Archives for category: Textile History

I meant to write this post a long time ago, after attending to a lecture last October at FIT by Sass Brown, on “Eco-Fashion”. In the lecture, were presented several examples of designers around the world doing sustainable fashion. Some of the examples shown were working with African countries, and their work was simultaneous supporting the local textile industry – by training people, producing locally, developing the organic production of materials, promote local economic opportunities etc; but also being inspired by the African fashion and textiles.

SUNO, Spring/Summer 2011 Collection

When I moved to New York, the first project that I helped with on my fellowship at the Met was the installation of “The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End”. I wasn’t very familiar with African textiles at the time, but after this first immersion, my love for them kept growing stronger. Africa has an enormous textile and fashion tradition and I thought I would share some of it today!

Amongst the best known African textiles are the Kente cloths (or stripwoven cloths), made by Ewe and Ashanti people in Ghana. These super elaborated were prestige garments, a symbol of status and wealth and, therefor, only worn on special occasions. These very long cloths (some would have more than 9 feet of length and width) were worn draped like togas around the body, creating voluminous garments. Kente cloths were constructed by several woven narrow strips woven continuously and cut at fixed lengths , sewn together, selvage to selvage. Both weaving and sewing are normally carried by men. Initially the only material used was indigo dyed cotton, but after the 17th century, with the arrival of Europeans, silk unraveled from trade cloths was introduced. Nowadays, synthetic fibers like rayon are sometimes used too.

Detail of Kente Prestige Cloth, Ghana, Ewe peoples, cotton and silk, 19th century

The British Museum, London, Provenance: Collected in West Africa between 1880 and 1900  by Charles Beving Sr.

And we couldn’t leave Ghana without mentioning the amazing hand-printed Adinkra cloths worn in special ceremonies. Adinkra cloths made for funerals and mourning are normally overdyed red or black, while the ones used for festive occasions retain their white background or are dyed with bright colors. The stamps for adinkra are carved from the outsides of calabash gourd and include geometric forms and also stars and half moon shapes.

Boys wearing adinkra robes, 1973, Accra


Stamp carver Joseph Nsiah of Ntonso, Ghana, holding an adinkra stamp, 1988.
Photo and caption information by Dan Mato,
Professor Emeritus of Art History, The University of Calgary

From Cameroons comes this beautiful prestige gown, made of indigo dyed cotton, embroidered with with chain stitches in white cotton. The blue and white geometric design was probably adapted from the famous resist-stitched indigo dyeing technique of the Bamileke people from grasslands Cameroon called ndop.


Prestige Gown, Cameroon, Grassfield region, cotton and wool,  19-20th century

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Dr. and Mrs. Sidney Clyman Gift and Rogers Fund, 1987

Ndop Tunic, Bamileke people, Cameroon; cotton, trade cloth, goat hair; first half of 20th century

(via Andres Moraga Textile Arts)

Also, from Central Africa comes other of my favorite African textiles – the uber-long skirts made by the Kuba people, Republic of Congo. These skirts are made of woven raphia panels, sewn together. They’re often decorated with applique with geometric forms  and/or embroidered. One of the most amazing features is that the applique has both a decorative and utilitarian purpose. Raphia cloth can be very stiff and hard to wear, so to make it more comfortable it is normally washed and pounded several times. Raphia cloth isn’t also very durable so several holes and tears will appear during this process, and the applique is used to cover them. Other particularity is the fact that the hems aren’t turned under, but face the surface of the fabric, giving it extra volume. Kuba skirts are worn by men and women, and normally several are worn at the same time.

Applique Kuba Skirt, raphia fibers dyed with natural dyes


Women wearing skirts, Kuba, Congo


There are so many amazing textiles and techniques from Africa missing in this post though! So, if you’d like to continue exploring the world of African textiles I strongly recommend reading the catalog of “The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End”, with essays by curator Alissa LaGamma and textile conservator Christine Giuntini; and the amazing “African Textiles, Color and creativity across a continent” by John Gillow.


