Have We Lost Our Buttons?

Every house should have its button box. I suspect one time every house did. Spare buttons were very much part of the mending culture, when recycling in the craft of use was not so much a principle of sustainability as a common sense practice. But their omnipresence in past domestic life  is also the reason why they’re a good subject for commodity history. 

In The Button Box the English historian Lynn Knight starts from her family’s button collection, passed down three generations, to tell the story of women in the 20th century. Buttons are peripheral things and yet they often outlast the garments they once adorned. Which means they can function as repositories of history – when given proper attention. Knight writes lively history through humble haberdashery.

Take Knight’s great-aunt Eva’s gauntlets for instance. Starting from the buttons, you can’t but admire the chocolate colour and the buttonholes, gusset and cuffs edged in caramel-coloured leather. In the early 1920s such gauntlets were associated with the well-off sporting woman’s wardrobe, well out of the reach of the working-class likes of Eva. But within a few years they were a popular choice for daywear, in particular when women dressed up to go shopping. Or, with one button reference, Knight enables us to feel the relief that the First World War was finally over and the special delight that consuming held then.

When they’re individually named, you probably pay more attention not to lose your (flapper) buttons.

Through Eva’s one-bar buttoned post-war shoes, we also get to imagine the accompanying stockings that came in vivid colours – with colour becoming the shorthand of modernity. And with the colourful stockings also appeared the garter buttons decorated with the flapper’s stylized faces – an attractive, wide-eyed Betty Boop-like creature.

That these were indeed exciting, modern times, Knight further illustrates with reference to the so-called flapper vote. Following the partial enfranchisement ten years earlier of women aged 30 and over, if they had a household qualification, 1928 saw the extension of the franchise to women aged 21. But Dame Millicent Fawcett, founder member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was not too pleased by the phrase: “Why call them flappers? Why call them girls?” The route to full emancipation of the admired “modern young woman” was still a long way off.

Knight takes us on an ingenious tour of domestic and social history over the last century or so. A jet button prompts thoughts over the elaborate rituals of mourning. A linen button, made to survive the mangle, brings into focus the working-class matrons who once patronized her great grandparents’ haberdashery shop. A Land Army button allows her to mention the Second World War – and so on. In sum, Knight lets buttons and by extension clothes speak as emblems of self-expression, social class and the attempts to escape it. This is fashion approached as a true cultural force and material history in the best of the storytelling tradition.

When do we think of the obvious fact that pearl buttons are made of shells?

The boring black-and-white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter don’t do the wealth of stories in this book justice. It would be nice to see a fully illustrated version that shows the original buttons, the corresponding clothes and all the other objects Knight refers to. More information on the then domestic and working conditions of textile workers could inspire reflection on the human cost of fashion now. And what about a list that helps readers to date their own button collection?

My very own button box, with a very young Baudouin (without glasses!), then Duke of Brabant, later fifth King of the Belgians (1951-1993).
I wonder what stories its contents (including my latest acquisitions on the right in the picture) could tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a crafter. I like objects and materials.            I think they can speak to us, as the many recent commodity histories demonstrate. But I also like reflection. So, when humble buttons can exemplify the past, what can our relation with “stuff” more generally        tell us about our lives now?

According to the cultural trend watcher James Wallman, consumerism no longer holds delight. People are actually suffering from stuff in a process that he’s baptized “stuffocation”. His starting observation is that, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we feel stifled by their accumulation. In the terms of this post: we may have lost our buttons – simply by having too many. Stuff clutters up our homes, it causes stress and it’s bad for the planet. Stuffocation then is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

Put in such terms, the solution is simple: reduce your material possessions or at least the value you attach to them. Through true-life stories Wallman presents three radical solutions: minimalism, “the simple life” and “the medium chill”. In a nutshell, minimalists live with as few objects as possible, “simple lifers” take Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) as their lifestyle bible, and with the motto “take it easy”, the medium chiller turns away from material success to a slower, gentler and more human way of living.

The common characteristic of these alternatives is that they react to the dominant value system and measure achievement differently. Yet Wallman doesn’t think any of them will replace materialism. Few people know for instance that after only two years, Thoreau gave up voluntary simplicity and returned to the modern world, arguing that he had “several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”. The point is not only that simple living is not very stimulating, it’s also all but simple to live without modern conveniences. The medium chill, according to the trend watcher, doesn’t feel aspirational enough and it does not provide people to indicate their status: that’s why it won’t appeal to most people. And the same goes for minimalism.

How do minimalists celebrate National Lost Sock Memorial Day (May 9)?

I’m intrigued by these stories, especially the minimalist obsession with numbers, as in: “I possess only 33 items”. I can’t get my head around this. When I look around me, just in the small space where I’m writing this, – no, I’m not even going to begin counting. Curiously, minimalists are very competitive: who can do with the least items? Part of the discussion then becomes what categories to use: are socks for instance to be counted separately, in pairs or as one single genre?

Wallman admits to 39 pairs of socks himself. More importantly, he addresses the issues material culture has come to define for most of us, such as identity, status and meaning. Returning for a moment to the clothes Lynn Knight describes through their buttons, the strength of her account is precisely that it identifies very clearly the relation between even humble objects and life-defining issues. Wallman also doesn’t condemn the relation: it’s simply what we’ve become accustomed to. His point is on the contrary that the issues are real: they’re deeply human needs and any alternative value system will need to satisfy them.

The trend watcher names experience as the next answer to our needs for identity and status. As the appeal of more stuff wanes, people are turning to experiences, like running a marathon, having a barbecue in the park or simply spending time with loved ones. This is not something you can have and hold: the 21th-century quest for the good life connects identity, meaning, status and happiness with something rather intangible that you do. And Wallman sees “experiental society” in practice today: experientalists take more holidays, go to increasingly popular festivals, spend more time (and money) on extravagant outdoor activities.

A great deal of the book is spent explaining how this urge for experience is compatible with the current economic system. Obviously not all businesses will survive. But as we’ve already seen the shift from goods to services, the system will now increasingly provide experiences. And to Wallman this is undeniably a good thing: the planet will suffer less, we will suffer less – and the human needs of identity and meaning will still be met. Everybody happy.

There’re a few shortcuts though. What the author describes very clearly is that the definition of the good life changes over time, relating to circumstances of scarcity or indeed abundance, to reflections about the state of our planet and so on. I take this to understand that there’s a lot of room to exercize our critical judgement – and act upon it. TINA-thoughts are not appropriate, this is a case for agency. But Wallman stays very much within the current frame.

Experience may indeed be the next big thing. But it’s not accidental that Wallman’s examples are almost exclusively outdoors – things to do rather than to be, with obvious consequences for consumerism, in terms of both materials and services to be provided to the experientalists. This then is still very much the framework of economic growth, or just another phase in the capitalist system.

Wallman claims some improvements, such as the fact that experiences are much more difficult to compare than, say, cars. That may be so but what if there is little or no intrinsic motivation to explore the Cambodian island of Koh Rong for instance, but only the desire to show off on social media? What if this is just a shift, away from the object but with the same aim: to distract us from important life issues?

It’s of course true that material accumulation for the sake of it offers very few people stable answers to their deeply felt needs. As mentioned earlier, the very feeling of being cheated out of satisfaction is indeed the driving force of the current economic and cultural system. And increasing numbers of people look for more meaningful lives. But does that mean we have to abandon the objects altogether – and turn uncritically to another promise of salvation and bliss? What if we haven’t lost our buttons at all, but simply paid them not enough attention?

In yet another Button Box the reader is encouraged to remember important people in her life, treasure her memories and in particular, tell stories. Debut author Janet Sever Hull has understood an important lesson: many people may need objects to connect with their inner needs and indeed, with other people. She invites the reader “to think of at least three things right off the top of your head which hold special memories for you and your family”. It may be the dinner table, or the family cookie jar, or indeed the button box, passed on from one generation to the next.

Obviously, it’s not necessarily the material value that makes an object special to us. As these button books show, it’s the stories they inspire that offer identity and meaning. The question then may become whether we allow objects to speak? Or are we too busy living our busy lives, suffering indeed from stuffocation, with no time to clear up, let alone tell or listen to the stories? Perhaps we should understand memories as some kind of experience too. But the stories evoked here require no conspicuous consumption. And the outdoors doesn’t feature either.

More generally, if we’re really looking to meet deeply human needs, I would claim it important to look indoors as well. To creative experiences, in crafts for instance. To the values of craftsmanship, such as attention, respect and patience. The intrinsic motivation to create. The inherently human desire to make – and to do it well. The effort to exercize our critical judgement and act upon it. The connection between head and hands. The kairos experience. And the value of stillness, the time creativity asks to be recognized and felt – or to let it bubble up from        our deeply buried selves.

The Button Art Museum clearly hasn’t lost its buttons: its boards on Pinterest provide ample inspiration. The experience of beauty creates space to be. And I believe that above all the ability for stillness is required in order to define better our quest for the good life.

This simple button inspiration can be.
But it can also be the stuff of fairytales.
Feel free to daydream,
When you experience simply being, your buttons will remain with you.

The Battle of the Colours

Funny how even a shop called ‘Blue Earth’ turns all red.
Moodboard Fall 2017

This Fall the streets will turn red. Already the shops in the high street show clothes in all hues of red. It makes me happy. It’ll bring warmth and colour in those many grey days we have around here. If people dare to wear it, of course. For some people find red threatening. The power the colour carries also means that about the first advice about professional attire is not to wear red, out of fear to attract hostility and aggression. In fact, that colour interpretation relates to that other Fall. Confused? Read on, all will become clear.

