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.

The Craft of Use

We’re not materialistic enough. Now here’s a challenging thesis. And it’s convincingly argued by Kate Fletcher, Professor of Sustainability, Design and Fashion at the University of the Arts in London. Bear with me, an incident in a different branch of the arts introduces the theme beautifully.

A strange debate recently in Belgium centred around the question whether or not it’s acceptable to destroy a piece of art – and on what grounds that can be judged.

Tuymans, The Swamp. Photo Karel Hemerijckx.

The internationally renowned artist Luc Tuymans made the floor painting The Swamp for a cultural happening at the end of which the painting would be burned. With the explicit approval of the artist, of course. But the manager of a poverty organisation objected because the painting had an esteemed market value of half to one million euros. After lots of to-and-fro-ing, the painting was not burnt but hacked into pieces. The full destruction will eventually take place out of public sight.

The point seems to be that we cannot deal with transience: intentionally planning that things change, or indeed disappear, meets resistance. But what’s demonstrated most is how we, collectively, are completely stuck in a consumption society – and we no longer understand its implications. The manager interprets art purely in monetary terms. Tuymans himself manages the market very skillfully by creating scarcity of his work. In other words, all parties in the debate are strongly embedded in the consumption ideology of our times. Yet it can be safely assumed that the manager cherishes other values. And the artist claims a kind of sanctuary, a space where different values reign.

This space is where Kate Fletcher situates her work on the Craft of Use. In fact she’s far more ambitious than Tuymans: the point is not so much to create a sanctuary and in the rest of the space continue to go along with the dominant values, but rather to explore already existing practices and ideas and see how far they will get us in the definition and realization of a radically different system.

Fletcher’s focus is on fashion. And what is so wonderful about her project is that it not only aims to reshape the way we think about fashion but also firmly places it in a much broader discussion on sustainability and the good life. I said it was ambitious.

Fashion is the poster-industry of consumer materialism, frivolous and superficial, hence rather easy to dismiss. Yet Fletcher insists on fashion as a true cultural force, in the sense both that it’s the carrier of the dominant values of our society and that it has the potential to act as a vehicle for true, deep change. Fashion fuses fundamental human needs, the provision of livelihoods, creative expression, social processes, the material dimensions of well-being and pleasure. On the downside, it fully illustrates the dominance of market thinking and the inability of efficiency improvements to outrun the negative effects of economic growth on labour conditions and climate change.

At the heart of The Craft of Use lies a very simple idea of change: pay heed to the tending and wearing of clothes, favour their use as much as their creation. And in so doing adopt a more ecological idea of fashion that recognizes what happens outside the market as rich, powerful and valuable. The subtitle makes it plain: this is the search for “post-growth fashion”. There we have it: the point is to change the entire system.

We’re all “locked-in” into dominant ways of thinking about fashion, about economics and society.  We find it normal to engage with fashion by exchanging money for product. We chase the thrill of a new purchase, only to feel deflated at home where the satisfaction rate rarely holds out. We also expect the clothes to look dated or even fall apart in six months. We don’t hesitate about discarding rather than adapting or repairing – and so we consume again. And the ever growing volumes at an ever increasing pace neutralize the ecological efforts of the fashion industry.

And how do we feel when discarded clothes become art? Monika Droste, Transfixed Clothes (1981), Collection of the Wallonie-Brussels Federation.

To return to the challenging thesis at the beginning of this post: much in the same vein that the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma argues for the knowledge about the origin of raw materials, Fletcher claims we’re not materialistic enough because we don’t really care about the materials or indeed the garments. If we had respect and appreciation for the intrinsic material qualities of things, we would treat them differently – with attention and care. But consumer society suggests that it can fulfill our needs, for symbolic value for instance or social meaning. Hence the continuous replacement purchases. In that dynamic the clothes’ materiality, their intrinsic qualities aren’t relevant. To the industry the post-purchase lives of garments are equally irrelevant: the sooner it can seduce us to consume again, the better. 

This to Fletcher is the crux of the system: if the focus continues to lie with the product, we’re reduced to being – and remaining passive consumers. We hardly exercise our judgement. It’s hard for instance to get any information about the conditions in which the garments are manufactured. We let ourselves be distracted so that we also don’t evaluate our own needs and how they relate to consumption. We don’t actively engage with things. We don’t exercise our awareness. And thus neglect the development of our sensitivity to ethical responsibility.

