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I too attended the 9th annual symposium of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand (http://www.costumeandtextile.co.nz/) and have been raving about this fantastic conference ever since. Thanks to Stella Lange, I learnt that knitters who stash their material use similar vocabulary to those of drug addicts. Apart from stash, there’s your (wool) dealers who assist in your habit as you become addicted in order to complete ‘just one more row’. I was also struck by the number of references to military history. From dresses worn at the time of the 1864 battle of Gate Pa, soldier dolls made for lost loves in the Great War, a souvenir doll of a ship later sunk in World War Two to moving accounts of families surviving during Nazi Germany, the theme of ‘hanging by a thread’ came through strongly. Creativity and more likely necessity saw outfits created from flags, curtains and other fabric remnants.

World War 2 tablecloth

World War 2 tablecloth

Rosemary McLeod’s talk about a post-World War Two hassock stuffed with over five kilograms of rags was a particular highlight. An examination of the contents revealed bits of lace curtains, stockings darned to death, children’s underwear made from adult’s clothing and embroidered doilies used as shoe polish rags. Like an archaeological survey, the reuse of items raises many questions about the changing circumstances of this family. Why did dainty embroideries become polishing rags? Did the 1930s depression followed by World War Two necessitate the careful reuse of fabric before finally consigning it as stuffing? Having once owned a similar hassock, I can only wonder about its contents.

The darning mushroom features the words 'Edith 1943'

A presentation about Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum’s forthcoming Australian Dress Register (http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/dressregister/) mentioned the inclusion of a tram destination-roll transformed into men’s underwear. References to underwear made from flour bags appears in an earlier Glorybox blog. (https://gloryboxtextiles.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/a-tale-of-two-sisters/).  The Australian Dress Register is due to be launched in September and Auckland designer Doris de Pont (http://www/fashionmuseum.org.nz) is developing an online New Zealand Fashion Museum.

Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins looked at the connection between knitwear and representation of gay men on television. From Glee to Ugly Betty, the wearing of jumpers tends to signal gay characters. We were then taken on a hilarious visual tour of knitting patterns and how men have been portrayed in some fairly hideous outfits. Inspired by Douglas’s talk, I found the following scary examples at a local op shop.

Knitting patterns

Patterns include 'Romantic Romano'

The presentations were enhanced by audience discussions particularly around context and conservation. Many historic outfits have been altered with little documentation about the  changes made, leading to speculation about the life cycle of a piece. The exquisite restoration of costumes for the National Gallery of Australia’s (http://nga.gov.au/Home/Default.cfm) forthcoming Ballets Russes exhibition drew debate about whether repairs override the intentions of the designers who had made later modifications. Whatever your views are, this and the work of the Victoria Tapestry Workshop (http://www.victapestry.com.au/news_index.aspx) makes for compelling reasons to visit Australia. But before then, join the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand (http://www.costumeandtextile.co.nz) so that you can become involved with a really interesting group of people.

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It is nearly a week after my total submersion in the 9th annual symposium of the Costume & Textile Association of New Zealand, and I’m nearly decompressed.

There were 19 papers presented over the two days; I want to reflect on several of them that, for me, were about the role of garment textiles in maintaining the threads of personal and community identity.

Perversely, the first paper I want to mention, Jennifer Quérée’s “Ersatz – German paper textiles of World War I” was not about garment textiles. Jennifer told us about how the British blockade of raw materials into Germany from 1914 resulted in the development of paper textiles as an alternative to cotton. Samples of these eventually ended up in the Canterbury Museum, where Jennifer is Senior Curator of Decorative Arts. Apart from being fascinating in its own right, this paper set the scene for others which were about deprivation, adaptation, and making do.

Writer, collector and freelance curator Rosemary McLeod shared “The Hassock” with us. This object was almost literally thrust upon Rosemary by a stranger after the publication of Thrift to Fantasy in 2005. The hassock, described by some as a pouffe, was a tooled leather cover that had been stuffed with rags. The leatherwork could be dated as a World War 2 souvenir from the Middle East. Rosemary talked us through the nearly 5kg of rags that had been used as stuffing. The items spanned the 1920s to the early 1940s, and told the story of extreme poverty, or extraordinary thrift – depending on your level of optimism. They also showed that sewing ability does not come naturally. There were misshapen children’s rompers, a woman’s skirt made from menswear, and heavily mended stockings, vests and knickers. How uncomfortable were the people who wore the stockings and knickers with those lumpy darns and mends? What frame of mind was the woman in when she used the worn-out shreds of a dainty embroidered nightie to polish shoes, before washing it one last time and using it as stuffing? The hassock was a time-capsule of the mundane items that are seldom preserved (because they are literally threadbare) and rarely seen in collections.

Following this New Zealand story, Christine Keller took us back to Germany with “Lack and loss – an inspiration to fight for survival in WW2 and the post-war Germany”. This drew on Christine’s conversations with her family and excerpts from letters. We heard about the lengths people went to keep the clothes on their backs and to retain some semblance of dignity and normality, despite being clothed in curtains, flags, parachutes and sheeting. It was interesting to hear a German story of this period, and to see the impact of war on that civilian population. Christine is a Senior Lecturer at the Dunedin School of Art at Otago Polytechnic.