According to my favourite colour expert, Michel Pastoureau, the history of colour is always the history of the society in which it features. In this sense colour – and indeed its manifestations in fashion – is not superficial at all: it offers elements to understand society better. And one of the reasons why I like Pastoureau so much is that he always includes illustrations of materiality and craftsmanship to make the point.

This booklet offers a good summary of all Pastoureau’s ‘colour books’.

Pastoureau’s work is complex and detailed. I can heartily recommend all his books: they’re full of fascinating stories and delightful insights. Let me share a few with you.

Nowadays about 75% of Westerners name blue as their favourite colour. To make us understand how remarkable this is, Pastoureau goes to great lengths to demonstrate that for most of human history it was red that was most preferred. The battle of the colours will take place later, let’s stay for a while with the supremacy of red. 

Think of the caverns of Altamira for instance: they’re Unesco heritage because of the 150 drawings they contain, estimated to be some 15.000 years old and mostly in reds. 

Also Unesco heritage: the amazing wall paintings in Pompeii (80BC) where the intense red greatly contributes to the powerful experience. Almost in passing Pastoureau points out that, contrary to what many think, the garments, the private houses but also the temples and the sculptures within were, in classical times, full of colour.

The first dyes were vegetal, including ochres, which turn colour when burnt, and the popular madder.  The latter is a plant that carries the pigment in its roots. Which begs the question how humans got the idea to go searching underground for tinctorial matter? 

Over the centuries animal colourings were added such as kermes and the New World cochineal, the story of which has been wonderfully written by the American historian Amy Butler GreenfieldIn the middle of the 18th century an estimated 350 ton per annum of cochineal was exported to Europe, providing Spain which had the monopoly, with a revenue which almost equalled that of silver. 

The New World cochineal lives on cacti, only the female yields the dye (1777).

It goes without saying that garments dyed with cochineal were very expensive and thus became a symbol of power and luxury.

Pastoureau gives the materiality of colour a great deal of attention: he tells the stories of the successive chemical and technological advances in the craftsmanship involved. And he offers, to our contemporary eyes, surprising illustrations of that materiality. 

For centuries brides at the countryside for instance would wear red, not of the cochineal variety of course – which was too expensive and also forbidden for ‘ordinary folk’, but the local dyers mastered the red vegetal and animal pigments the best. Red was in other words a good material choice for a radiating bride.

Dyeing was a labour-intensive, intricate activity (Barthélemy l’Anglais & Jean Corbechon, Le Livre des propriétés des choses, 1482). On the right both bride and groom wear red: their festive attire accentuates the significance of the sacrament of matrimony (detail Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, c.1470).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also like the story of Louis XIV’s brother who allegedly introduced high heels at the 17th-century French court. The idea was to make up for the short posture of both brothers, which failed utterly because the new trend was taken up swiftly by all courtiers. Fascinatingly the heels were bright red – on the outside, which provides historical support to the failure of contemporary designer Christian Louboutin to obtain trademark protection for his signature red-lacquered soles.

Both at his marriage and when he was 63 and in full royal gear, Louis XIV sired red-heeled shoes (Antoine Dieu, Marriage of Louis of France and Marie-Adélaïde of Savoye, 1678; above right detail after Hyancinthe Rigaud).

In comparison, the Louboutin red seems conservative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much less light-minded is the Church’s use of colour. In fact, the original Bible hardly contains colour references. It’s only over the centuries and across translations, especially in the vernacular languages, that the Bible becomes increasingly more colourful – in itself an illustration of how colour testifies of changes in society.

These changes resulted in an ambitious colour symbolism that from the 5th century onwards exercized its influence in many domains of religious life (liturgy and costume for instance), social practises (garments, ceremonies, heraldic arms and insignia) and artistic and literary creation. And that for about a millenium. That’s powerful cultural heritage indeed.

With regard to the colour that concerns us here most, the Christian symbolism was founded on two principal references, namely blood and fire. And each was considered in both its good and bad aspects.

Blood in its positive connotation is of course the symbol of life. Even more specifically, it’s Christ giving his blood who has saved mankind, thereby warranting eternal life. In his footsteps followed the Church’s martyrs who accentuated the promise of salvation and the community of believers. This red sanctifies, fertilizes and unites. It’s also the colour of the very powerful Christian concept of caritas.

Both the so-called mystic press on the left and the Lamb of God above illustrate the growing symbolism attached to the blood of Christ (French miniature, 14th-15th century; detail Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1427-9).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But inevitably blood is also associated with violence and impurity. That’s why crime, sin and above all revolt against God were depicted in reds. Hangmen and torturers often wore red garments which had, of course, the additional advantage that their ‘activities’ were not too visible. In more general terms red became the colour of control, inhibition and sanctioning: think of a “red list”, the red pen used to correct exams, the “red line” not to be crossed. Red thus became very much associated with power and authority – which is also why the colour became the exclusive privilege of society’s elites, religious, political and economic.

It’s no coincidence that the guilds’ coats of arms were predominantly red (Ghent, 1524). The power of heraldic red continues to play even now, with 75% of the current UN members having red in their flag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beside blood, it’s fire that features prominently in the Church’s colour symbolism. Biblical divine interventions are often accompanied by fire, as in the case of God speaking through a burning bush to Abraham who’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The most powerful image in this respect are the fiery tongues of Pentecost. Here we have divine love that regenerates, purifies and fortifies. Hence also the association with more mundane manifestations of seduction and love, remember the wedding dresses. Alas, fire is not always benign. Undoubtedly the strongest reference in the medieval mind is Hell, with the Devil as the personalization of temptation and evil. In that sense it wasn’t surprising that heretics were burnt – with no hope for salvation.

The two dimensions of fire in Christian symbolism: on the left the fiery tongues bringing regeneration on Pentecost (Hunterian Psalter, c.1165-70), above eternal damnation for heretics (Chronicle From the Creation of the World until 1384).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In sum, these four interdependent dimensions constructed a powerful symbolism that coloured the High Middle Ages very red indeed. But things were about to change.

A first crack in the red supremacy came from an unexpected rival: blue. The Romans disliked it, interpreting it as the colour of the barbarians. In the medieval West, it hardly features socially or artistically and it carried no religious or symbolic connotations.

Note the same bright blue for the Virgin’s coat and the sky. Interestingly, the angels are both blue (on the earth) and red (circling God in heaven) (Nativity, in Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c.1415).

This raises the question whether the promotion of blue was prompted by technical advances, newly discovered pigments for instance or better ways of mastering the dyes. Pastoureau argues that the ideological mutations preceded the chemical ones: it was the association with the Virgin Mary that set kings, later all nobility, to adopt blue. 

Hitherto depicted in sombre colours, referring to her bereavement, Mary gradually sires a blue coat – which also becomes more bright and luminous. And that brighter blue, miniature artists use to paint the sky, which was black or golden before. This is also the period which saw the construction of the Gothic cathedrals with their famous blue stained windows.

The ideological promotion of blue through the Virgin, queen of the heavens, had some serious material consequences too. Blue upstarts so to speak broke through the dyeing guild’s monopoly and set up their own, rivalling organizations. Severely affected in their economic activities, the red dyers resorted to moral warfare to protect their position. Pastoureau tells of two instances where the red dyeing guild tried to convince their stained windows colleagues to represent the devil in blue – in an attempt to discredit the colour altogether. They failed.

I found one example with both red and blue devils. It’s probably not surprising that this Last Judgement (c.1500) adorns St Mary’s, Fairford. Being one of the so-called wool churches, it’s a testament to the wealth of the wool trade in the Cotswolds region. The stunning windows are 
the only surviving set of medieval stained glass in England. I think the blue devil above rather cute but that must be my wicked modern mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red’s downfall continued with new sumptuary laws and sartorial decrees that the civil authorities increasingly promulgated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The purpose was threefold: economic, moral and social. These laws and regulations fought against luxurious and thus unproductive spending. They also condemned new fashions which were considered frivolous, indecent, scandalous even. And above all they aimed to reinforce the boundaries between the different social classes so that all, in their appearance and ways of life, would remain in their stations.

The Reformation of the 16th century concluded the case. Not surprisingly in view of the powerful symbolism set out above, red to the Reformers represented the Papist Church against the many corruptions of which they so ardently fought. Red thus lost its positive connotations and became exclusively negative. Most particularly, red became associated with sin, pure and simple.

Being banned from Paradise was not a pleasant experience (Ulm Münster, 1461).

And this is where the other Fall comes into the picture. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Wisdom, it’s the sanctioning red angel who expulses them from Paradise. But with original sin also originated the need for garments. The fact that we wear clothes, is a continued testimony of our inherent sinfulness. Fashion is not only superficial and frivolous, it’s proof that we humans are flawed. It’s therefore right and proper for clothes not to express status, let alone pride: they must contribute to our awareness that we need to be modest and humble. The Reformers had much less faith in salvation or charity, the perspectives were bleak. Hence a much muted down colour palette, if not dominantly black.

Compare these two Holy Families: on the left the Protestant Rembrandt
uses a very muted palette (1634), the Counter Reformation diplomat Rubens (above) paints his colours as bright as can be and even includes a frivolous parrot (c.1614).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although in reaction the Counter Reformation re-enforced red in all its splendour, in more ordinary circumstances the West has actually adopted the more neutral palette of the Reformation. The dark colours that are dominant in office surroundings for instance still refer to a work ethic that since Max Weber is related to Protestantism. Pastoureau concludes more generally that red has almost entirely been banned out of our daily lives, including the public sphere. 