When in other words consumption is such a powerful force, and it generates passivity in fashion activities, it also spreads that attitude to other domains. And we no longer see what its effects are: we’re discouraged to exercise our judgement in other areas of life too, we fail to identify our real needs, we feel powerless to act in the world. We’ve interiorized the idea that the market defines value – there is no alternative. Which also means that ideas or practices that cannot be marketed, have no value – remember the Tuymans debate.

Fletcher argues that we must resist this dominant ideology. We cannot accept that our lives are assessed by the market alone. Our aspirations and the simple (and not so simple) things that enrich our lives, the engagement with others for instance, do not connect with the economic logic of continuous growth. We thus urgently need an alternative discourse, both to solve the problems of sustainability and to realize a qualitative interpretation of human well-being.

If this sounds like a major task, Fletcher doesn’t deny it is. But she offers us the concept of use as a simple way in. For keeping garments in active use can involve something as simple as approaching a piece with attention and imagination. It’s inconspicuous consumption. It’s appreciating resources in greater detail, stretching them qualitatively and quantitatively, approaching them creatively, folding them into others’ lives, infusing them with human warmth, memory and storytelling. 

Research has revealed that the post-purchase life of a garment is the biggest source of both individual satisfaction and environmental impact. This is why use must be at the centre of post-growth fashion. 

Craft of use refers to a set of practical skills, knowledge and ideas associated with using clothes. They’re little noticed and within the current fashion system little prized. What Fletcher and her team do in the book, is bring together stories and portrait photography that illustrate and value the practice of use. And the main point is that there are already many “alternative dress codes” out there: people buy secondhand, they share use or transfer clothes between generations, they mend their garments, “open and adjust” them, cherish the patina of use, etc.

This is what satisfaction with use looks like.

Let me share my two favourites from the book. One person suggests that with a new dress you should also be able to buy an extra piece of fabric, so you could adjust the garment to your own wishes. Showing her own favourite eveningdress, the woman in the photograph on the right tells the inspiring story of a woman in her eighties who at some point had decided not to buy any more clothes. She’s worn out the rest of her wardrobe and now only wears eveningwear.

What the book illustrates above all, is that many people already have, in their own ‘ordinary’ way, broken through the dominant economic system. They listen to their own needs and preferences, they use their awareness and judgement and bring them into the world. They’ve thus become agents in their own interpretation and practice of fashion.

Fletcher insists that the designing process itself must include users’ wisdom and produce more flexible products. Interestingly, at the end of World War II, the Make Do & Mend movement already inspired material resourcefulness with army blankets. Half a century later the A-Poc project presented the fascinatingly flexible design of Issey Miyake (1998). 

This is disruptive stuff. Once beyond-the-market activity is included to stretch the definition of fashion, the power balance shifts. Production becomes only one part of the system, existing market priorities lose their dominance in favour of alternative networks that favour non-utilitarian, non-economic values.

Use is resourceful and satisfying. It infuses the system of fashion with different goals such as self-reliance, diversity and quality. To use is to act, to forge a more engaged future of our own choosing and in so doing provide us with an opportunity to develop the capacity and skills to navigate our own route not just through our fashion choices, but also through life: we become the makers of alternative routes. Consumers become citizens who bring to the fore different interpretations of identity, agency and the good life.

What I find most fascinating is that this is about ‘ordinary’ people. It’s not grand theory: it’s practical wisdom gleaned from individual, subjective lives. Its practitioners may not even be aware of it but they fulfill a pioneering role – which can inspire us, precisely because it’s so much in reach of us all. What’s more, this “clothing competence” can equally spread out and support growth in our character for instance and in our choices as citizen. Stories of “material resourcefulness” thus become tiny lessons of change – in the various domains of life.

Fletcher makes the association with craftivism which is an explicitly political approach. Obviously, there’s also a strong reference to the ideas, practices and values of craftsmanship such as I have been presenting in this blog. Or to summarize the whole argument really simply: after a garment is sold, the user is in charge. Fletcher calls all of us to use that power. The idea and practice of use is a path to approach not only fashion but life itself differently.

Let me conclude with two practices of my own. Fletcher insists that she “present[s] the practices of garment use not as a neatly packaged ‘how to’ list for using things well and with satisfaction, but as rich ground, as compost, in which ideas and practices of use can be cultivated.” With her, “I leave it up to you to care for what grows here, to train it in different directions, to enjoy its blossom, to cross-pollinate its flowers with new ideas, to eat its fruit, share it with others and replant its seed in new and different ground.”

My sister knitted one jumper in her life. And when it was finished, she didn’t like it – and gave it to me. Years later moths liked it very much.
What I could save, got recycled into a festive attire for a new member in my sister’s happy bear collection.

