Script for Introduction to the Chatter of Cloth
Ali Smith the Scottish writer recently said that there are always two levels in a story, the story that’s being told and then there’s the one underneath, the untold story. She believes that the two structures work together and in the greatest novels you can feel the untold story trying to get through to the surface, there, but not quite seen.
This strikes cords for me, there are the threads that you see and then there are the under-stitches which hold a garment together but are not visible. In weaving there is the front that you see as you weave, and then there is the underside, which is often more interesting, when you turn a completed piece over.
If you look at a piece of fabric it tells you a great deal about itself. How it feels, what it’s made of, what colour it is, what pattern is on its surface and you can make a guess at what it might be used for. That’s the surface story, but what about the understory? Where does this cloth come from, who made it, where was this pattern or technique developed and what does it mean to different communities around the world?
Welcome back to Haptic and Hue, I’m jo Andrews and I’m a handweaver interested in the different light textiles cast on our lives and communities. This third series is called The Chatter of Cloth. Each episode will take as its starting point a particular textile and try to track both layers of its story – the surface one and the hidden one – what it is and what it’s used for, and then what road it has travelled and what it has come to mean in different societies, or just to the person who loves it.
Cloth has always been one of the world’s great migrants, since humans discovered how to make textiles, cloth has travelled up and down the old Silk Road, across oceans as it passed from people to people, creating excitement and wonder as it went and transferring new knowledge of all kinds.
From lace to calico, from cochineal to indigo, from Indonesia to Mexico, fabrics roam the world freely, weaving their way in and out of different communities and gathering new meaning and values as they go.
Travel is something nearly every one of us has been denied in the past year, so come on a journey with me in this new series of Haptic and Hue. It’s a voyage that will take us from Indonesia to West Africa, form India to Scotland, from war, scandal and intense hardship in the US, to the comfort of quilting in rural northern England.
I’ve recently been reading a book by the Anglo-Italian author Iris Origo about the cloth trader Francesco Datini, who lived in Italy in the thirteen hundreds, a time of plague. She portrays a world that is partly familiar to us and partly completely topsy-turvy. It was a time when resources were expensive and labour cheap – one where fabric and the process of having it made up into clothing was much more expensive than buying jewellery.
In Datini’s account books he lists 12 pieces of jewellery he owns: rings of gold set with sapphires, emeralds and pearls, and he gives a total value of 143 florins, which is about the same as the price of two new dresses at that time. To our ears that sounds incredible, could cloth really be more precious than jewellery? But the first episode in this new series starts with a fragment of cloth that was seized in haste to wrap jewellery as a woman fled in fear of her life over 70 years ago at the time of the Partition of India. The jewellery is long forgotten, and the cloth has become deeply precious to the person who owns it.
My aunt gave it to me. It’s a tiny fragment. And within that fragment, there are three fragments each joined. She’d never mentioned anything like that to me before. So she produced this piece and started telling me the story of the Partition, which obviously I knew about, and also listening to my mum and so forth how traumatic the whole thing was for the whole family. So while they were leaving, she had to wrap some jewellry. So she found these three strips of this bagh that she had, and she wrapped the gold in it and hid them on her person. And they didn’t bring in any other textiles, basically just travelling with really simple clothes for the fear of being looted, because in 47, The Partition was a huge turmoil for both countries. Millions were displaced, millions were killed. So that tale was very poignant to me. And also the fact that she kept that piece and she hadn’t even told her children about it. They didn’t know about it. My mum didn’t know about it. And when I told them this story, they were not really that interested in it either. So they all talked about the pieces of jewelelry which had to be sold how terrible that was, because you lose something worth value that they could equate to that. So it was quite touching that she gave that to me.
That’s Karun Thakar, and that small fragment of cloth is now part of one of the greatest collections of handmade textiles in the world today, a collection that he has created from scratch and which he is using to change the way in which museums see and exhibit textiles, and alter our perception of what is valuable and what is not.
Karun collects textiles from Africa, Asia and Europe. Each piece has its own story to tell of the community and the age that made it. But I have long wondered if textiles have a common universal language. Are there some patterns that belong not to one pair of hands, or even one community or culture, but instead form part of a universal human inheritance?
If anything has a claim to that then it the Paisley pattern, otherwise known as the buteh or Cairi. It has appeared and re-appeared in different cultures down the centuries and its ultimate origin is lost in the mists of time.