This conclusion struck me to the point that I went out to test it in my home city. And indeed, there is surprisingly little red in Ghent (I’m discounting the reddish bricks and roofs, and publicity signs). And where it is present, it refers to the authority of the Church, and by extension to the old civic powers. Interestingly the positive connotations are in the majority: who wants to see it, finds evidence of divine and mundane love, charity and the power of the city. The references to violence and revolt are much more muted.

Without the truck you might miss the muted red in the roof windows of the Cathedral,
the Beguinage church tower is already somewhat more obvious,
in the Counter Reformation charity building there is no more holding back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright red gate of the medieval belfry reminds us of the value of the city’s freedom.
 The so-called Dulle Griet (1431) was moved to Ghent to fight the Spanish. The impressive canon, stretching over 5 m and weighing more than 12 ton, now stars mostly and predictably in selfies. 
The fire reference in the streets is benign: in case of emergency the water supply will be easily found.

 

The least you can say is that the much-discussed circulation plan, recently introduced to give pedestrians and cyclists more space, brightens up the city centre.

The only modern exception, where red was relatively recently introduced in the public domain, are the sea, rail and land traffic systems. Here too though the reference is old, with the red indicating control and inhibition.
Why green was introduced, is unclear: the symbolic contrast red/green is unprecedented historically. Some (in the book unnamed) countries contrast red and blue – which is a surprising reference to the battle of the angels and the devils. In Japan they use green but call it blue.

A postbox in front of my favourite building in Ghent: the Castle of the Counts.

There is the material suggestion (also not in the book) that red is simply very striking to our eyes. This might explain why telephone boxes (now extinct on the Belgian streets) used to be red. We still have the red post boxes (but not in the author’s France).

Because Pastoureau pays so much attention to materiality, I don’t think he would disagree. But his conclusion is much more powerful: although red is no longer the preferred colour in the West, it remains the strongest colour symbolically. That’s why red still provokes such strong emotions. With reference to the historic symbolism we understand better why that is so. And it’s fun to adopt a different mindset and observe the battle of the colours.

Where once was the entrance to the red light district, the Ghent artist Jan Van Imschoot painted several scenes of the local history (2000).
Detail of the wall painting: seductive red stockings.

So, do wear red clothes this Fall and decide whether you’re creating your own private Counter Reformation, or simply want to add more blood and fire to your life – in the positive meaning of spirit, charity and love, obviously.

And on a wall very close to where I live, what should always be the final word.

Craft Agency

Everyone in Flanders knows Bokrijk: it’s a popular school destination from the 1970s onwards. And very boring I remember it too. The Provincial Open Air Museum presented a stilted version of the past, with old farms and chapels for instance transported from their original settings, and loads of old utensils and machines that breathed dust and irrelevance.

Something has changed between the traditional clog workshop and the Bokrijk 
presentation at the latest edition of the Interior Biënnale Kortijk (2016).

 

 

 

 

 

Textile is not very prominent in Bokrijk but Flemish fashion designer Tim Van Steenbergen will experiment next year on this restored loom (Photo Bart Dewaele).

It took some time, which is okay when we all want things to slow down, but Bokrijk is increasingly transforming into a social laboratory where the relevance of cultural heritage is clarified and where cross-pollination projects with a multitude of partners feature prominently. The Museum presents an ambitious programme that enables the past to say something relevant about today – and the future. Contemporary craftsmanship is at the core of this programme, with its capacity, among others, to make us think about mass production.

I’m delighted that craftsmanship gains an increasingly prominent position in societal discussions. There’s of course the danger that this is a hipster trend, soon to be obliterated by another. I think craftsmanship deserves better. To follow Bokrijk’s lead, to think about mass production equally means thinking about its effect on the climate, about the way we relate to objects and ultimately to one another. For if we define ourselves exclusively as consumers, there is no human connection, bar competition in the upcoming sales perhaps. Consumers don’t think about the circumstances in which objects are made, the often miserable lives of their makers and the total absence of appreciation for their expertise. Consumption itself is seldom fulfilling and it casually robs its practioners from their agency.

The question then becomes how we can anchor craftsmanship solidly into the debate about society and keep it sustainably relevant. And whether what we could call craft agents can help us think differently about objects, meaningful human (inter)action and the good life.

Craftspeople come in all shapes and sizes. I picked two radically different examples to explore the point: the students of the Master in Textile Design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) and, first, a 19th-century Norfolk fisherman.

There’s nothing hip or trendy about John Craske (1881-1946). In fact, very little is known of his life. And it’s to the English biographer Julia Blackburn’s merit that she threads together what little she could find of what most would see as an ordinary, insignificant life.

Yet John Craske managed, it seems, to survive through his craftswork – literally. When he became ill in 1917 and was pronounced, in the subtle language of the time, “imbecile”, his sea life was over. Having been born into a poor, for generations seafaring family, this was a financial debacle. It also turned out to be a mental disaster: when he wasn’t in what he himself called ” a stuporous state”, Craske desperately longed for the sea. The family doctor recommended that Craske went to live by the water, because “only the sea can save him”. When that wasn’t possible, Craske created his own solution: he recreated the sea, painting on any surface he could find. Later, when he could no longer stand for any length of time, he took to embroidering seascapes, sea related scenes and ultimately, based on the reports on the wireless, the Evacuation of Dunkirk. 

  Postcard painting (The Duigan Collection)
A rare boot at rest: Craske mostly & most realistically depicted storms. And included prominently his signature.

 

 

 

 

 

Rescue at sea

& detailed embroideries of his former livelihood.

 

 

 

Craske’s death prevented him from finishing the Evacuation of Dunkirk (NUA Gallery, Norwich). The embroidery is over 3,3m wide & 64 cm high.
Detail of the action at Dunkirk.

Threads is a delicate book. While Blackburn rescues Craske’s life from obscurity, she also weaves through her own, very personal stories. There is little definition whether Craske’s work is art rather than craft, nor a conclusive judgment whether his life was ultimately meaningful through his work. If anything, the storytelling is kind and compassionate. 

The loose ends of the Dunkirk embroidery.

And by quoting from her notebooks and reporting searches that yielded nothing, Blackburn shows the messiness behind the biographer’s own craft. To expose such loose treads is to invite a slower pace and the acceptance that not all efforts yield result. Life is sometimes messy, as the reverse sides of Craske’s embroideries equally show. Interweaving his pictures with her writing, the story becomes a meditation on resilience and creativity. And how craftsmanship can pull us through illness, immobility and hardship. 

Put differently, we’re shown different types of agency, nothing with grand impact but powerful nonetheless. This can inspire us with regard to the power of the imagination in what is too easily seen as an ordinary life. This is about patience and mercy. About the consolation of art/craft. About attention to small detail and an open mind, ready to learn and apply unknown techniques to depict what’s in one’s eye’s mind. John Craske impacted immensely on his life because despite serious financial and mental hardship he refused to submit his agency. 

I very much hope the Textile Design students and alumni at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) don’t need to experience such hardship in order to master their craft. They have in any case the glorious space of the Ghent Design Museum where ‘Plain / Purl. 10 Years of Textile Design KASK’ now shows. The subtitle of the exhibition ‘Textile between Art and Design’ makes explicit the tension Blackburn mostly left unmentioned: it invites ideas of debate, controversy, dissent and contrast.

The accompanying catalogue explains that Textile Design in Ghent has very much at its core the students’ own investigation. They’re actively encouraged to research, experiment and practice through the varied textile landscape. This also implies that KASK puts a high value on maintaining a certain distance from the direct demands of the workplace and society. Its higher education programme is clearly envisaged as a sanctuary with ample space for theoretical contextualization, critical reflection and research. But it’s no ivory tower: interdisciplinary experiments and collaborations are very much encouraged, there is an acute awareness of textile’s climatic and social impact, contemporary questions summon innovative disruption.

Two untitled works by Louise Bourgeois (2008), presiding over Sophie Schreinemacher’s experiments with wood & rope (2016).

All this has found its expression in the exhibition. Functional design and visual art join side by side, in a non-hierarchical way, as are the young, experienced, student and internationally known makers. Visitors are encouraged to touch some of the works and thus get connected and engaged themselves.

But the most telling aspect of the exhibition is the fact that many of the works on display are not finished products. They’re experiments, encounters at the crossing of different disciplines, illustrations of a particular stage in the research process.

They’re presented in a collage or in a row, not so much to suggest uniform design but rather a shared philosophy of an open mind. Of agency to impact on materials and techniques. On objects, people and society.

These are clearly other craft agents than was John Craske. Yet they also practice creativity to deal with life. With its messiness perhaps. With the fact that there’s too little mercy, too little attention to detail or circumstances. That pressing societal questions need an answer but also time – so as to cut loose superficial trends and embroider a real, sustained alliance with so-called ordinary lives. To find, with patience and resilience, the right perspective on meaningfulness. 

Fien Embrechts, Embroidery on latex (2008)
Britt De Groot, Research Laser Cutting (2011)
Bettie Boersma, Finding Form for Perspectives (2016)
Hella Jongerius & Jongeriuslab Bovist, Vitra (2016)

This seat with Alice and the rabit running late, sits at the heart of the Design museum, now transformed into a place of time slowing down, of encounter and exploration. The core of textile craftsmanship has in the exhibition become an open space to connect and feel the fabrics.

Textile is very much alive. Its crafts agents featured here show us how it’s embedded a myriad of concepts, values and practices that remain powerful and relevant today. If we manage to feature craftsmanship more prominently into the debates and practices of society, we may not find a hipster Wonderland but contribute to the co-creation of the good life. 

