Textile Summer

Summer is about to begin.

For most of us, it’s a time to stop the ridiculous pace of working life, to do all the things we’ve been delaying, to relax & feed the repleted energy levels, to read & reflect, to be creative, to spend time with loved ones, to expand our horizon by visiting places.

Strange though it may sound, now is also the time to think about how we can hold on to the glorious feelings of the coming period. How do we stretch the benefits of Summer into the everyday routines, which will take hold of us far too fast afterwards?

One way of doing this is to make your vacation visible in your everyday life. I mean that literally: well-chosen souvenirs enable you not only to cherish those lovely memories but also to stretch them into the present, which may be drearier than you had hoped for.

I know a lot of people who have given up on finding nice souvenirs during their travels. And it’s true: unless you have the time to go off the beaten tourist track, it’s hard to find anything original – with the power to bring a smile to your face long after the benefits of the holiday have worn out. But because it serves a noble cause, you may want to try once more to find a querky object, an interesting trinket, something unusual which is fun or beautiful, or both.

IMG_0360For some time now I attempt to bring back from my holidays something textile. I came upon this beautiful wall decoration in Izmir, Turkey, where I spent a lovely holiday with a friend in between handing in and defending my PhD. Because she wanted a carpet for her new home, we spent ages in the many tapistery shops of the city. In a slightly dilapidated stately house filled to the brim, she found her carpet and I the wall decoration. The shop owner, who went to great lengths to induce Western tourists to choosing their souvenirs in his shop, watched us carefully as we put different carpets and cushions together. Over a shared cup of mint tea he tried to understand how his styling of colours and fabrics was so different from ours. Most of it is intuitive and I’m not sure I could (or can) express it explicitly but he must have thought our efforts worthwile for to our newly acquired treasures he added the saddlebagIMG_0365 shown below for free. It matches well with a carpet I already had at home (and of which sadly I don’t know the origins). Later I added to the red colour scheme the embroided children’s boots & pantofles I found in Beijing.

 

China is full of textile wonders of course. I saw endless numbers of beautiful silk blouses and scarfs. The one that came back with me, delights me every time I wear it, not only because of the beautiful memories of that memorable trip and the delicious softness of the fabric. The ginkgo theme also resounds with the quality label I established under the name Ginkgo when I worked in an academic publishing house. textile souvenirs

The Egyptian camel and the fabric fish from Lisbon (with a different pattern on the other side) are not so sophisticated but they too make me smile when I walk past them in my home.

 

Iceland is another source of delight for textile lovers. The
government of Reykjavik has banned the retail shops you can find in any city to a mall, thus creating in the historic centre opportunities for local, independent designers. Not surprisingly wool is omnipresent, in any application you can think of. The alternative christmas decoration in dark blue felt has a bright blue festive pattern. The mittens are felted and embroided upon elastic fabric, so they fit all. 

Ijsland

The colour palette isn’t exactly textile but I couldn’t resist: the collection of about a hundred photographs reminds me of the beauty of the island ànd offers inspiration for interesting alternative colour schemes.

But what if you really can’t find any fabric worth taking home? Now there’s a challenge: find something that you can turn into textile! Once you set your mind to it, it’s surprising how many objects lend themselves to this purpose. It’s a matter of ‘turning on your textile eye’ and tap into the inspiration that surrounds you.

vogeltjesOn Crete I found an adorable little wooden bird which would do nicely for my sister’s bird collection. But before I gave it to her, I made its soft caressible twin. I’m already curious to find out what your and my textile eyes will discover this Summer.

vogeltjes2

 

Glorious Silk

Books are a great source of joy to me.

Especially (but not exclusively) when they also mention that other love of mine: textiles. I greatly admire novelists who manage to smuggle in all sorts of interesting information which may be technical, without disturbing the story. It is one way of making fabrics truly alive.

Alessandro Baricco is an Italian writer whose publications (in translation) I follow with great curiosity. Barrico has developed a wide variety of styles, which turns every new book into a surprise. The Barbarians Barbariansfor instance explores cultural shifts caused by the recent global connectivity. The author makes interesting observations about new developments in areas as different as football, wine and books. Unlike many others he resists cultural pessimism – which is one reason why I have recommended the book many times.