In India, it’s so very common. It’s like a beloved sister or a beloved family member, so we’ve all grown up seeing it all our lives, you know, and it doesn’t just appear on textiles. I mean, it actually appears on our desserts. You know, so we have this dessert called the sun dish, which is from west Bengal, which is often shaped like a Paisley. We draw it on our festivals on the ground. You know, obviously it appears on all our textiles. I mean, they could be woven or embroidered or block printed or printed. It comes on our hankies, it comes on our shawls. So we’ve all grown up with the Paisley. But because we’ve grown up with it seeing it everywhere, I don’t think Indians, I mean, other than, you know, the ones who know about textiles think about it too much about what it is and what it could mean.
That’s Mira Gupta a textile historian. What interests me about Paisley, apart from the loveliness of the pattern itself, is that every time it emerges people attach new meaning to it. It ricochets down the centuries changing all the way, first it’s a tree of life, and then a symbol of fertility, then balance – the yin and the yang of life, before becoming part of courtly ritual in the Mughal empire. Then it mutates into being the epitome of Victorian middle-class womanhood, before becoming a sign of the wild west, the swinging sixties and an insignia for gay men in San Francisco. It’s hard to keep up!
Sometimes cloth pretends to be something it isn’t, or is in fact something other than we expect. I’ve just read an article where a fashion editor writes “My favourite British brands have African origins” African wax cloth or Ankara cloth is all over the catwalks and even hitting the High Street in Britain. But even though this cloth didn’t originate in Africa, and much of it, even today, isn’t designed or made in Africa, and it doesn’t use wax in its production process, despite all of this, it has acquired a very African identity:
It’s become part of our culture, essentially. Yes, the origins are not necessarily African, but that sort of exchange has happened where fabric would be bought in African markets, depending on their popularity or the motifs on the fabric, stories will be ascribed to them. And this has now become part of the histories of these countries. And also the fact that production then did move into African countries. That gave them even more of a sort of an ownership of the fabric, where the fabric was designed in these countries and produced in these countries and worn in these countries. So it’s sort of like it’s evolved. So I do think of them as African now, actually
Delapo James’s Grandmother sold wax cloth from her house in Nigeria and now Dealop researches it and sells fabric that is genuinely designed and made in Africa:
And then there are the textiles that refuse to travel, but instead become grounded in one particular area. These cloths are the stay at homes, who bank up the fire on a cold winter’s night and shut the door. Fabrics of identity that take on something of the landscape they are made in. Wholecloth quilts from Northern England are like this. They are quilts but ones that come out of a different quilting tradition from patchwork quilts. Here’s Deborah McGuire who is a wholecloth quilter and researcher:
Quilting was not a discipline that existed outside of people’s everyday lives. You know you see the same kinds of patterns on things like carved butter pats, as you see on quilts, you know, on carved stone work and woodwork, you know, these were effectively patterns that were being taken from everyday life in the north country which we use as a kind of broad term. It includes most of the north of England from what we now know as Cumbria. So Westmoreland and Cumberland, across the Dales counties up into Northumberland and into Scotland and the border counters and whole cloth quilts I think became an expression of that regional identity. So the patterns that we use were passed from woman to woman, family, to family.
I hope you enjoy the new series and the trail of detection as we track the shifting meanings cloth and pattern acquire on each new shore where they wash up.
For this series Haptic and Hue has a new bookshop, with all the textile books you’ve ever coveted in one place. Books mentioned in these episodes or show-notes will be found at www.uk.bookshop.org/shop/hapticandhue, there’s also a direct link on the landing page of the Haptic and Hue website. The bookshop only despatches to the UK at present but will shortly be extended worldwide. 10% from every purchase helps keep this podcast on the road.
Many of us love Haberdashery – or notions shops as they are called in the US. These are dwindling and disappearing from our towns and cities. I’ve just finished a piece reflecting on why these shops are important to us and what they tell us about our lives. It’s free to view and you can find it at on Vocal media under my full name Josephine Andrews. The link is far too complicated to read out but there’s a link in the Shownotes and on our website landing page at www.hapticandhue.com
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Thanks to Bill Taylor of the Lark Rise Partnership who edits and produces these podcasts, and to all those listeners who helped make this third series possible by supporting it via the Buy Me a Coffee button on our website.
I look forward to your company and thanks for listening. I’m going to leave you this time with a poem that was written by the American poet William Stafford. It is called simply, The Way It Is.
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.