 

This is the Craske’s smallest surviving painting: the ship’s red sail is a single brush stroke. Who would argue that Craske’s aspiring to peace of mind and fullfilment can no longer inspire?

Express the Century

We tend to think we live in exceptional times, with unprecedented and thus frightening phenomena such as economic disruption. History and literature can help us think differently. Take Au Bonheur des Dames for instance. Published in 1883, it talks about fabrics and clothes, about human relations – and about progress and disruption. The book is part of a grand writing programme, Les Rougon-Macquart, with which the French author Emile Zola aimed to address modernity.
In the 11th novel of the series, The Ladies’ Paradise or The Ladies’ Delight (the translations sound different, I’m not sure why “happiness” wouldn’t do), the scene is modern commerce.

To be sure, the novel enfolds the reader in delightful descriptions of clothes and fabrics in all their splendid variety. Set to paint the novelty of a Parisian department store, the rhythm, balance and detail of the many descriptive passages successfully evoke a highly attractive drapery world. It’s impressive how Zola transports the reader by ‘mere words’ into a world of colour and texture, the rich textile language is certainly one of the reasons that make reading this book worthwhile. Consider the following sentence: “Littering the counters were the fancy silks – watered silks, satins, velvets, looking like beds of mown flowers, a whole harvest of delicate and precious materials.” You can see the textile abundance, can’t you?

The fabric riches delights but what really awes me, is the centrality of modernity in the book. The Ladies’ Delight’s owner, Octave Mouret, is the personification of innovative business methods and the economic potential of progress. He’s unashamedly obsessed with continual growth and expansion. In his own words, “he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.” Zola himself was most explicit about the purpose of his novel:

“What I want to do in The Ladies’ Paradise, is write the poem of modern activitity. Hence, a complete shift of philosophy: no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from this productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, with is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.”

This sounds like a hymn to modern economics, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit – that aims to ‘invect’ all its readers with the same modern, progressive attitude. In fact, The Ladies’ Paradise is a more ambiguous symbol of progress.

The model for Zola’s Ladies’ Delight was Au Bon Marché, the first grand magazin in Paris and the largest in the world before 1914. The new department stores which sprang up all over the city lay the basis for commercial capitalism and mass consumer society (although in reality they were of course long limited to the upper middle classes). The grand architecture, great attention to window and shop displays, fixed prices, advertisements and sales, all these innovations colluded to establish the grand magazin as a new temple of commerce. 

Contemporary illustration of the grand architecture of the grand magazins.

In fact, Zola repeatedly depicts the shop as a “cathedral” with a “church-like atmosphere”. Zola thus evokes a new kind of devotion, one that elevates the emerging consumerism to a new ritual, a cult even. The machine-imagery, which the author employs even more frequently, conjures up both the “monstrous” as the beneficiary characteristics of progress.

With the arrival of the department stores the Parisian textile retail world was shocked into English and American economic methods. With an estimated 100.000 traditional shops closed and the loss of work for thousands of artisans and their families, this is economic disruption on a “monstrous” scale indeed. In the novel it’s Monsieur Baudu, himself owner of a small drapery shop right opposite The Ladies’ Delight, who expresses the resistance against the innovation: “Do you think it’s right that a simple draper’s shop should start selling everything under the sun? In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials, and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up…” Baudu in Zola’s depiction belongs to a disappearing world, he simply doesn’t understand that the world has changed. But his analysis is rather accurate – and universal. Replace “drapery” with any other kind of business and I’m sure you recognize very contemporary practices.

On a more positive side, the department store gave women a transitional social, quasi-public space that did not affect their respectability. No wonder they were delighted. But such aspects of modern urban life threatened patriarchal authority – which responded with new systems of control and manipulation. Not only was the aim to “awake new desires in her weak flesh”, the grand magazin drew women into temptation, seduction, overspending and – and this was a new phenomenon – kleptomania. “Get the women,” Mouret was convinced, “and you sell the world!” With ample descriptions of women succumbing as planned, Zola also points to the social disruption: full-blown consumerism came into being through the mobilization of the illusions of freedom, fulfillment and “the public’s well-being”.

It is Denise, niece of Monsieur Baudu and subject of Mouret’s affection, who voices Zola’s own dubiety most scrupulously:

“Was it really true then that death must fertilize the world, that the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction? […] Yes, it was the necessary sacrifice; every revolution demanded its victims […] the inexorable workings of life require the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion […] for the whole of suffering humanity.”

It’s significant that Zola turns to the organic language of life, growth and death to conclude his judgment on economic disruption. It allows him to express his empathy for “the painful birth pangs of each new generation” while at the same time embracing and advocating modernity.

We are many generations farther. And we too are surrounded by disruption. Zola expressed his own century yet remains relevant for our own. He can for instance make us aware of the fact that economic disruption also disrupts social systems – and that its perception of exciting modernity suppresses that fact. The Amazons, Googles and Ubers of our own time are often embraced as champions of innovation but it’s unclear whether all their users are aware of the simultaneous subversion of our social security system that is based on solidarity – including the fair payment of taxes.

Or to give a more local example: the Neutral Syndicat for Independent Entrepreneurs has launched a campaign to encourage local shopping “before it’s too late!”. In the last five years 7000 independent shops have closed in Belgium, a decline of 9%. Many lament this decline and blame it for the failure of what is called the social fabric of society. Call me suspicious but many of these plaintiffs are probably not consistent and don’t shop independently. Presumably they aren’t even aware of the fact that they themselves can support the social fabric in many ways – like helping a neighbour now and then, being courteous in traffic or more generally treating people with respect. To put it differently, the economic and social systems are of course connected but they also have their own dynamic. It’s important to examine the connections, think about which parts we want to salvage – and act to do so.

Zola also points to another aspect of disruption: change is intrinsic to modernity. Think of the “restlessness” Ignace Devisch talks about and Peter Frankopan’s globalization: change is a fact of life – which also means it doesn’t in itself have good or bad implications. As Zola put it: there is action “in every direction”. He himself realized the danger of sinking into pessismism yet decided to “go along with the century”. There may be a twinge of determinism in his account but above all he wants to emphasize the possibilities of modernity. The point thus is to accept change as given and think about which direction we want “to press forward into the future”. Change in short presents us an opportunity to think about the good life.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman also sees us “in transit” and recommends philosophy to guide our thoughts about that good life. And to my delight (I’m an Enlightenment historian after all), she goes even further back in time than Zola: because the 18th-century Enlightenment was committed to understanding the world in order to improve it, it can inspire us to achieve our own, 21th-century “growing up”.

The starting point for Neiman’s account is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) claim that “we were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood.” More specifically the French philosopher introduces the idea of false needs and shows how the systems we live in work against our growing up. For the American philosopher it’s above all the omnipresence of trivial products that keep us too busy making silly choices to remember that the adult ones are made by others. As we saw earlier, Blaise Pascal would call this divertissement: we allow ourselves to be distracted in order not to have to cope with the hard facts of life. Neiman rather talks about immaturity.

With consumer goods as focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents. According to Neiman consumerism diverts us to the point that we have also internalized what she calls “TINA fundamentalism”: when we go along with the ideological claim that there is no alternative, we also accept the world as it is. Hence no need to think for yourself, let alone act.

It is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
who inspires Neiman to an alternative, more attractive model of adulthood. With his 1784 essay Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment Kant aimed to express his own time – which was very much characterized by change and disruption. His conclusion is clear – and still very powerful:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Kant’s recipe for adulthood is in fact very simple: we must think for ourselves. When we are courageous enough to trust our own judgment, we know that the world is not how it ought to be. The next step in Kant’s call for courage is agency: we must act upon our judgment – to make the world more in line with it. This is not naive utopianism: Kant mentions “the horizon”, Octave Mouret would say “the future”, that must be the point of direction for our efforts – and one which we must accept we’ll never reach. In between the resignation that nothing can be done and exaggerated optimism that everything is possible, lies Kant’s concept of adulthood. Both our experience of the world and our ideals make claims upon us and the balance between them can only be permanently precarious. To acknowledge all that and continue the endeavour nonetheless, that‘s maturity. 

As Neiman acknowledges, this is not the recipe for an easy life. Consumerism’s call is strong, our judgment may be weak, imbalance will very much be part of the experience. But life is forgiving – if we let it: there is always a chance to try again. And trying in a truly adult way means having the courage to act upon our beliefs. And thus change the world, in whatever small way. Viewed in this way adulthood is exciting precisely because it’s demanding. Or, as I argued before, courage is not beyond us.

Neiman also acknowledges that Kant’s recipe of thinking for ourselves, the expression of his century, is rather vague. But it’s equally still relevant for our age. And it cannot be more specific without violating the message itself. She herself points to the three domains of learning, travelling and work in order to enlarge our minds and improve our judgment. The latter is also Neiman’s ultimate argument to persuade people “to grow up”: judgment is an ability that normally requires age to improve. In sum: keep practicing, you will get better.

This is also the summary of craftsmanship – which Neiman mentions in passing as an alternative for consumerism. I think it worthwhile to stress in more detail the potential of that alternative. Craftsmanship cultivates slow time, delayed gratification and an appreciation of quality, among many other benefits. It also distinguishes the crafts(wo)man as the author of their products which in turn fosters properties such as dignity, respect and connectedness.

All these qualities are relevant when we consider the notion of meaningful work. They’re also important to guide our thoughts on the good life. For when we too search for an expression of our century we have the choice whether we do that in terms of doom and gloom – or turn to more positive models to “press us forward into the future”. 