 

 

Note the buttons above left, the zip on the right and the fringes in the foreground, each belonging to a different secondhand skirt. 
I very much hope I can wear this new trinity in my eighties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Celebrate the Golden Speckles

Creativity is everywhere these days. Look at most job descriptions for instance and “creative” is part of the (long) list of the required competences. Alas, most people don’t consider themselves creative at all – and refrain from applying. In addition “creative” is appropriated by a very particular segment of the labour market which again distances many people. To give just one example: the Twitter account @creativeskills publicizes “jobs in the creative industry in Belgium” – which on closer inspection is restricted to web design and development (and similar jobs). If, in other words, you’re not an IT wizard, don’t bother.

This is a pity. People are too often discouraged to explore, let alone celebrate their creativity. Perhaps they weren’t very good at drawing or didn’t manage to crochet a straight oven lap in primary school. Perhaps they were never encouraged to try again. Sure, we can’t all be artistic geniuses but a creative speckle here and there, wouldn’t that enrich our lives? I believe virtually anyone can be creative – if they find a form of creative expression that really suits them. So let’s try and inspire you.

The New Artisans celebrate the “handmade-with-love ethos” of products that are “tangible extensions of someone else’s being”. The editor, Olivier Dupon, explicitly presents artisanship as a path to reconnect with humanity. And he further connects it with the politically charged debate on local supply versus remote manufacturing. The wide variety of creative expressions in these two volumes (and I hope encore is to come!), testifies to the huge resurgence of handmade craft: from quirky ceramics and glass-blown sculptures over felted portraits of beloved pets and exuberant textile art, to delicate faïence still lives and so much more. All the featured “artisans” use craft techniques rather than mass-production methods to create one-of-a-kind objects that are very covetable indeed. Dupon dedicates his book

     “to all those who are making a positive difference in the world today. It cannot be stressed enough that artisans, by making objects with love […] are slowly but surely reversing the trend of generic mass-consumption. Let us all put our party hats on. It is time to celebrate!”

Celebratory the books feel indeed: they not only widen our view of what ‘creative’ might be, they exude the love of craft. And connect it, mostly indirectly, to the good life. The featured artisans share their own process of making, the materials and techniques involved and their sources of inspiration. They also present an alternative way of living: they respectfully connect with traditions and re-shape them, they appropriate old materials to create innovative objects, and they very personally relate to those objects so that the latter embody the ideas of human connection and sustainability. Such encounters, even only on paper, are heart warming. I can very much recommend the experience. And hope for you too it re-kindles the creative speckles you had forgotten about.

Meet Mister Finch: toadstools, a stag beetle and a giant hare, spider and swan, all in
fabric, inhabit his fairytale world. And moths, larger than life. This is delightful.

 

 

 

 

My personal favorite is Mister Finch who, like all the other artisans, is featured over four pages in the second volume. This is barely an appetizer, fortunately Mister Finch presented his Fairytale World in a book himself. The Leeds-based artist works alone, without formal education in arts or textiles. But he is constantly triggered by what he calls “fabrics’ potential”. Making things is very important to him, especially when he can integrate “hunted objects”: “the lost, found and forgotten”. He consciously uses recycled materials not only as an ethical statement, but also in order to add authenticity and charm. Because in essence Mister Finch sees himself as a storyteller. And he makes “storytelling creatures for people who are also a little lost, found and forgotten …”

I’m not sure what it says about me but of those storytelling creatures the ones that stand out for me are the spiders, the moths and the butterflies.

Anyone still doubting the power of flowers?

 

Certainly not all those who are expected here!

 

 

 

 

 

It’s obvious that Mister Finch cherishes his creatures with great affection. Not unlike those of Louise Bourgeois, his spiders are made of tapestry and they are caring, to the point that they’ll be mother (what a delightful expression that is!) and pour you a comforting cup of tea.

Moths are seldom someone’s favorite creature. And certain kinds gorge themselves with our beloved fabrics. But Mister Finch sews them beautiful tapestry wings, makes them larger than life and humanizes them with added objects that trigger the imagination.

Dreaming of Cinderella or the 
ideal adornment for my stacked books.
Mister Finch doesn’t seem to be sure. 

 

 

 

 

 

The butterflies are equally delightful. They have tapestry wings or fly on simple cotton, dyed with tea or coffee and a dash of colour. When they fly together, they compose a poetic rainbow. And we are made to believe that the butterfly on the right will pick up the paint brush any second now.

