Thursday, 29 August 2013

Masterpieces of Material

We spend so long admiring the cut and shape of clothing that the beauty of fabric itself is often forgotten. Yet textiles are an art form like any painting or sculpture. Self-expression is pieced together in quilting, moments in history imprinted onto silks and imagination comes to life through the embroiderer’s needle. Textile art is not only diverse in its forms but has a rich history and deep significance within many cultures.

Just part of the Bayeux Tapestry
Possibly the most famous piece of embroidery is the 70 metre long Bayeux Tapestry unveiled around 1077 and depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066. However fabrics have played both a decorative and functional role as far back as the 5th century BC. While they are difficult to preserve, remains have been found of embroidery, tapestry and even resist painted fabrics that were used for early interior design as well as nomadic draft excluders.

The Pazyryk rug

In an ice grave in east Russia a finely woven rug was discovered complete with ornate motifs of bucks and griffins. Not only was this piece skilfully crafted even by today’s standards, it is a valuable artwork and artefact capturing the culture of the Scythian people living 2500 years ago. Bucks and griffins were believed to be “mystical expressions of life passing over to death” and the grave itself is associated with a particularly cultured and art-loving Scythian king.

 The textile pattern and colour of Japanese kimonos express social status, individuality and tradition but the silhouette has remained consistent. While dowry quilts have been an important part of Indian culture and heritage for centuries. The production process of such beautiful creations is important in itself. Usually a group project between the wife-to-be and her female relatives, the women share family stories as they sew.

It is believed that during these long creative sewing and embroidery sessions that the minds, hearts and souls of these women became a part of the quilt, thus it was not only aesthetically patched, but also permeated spiritually by the family's love.

The beauty and background of the pieces are appreciated so much that many sustainable designers are now using vintage dowry quilts in their designs as wearable art.
A design from the JoannaJohn Collection
I found myself studying textiles like hanging masterpieces last week at Knole House. Usually parading around large, palatial properties pretending I own them is entertaining enough but the exhibition by craft group Zero3 was a pleasant surprise. Knole House, its five hundred year history and its occupants inspired the works.
Letters from Vita by Sarah Welsby
Members of Zero3, formed by a class of textile graduates in 2003, say they enjoy the tactile nature of working with fabric as well as exploring different textures and layering, impossible with other mediums.

The Fabric of Knole by Janine Ayres
Member Audrey Critchley’s inspiration includes everything from Aboriginal art, which she studied for her dissertation, to the embroidery work of prisoners. “Their exhibition was amazing," she recalls. "They all said they looked forward to being locked in their cells so they could get on with sewing.”

Drawing from her own photographs and screen-printing, Critchley has also created a series on London. For her piece on the recent credit crunch, she incorporated terms like ‘quantitive easing’ and comments from newspapers to capture the mood at the time. “It was bought by a man who had been in finance in the city.  He said it was a ‘moment in history’,” she says. “I work in textile art because I want to produce hangings that say something about the subject I am studying.”  It certainly is refreshing to see such a reproduced landscape imagined in a new form.

The Credit Crunch
Critchley remains positive about the future of the medium and the improving reputation of textile artists within the art world. The V&A already has a great archive and some fantastic exhibitions.

It's just another reminder that fashion reflects far more than what should be in your wardrobe this season. Textiles go far beyond their role in clothing production; they are art, artefact, heritage and stories woven in fabric.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

That Jacket

I’m in mourning. My ‘leather’ (cough) jacket has crossed from the realm of worn in and well loved to that unappealing territory of falling apart and unfit for public consumption. While I am aware this does not quite equate with the loss of a favourite grandma, I have yet to chuck the decrepit thing away and may need a box of Kleenex on standby when the time comes.

Not exactly a Chanel Little Black Jacket
I can hear what you’re saying and yes I have considered getting a grip and taking a trip to Topshop. My reaction cannot be written off as the hyperbolising of a superficial fashion student though. Whether it’s their practicality or the memories they unlock, too often we underestimate the value placed on items of clothing. My own dad who has about as much interest in fashion as he does Tampax’s latest offering, still prizes his first Chelsea replica shirt from 1963. Tears would be shed should I choose to re-colour it an Arsenal shade of red. I won’t of course, I quite like living.

According to Marsha Richins (1994), value beyond an economic definition depends upon the usefulness of an object, its capacity to provide pleasure, the memories it evokes and its role in self-expression and identity. Not only has that jacket proven to be the most reliable outerwear I have ever owned but it now symbolises a monumental stage in my life and carries five years worth of memories.

“I keep certain pieces of clothing because I wore them to something special like my graduation or award ceremony and they remind me of that occasion.”

From a practical perspective it never let me down and was thus a trusted companion on trips to Spain, Paris and not forgetting the exotic land of Stoke. A collarless, black bomber, the elasticated waist and sleeves kept out bitter gusts of wind while fitting my body whatever I was wearing. During the coldest winter months it comfortably housed nine layers of clothing but was still light enough to tie around my bag for dancefloor purposes.

Like jeans, suits and bras, women can spend their lives searching for the perfect coat and I doubt I will find a jacket quite as versatile or worth its price tag. For this is no bespoke luxury leather piece but a £30 plastic version from H&M. Some people cannot part with clothing (often hardly worn) because of the eye-watering price initially paid.

“There's several things I will never ever wear again but they were more than 100 quid so won't chuck.”

However when you can’t afford to waste 30p on public lavatories, every garment must be an investment. You learn to appreciate a purchase worth its weight in gold and will wear it until it disintegrates.

For most people though, emotional and sentimental attachment to clothing is far stronger than practical value. It explains why so many of us hang onto treasured items that haven’t seen the light of day for years and are only fit for fancy dress parties or makeshift draft excluders. Why vintage remains a retail success and why my mum has kept the dresses made for my grandma before she travelled to India as a missionary nurse back in 1930.

“I doubt she got to wear them that much out there but we spent most of our childhood at boarding school so the dresses are a connection to her from that time.”

Clothes are narratives to lives we wish we’d known or do not want to forget. While anyone else will look at my jacket and see a cry for help, I see an idealistic but uncertain eighteen year old starting an adventure (cue sickening montage accompanied by the Beatles’ Yesterday or that song from Cats). First love, leaving home, a broken heart and losing loved ones. I see a university drop out twice over, a mental break down and starting again. New jobs, the right path, intense ambition. I see lifelong friends and growing confidence.

Richins speaks of the public and private meaning of objects. In popular culture the leather jacket denotes youth and teenage rebellion; think Marlon Brando in The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Olivia Newton John in Grease. While the most reckless thing I’ve done is write on the wallpaper as a toddler and haven’t braved second skin leggings, that jacket has come to symbolise growing up for me.

I got it the summer after leaving school and with an identity ready to mould. I didn’t want to be the glasses wearing nerd anymore but to start afresh at university. That jacket with its preformed connotations said goodbye to Fi the teacher’s pet and hello to a confident and effortlessly cool fresher (I vainly hoped). Perhaps it is a sign of our modern day consumer culture that commodities can become tools of self-expression, transformation and fantasies.

It’s also, inadvertently, seen me develop from a lost adolescent to a self-assured, ambitious (dare I say it) kind of adult. I’m fond of that timid kid like a big sister but I’ve moved on. I’m now coming to the next stage of my life and perhaps it’s the right time to move on from that jacket. What does a twenty-two year old posing as an adult wear when it’s raining and cold?

Richins, Marsha L. (1994) ‘Valuing Things The Public and Private Meanings of Possessions’, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 21(3): 504 – 521.