Last week I attended really interesting lecture at the Bard Graduate Center by Tristan Weddigen. The talk was entitled “The Warp and Weft of History: Raphael and Le Brun Reflecting on the Textile Medium” and explored the ways tapestries from early modern Europe expressed and reflected the early modern artists intentions, in the same way that painting and sculpture did.

The starting point of the talk was the fact that tapestries were amongst the most expensive and valued works of art on Europe during Renaissance, but that importance isn’t reflected in art theory, either from that time or today. Several examples of tapestries with cartoons from Raphael and Charles LeBrun were discussed, highlighting how tapestries were start mimicking reality, in such a detailed way as paintings. The first examples of a tapestry depicting water reflections, and perspective, and facial expressions come from the 16th century and it is really mesmerizing to think how that result was achieved by weaving with colorful threads.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, part of the 10 tapestries series commissioned by     Leo X for the Sistine Chapel, cartoons by Raphael, 1519

However, what really got my attention was learning that it was around this time too that tapestries started depicting textiles, and clothing, and other tapestries in extreme detail. Take a look, for instance, in this tapestry commissioned by Louis XIV and made at Gobelins, following a cartoon of Charles LeBrun. This tapestry depicts Louis XIV visiting the Gobelins workshop in Paris, and you can see represented another tapestry in the background, draped brocade textiles and voluptuous clothing.

Louis XIV visiting the Gobelins Factory, cartoon by Charles LeBrun, 1673

Imagine the work involved on the creation of these tapestries and it’s not hard to understand why their were so valuable. Also, the fact that a tapestry workshop and the work-in-progress was represented in a tapestry (and the fact the Louis XIV commissioned this work and is represented in it) only reinforces how important tapestries were in the society.  Another good example are the early mentioned Sistine Chapel tapestries, commissioned by Leo X (with cartoons by Raphael), which costed at least 16,000 ducats, and that amount was around five times what Michelangelo was paid for the work in the ceiling. (More on the process of creating a tapestry from the cartoon in this video about the Raphael’s Sistine Tapestries)

What happened since then though? At what moment did we stop acknowledging the creativity, the mastership and all the work involved on the creation of fiber art? What made fiber art lose its status as art, and be sent to the complicated-to-define craft concept?

This lecture made me feel overwhelmed with knowledge (I didn’t even attempt to make a summary of it, knowing that I probably missed great part of the art theory discussion about tapestries and their role in the society and art at that time), but also made me feel that I need to study more, much more.


The Ikat class starts today and I couldn’t be more happy to be teaching it. I thought I would share with all of you a little bit of Ikat history.

Although Ikat is a Malay word, Ikat weaving is present in many cultures around the world, such as African, South American and Asian countries, being one of the oldest textile decoration techniques. The process consists of resist dyeing (normally by tie-dye) the warps and/or wefts before weaving.

Weft being prepared for ikat weaving, India

(photos courtesy of

The patterns include geometric and floral forms, stripes, animals, etc and, depending on how the warp and weft threads are aligned together, can either be super rigorous and sharp or have a blurred look.

When only the warps have been resist dyed the technique is called warp ikat. One great example of warp ikat comes from West African textiles, where the warp is resist dyed with indigo, creating a white and blue striped effect.

Stripwoven ‘country cloth’, Ghana (top right); Yoruba stripwoven cloth, with warp ikat details (bottom right);  Stripwoven Woman’s cloth, Nigeria (top left); Yoruba stripwoven ‘country cloth’ (bottom left)

(photos from John Gillow’s “African Textiles”)

Sometimes, only the weft threads are resist-dyed to create the pattern. This is the technique that we’re going to explore on TAC’s Ikat Class, and as you can see from this silk and gold thread weft ikat from Bali, amazing results can also be achieved.

(photo courtesy of

When both warps and wefts are resist-dyed to create a pattern together the technique is called double ikat, and one of the better examples are the famous Patola wovens from India.

Weaving a double-ikat Patola, Patan, India

(photo courtesy of

(Double-Ikat) Patola from textiles

(photo courtesy of

Or the also famous examples from Toraja culture, Indonesia..