 

Recently even more humanized creatures have come into being. It seems that Mister Finch wants indeed to inspire us to live in a fairytale world. Dressing up animals is something he does since childhood. He doesn’t seem to have been discouraged, or he managed later on to reconnect with his creative streak. He certainly hasn’t abandoned his childlike imagination: “I imagine them to come alive at night. Getting dressed and helping an elderly shoemaker or the tired housewife.”

This cutie will inspire us to have soft dreams,
while his brothers discuss what must be done. 
The rabbit threesome is already on the move.

 

 

Bert, Arthur & Charles wonder whether an inspiring speech from the soap box would get the work done faster. Or at least more enjoyable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is storytelling of an awesome level. Imagine having one of these creatures at home. And waking up at night, listening to whether they’ve started on the housework yet – I’d like that ;-). More generally, I believe craftsmanship has a particular contribution to make to the good life. In previous posts I’ve begun to explain what that might be – and of course there is much more to add. But it’s important not to forget the practice of craftsmanship – and inspire further exploring.

I find the practice of artists like Mister Finch very inspiring. And I like the idea of telling stories through recycled materials. I recognize Mister Finch’s pleasure in hunting down suitable bits and pieces. That hunt is very much part of the process for me. It’s an excercise in opening up my imagination to what can be transformed and being aware of the potential of what others have discarded. Especially when things are damaged, they speak of former lives that reverberate in the new hand-made object.

The scarf used to belong to the seller’s mother. She only wanted to depart with it when she heard I was going to transform it into a craft object.

With the work of Mister Finch in my mind I went in search of textured fabric. Not so much the tapestry he so often works with but something with a pattern that would transform under the technique of felting I intended to explore further.
I found this delightful but seriously damaged mousseline scarf – which suited just my purposes.

 

Watch the pattern disappear under the 
the merino wool, and how it then re-emerges, contracted, blueified,
with the golden stitches stunningly standing out.

 

 

 

 

The next steps: design the overall shape,
construct the butterfly’s legs, 
& sew the underside of the wings.

 

 

 

 

And here it is, my very own butterfly.

I made it for a dear friend. Cobalt blue is our shared colour. The butterfly tells the story of the metamorphoses our lives were stumbling through at that time. And it very much reverberates the hope – which I now happily extend to you – that each of us would be able to spread out our wings towards a celebratory future full of golden speckles.

This Is (Not) A Fairy Tale

We all grow up with fairy tales. It is in the nature of things that our young selves do not notice all that they entail. So it’s fun to return to them in later years – and discover the many layers they contain. 

Secrets d’Étoffes (Fabrics’ Secrets) is a delightful book dedicated to spread the word that fabrics are everywhere, thus also in the stories we hear in our earliest years. And ‘we’ can be taken quite literally: storyteller Anne Lascoux and textile specialist Claude Fauque collected 24 fairy tales from around the world that have at their centre fabrics in all their variety. Interestingly it’s not just raw materials, specific fabrics or clothing, it’s also the skills involved and the quality of craftsmanship that are crucial to the plot of these stories. It seems a pity that the origin of the tales – Europe, Rwanda, Brazil, China, … – is only mentioned in the table of content. But undoubtedly the authors want to emphasize the universality of the ‘secret’ of omnipresent and powerful fabrics. 

Charlotte Gastaut’s illustrations add to the book’s delight.

 

In the collection’s version of Little Red Riding Hood it isn’t so much the hood that takes centre stage, but the girl’s knowledge that it’s washing day. In her escape from the wolf she hurls herself into the sheets of the laundry women – and is saved by floating away on the river. The wolf attempts to do the same but the women pull the sheet from beneath him and he drowns.

 

When the new bride of Bluebeard finds her unfortunate predecessors, she immediately notices that they wear extremely sumptuous dresses. When Bluebeard plans to kill again, she manages to delay his action by appealing to his vanity. She claims she needs more time to complete her attire to perfection. And so he grants her three more hours for stitching. Finally it’s her father who manages to kill first.

My favourite of the collection is the fairy tale which tells the story of How Man Learnt to Spin and Weave. In this Brazilian tale humans have no idea what to do with the raw cotton they collect from the fields. It’s the spider which has the craftsmanship to make it into thread – and generously invites to do it for them. She also introduces them to a great many tools such as needles and bobbins to enable the transfer of her skills. This is reminiscent of the earlier mentioned work of Louise Bourgeois who insisted on the spider as symbol of learning. The tale goes on to bring onto the scene a hurried woman (even in the time that the animals spoke!) who returns early, sees her basket empty and the spider chewing her cotton. Soon the rumour spreads: the spider is a thief! Hurt to the core by the injust accusation the spider decides to leave the country for good. But on her way she stops the first woman she meets and teaches her the craft of spinning and weaving. Again as with Bourgeois, the spider repairs by letting go!