For the sceptical reader it’s worth highlighting one ‘sector’ that already focuses on the positive potential of change, namely social innovation. The collective term classifies innovative efforts that are geared towards new forms of work and cooperation, towards a sustainable future. Organizations and enterprises that commit themselves to social innovation take society, large or small, as their focus in both ends and means. They are in other words ethically driven: they develop the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy or companies seem increasingly unable to tackle, they empower individuals and groups and they demonstrate a willingness to change social relations.

Such organizations thus also disrupt but they do so with the firm commitment to use the transit phase of society to change things for the better. They focus on human needs, on the power of communities and on the urgency to bring back a sense of dignity in work activities. To me they are the hopeful expression of our century: they look to our collective future and they inspire and practice agency to give it direction.

The range of social innovative initiatives is, thankfully, wide and varied. Let me conclude with just one textile example, spotted at the Fair Fashion Fest organized last October by the Museum of Industrial Archeology and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent. The Fest inspired me because it brought together so many different, often local, examples of social innovation in practice.

My favourite is Carpet of Life, a fair design brand based in Ghent. The idea is simple and very attractive: people take clothes that have an emotional meaning to them – and shred them into rags. They choose a pattern. And the women of M’hamid, a small oasis town in Southern Morocco, knot the rags into a beautiful carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is recycling of a higher order. It starts from the acknowledgement that clothes can have an emotional value: here no dogmatic condemnation of consumerism but focus on what adds meaning to our lives. There is the important empowerment of craftswomen who experience the valuation of their skills, providing them with meaningful work to support themselves and their communities. Instead of victims, they thus become participants in globalization.  At the same time they become the preservers and innovators of their cultural heritage. And diversity enriches ours for the delightful end results enhance our lives with meaningful beauty.

I covet such a carpet of the good life. And cherish the hope that this and other such social disruptive initiatives will indeed come to be the dominant expression of our century.

Alternative Creationism (1)

It’s my firm belief that creation is a wonder. Rest assured that I’m not into alternatives as propagated on the other side of the ocean these days. Nor indeed in the customary interpretation of the title’s noun. It’s human creation that interests me, and more specifically in the alternative sense of what its contribution to the good life might be.

This is an existential exploration, as illustrated by Bill Watterson’s delightful character Calvin:

@Bill Watterson

The question of why we do what we do is also the central query of an intriguing book that has just won the Dutch prize of the Best Spiritual Book 2017– and which I hope will receive an English translation. In Restlessness the Ghent based ethicist and philosopher Ignaas Devisch advocates an immoderate life to be understood as a life of desire, passion and creativity. His argument is intriguing for at least two reasons. One is that the author very explicitly challenges the manifold calls to slow down, be it in food, science or living. Second, he does so with an extensive historic reconstruction of the societal presence of restlessness –  which is not recent at all!

Restlessness belongs fundamentally to modernity.

Aware that this is an unfamiliar statement, Devisch spends most of his book elaborating it. This leaves a mere ten percent of the book explicitly devoted to the praise of the immoderate life, as we’ll see later. But first the historian in me delights in stressing the unusualness of the argument, even more so because Devisch transcends the often stark division of the so-called Dark Ages and Modern Times on the grounds that the late Middle Ages prepared that modernity in fundamental ways – including the arrival of restlessness.

Of course it’s tricky to pinpoint the birth year of a concept such as restlessness, but if one year deserves the ‘honour’, it must be 1348. With the outbreak of the Black Death a torrent of angst ran over Europe and undermined the Christian ideals of heavenly awards for the toils of this earthly life. If death can be so horrible and sudden, better make the best of this life – now. This is the beginning of the end for the medieval worldview. And the beginning of the modern project that, from the start, included the desire to live here and now. How topical that sounds!

Devisch gives the 17th-century French philosopher, theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal a central role in his exposé. Probably his most famous expression is that “man cannot sit in a quiet room alone”. This is the boredom Calvin refers to. But Pascal’s interpretation is actually much more bleak. Pascal understood the modern race against time as a secularized version of our inability to deal with the inescapable, death. In the expression “get the most out of life while you can”, we would stress the first part, probably even leave the second unmentioned. For Pascal the escapist movement away from death was essential and essentially modern. A central theme in his Pensées (published after his death in 1669) is divertissement: modern man diverts himself – in order not to face the terrible reality of life.

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

This is indeed not a very attractive position. No wonder that man wants to stay busy. Pascal stresses the existential objective of diversion. Devisch rather emphasizes that almost inadvertently that diversion gave rise to human agency. And both make the point that modernity is thus equal to movement and freedom.

With the religious frame of the afterlife shattered, and all the normative structures that came with it, emptiness arises – which can, Pascal would say must, be filled again. At a collective level, this explains why progress is so central to modernity, although Devisch hardly elaborates on this (I’ll turn to this in the next installment of this blog). At an individual level, modern man (and of course I always mean “woman” as well) is free to do what he wants – to be whom he wants to be. This is why modern man is essentially individualistic: there is no more fixed identity, it’s up to him to make something of his life. Modern man has become an agent.

And with the agency comes the restlessness: there’re choices to be made, not once but time and again. There’re always opportunities to better oneself, to move up in the world. There’s the drive to be or more accurately to become someone. Living in the secular modern world is a permanent undertaking, a project. Put like that, it’s also clear the work is never done. There’s no point where I can say: I’ve reached my destiny, I’m me now.

This lightbox was a Christmas present. I hadn’t yet read Devisch’s book but the question I composed is appropriately modern and thus restless.

With some exaggeration, Calvin’s thoughts shown earlier summarize one of Pascal’s key arguments: boredom originates from the emptiness of modern life – and both are expelled with creation. Or again, modern humans craft themselves. And as any craftsperson knows, perfection is never reached. Perhaps one is content with the outcome for a little while, but even while planning a new (stage in the) project it’s clear that the skills need further tuning to do better. There’s no upper limit, it’s never (good) enough. And so one becomes restless – again.

If, in short, restlessness is so very much part of what it means to be a modern human being, there’s no escaping it. Devisch actually argues that the question is put wrongly. In essence he challenges the negative connotations of restlessness: since when is a life in balance desirable? Pascal would say: do you actually want to spend your life alone in a quiet room? Or in Calvin’s words: do you really want to be bored? Of course not. We like activities and interaction, we search for things to look forward to and to strife for. We like to be busy and make progress.

As restlessness has been with us for over six centuries, it’ll probably last (at least) our lifetime. Devisch advises to stop fighting what you cannot change. Better still, recognize restlessness for what it really is, namely the crucial factor for an interesting and creative life. In management books this would be called “positive stress”. What would our lives be if we stopped moving? If we had no further desire to better things and or ourselves? So the argument finally turns positive: give in to your desire to get out of the room, go and do things, live life to the full. In brief, Devisch advocates the immoderate life:

Embrace your restlessness!

With the full story of its centrality to modern life, we now understand restlessness is positive energy that is available to us. The real question then becomes: what will we do with it? Devisch concludes with the adagium of a passionate life: “engage your restlessness for things that make life meaningful, whatever that may mean”.

Here we reach the weakness of the book. It’s obvious that Devisch doesn’t want to dictate how we should live. That indeed would go against his own argument of modern freedom and the virtually endless choices that entails. Yet difficult questions remain. Such as: how free are we really? Don’t many people feel, not mobile as supposedly inherent in modernity, but its very opposite, namely stuck? And how many of us experience their life as “meaningful”? Do many not continue to suffer from the emptiness of modern life Pascal was obsessed with? How many can say that they fight off Calvin’s boredom with a good life? How many feel in existential control over their lives’ ‘project’, rather than lost? Devisch admits that restlessness does become a problem (think: time pressure, loss of control, negative stress) when people don’t experience the meaning of their actions anymore. His suggestion is to find “ways to stand less restlessly ‘in the mobility’.” But what if you don’t know how to do that?

Devisch has chosen to concentrate on the individual level. And that’s of course legitimate. As historian I’m delighted with his rephrasing of “nothing new under the sun” that brings a much needed sense of nuance and relativity into the current debate. The strength of his book is that it opens an alternative perspective for each of us: we understand better why we, as individuals, are restless – and how that can be a good thing. But, alas, and as most of us experience at least sometimes, it often isn’t.

My own argument for alternative creationism has two components. In my next post I will explore the collective level which Devisch hardly addresses. My hunch is that problematic restlessness has less to do with a misperception of our individual drive than with the collective implications of the modern project. More specifically, the sense of being lost and stuck is often connected with the conditions of work. Devisch points a few times to the continuing need critically to evaluate the consequences of competition and time pressure on the labour market. He also refers to the current discussion about “workable work”, including the difficult realization of “meaningful” work, but he doesn’t elaborate. I aim to show that alternative perspectives can also re-insert meaningfulness in work. But first I unashamedly advocate craftsmanship as an individual choice to craft the good life.

‘Making’ is an undervalued source of wonder and joy. I maintain it’s also a meaningful way “to stand more firmly in the mobility of modern life”. It requires sitting (or standing) in a quiet room alone and to engage one’s energy towards something meaningful. You’re in control over what you decide to make – and the range of possibilities is virtually endless. Yet you’re also happy to be challenged and to be lost in the flow for that’s part of the fun. This is creationism because of its focus on creating. It’s alternative in the sense that that creating is considered to be an end in itself. Although there usually is a ‘creation’, a ‘product’ if you want, the process of getting there is not (essentially) instrumental. And that’s why the combination contributes to the good life.

