were pasted together to form rolls, which were then printed.  It had been thought that early papers were printed and sold in small pieces and then pasted to the walls. Printing was done using wooden blocks, exactly as fabric was printed at that time, with separate blocks for each color or design element. 
Flocked paper was very popular and was created by the application of wool fibers onto glue surfaces.  Borders were also popular and ranged from 2 to 12 inches deep, occasionally designed specifically to accompany a certain paper pattern.
Continuous roller printing replaced block printing (again, as in textile production). Hand-printing with wood blocks in a single color can produce 25-30 rolls of paper per day while machine printing can produce 25 miles of paper.
With the substitution of wood pulp in mid 19thC and mass  marketing, the cost of  production was significantly lowered and this interior design element was available to most households in America.

I wrote of the design work of William Morris in February.  Morris designed over 40 wallpapers, and several ceiling papers. Morris stressed "wallpaper is only a part of a decorative scheme and must be looked at it the context of the other colours and forms”.
(William Morris: Décor and Design, Elizabeth Wilhide, Harry Abrams, NY, 1991)
Morris’ designs have been reproduced along with many other designers and offer a view into interior design of other periods. .  By including period wallpapers in the examination of textiles of the same period one is invited into the parlors, important buildings in a more comprehensive exploration of the interior design of the time.

In Liberty Style I mentioned the designer C.V.A. Voysey.  His work, following Arts and Crafts style, and preceding Art Nouveau, produced unique design.  He is, notably, one of the most successful designers of not only textiles, but also wallpapers, of his time.

  According to Gill Saunders (Fabrics and Wallpapers ; Sources, Design and Inspiration,  Barty Phillips Little, Brown & Co). writing the foreword for the volume, “Wallpaper has always been a poor relation in any history of interiors….this book establishes clearly the mutual dependence of wallpapers and textiles.”  Indeed it does.  The chapters instruct on texture, color and patterns & designs.  

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Liberty Style

Liberty Style

There is no better example of “overdoing” home décor than that of Victorian aesthetics.  The second half of the 19thC saw, in Europe, and, especially in the United Kingdom, the rise of a middle class.  Education in all aspects ( science, art, literature) was highly regarded and Victorians were determined to display their broadened knowledge.  Great interest in natural history produced collections of all types of flora and fauna, actual specimens as well as those represented in the visual arts.  These collections were proudly displayed along with tokens of world travel , archaeological relics, textiles and anything vaguely resembling ethnic cultures.  Especially the styles of Egypt and the Orient were considered to be in high decorative taste.  Japanese-style decorations were soon the rage and were living happily with elements of the Aesthetic Movement which emphasized “Art for art’s sake”. There was not a parlor or sitting room in any proper Victorian household that was not chock-a-block with knick-knacks and collectibles covering every horizontal surface.  Of course, the furniture surfaces were first covered with every form of textile, from imported rugs and fabrics to handmade doilies and antimaccasars   It was not important that other rooms of the house were left unfurnished, the “public” rooms showed one’s taste and breeding, apparently.

This excessive overindulgence was soon to be replaced with a completely different aesthetic that focused on “form”.

In 1875 Arthur Lansby Liberty (1843-1917) opened his shop Liberty & Co, on Regent Street, London.  His stock of imported merchandise, especially that found in “The Eastern Bazaar” section of the emporium was immediately popular and allowed Liberty to successfully enlarge his operation. However, towards the end of the century there was a definite shift in the aesthetic of home décor and Liberty sought to establish a new look, featuring the highest quality of original design and purity of form.  This would become known as “Liberty Style”.

Liberty Style : The Classic Years 1898-1910
Mervyn Levy, Rizzoli, NY,1986

Liberty Style was developed by designer-craftsmen such as C.F.A. Voysey, Christopher Dresser, Arthur Silver and others employed by Liberty.  Soon, Liberty began selling fabrics that were exclusively commissioned and produced for the firm.

Today Liberty of London remains an icon of tasteful design décor and a visit is a must for those traveling to London.  I most enjoy the huge array of luxurious fabrics , an entire floor of textile delight.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Magic of Stinging Nettle Fibers

Magic Cloth of Nettle Fiber

For many years I have been collecting stories from literature and cultural folklore concerning textiles that contain magical properties.  The magic may be due to technique, the creator of the fabric, some supernatural intervention or the fibers used.

One of my favorite fairy tales is called Wild Swans ( also 12 Swans or, sometimes,  12 Princes) by Hans Christian Anderson..  In this story, a beautiful princess weaves shirts made from the fibers of the stinging nettle plant for her brothers.  The young princes had been changed into wild swans by their wicked stepmother.  When the shirts were pulled over their heads the birds became young men again.  These wonderfully soft shirts, made of something so unlikely, could reverse magical spells and endowed the wearers with magical powers.

Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is a herbaceous perennial 1-2 meters in height, found abundantly in northern Europe and Asia, less commonly found in Canada and US.

The underside of the leaves have slender hairs containing several toxic chemicals which are released when brush against., hence its name.   The textile fiber is a bast fiber found in the stem and is processed like flax. The finished fabric has a soft hand and has been used for bed linens and clothing. 

Nettle yarn

Asian woman knitting with nettle fiber

  Nettle, which was still used widely in northern, central and eastern Europe into the 20thC, was found in a Danish tomb dating to 1,000BCE.  White fibers found at archeological sites which had been thought to be flax have been shown much later to be nettle.  When Germany and Austria ran short of cotton during WWII, the value of nettle was recognized and 2 species were chosen for textiles.  It is estimated Germany harvested over two thousand tons of wild nettle to weave fabric for their soldiers.

Nettle has also been used as a food product.  The toxicity is destroyed with cooking.  When my husband and I traveled to Istanbul several years ago we were served nettle as a vegetable.  I must confessed I was rather under-whelmed, it was much like cooked spinach.