I happily leave the further exploration of these gems to you but the message of Fauque and Lascoux is clear: fabrics are omnipresent in fairy tales in the same way that they are in real life. And they are powerful. In case you’re not convinced yet, what is the tale of The New Clothes of the Emperor (which isn’t actually included in this volume) other than an attempt to escape textile power?

Who certainly makes no attempt to escape textile power, is Colleen Hill who curated a delightful exhibition on Fairy Tale Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York and wrote the accompanying book. In view of her expertise, it’s not surprising that Hill starts off with the question of why fairy tales are so important to high fashion. Yet she ends up exploring the relationship the other way round: why are fabrics so important to fairy tales?

The starting point here is not so much, as with Fauque and Lascoux, that many fairy tales include fabrics, but that their relationship has largely been ignored by fashion historians and theorists, folkorists and fairy tale scholars alike. Hill’s book thus fills a gap that has long been filled in the case of film, fine art and design. Besides a comprehensive introduction to the topic, the book offers a series of essays on thirteen fairy tales. After a short summary of the plot, Hill draws out the sartorial references in different versions of the tales and shows their interpretations, both by mostly late 19th, early 20th-century illustrators and by her own selection of existing garments.

In fact, the question of why fairy tales are important to high fashion, is easily answered. In our highly technological, globalized times, according to Hill, they evoke the magical, the utopian. Tales offer an escape from lives that are fraught with anxiety and stress. And fashion designers exploit the accompanying alienation by telling stories that draw on a language we all know. That is, visually at least.

In Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale the prince is surprised that Sleeping Beauty wears old-fashioned clothes, “like his grandmother”. This makes sense when you remember that she has slept for a hundred years before he kisses her awake but no one, hearing or reading the tale, notices. We are all enchanted by the story and by her royal attire. 

The references to Little Red Riding Hood seem the most straightforward. And the most often used, whether in (high) fashion, advertisements or magazine editorials. They’re easily understood, even when there’s no more hood or when the colour is distinctly different. 

The reference is exaggerated in this design by Comme des Garçons (2015)
Here the emphasis is on the dress, the hood has become a mere accessory. Dolce & Gabbana (2014)
Even in yellow, we understand. By Kirsty Mitchell
Here you wànt to attract the wolves! Max Factor advertisement for ‘Riding Hood Red’ lipstick (1954)

 

Cinderella is the tale that most centers on sartorial display, at least in Charles Perrault’s version of it. Whereas fairy tales usually offer little information beyond what’s needed for the plot or for the character’s portrayal as good or bad, Cinderella contains numerous descriptions of dress that are notably detailed. Perrault’s knowledge of the court of Versailles (he lived from 1628 to 1703) and his own fabric sensibility account for this. It would be interesting to discover to which extent this detail is also present in earlier versions of the tale, the earliest extant version being transcribed in China in the 9th century!

Yet taking into account Perrault’s short, poetic moral at the end of Cinderella (as at the end of all his tales), there is a strong suggestion that we have firmly incorporated the visual language of the fairy tales – but have lost sight of its moral pendant which is related to the second question Hill attempts to address.

“Beautiful ladies, it’s kindness more than dress; That wins a man’s heart with greater success.”  (Charles Perrault)

The question as to why fabrics are so important to fairy tales, Hill answers with reference to the power of transformation: fashion is a marker of identity and a vehicle of self-expression. She concludes that fashion is a powerful agent of metamorphosis: “In real life, as in fairy tales, a change in the way we dress can act as a means to reinvent and reimagine the self. We truly can fashion our happily ever after.”

This is too simple though. I’m the first to concede my love of clothing. More generally, women and perhaps increasingly men understand textile power. And as full-blown postmodernists, who do no longer accept a single identity, we gladly embrace the notion that màny vehicles are necessary 😉

But the fairy tale teachings of modesty, humility and subservience – mostly to (young) women of course, are rarely acknowledged. In the original version, Little Red Riding Hood is punished for her idleness: leasurely wandering through the wood, she gives the wolf all the time he needs to eat her grandmother and set up the scene for the next meal. And she can’t save herself. Bluebeard’s wife puts her life in danger by being curious – and she must submit to the action of the men in the story. Cinderella is kind but that doesn’t alleviate her precarious circumstances, let alone procure a suitable husband: the prince only sees her in magically conjured up, magnificent garments. 