Indonesian funeral shroud or hanging, (porilonjong), Central Sulawesi (Celebes), Rongkong, Toraja, cotton with ikat paterns,

(photo courtesy of Honolulu Academy of Arts)

I hope you’re feeling inspired by these international ikat textiles – I can’t wait to see what our students are going to be creating tonight in Brooklyn!


In his latest book, “At Home”, Bill Bryson has dedicated a whole, enormously entertaining and informative chapter to the dressing room. Through the recounting of the history of this room, Bryson discusses some of the most decidedly exotic fashion trends of the Victorian era and earlier.

In his lively and engaging way, Bryson suggests that, “it can seem as if the whole impulse of fashion has been to look maximally ridiculous. If one could be maximally uncomfortable as well, the triumph was all the greater.”

Because it is impossible to paraphrase Bryson in a way that is more witty or lovely, I will simply include an excerpt of this chapter starting with the discussion on the surprisingly irrational trend of male wig-wearing starting in the 1660’s that lasted for 150 years.

“Wigs might be made of almost anything- human hair, horsehair, cotton thread, goat hair, silk. One maker advertised a model made of fine wire. They came in many styles- bag, bob, campaign, grizzle, Ramillies, cauliflower, brown tie, riding bob, and more, all denoting some crucial difference in length of braid or bounciness of curl. Wigs were so valuable – a full one could cost 50 pounds – that they were left in wills. The more substantial the wig, the higher up the social echalon one stood- one became literally a bigwig. Wigs were also one of the first things snatched by robbers.

All wigs tended to be scratchy, uncomfortable, and hot, particularly in summer. To make them more bearable, many men shaved their heads, so we should be surprised to see many famous seventeenth- and eighteenth- century figures as their wives saw them first thing in the morning. It was an odd situation. For a century and a half, men got rid of their own hair which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn’t afford wigs tried to make their own hair look like a wig”

This all sounds particularly funny because the victims of the fashion trend are men like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, men who built the social and legal structure of this country. Men of gravity and importance who it seems, made time to fret about the beauty and trendiness of their hair. The susceptibility to follow an irrational trend makes them seem almost too human. It’s rattling to think that the founding fathers’ judgment is not beyond reproach, at least where hairstyle is concerned.

Although this sensitivity to the fashion of the times seems like a weakness, upon deeper consideration it shows a kind of personal commitment to social and cultural cohesion that is necessary to form a united whole, or social unit, like a country. After all, fashion trends often carry in them a political statement, and are by nature faithfully democratic.

New Year, New Life.

The Textile Arts Center has teamed up with Sewing Rebellion NYC to host a new monthly free workshop, The Mending Circle.

The Mending Circle wants especially to be a place for people to meet, share skills and make time for fixing and mending clothes and textiles.

Our society produces way too many textiles, with unfortunately  a huge impact on the environment. The “wear-tear-and-buy-new” cannot be an acceptable attitude. So starting in 2011, we all need to be responsible for the change.

Mending is one of the oldest rituals related to textiles, as old as textile production itself, and has mostly been lost. We all remember that our grandmothers used to know how to darn socks, but no one seems to remember the how-to part anymore.

We also like to believe that the things we own are full of meaning. And clothes aren’t different. Like the dress we wore on the first date with John, but also on our first day at work and even to that funny random afternoon at the park. Our clothes are full of our lives and are part of us. And thus, should stay with us and be nurtured and taken care of.

TAC and Sewing Rebellion share the belief that we can start making the difference with little things, such as mending our own clothes and using them forever. We also want help preserve memory and the simple mending skills for future generations.

Come join us on the first Thursday of every month, starting next January 6th, from 6:30 to 9pm. Bring clothes to mend, new and old projects, friends and skills and knowledge to share. We’ll have sewing machines, needles, thread, notions and friendly people to help you.

We’re starting our Spring Classes series next Tuesday and I couldn’t be more excited. Amongst the wide range of classes that we’re offering, I want to tell you today about the Shibori class.