Craftsmanship is about energy. It’s about connecting mind and body, so that you can grow towards a more integrated human being. It’s about exploring your imaginations and intuitions and searching for corresponding forms of self-expression. The experience itself creates a space in which you can discover meaning, as Calvin has put it. That focused space enables living in the present. And it is filled with kairos that allows us to remain in Pascal’s room.

Yet the skills that are thus developed, such as practicing patience, engagement and perseverance, exercising autonomy, judgement and agency, achieving a level of expertise or mastery, also craft a personality that stands more firmly outside that room – about which of course there is much more to be said, and that’s a promise.

 

The Promise of the Unicorn

I love specialists who make the effort to tell a good story, to translate their specialist knowledge into something which can move us all. Michel Pastoureau is such a person.

Pastoureau started as a medieval historian of heraldry: he studied coats of arms and their iconography, in particular the symbolic meaning of their featured animals, symbols and colours. Having written a great many specialist books, he moved on to delightfully insightful ànd greatly legible books on the colours blue, green and black. 

bleu

vert

noir

 

IMG_0439
My very personal version of worrisome Northern blue 😉

To give just one example: did you know that the classic Greeks and Romans disliked blue? They associated it with the eye colour of the worrisome barbarians from the North – which made it totally obnoxious. Much has changed since: it’s very likely that blue is your favourite colour, as it is for over half of the Western population!

Pastoureau’s explanation is that blue has become symbolically less ‘marked’ than other colours. Because of the association with security, calm and peace, the symbolism is almost neutral – which also explains why large international organizations such as UNESCO or the European Union choose the colour for their flags.

The author remains of course a specialist: almost imperceptibly he smuggles in an amazing amount of history which serves to demonstrate the social practices of the colour at hand: daily life, art, sartorial codes and, of course, the crafts involved to dye fabrics 😉 

And Pastoureau regularly returns with great panache to his old love of animals, as in the book in which he applies himself to uncover The Secrets of the Unicorn. LicorneIt was the Greek medic Ctesias who first described this intriguing creature at the end of the 5th century BC. This, incidentally, is an illustration of the cross-fertilization of the Silk Roads as the medic situates the unicorn in the East – which he never visited. And although “very few had the privilege of perceiving it”, it was only during the Enlightenment that it was decided the animal really didn’t exist. Amazingly Ctesias’ description survived all that time – and continued beyond, into romanticism, symbolism and further.

The unicorn is ‘known’ to be fast, therefore hard to catch. But because it is itself immaculate, it’s attracted by purity: a unicorn will lay its horn into a virgin’s lap – and thus risk death at the hands of hitherto hidden hunters, who are interested in the healing qualities of the horn. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a considerable commerce in all products unicorn: powders, ointments, purgative waters, etc. And every important family, abbey and monastery had its own unicorn relic. 

What did change over time, was the gender of the unicorn. In Latin and the earliest vernacular languages the term was masculine, the later French word ‘licorne’ is female. The gender shift illustrates the feminization of the whole concept. As the unicorn was mentioned in the Bible, there was little reason to doubt its existence. Its purity and healing qualities were furthermore understood to symbolize the Christ, with the horn seen as a spiritual arrow or referring to the cross. At the end of the Middle Ages, the time of courtoisie, the unicorn came to be associated with profane love and the amourous chase; yet the feminization also allowed for an interpretation that celebrated the purity and spirituality of the Virgin Mary. Quite a layer of symbolic meanings!

In an extensive interview Pastoureau emphasizes how the imaginary is very much part of reality and that the unicorn is bien vivante today: from the moment the creature is definitively declared non-existant by science, it’s enthusiastically adopted by the arts, especially by the symbolist movement at the end of the 19th century. Even now the unicorn is “la vedette du bestiaire fantastique”. Think little girls’ toys, T-shirts and shoes, comic books, Harry Potter …, the list is endless.

schoenen eenhoorn
How exciting can shoes get?

tintin

And Hergé’s Tintin album Le secret de la licorne is the explicit reason for the title of Pastoureau’s book – plural, because there are so many secrets. 

 

The most celebrated unicorn in Western art features in a series of late 15th-century Flemish tapestries called La Dame à la licorne. It is the director of the Cluny Museum in Paris which now houses them, who in Pastoureau’s book summarises the situation of the research. Yet despite her own very specialist expertise Elisabeth Delahaye stresses what is perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of the unicorn tapestries: very little is known of their origin. 

And it’s precisely the mystery surrounding the tapestries that opens creative perspectives – to which call the American-British author Tracy Chevalier has answered with the delightful novel The Lady and the UnicornChevalier3Chevalier  is clearly a lover of fabrics: in another book, The Last Runaway, it’s quilting that takes centre stage. Here she operates within Pastoureau’s universe: she declares herself very much intrigued by the several layers of symbolic meaning in the tapestries. All its ingredients are present: the lady’s seduction of the unicorn, spiritual and corporal desires, the latter represented in the visual rendering of the five senses. And the question of how the people designing and making the tapestries wove together such different interpretations is very much at the heart of the author’s endeavour. 

Chevalier does a great job. I have to admit that the first time I read the book, I was so keen to know what would happen to the main characters that I almost missed the textile focus. I reread the novel this Summer and was delighted – again.

The story starts in Paris, 1490. An ambitious French nobleman commissions six luxurious tapestries to flaunt his rising status at Court and hires the arrogant but superbly talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. The lady and the unicorn dominate the iconography, the explicit reference is that of the senses. Nicolas is, however, not as innocent as his name suggests: he creates havoc among the women in the house – mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting – before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the commission – his finest, most intricate work. The tapestries change the lives of all that are involved. And the result is simply magnificent.

touch
Touch,
sound
Sound,
smell
Smell,
sight
Sight,
taste
Taste, and:
desirsm
‘Mon seul désir’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chevalier’s story concentrates on the inner life: what is the désir of the different personages? But the craft of tapestry making itself features largely and adds to the novel’s riches. The reader learns about the particular challenge of weaving back to front, hence the need for ‘cartoons’ that are the mirror images of the original designs as well as of the final tapestries. Also, the weavers cannot see their work as each finished strip gets wound onto the loom – until the ‘cutting-off’ reveals whether the design has accurately been translated into wool. Throughout the story telling details sketch the times, such as the mentioning of little work in Winter as the roads are far too hazardous for commissioners to travel from Paris and elsewhere, or that the Guild would punish with closure any workshop that allowed women to weave. And as Chevalier realises very well, most readers are not familiar with the technical vocabulary of tapestry making (such as a heddle or a warp). So she lets the members of the workshop explain the terms to the Paris painter, who gradually becomes impressed with the quality of the Brussels craftsmanship.

I was very much charmed by the eminent role for the master weaver’s blind daughter. Aliénor maintains an exquisite garden which serves to provide the cartoonists and weavers with real examples of the flora that enlivens the so-called millefleurs background of the tapestries. The young woman knows the symbolic meaning of all those flowers, fruits and plants and it’s her expertise that allows the workshop to build its outstanding reputation on the realistic rendering of the millefleurs 

Realistic flora was indeed a crucial component of Flemish art at the time. Recent research has demonstrated that at least 423 different types of flowers and plants feature in thé masterpiece of the Flemish Primitives, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). The project Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece allows you to zoom into any part of the triptych of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck and discover for yourself the elaborate details of flora ànd textile. 

Lam GodsIn addition the Provincial Cultural Centre Caermersklooster in Ghent (which incidentally is just around the corner from where I live!), holds until September a small but illuminating exhibition on the multitudinous flowers in the triptych and their symbolism. 

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Details of a Madonna lily,
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a pilgrim’s
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cloak,
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and male peonies.

 

 

 

 

 

The conclusion then is that medieval craftspeople – of both sexes! – owned a knowledge that is completely lost to us. This, according to Chevalier’s story, also goes for the symbolism of the unicorn: all the personages know the Biblical references to purity and healing, whereas it’s the Paris painter Nicolas who explains to any woman who happens to to come near him, the later interpretation of profane seduction. But he also saves Aliénor – I can’t elaborate without spoiling the plot, let it suffice to say that even he succumbs to the ‘charms’ of the unicorn. 

In short, the unicorn is rich in meaning. And its mysteries are full of promise. Perhaps that’s why little girls like them so much – and I propose that all non-little-girls equally be encouraged to be inspired by the wondrous creature.

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In its felted form it’s seductively soft. And great Christmas decoration 😉
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A while back I decided I wanted my own unicorn.

Purity may sound like a quality that doesn’t correspond well with our times. But do we really want to maintain that there is no past knowledge that might come in useful? In addition, would it be no improvement if we found a good way to allow different inter-pretations to co-exist without conflict? And perhaps most importantly, are many people not longingly in search of ‘healing’? Is the current interest in mindfulness not an indication that we want to be more aware, more connected with our senses – both corporal and spiritual? And do we not also hope for more appreciation for our inner life and its quality? 

Understand the unicorn to stand for authenticity, for a strong désir to reconnect with our own true selves and grow as a result of it, and it becomes very contemporary indeed.

Crafty Globalization

I must start this post with an admission: I got the timing of my vacation in Pafos, Cyprus, seriously wrong.  

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The rock-hewn necropolis known as the Tombs of the Kings.

 

Let there be no mistake: the area around Pafos is absolutely lovely, of course there is the glorious combination of sea and sun ànd the historian in me was delighted with a terrain of almost 300 ha that is Unesco World Heritage.IMG_1497

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Although very worn, the mosaics are abundant and absolutely beautiful.