In fact it’s strange that so many little girls want to be a princess: they set themselves up to be restrained, physically as in the sleep of Sleeping Beauty or drawn into social arrangements that are pre-existing and strictly normative. Fairy tales warn against the vices of self-determination, pride in one’s own talents and desire. They often contain boundaries not to be crossed or places where one shouldn’t go. And those are defined by someone else. The desires to be fulfilled are not one’s own. And the ‘happily after’, or the definition of what the good life might be, is not made by the often female protagonists.

We ignore in other words the moral messages of the original fairy tales. Which is not to say that subliminally they don’t communicate anymore. Or that their validity is beyond questioning. And that’s why it’s equally important to visualize the message that this life is not a fairy tale.

I made this box installation at a time of great frustration and anger. I felt restrained in many ways, not heard nor recognised in my expertise or sensibilities. The definition of the good life seemed far from my reach.

The original horse is set in bronze by the Flemish sculptor Rik Poot.
Staircase after a fire by the Flemish photographer Karin Borghouts.
A rusted saw and a part of a sanding machine, rough and abrasive.

The colours are powerful and aggressive. The images are mostly bleak, the animals not friendly.

Yet the installation also contains elements of hope and agency. The crinoline (historically an instrument of restraint) is cushioned by the skin (in Dutch: the skirt) of a red union – symbol of a multilayered identity that awaits (self)exploration. The strip of luxurious red fabric enhances the silk caterpillar which is the creator of fine raw materials that count on an imaginative mind, skills and purposefulness. The bright red tape-measure can now only be used by the seamstress herself. What she measures and with what system or principles of measurement, is her choice. And the coat hanger holds the promise that whatever she may create will act as an agent of metamorphosis. So that life may indeed become good.

 

 

 

The quote may not seem very inviting. But it’s above all an appeal to withstand alluring visual promises that carry a implicit, doubtful message of princess-hood. Being a human being, a woman for that matter, is a moral mission. One which deserves serious consideration and dedication. And a possibility to meet on grounds of equal agency.

A Humble Trick to Happiness

There’s a lot to do in Belgium these days about so-called workable, meaningful and adaptable work. We should all work longer, yet potential employers fear less productivity and discriminate against candidates from 47 onwards. With a ‘normal’ trajectory, you should be about halfway your career then – another twenty years to go! At the same time long-term absence through sickness or burn-out has never been higher. And yet the ceo of a large employers’ federation managed to comment on the national radio that with burn-out, the problem isn’t work – but all the other activities that fill people’s free time. No outcry followed.

There is also little sense that this discussion (and the action, with yesterday a national manifestation against the government measures concerning work), should be about what the good life consists of. The Flemish suicide rates are about one and a half percent higher than the European average, for women Flanders sits uncomfortably in the top together with Lituania and Hungary. Apparently we have the wrong attitude towards finding help and our problem solving behaviour and communication aren’t good either. Just today the media were already happy that the number of Belgians who take antidepressiva stagnated from 2014 to 2015. This ‘happy’ news is rather sour when one considers that’s still one in ten, or a rise of 16,5% in 10 years’ time. And it suggests that we, as a society, have learnt to accept this sorry state of affairs.  

Yet ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’ is everywhere you look and compared to previous generations we have armies of ‘health workers’ in the broadest sense of the word at our disposal. Surely all the attention to positive psychology should offer us all we need to improve our psychological health? happiness-industry2In The Happiness Industry William Davies forcefully questions that: emotions have simply become a new resource to be bought and sold.  In a sense capitalism has further expanded. What the system used to regard with suspicion – feeling, friendship, moral responsability, creativity – have now all been co-opted for the purpose of maximising profits. It seems that there is nothing that cannot be instrumentalized. And all this is done via a psychological approach which, because of its individualistic focus, does not need to acknowledge a larger ideological framework. Attention is simply displaced.

Meaningful work, in the Belgian government’s terms: workable work, seems laudable in the view of so many unhappy workers. But the fact that its twin, adaptable work, is virtually always mentioned in the same breath, raises suspicion: are we talking about the well-being of people – or of the system? How come this discussion doesn’t include an analysis of underlying economic or social causes? Why do we hear so little about the societal sources of this state of affairs? When and how did it happen that the collective is reduced to the point that it’s not even mentioned in talk about trends which by definition cannot be individual? In a similar vein as the ceo cited earlier, some psychologists concluded after the economic crash of 2008 that the problem was not the bank system but the emotions of the bank workers. And since how you feel cannot be argued against, it’s conveniently insulated from all debate.