Shibori, now a universal term, is the Japanese word for manipulating fabric before dyeing (the word is derived from the Japanese root verb shiboru, which means to “wring, squeeze, press”) (…) in Shibori for Textile Artists, by Janice Gunner

(photo courtesy of HonestlyWTF)

The Shibori technique dates back to between 6th and 8th century in Japan (the earliest known example of shibori dyed cloth dates back to the 8th century). Indigo was the main dye used, to pattern hemp, cotton and silk.

(photo courtesy of HonestlyWTF)

There are several folding, binding, twisting, stitching techniques that have been used and all have specific names. Like Kanobo shibori, for the typical  tie-dye, Arashi (Japanese for “storm”) shibori, a pole-wrapping technique, Kumo shibori, pleat and bond resist technique, and Itajime shibori, a shape-resist technique where the cloth is folded like an accordion and sandwiched between two pieces of wood.

Shibori Master Motohiko Katano (1889-1975) (top) and Shibori dyed cloth (bottom)

(photos courtesy of

There are still a few spots available for the Shibori class starting on January 8th, so don’t miss this opportunity to come to TAC to learn the secrets of this ancient dye technique. And as inspiration for the products and fabrics that you can create, I leave you with some gorgeous fashion creations..

Suno Shibori Tie Dye Scarf Jacket, Spring/Summer 2010

(via CoolSpotters)

Shibori dyed top, by Brooklyn based Upstate, Spring/Summer 2011

Shibori dyed scarf, by Brooklyn based Upstate, Spring/Summer 2011

(via HonestlyWTF)

Tali Weinberg is an awesome fiber artist, weaver, dyer, blogger and TAC’s friend living in Brooklyn. Tali’s work entitled “The males have wings while it is the females whose bodies are crushed to extract their red dye. But red is also the color of the sun” is about cochineal.

Cochineal is a tiny tiny bug that lives on cactus throughout most of all Central South America and that yields a beautiful red dye when crushed. Cochineal has been used as a dye for almost 2000 years by Precolumbian peoples. As a dye it has the extraordinary ability of shifting is color from orange to purple, just by changing the pH of the dye bath, from acidic to more alkaline, respectively.






Women collecting cochineal in Peru , from the cactus (left) and cochineal bugs dried (right) – images courtesy of Turkey Red Journal

Different shades obtained with cochineal with different mordants and pHs

(image courtesy of Jean Dean’s Wild Color)

However, Tali’s work isn’t only about cochineal. As Talis describes it “This particular piece refers to the maquiladoras (sweatshops), the violence against women they have fueled, and existing alternatives – and it relies on your participation to be complete.”

(images courtesy of Tali Weinberg)

This woven blanket was part of  a show to raise awareness about violence in Juarez, Mexico, in September. It was showed again this month in Queens, at Thalia Theater.

For several months Tali dyed ten thousands of yards of organic cotton, silk and wool with cochineal and used it to weave blankets and pillows. Here’s the video that documents all the process:

“This process of making contains a dual metaphor. It is a visualization of the violence that often lies behind the products we consume (even objects made for our own comfort and security). It is simultaneously a visualization of an alternative: a hand production process that brings together producer and consumer and that has thoughtfully considered the network of people and materials that make up the production of this particular object of comfort and intimacy.”

Cochineal was used extensively in Peru during the Precolumbian and Colonial times and his still used today in traditional fiber arts, as Owyn and I had the chance to see while there. And the process of dyeing today with cochineal in Peru, or the one that Tali used, is still the same that produced this red and vibrant color 1000 years ago:

Detail of coca bag, Peru, Moche culture, 5th-6th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. The image is also the cover of Elena Phips’ overview on cochineal distribution and use throughout the world “Cochineal Red – The Art History of a Color”, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010.

(image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art)

After 10 amazing days, Owyn and I are back from Peru.

Beautiful landscapes? Check. Cultural shock? Check. Tasty and  (sometimes) scary food? Check. Overdose on back-strap woven and knitted textiles? Check check check.