 

There was of course a lot of ‘rubble’ too – and this time not only on the ancient sites.IMG_0796 For there is virtually no street in the old town of Pafos that is not broken up in a massive project of public construction works – hence the mistake of my timing: Pafos will be the European Capital of Culture in 2017. 

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Next year one can thus expect an endless lineup of interesting exhibitions, events, all sorts of exciting activities which, with different timing, would have me exposed to serious choice stress. Then but also now the focus of a fabrics blog comes in handy 😉 

Trying to find the bus stops in broken up Pafos I entered a small office, where there was no information whatsoever to be obtained (this resembles the public transport service in Flanders ;-( But my eye spotted a promising leaflet – which set me off ‘climbing’ the streets of the city. 

The Place is an interesting new initiative set to sustain and promote traditional crafts and allow them to survive, including innovative ways to further develop them. Imagine my joy when I discovered these colourful silk cocoons and their application to modern jewelry!

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I was even more lucky: the artist, Angelika Stratinaki was present and explained how she also employed them to continue the old craft of silk embroidery.

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I’ve never seen anything like it. Silk cocoons are cut up in a wide variety of forms and then, carefully because of the fragility of the material, sewn into beautiful designs. I was very happy to buy the bird decoration on the right, a true gem as textile souvenirs go! Alas I don’t seem to be able to find any information on this so-called traditional craft. I have no idea when it started, how broadly it was developed, how many people were and are involved.

What I did find, was a brochure on Pafos 2017. Its motto is “to link continents – to bridge cultures”: the city aspires to be the first European Capital of Culture which will link East and West. The motto also highlights the self-declared need for bridging the differences between the Greek and the Turkish Cypriot communities.

Perhaps there will be an exhibition on the position of Cyprus on the Silk Roads. But what struck me in my textile focus first, is the obvious impact the separation of the island by the Turkish invasion of 1974 is still having. The Cyprus Handicraft Service was set up shortly afterwards in order to provide employment for refugees from the occupied areas who had much experience in the various branches of Cypriot handicrafts. The aim of the Service is “the systematic revival of traditional folk art”. 

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The Limassol centre of the Cyprus Handicraft Service

With shops in all the towns of “the free areas of Cyprus”, the Service further hopes “to promote the revival of our traditional culture”. It is unclear to which extent this includes innovation. Also surprising is that the Service does not actively search for craftspeople. In the shop in Limassol they knew of only one old woman continuing to practice the craft of silk cocoon embroidery- and that can’t have been Angelika ;-).

Cultural antropologist Eleni Papademetriou has done substantial research on the Cypriotic crafts. In Textiles from Cyprus she mentions the omnipresence of silk on the island to the extent that “every family reared silkworms and there was such a supply of silk that in Cyprus rich and poor alike were dressed in silk.” Surely this is an amazing statement! Alas, there is no elaboration on when this happy time has been nor any reference to silk embroidery. 

A documentary to which Papademetriou contributed, does contain some historical periodization: silk appeared on the island in Byzantine times and grew into a substantial economic sector during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Firmly positioned on the Silk Road, Cyprus was the silk manufacturing and trade centre of the Mediterranean and supplied, for instance, the Western Church. I would have loved more historical detail but the documentary mainly shows traditional methods and interviews the last generation of silk producers, a couple of refugees from the North being the predominant characters throughout the film. Documenting the silk crafts in difficulty aims in short to secure their continuity.

This then seems to be the ‘official’ line: the occupation of the North predominates the interpretation of the craft heritage to the extent that survival takes center stage – and leaves very little space for projects of renewal and innovation. The pessimistic tone may in fact discourage a contemporary appropriation of the heritage.

In the epilogue of her book on Cypriotic textiles Papademetriou is equally despondent. She lays stress on the fact that skill used to be interwoven with daily life. “With the leveling of the economy and globalization, this inspired tradition is under threat today more than at any other time. It can, though, be its own unique pebble in the mosaic of not only European but also world art, if we manage to preserve it and to promote it as it truly deserves. We have very little time.” (my italics)

I don’t know whether Papademetriou is involved in the organization of Pafos Cultural Capital. To me it would be obvious that crafts receive ample attention, ideally as part of a larger discussion on what the good life may be and how that may not only require preservation but also adaptiveness, flexibility and an open attitude to the world. The antropologist refers indeed to globalization, but in the gloomy and increasingly prevailing sense that it constitutes an almost insurmountable threat to virtually all our traditions and values. 

Fortunately, there was the Summer reading which I announced in an earlier post: Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads. A new history of the world. As the subtitle indicates, this is an ambitious book which sets out to demonstrate how our standard view of Europe as the centre of the worldSilk Roads is ‘only’ a few centuries old. In fact, Frankopan argues, the navel of the world lies between the Black Sea and the Himalayas, in the other words in central Asia. The reason why the author concentrates on the importance of non-European regions is, of course, historical revisionism but perhaps more important for the wide audience Frankopan hopes to reach: a broader viewpoint on globalization – which currently scares us so.  

The Silk Roads (it was the late 19th-century geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen who coined the term Seidenstraßen) present an alternative frame of reference: it is a history of networks, first of all economic but very much religious, intellectual and cultural too. The Mediterranean – with Cyprus at its very east -, is thus the terminus of the Silk Roads that stretched all the way from China across Central Asia. With legion references to neglected rulers, peoples, cities and empires, Frankopan stresses time and again how the world has always been connected, far wider than traditional historiography has led us to believe. Whether exploring the Roads of (among others) silk, religion, fur, slave trade, gold, wheat or oil, the emphasis is on the century-old global exchange of goods, ideas, arts and crafts.  

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The fabrics of the Silk Roads were highly desired all over the then known world. They were sometimes even used as currency!  Here the famous horses of central Asia (8th or 9th century AD).

Three examples of how cross-fertilization influenced what standard historiography recognises as Western historic highlights. 

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Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna by the Fontain (1439). Also note the amazing rendering of the fabrics!

(1) The commercial success of the Italian city states in the ages of the Crusades was largely due to the stability and good relations between the Muslim and the Christian world. (2) The delightful paintings of the so-called Flemish Primitives would look very different indeed without the deep blue, pigment made of lapus lazili, original to Afghanistan and traded over hundreds of miles. (3) The Renaissance had not been possible without the Arabic translations of the classic Greek texts, made available again to European scholars through the intensification of commercial and cultural contacts between East and West. 

In short, the velocity of communication (to which the Frankopan pays surprisingly little attention) may have increased but the ground motive is always the same: the world is so fundamentally interconnected that to reject globalization is to deny the light of the sun. Our traditions and values have always been influenced by developments along or at the other side of the Silk Roads. And to establish how significant those cross-fertilizations were in the past is helpful to imagine and shape the future.

Obviously this doesn’t mean globalization does not inspire feelings of insecurity and fear. But it’s not new, it’s a fact of history – and it’s unlikely that such an ingrained pattern will change in our lifetimes. Wouldn’t it be better then to concentrate our energy on a better understanding of the actuality? On establishing what is possible within the long-standing frame? On imagining flexibility and innovation rather than conservation of what is in flux anyway? I would hope we all can adopt (more) constructive attitudes – which may set us on the path of renewal in many different areas. In Pafos 2017 a contemporary appropriation of Cyprus’ rich craft heritage – and all that it can contain, would be a crafty contribution indeed.

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An attractive update of Cypriot heritage at the airport of Pafos.

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The Enlightening Flow of Craft

When I was ten, I was determined to learn lacemaking. I can’t remember where I got this from, I knew no one who made lace. At a guess I must have gotten intrigued at one of the many exhibitions to which our parents took us. I was delighted to discover this was a craft that could actually be learnt. And my mother found an elderly lady in her native village who was prepared to teach a singleminded girl. These were the seventies, with a revival of interest in traditional crafts. Alas, the setting was the putting on display of people exercising these crafts in distinctly artificial settings.

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The shawl was distinctly not traditional but crocheted by a family friend – and my favourite for years.

An obligatory part was the ‘dressing up’ in what were supposed to be authentic clothes. Initially I made very traditional lace too, think trimmings to embellish a posh handkerchief – not very exciting for a ten-year-old. But apparently I enjoyed it, so much so that I made a clay self-portrait of which, amazingly, the head and the lacemaking cushion survive up to this day!

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Later I followed lessons closer to homeIMG_0460 and there the emphasis was on applying the traditional methods in more contemporary 
designs. I have very little evidence of this, as most of what I made, I gave away to anyone who happened to have cause for celebration. Surprisingly, I didn’t think then to document my lacey efforts for a future blog 😉 

I haven’t made lace in years, I have no idea whether I could still do it. Is it like riding a bike, something one never unlearns? I continue to find lace appealing though and I can rarely resist it, when I come upon it at a car boot sale for instance. I have old lace and new, very fine and rather rough, and, of course, in a variety of colours, sizes and patterns. I find it comes in handy when a skirt found in a secondhand shop is lovely – but not quite long enough to my liking. More generally  I can certainly recommend it as an easy addition to achieve that je-ne-sais-quoi with your outfit!

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IMG_4687I also continue to include lace in my craft projects, whether it’s in jewelry,
mittens and shawls,
or home decoration.