Happiness is not divorced from the material conditions in which we live. Intuitively we all know that it’s bound up with our activities, whether work or otherwise. It is not a mere subjective affair.  Yet that’s the way it’s presented – and very succesfully it is too. We all seem to have incorporated the notion that our psychological state is 1) very important and 2) our very own individual responsability. We’re thrown back at ourselves to improve things. And lo and behold, there is a whole new ‘industry’ that is devoted to our well-being, that offers this training, that method, this diet or supplements, that course of action, that will raise our level of happiness. The offer is there, manifold. If you’re still not happy, evidently it’s your own fault.

I have very mixed feelings about this. Davies’ argument is compelling and I do believe the discussion about the good life should also be conducted at a collective level. Yet when one feels unhappy, surely it’s legitimate that one tries to do something about it. I too aim to improve my well-being in a variety of ways. And I do think it’s mostly up to me. That makes me so to speak a collaborator who maintains the Happiness Industry as Davies describes it. Is there another way?

Just last Saturday I was at a workshop where someone asked for a “simple trick when things do not go well”. In managerial terms this would be a ‘quick win’. How could you be against that? But this is of course a rather desperate question of someone who may not be able to carry all that individual responsability. And I saw many people in the room nodding as if to say: yes, I feel the same and I would like to know a way out too. There was, not surprisingly, no answer: if we no longer believe in the collective, there can also be no straightforward recipes that work for everyone.

Yet commercially the myth of the collective booms. Especially the immensely popular literature on self-help and well-being thrives on the assumption that one size may fit all. Read this book and the world will change for all of you. It’s telling that Gretchen Rubin apologises repeatedly in The Happiness Project that she tells her own story, in the hope that it may be inspiring for others. happiness-projectAlthough not really unhappy, she concentrated for twelve months on how to improve the quality of her life. Within a carefully chosen theme per month she defines a number of very concrete aims – and reports honestly on their realisation (or not). Inez van Oord, creator of the successful magazins Seasons and cirkelHappinez, combines in If Life Is a Circle (in Dutch) her individual story with a more generalistic approach.  I personally think The Happiness Project works better: the individual account is indeed inspiring. It’s not a ‘simple trick’ that everyone should follow blindly, it’s an open invitation to explore possibilities on the basis of what they did for the author. General recommendations so often are, well, so very general that they cannot drag you into action. Rubin also doesn’t claim any quick wins, her story is one of careful thought, concentration and persistence. 

I too have my own personal list of “tricks” for “when things don’t go well”. And among the most effective for me is being creative. Of course that begs the question: what is ‘being creative’? Recently I expressed my incomprehension about wanting to make your own jam – when there are so many delicious jams to be had, without much effort apart from choosing from the bewildering offer. The reply was swift: and why would anyone want to make one’s own clothes or jewelry? Point taken! It’s irrelevant what it is, as long as it works for you. And in the quest for your own set of tricks, it’s inspiring to learn how others found and or changed their expression of creativity.

In the already mentioned Why We Make Things kornPeter Korn relates how he started off as a self-made craftsman who really struggled to continue to learn ànd to find appreciation for his craftsmanship. Yet he ended up as an school administrator, creating the circumstances in which others can learn and create more at ease. To the repeated critique that he denounced his creative mission, he replies that he is still being creative, albeit in a different way. I love this story, especially because it shows how narrowmindedly we usually interpret creativity. And how broad its range can be.

The creative process is a mystery. And unless we’re talking about out-of-reach artistic genius, I sincerely believe anything can be a source of inspiration. The point is to be curious and explore, whether in terms of subject, materials, techniques – or all of them at once. It’s about focal attention to the point of reaching flow. It’s about activities that we want to do well for their own sakes. It’s about slow time or kairos in which we may see a glimpse of the good life. 

For me, creativity is (among others) about fabrics and fibers. So let me show you some humble craft examples. They’re mostly imitations in the sense that I tried to reproduce an existing design or object into felt. They’re certainly not perfect. But I made them thoughtfully, with care and attention. And the necessary persistence tricked me into more well-being. 

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Probably the most famous mouse in the world,
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needlefelted on a brooch for my godson who finally enjoys reading thanks to Geronimo Stilton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A delightful trumpet playing pig,
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and her needlefelted sister. Especially the jaunty legs were a challenge 😉
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And surely other animals can play an instrument too?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Or what about a piggy bank?
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Perhaps its decoration suggested that I should be saving to buy a house.
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I bought a silk scarf instead and created my very own felt Monopoly street.

