Wednesday, February 13, 2013

13 February 2013, Sarah Foulks - "East of India"

What makes a textile collection? Is it the expensive and professionally stitched pieces we see behind glass preserved in a museum, or is it the everyday, slightly worn pieces bought from the locals whilst on your travels?

Anyone who has an interest in ethnic textiles, their techniques and meaning, has probably heard of Sheila Paine. A remarkable lady who travelled extensively and lived in some very dangerous areas of the world, she amassed a huge collection of textiles and garments. Her knowledge of these, the people who stitched them and their context in their everyday life, was extensive. I think she was one of the first to say that the everyday textiles mattered just as much as the rich, ceremonial ones - perhaps even more so because they were used, repaired, patched and pieced before being thrown away. However if they could be found and preserved they helped explain many things about the everyday lives of these people. There are a number of books published by Sheila - well worth the read (some more travel journal than simply explaining textiles).

Sarah’s collection is following in Sheila’s footsteps. Whilst there was obviously a geographical connection, the pieces had been bought simply because she liked them. Sarah herself had been sewing since an early age and readily admitted to her hippie days when she happily wore ethnic and vintage textiles (she still wears the warm felt boots from the Nepal/Tibet area). Tribal life is radically changing and there are now villages where only the women have been left behind because the men have gone elsewhere to work. This is changing the social structure of these people. Sarah’s comment that it is somehow sad to see so many cultures now lost to wearing jeans and sweatshirts with logos and commercial dyes fell into context when you looked at the stitched designs on the garments which she passed around.

© Sarah Foulks

Her collection covers all sorts of fabrics – cottons, silks, wool and felt (all often dyed with vegetable dyes); and numerous techniques – hand stitching, applique, printing, wax resist, metal amulets and beadwork. She was happy for us to actually handle the pieces, and you could then see the hours of work that had gone into them. This was particularly so on items relating to children such as baby carriers and little boots, and hats full of scary animal motifs, solidly stitched and with bobbles and tassels designed to distract “evil eyes” and so offer protection. Who knows why so much work is put into something that might not be worn or used for very long – but thankfully it is the keeping (perhaps for sentimental reasons) of these item, long after they have been outgrown, that means there are still pieces to be seen.

Using country boundaries to describe a textile piece can be difficult because tribes will often travel into other countries. It may therefore be better to attribute pieces to a "people" where possible.

Sarah showed us some pieces which were of the same style, but decorated differently and from that they could be identified as from different tribes. However, decoration can also be used to denote gender so it can be a minefield trying to correctly identify pieces.

Not all the items were bought by Sarah herself. Knowing she had an interest in textiles, friends would search out pieces for her when they went on holiday – there was one particular husband who, not being interested in accompanying his wife on a particular outing, went wandering off and returned with a beautifully stitched and embellished hat which he had persuaded an old lady in the village to part with.

© Sarah Foulks

Sarah showed us a number of skirts – yards and yards of fabric tightly pleated onto a deep waistband, a technique which is quite common to SW Asia tribal groups. Equally fascinating was a jacket made of six layers of burnished indigo which, although seemingly cumbersome to wear, would have been very warm.

© Sarah Foulks

In Beijing Sarah came across a "market" of old sheds. Ignoring the silk ball gowns she bought instead an item that has possibly been part of a wedding skirt made with strips of coloured silks and embroidery.

Sarah also had items from the SW China area and the Miao tribes. Gina Corrigan published a book "Miao Textiles from China" following her research into the lives of these people.

Instead of a sewing basket, there was a delightful book of folded pockets, each one containing a thread or sewing implement. Ruth Smith has written a book on these – Folded Secrets Project Book, with diagrams for you to follow to create one. Not easy!!

© Sarah Foulks

Not all the pieces had been bought on her travels abroad and sometimes a strange set of coincidences can result in a lucky find. One day in Brighton, just having a general look around, Sarah casually looked through a pile of garments and fabrics on the floor at the back of a gallery/shop. Sometime later, in Covent Garden, she picked up a catalogue listing garments from an old collection in Seattle. Sarah felt sure she had actually seen some of these in the shop in Brighton. It took a bit of detective work to find the shop again, but when she did, Sarah was delighted to find he still had the garments lying on his floor (where they had been for over 20 years) and he was happy to sell them to her. She was then the proud owner of a rare 19c sledge hunter’s jerkin and other farmers’ clothes.

So next time you are killing time by casually looking in dusty shops, pay attention as you never know what you might find.

We are extremely grateful to Sarah for standing in at less than 24 hours notice to replace our scheduled speaker Katie Pirson.

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