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These felted angels which I presented at a crafts’ fair around Christmas, happily flew off, intent to spread joy elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the process has been slow, I’m delighted that crafts are finally shedding their old-fashioned aura (including the silly clothes!) and are being incorporated into a creative context which treasures craftsmanship  and sees it as a source for, why not, innovation. In the Netherlands there is the Crafts Council which aims for just such a upgrading, with for instance Dutch Darlings, a competition to create innovative and sustainable souvenirs based on Dutch craft expertise. The Bruges based NGO tapis plein is recognised by the Flemish Commission of Unesco as the expert centre for participatory heritage and examines (among others) how cultural habits and practices from the past can affect present society. The current focus is with ‘intangible’ heritage and the resulting publication A Future for Crafts brings together an impressive anthology of Flemish craftspeople, techniques, practices and inspirational quotes which demonstrate the contemporary strength of crafts.

For me it was reading Richard Sennett‘s The Craftsman which alerted me to the powerful effect crafts can have on one’s life. Sennett writes in detail about the grounding of skill in physical practice. Sennett2He identifies three basic abilities as the foundation of craftsmanship: the ability to localize, to question, and to open up. This is about ‘focal attention’, about remaining curious and being open to shift habits & prejudices in the tradition of the Enlightenment. When the brain deploys these various capabilities, it processes in parallel visual, aural, tactile, and language-symbol information. This in itself offers attractive perspectives of creativity, supported by the most recent neurological findings about many, strong circuit connections in the brain. Sennett also praises slow craft time as it allows for the appropriation of skills and carries the promise of evolution and growth. Moreover it encourages reflection, imagination – and thus innovation. Surely these are all talents that the contemporary ‘skills society’ seeks?

Sennett relates his valuation of craftsmanship to Western history and its fault-lines between artist & craftsman, mind & matter, or theory & practice, with the latter part of the equations consistently being dealt a rough deal. Divergently Sennett presents craftsmanship as a practice of ‘the good life’ which stands in marked contrast to the values that are predominant in our world today. Most specifically, ‘craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, namely the desire to do a job well for its own sake‘ (my italics). Inherently (wo)man strives for quality: it’s an instinctive aspiration which generates genuine satisfaction. This is what Peter Korn, a reflective furniture craftsman, values when he explores ‘why we make things and why it matters’.korn As anyone knows who practices craft in any form, it brings about awareness and patience, it engages deeply and allows hope for progress. In short, it energizes to the point of creating flow as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has defined it. This is an ‘optimal experience’ of deep enjoyment and creativity, flowof total involvement in and connection with life. This is also what transforms our experience of time and which the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen identifies with the Greek god Kairos: sharpened by craftlike talents such as awareness and concentration,kairos it is precisely the quality of the moment which releases otherwise hidden possibilities. Time then feels benevolent because it’s fuller and more engaging. It also opens new perspectives of renewal and growth. 

Yet in reality people mostly experience the tyranny of time – which closes the potential of authenticity and creativity. And utility rules, which implies that for most people the consequences of their work are outside the work: their activity is merely a means to an end – which they may find difficult to connect with. There is a lot of talk about ‘workable work’, yet so many suffer from poor psychological health including burn-out. This then is what I consider to be the import of the renewed attention to crafts: if the recent re-interpretation includes, as it should, reflection upon the good life, we may indeed hope for ‘innovation’ whereby practices from the past can activate their powers to transform for the better our contemporary lives.

The Enlightenment believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work of some kind, that there is an intelligent crafts(wo)man in most of us. Sennett argues that that faith still makes sense – if we so choose. As an Enlightenment historian I find this argument very compelling. And I do experience flow and kairos in the making of the earlier mentioned box installations. To close the circle of this post, I hope to illustrate all this with an installation which includes lace. The matter of the installation is the result of craft practice, its ‘mind’ aims to focus attention towards one of the ingredients of the good life. 

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The ‘theme’ of this box installation is tenderness, with the quote reading:

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An appeal to be delicate & gentle.

 

It’s in your self-interest

to find a way to be very tender.

I made the installation at a time when I was not experiencing too much tenderness in my own life. Hence I wondered what that meant to me, which characteristics did I associate with tenderness, what would it look like if visualised? This required my ‘opening up’ to the dismal thought that perhaps it was present but I simply couldn’t see it? Hence I included the braille. Or was I myself being too prickly – hence the hazelnut husk-, therefore aloof to the power of tenderness? Further exploration revealed something distinctly fragile: tenderness exposes, it renders both the donor and the receiver vulnerable – which is a quality our world does not value very much. I visualized this with a beautiful porcelain schard which I found carelessly discarded in the street, the fragile skeleton of a Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) and an intent little girl in between. The longing for tenderness may be a trap, as if it were a cage which promises comfort but actually means closure away from life. In the right dose though and with the right intentions tenderness is sweet – also, notice the texture of the sugar stick! And it’s worth aspiring to, because of its potential to empower the people involved. The pearl and cristal hanger refer to the richess that tenderness can add to our lives.

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It may require craftsmanship to see & feel the power of tenderness,
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to appropriate its fragility & vulnerability,
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and to be fully open to its sweetness, worth & richess.

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, of course, tenderness is delicately soft, hence the central photo of a child’s lace dress. Obviously my visualisation is particular and not exhaustive: what would the intelligent crafts(wo)man in you add in the open space left in the middle?

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Watch Your Pockets

Now here’s a provocative thought: emancipation is not always a good thing. I’m sure lots of people have interesting thoughts on that – and I will be glad to hear them!, but here I want to concentrate on the somewhat quirky subject of emancipation & fashion.

I hear male friends complain that male fashion is so boring and I think they are right. Of course, if you have loads of money to spend, thus can buy designer clothes, then it becomes interesting again. But with a ‘normal’ budget, the choice seems limited to casual (think jeans & T-shirt or at best an unusual shirt) and business (boring suit, mostly black, navy or dark grey). Intriguingly this wasn’t always the case: male fashion in the past was magnificent, with amazing fabrics, luxurious embroidery, exquisite details and glorious high heels for instance.

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French waistcoat of embroidered velvet & silk, 1780s-1790s.
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English shoes for men (ca. 1650-1670)

 

 

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This statue of the philosopher Montaigne (16th century) in Paris illustrates that men indeed wore heeled, elaborate shoes.

I’m – alas – not a fashion historian but it seems obvious that in the vestimentary department men did not do well in terms of progress. 

 

 

 

 

 

For women too the evolution is not entirely positive. I happily concede that my sartorial taste may be somewhat idiosyncratic but I adore the wonderful stuff that is to be found in the fashion collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris) or the MoMu (Antwerp). These are dresses for ladies of standing: the clothing equally stands out.

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A bright red crinoline, seen in the Costume & Lace Museum (Brussels)

In the exhibition Fashion Forward the Musée des Arts Décoratifs shows three centuries of outstanding clothes, including an intriguing video about how many people were involved in putting on a crinoline.

The conclusion is simple: these are impossible clothes, unless you have a serious number of servants at your beck and call. 

Now there is an essential part of the story that’s gone awry. Not so much in the sense that most of us don’t have servants at all, let alone a whole battalion. But that fashion designers have not taken the consequences of that absence into account:

Interesting female clothes don’t have pockets.

So why is that? Well, because the women who in the past wore beautiful clothes, did not need pockets. Perhaps the company of servants was meant to compensate, for they had no money or keys of their own (too much responsibility surely), no pocket watch to keep track of time (someone else did that for them too) – hence no pockets, obvious.

And fashion designers have not adapted to the ‘new’ circumstances of female life: often dresses, skirts, even trousers still don’t have pockets. Perhaps you think now: but the handbag surely solves that problem? True, but they’re not really practical, are they? If they have any volume, you never find anything in them and become the target of endless jokes. Also, do you really want to walk around the office or your home with a handbag? Some years ago, some fun was made of the then queen of Belgium, Paola, who was spotted taking a leisurely stroll in her own garden surrounded by her children and grandchildren – and earnestly hanging on to her handbag. That doesn’t really set an example for us, mere mortals, does it? There is of course the clutch, but think reception for instance: what do you do when offered a glass of bubbles plùs an amuse-gueule? Clutch the clutch under your arm? It’s not particularly elegant, there is the constant danger of dropping everything (clutch, glass, food) at once, in short: horror.

I’m curious to know how you solve this ‘problem’. For I seem to have collected a garderobe which is almost entirely pocketless. And no, I don’t want to carry my keys or money around the house or the office. But a handkerchief comes in handy at times, as does lip gloss or lipstick – hence also a small pocket mirror. In addition, I like my iPod nearby and, of course, a pocket watch.

Thus confronted with no pockets in my dresses, skirts and trousers, I came up with a sort of ‘portable pocket’ – and then another and one more. Remember colour fundamentalism rules 😉

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Occasionally I start from an existing bag,

 

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here I added lace plus a laminated photo of a lace fan which I sew unto the bag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started with felt bags, probably because it was Winter then, in Summer I moved onto fabrics.  Initially they were all designed to be worn with a (matching) belt, later I realised some dresses don’t accommodate a belt easily, so I made other ‘portable pockets’ which can be worn over one shoulder.

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Two more adventurous shapes, right with what once embellished church clothing.
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These are recycled old ties, the pocket watch sits under blue lace (left), under the felt patch embroidered with pearls (right).

 

 

 

 

 

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I tried a little cross-stitching here, seriously underestimating the time it took to fill the blue background.

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A dear friend can’t really function without her iPhone very closeby. And thanks to Apple’s policy to keep changing its format (and the friend’s boss who thinks people are not taken seriously if they do not have the latest model), I’m running a little side-business to satisfy her needs. Meanwhile the bag doesn’t only contain her iPhone but it also has two separate pockets for pay and business cards.  What more varieties can you suggest?

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The blue leather is fish skin, brought back from Iceland.
The blue ‘leather’ above is fish skin, brought back from Iceland. The bags on the right have three zips.

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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.