 

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The humble guardian angel is mine,

 

 

 

 

 

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my niece made the painting. How delightful that she turned the colours around: she found her own expression of creativity!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the process of making these things I was happy. Because they were gifts and or home decoration, I hope the happiness contained in them spreads wider. And that might be a very humble contribution to making well-being a collective objective again.

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

 

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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.

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How exciting can shoes get?

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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.

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Touch,
sound
Sound,
smell
Smell,
sight
Sight,
taste
Taste, and:
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‘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.

The Power of ‘Soft’ Communication

When I visit places, I like to explore the book stores, see what’s popular in that city or country. I visit the children’s department in particular because children’s books, especially the illustrated ones, are more comparable than books about let’s say (local) current affairs. So I got very frustrated when I once was in Sofia, Bulgaria. There were virtually no books that I could read (my Bulgarian is not great). IMG_0591But then I discovered a to me still largely ineligible but very attractive book. It was its unusual cover that drew my attention: the letters are made with wool, the illustration is composed of woven figures. Inside the book too wool is everywhere: it’s used to make up the page numbers in the table of content; each page which has no elaborate woven creation, is outlined with a simple ‘line’ of wool, dotted with a woolen circle; some of the text is handwritten, with a selection of letters written in wool. Later I discovered that When God was on Earth. Nineteen Bulgarian Folk Legends was nominated for the Bulgarian Book Association Award (2008) because of its unusual concept, namely the combination of folk tales, selected by Albena Georgieva, with the extraordinary visual images of Sevda Potourlian. They also had the good inspiration to include English summaries of the stories.

This is exceptionally good storytelling, allowing the expressivity of the woven illustrations to convey the tale’s morale – which remains unsaid. See for instance this representation of ‘The Plague’: how could anyone, including a child, be unimpressed with the devastating power of wickedness?

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It almost seems like God is having fun being dragged along by the Devil.
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I have no idea of how prominent the Devil really is in the Bulgarian folk soul, but look how expressive he is!

I found alas no information on the artists – do let me know if you know more! -, but to me they strike a perfect match: not only do they employ the craft of weaving to make their book very attractive, they also engage the crafty representations to communicate their heritage in a very enticing way.

Another remarkable example of how craft engages with heritage ànd with attractive books, is the Cozy Classics series. This is the amazing work of 

War and Peace
Just three examples of the
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Cozy Classics series, now
Great expectations
12 titles published or on their way.

Jack and Holman Wang who present classic stories in felt figures. To be more specific, they convert ‘big books’ for adults into word primers for children. Each book in the series contains twelve ‘concept’ words and their felt representations which are easy to grasp by young children and which delight adults, whether they know the Great Book or not. The aim is very much to create a fun ‘literacy-rich environment’ that will engender enthusiastic readers. As they put it themselves in their ‘soft’ reply to a reviewer who had missed the point: “Unfortunately, in the minds of many, classics are associated with academics, but no classic was written for the classroom; every one was written to give pleasure. We prefer to get away from the classroom and have kids grow up thinking of The Great Books as great fun.”

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Truly, what other
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words would you need
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in early life? 😉

 

 

 

I’m humbled by such great craftsmanship. Being a (needle)felter myself, I know how much time and effort goes into making anything look like you’d imagined it in your mind’s eye. See for instance the making of War and Peace: this is fun and value intimately intertwined. Ideally these are interchangeable but as the usage of craft communication suggests, it may require some time and persistence to acquire a rewarding new habit. Thus the love of heritage books is combined with extreme skill ànd patience, not to convince people of the enjoyment of reading with some theoretical or moral argument but ‘simply’ by demonstrating it.

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Felt smoke!   How much ‘softer’ can communication be?

The literal conciseness of the Wangs’ message fits in well with the reading campaign of the BoekenOverleg that gathers all bookish organisations in Flanders. There is no focus on heritage books here and alas the promoters did not choose for craft illustrations 😉 The image is a simple clock, referring to the value reading can bring to your life if you take/make the time. NieuwsbriefYou know the feeling: you’re constantly running around, time doesn’t seem to be your own. But it’s actually crucial, especially in these busy-busy times, to be selective about our pastimes, in order to regain (some) control over our lives. This too is not a boisterous message, aiming to impose or to moralize. It’s on the contrary a gentle invitation – and I hope the more effective for it. The campaign hopes to inspire: it suggests a way of allowing slow time in your life, of making quality time, of reaching flow or kairos if you want. Reading is a present to yourself, it’s offering you the time to be quiet, to reflect, to be inspired, to learn, to explore – and have fun in the particular way(s) you like it. 

Will you too ‘book time for a book’?

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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.