We mainly raced through Lima, Cusco, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, trying to take the most of the experience in the few days we had. I personally had a cosmic moment when looking to the Machu Picchu from the Huayna Picchu mountain. For the first time since I remember, I had no thoughts in my mind but being mesmerized about what I was seeing. We didn’t have the time to go through the photos yet, neither everything can be told in a single post. But please keep your eye on future posts…

Today I want to tell you about one particular textile/cloth. In every place we went, we kept seeing women wearing square woven mantles as a means to carry everything, from handwoven textiles to sell, food and snacks, and their babies. They would simply bundle and fold the mantle and knot it across the chest. Simple, easy and efficient.

(images courtesy of google images search)

A while ago, I came across a tutorial video from Evergreen Warp that explore the same idea – how to make a bag from a square meter of fabric, just by knotting (Owyn posted their wrapping gifts techniques last week).

How versatile can actually a square fabric be! Really, from scarf to bag to baby carrier to little blanket.. And how meaningful can it be, if you weave it yourself like the Peruvian women.

… at All Saints store!

Some weeks ago, while doing some errands in Soho I came across with the new All Saints store. All Saints is a British brand that opened its first store in the US last May and has now two locations in the city, in Soho and Meatpacking District.

What’s special about this? Both stores are decorated extensively (and I do mean extensively) with vintage sewing machines. Think Singer, Pfaff, Superba, Bernina,… Now think about over a thousand of them. It’s pretty impressive. More impressive even, since some of their stores in the UK are also decorated with sewing machines. According to WGSN, all the sewing machines are being imported from India.

The store in Soho featured also some vintage industrial sewing machines, used as display cases. I spent more than 20 minutes just looking to the machines.. they’re all so beautiful and  full of detailed designs. And they look so magical and probably full of stories.. So different from our white plastic chunky ones, that we all learned to love nevertheless.

I wonder what will All Saints do with all those sewing machines when they change the decoration? If there’s waiting list, please sign me.

As a textile conservator I know that stain removal from fabric  is hard. And it doesn’t really make a difference if we’re talking about a pre-Colombian Peruvian mantle or a your beloved silk dress. It will be hard. And the first rule is to act fast (I know.. probably this post comes way to late).

Acting fast means taking care of the stain as soon as it happens. Every substance will be easier to remove before it has time to penetrate the fibers and make friends with them (or chemically bond with them). The second trick is also a Chemistry rule ( high school science class anyone?) – Like dissolves like. What this means is that as everyone else, stains like to hang out with materials that have a similar composition or places where they can bond. So to be efficient in removing them, you’ll have to attack the stain with a product that they like even better. Like removing grease with a greasy soap..

Also a good strategy to attack stains is to work on them from the back – in this way you’ll avoid that the stain will spread deeper in the fabric.

Below is a list of common procedures and products used in stain removal, with focus on food-y stains:

Butter, Cream & Fatty Stains: Wash immediately  in warm water. If it is an old stain, apply (you can brush it with an old toothbrush) a grease solvent, e.g. spot stain removal and let it stay for a couple of waters before washing. One trick very used in my family is to  apply flour, bread or talk powder  just after it happens, to soak up the grease. It works.

Coffee & Tea: For a fresh tea or coffee stain, immediately pour boiling water over the stain until it disappears. Or, soak the stain with borax and water, then wash as usual. On old stains, make a paste of borax and water, leave on for 15 minutes, then wash as usual.

Red wine: Immediately bloat the stain with a camp cloth and then soak the stain with white wine or vinegar – they’ll both neutralize the red wine stain. Wash it normally. For old stains try to use non-alkali soaps.

Wax: All the Holiday’s meals call for candles and the wax always ends up in the table-cloth. To get candle wax off your tablecloth, put a plain paper bag over the spot, and press with a warm (not hot) iron. Continue this, using fresh pieces of paper until all the wax is absorbed.  Or try to put the table-cloth in the freezer and then, once frozen, just scrap the wax out.

Blood: Wash it in cold water immediately – warm water will make it clog. If it is a small stain, like the ones you sometimes do while sewing, use your own saliva to clean it out – works really really well on cotton.

Does anyone one have a different trick that wants to share? Holiday season is only starting and we all know what that means..