My Baricco favourite is Silk which tells the story of a nineteenth-century French trader turned smuggler of silkworm eggs, named Hervé Joncour. Because in Europe the silkworms are affected by disease, he must provide the many silk mills in his hometown with silkworms from much further afield, requiring him to travel to Africa, later to Japan and China. In Japan he becomes obsessed with the Bariccoconcubine of a local baron, she remains unnamed and they cannot communicate for the lack of a common language.

Almost in passing Baricco refers to the internal political turnmoil and growing anti-Western sentiment in Japan, which interests me being an historian – and which makes Joncour’s task even more ponderous. He delays his departure in the hope to see the concubine again but thus allows the eggs to hatch. As a direct result three of the silk mills in his home town are forced to close down. Joncour appears to have an affectionate relationship with his wife Hélène but here too communication is scarce. He doesn’t tell her about his obsession, she doesn’t tell him she knows. Eventually he receives a letter he believes to be of his Japanese beloved, only after Hélène’s death it turns out she wrote it, in the hope to see him happy.

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Poster of the film based on Baricco’s novel.

Silk is almost a poem, in the sense that rather heavy emotions are expressed in a lyrical but serene language which allows the reader to sympathise with the different characters in a quiet, peaceful manner. Perhaps it’s the slow process of realising where true love resides, which makes the story so compelling: it is as if the precious silk worms stand for the quest of what is truly important in life. The poetic novel was made into a film in 2007.

Silk equally plays both a literal and a symbolic role in Zijdeman (Silk Man) by the Flemish author Kathleen Vereecken. Here too the vicissitudes of the silk industry provide the context of the story, but this time set in eighteenth-century Paris, the emphasis lies with different members of the same family, trying to come to terms with the disappearance of the father. Determined to be able to create silk himself and thus to become a more independent entrepeneur, he set off to buy Zijdemannot the fabric as he had done until then, but the silkworm eggs – never to return. It’s daughter Camille and son Louis whom Vereecken gives a voice. Camille lives in the safe cocoon of the silk shop but feels unsettling emotions of growing up and wanting freedom. She is also aware of the unrest in the city, which is based on the historic Parisian uprising of 1750. Louis is much younger and absolute in his belief in the father. He lives unencumbered in his phantasies and prepares for the father’s return by – successfully! – cultivating silk worms himself. The switching of perspectives (also emphasised by different lettertypes) works very well, the voices sound authentic and the reader is moved by both the heartfelt coming of age of Camille and the young boy’s perseverance. In this story too silk works well as a carrier of rich feelings – which does not unravel easily.  I’m very curious to see how this in its turn will be translated into a film, possibly with the use of motion capture.

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The different stages in the process   (1) silkworm on mulberry leave,      (2) emitting silk, (3 & 4) cocooning, (5) cross section of cocoon.

Both books refer to the miraculous process of the silk production which, as Louis discovers at first hand, is hazardous and time consuming. Little is revealed about the industry itself, how one manages then and now to unwind the silk threads – anyone who has handled simple wool will know how easily even twined threads get tangled – , and how the threads are then further processed into silk fabric. This may have lead the authors too far, they focus instead on the ‘natural’ process itself.

And so,  it was reading that got me fascinated by the cocoons.

I first saw them in Marrakech but didn’t know what they were then. In a Beijing silk shop they served as window decoration.The shop girls were very surprised indeed that a foreigner could be interested in such basic stuff, there was a lot of giggling before a price was settled. And fair it was too, as I discovered when I later found them in my local craft shop in Ghent.

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The cocoons resemble small eggs but they are in fact soft and textured. And the silk threads are intriguing fluffy and brittle.

 

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Antique silk bobin, textile paints & silk cocoons, one cut in half with the brown remnants of the worm.

It would be great to have a try at silk making but that’s probably taking my fascination a bit far.

Instead I wondered what I could do with the cocoons as I found them. Silk threads are so malleable, surely the cocoons would lend themselves to various manipulations as well?

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Silk cocoons, cut in circles & dyed, assembled into a necklace (work in progress).

 

I decided to try and make some jewelry: the cocoons are soft and light and will not irritate those who are allergic to the sensation of wool on their skin. I have a sense I’ve just started to discover the possibilities – watch further posts!

 

And I’ll be reading Silk Roads this Summer. With a subtitle that reads   A New History of the World I’m sure there’ll be more to share about               the glorious world of silk.