The role of garment textiles in creating identity was also explored in Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ witty presentation “A nice gay jersey: masculinity and the knitting pattern”. Douglas made the point, amid gales of laughter, that the frisky male models on these patterns were examples of an alternative reality for a boy growing up gay at a time when homosexuality was otherwise invisible. Douglas is the Director of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, and was elected President of the Costume & Textile Association at the AGM on Saturday.

The people’s choice award for most popular speaker went to Jacqueline Field for “A historic design archive saved and a carpet design recreated”. This was the story of Jacqueline’s involvement in researching the carpet lost from the hallway of the Victoria Mansion in the US. This led Jacqueline to Glasgow, in search of carpet makers Templeton & Co. In short, the company had been bought out, the new owners went into receivership, and the archive was in danger of being sold off. It all had a happy ending, with the archive now co-owned by the Glasgow University, Museum and School of Art. Jacqueline located an original employee of the firm, studied the archive, designed a replacement carpet, and showed the recreated piece in-situ. It was a very satisfying story. Jacqueline is retired from a career as a costume and textile historian and teacher and is particularly interested in the American silk industry.

It was a really interesting weekend, and I am already looking forward to the next symposium, likely to be held in Christchurch.

I’ve temporarily swapped the New Zealand winter for the northern hemisphere summer (though as I type it’s a cool, rainy  day in Yorkshire) and I’ve done a bit of vintage textile sightseeing while I’ve been here.

One of the first things I did in London was visit the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey Street (http://www.ftmlondon.org/). It was founded by British designer Zandra Rhodes – you can learn more about the background story here.

Most of the previous exhibitions have been about fashion but the current one concentrates on fabric. Very Sanderson – 150 years of English decoration surveys the history and production of the iconic (and I think this over-used word is deserved in this case) textile company Sanderson.

Sanderson is best known for its chintz fabrics and wallpaper like Early Tulip (left), which was first unveiled in 1929 and is still produced today. However, as the exhibition demonstrated, Sanderson is about much more than overblown flowers. In fact, the history of the company is a good survey of western fabric and design history in general – there are the busy botanical William Morris-esque prints of the mid-19th century, followed by art nouveau and the stylised sun-burst and other art deco motifs of the 1930s, through to the abstract scientific patterns of the 1950s and the return to florals in the 1960s and 1970s. One of my favourite modernist designers, Lucienne Day, did this design for Sanderson:

The wallpapers and fabrics are largely displayed chronologically and are accompanied by large panels which give a summary of the company’s history and main achievements during each period. This is also replicated in the exhibition booklet which came with the entry fee – this will be a handy little source of information in the future I think.

The real treat is the wallpapers and fabrics themselves, which were loaned by the Sanderson archive for the exhibition. It was wonderful to have fabric that I’ve only seen in books and online before my eyes, the aforementioned Lucienne Day especially.

Fabrics from the 1920s to the 1970s were displayed in large drops on one wall. In the centre various fabrics were arranged in a cylindrical drop, which is how they were displayed in Sanderson stores as shown at left.

The 1980s chintzes were displayed on the floor above, along with ‘log books’ from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which contained strips of wallpaper produced by various companies eventually absorbed by Sanderson. These books included the pattern name, notes about the designers and cutters and the cost of this work. I thought it was odd to display such different artifacts from distant periods alongside one another like this – but I guess the log books were not strictly Sanderson so wouldn’t have fitted with the earlier pieces on the floor below.

Nearby were made-up curtains and upholstered couches and chairs which demonstrated patterns currently available. I really like Dandelion Clocks (below), designed for Sanderson by Fiona Howard in about 2009.

It references the motifs and style of the mid-20th century without feeling too derivative.

The one real criticism I have of the exhibition is the lack of information of the designers, whether in-house or contractors. It wouldn’t have been hard to have a panel about Lucienne Day for instance, and I would have been pleased to learn more about less well-known people. Luckily the visual feast helped me to get past this deficit.

The next couple of exhibitions here also deal in fabric. If you find yourself in London add this museum to your to-do list.

I had also hoped to get to the V&A’s Quilts 1700-2010 but so far train cancellations and flight delays have thwarted me. I have a small window of opportunity in a couple of weeks though so fingers crossed! Check out http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/textiles/quilts-1700-2010/ for a slice of this.

Now, in a complete and random (but hopefully pleasant) departure from what I’ve been talking about, here are some photos of two cute pieces I bought at a market in Aix-en-Provence in France for €5 (about NZ$10).  I think they are handkerchief holders or something similar. Knowing about 10 words of French was not helpful at the time of purchase.

This one is made of  beautifully soft cream embossed cotton. The flower is exquisitely embroidered – the maker didn’t put a finger wrong.

This specimen is much more work-a-day. It’s rough calico and the embroidery can be similarly described, but I quite liked the wee rower all the same.

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