02 May 2013

Silk sensations - quilts that shimmer and shine

Silk cocoons, Kiryu, Japan, 2012.
On April 27, I participated in a one-day symposium, Silk: Fabric, Fashions and Quilts, co-sponsored by the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) and the New England Quilt Museum (NEQM). The series began two years ago with a seminar on textile design and production during the interregnum between the world wars, and I look forward to another session in two years.

Textile history is a topic of almost infinite breadth, encompassing the history of capitalism, manufacturing and labor regulation, consumer demand and preference, science and technology, art and design, etc. This symposium, while a wonderful learning opportunity overall, perhaps tried to cover too much of this territory, more than was realistic in one day. However, as an overview of the issues relating to the study of an historically significant fiber, the symposium did serve to underscore the ubiquity of textiles in every aspect of our lives, not just our closets.

We assembled at the NEQM, and, after a welcome and brief introduction, during which the NEQM volunteers were recognized and thanked for their efforts, the day began in earnest with the opening address, a Powerpoint gallop  through the history of American silk production - thread, yarn and yardage - led by social historian Madelyn Shaw, independent curator, textile historian and co-author of American Silk.  Ms. Shaw's impressive resume can be explored at her website.  

Highlights of this fast-paced presentation included information about the first successful American silk concern, Cheney brothers, whose gigantic factory complex can still be visited today in Manchester, Connecticut, and images of fashion-forward silk fabric from manufacturer  H R. Mallinson, whose printed silks challenged the hegemony of imported European silks in couturier clothing.

Following Ms. Shaw's address, the sixty or so attendees divided into three groups each of which headed out to one of three concurrent sessions. My group remained at the NEQM for a curator-led tour of Silk! Antique and Contemporary Art Quilts, organized by NEQM curator Pam Weeks, and on view until July 7, 2013.   Ms. Weeks, an excellent speaker, has put together a show of both variety and depth.

Sampling the Silk Road, Christine Wickert, 2011.

The award-winning quilt above was made by master quilter Chris Wickert, from applique patterns by Edyta Sitar.  My image is less than optimal, but this quilt epitomizes the qualities of silk that make it irresistible - the rich colors seem almost lit from within, and the smooth, slightly reflective surface supports Ms. Wickert's exquisite hand-quilting perfectly. 

Symposium attendee listens to gallery talk.

The quilt on the far wall in the image above was the impetus for this exhibit.  Stella Antiqua, by artist and silk historian Hanne Vibeke de Koning, is a hand-pieced and hand-quilted silk confection in feminine pinks and beige, and is in the collection of the National Quilt Museum.  Curator Weeks, a polymath who is herself an accomplished quilt artist, was quite taken with this quilt when she first viewed it and it sparked an interest in silk and silken quilt-making.

In lovely curatorial touch, one of the historic bed quilts is actually displayed on an historic bed.  In the so-called Saffron Quilt, from the Wenham Museum, the yellow silk, in marvelous condition, again highlights the exuberant hand-quilting.

Saffron Quilt, maker unknown, 18th c.

Pieced Silk Sampler, Elizabeth Crehore Johnson White, c. 1850

Silk fabric and hand-quilting are perfect partners, and in the Elizabeth White quilt, above and below, silk cooperates with a quilter's imagination run riot, particularly in the pale green silk sashing.  The sampler blocks were probably pieced with scraps left from dress-making, but the quantity of fabric needed for the sashing suggests it was purchased especially for the purpose. The pale green color works perfectly with the toned blues, corals and browns of the pieced blocks, corralling the wide variety of designs into a cohesive whole. 

Pieced Silk Sampler, detail.

One recurrent, but unheralded, theme throughout the exhibit is what we now call "upcycling" - the reuse of what would otherwise be waste or scrap material.  Silk, due to its cost and status as a luxury fiber, was particularly treasured. The quilt below, from the Pilgrim Roy Collection, is made of remnants of silk linings from a hat factory.  The pinwheel pattern is one of my favorites, and the diagonal lines of color just animate those whirligigs.

Pinwheels, maker unknown, c. 1940

Pinwheels, detail.

Happy Father's Day, Janet Elwin, 1992.

Another example of upcycling is the star quilt above, made from ties and, I believe, men's shirtings.  The careful organization of colors in the stars, as well as the contrast between dark tie material and light shirtings, make this one of the best menswear quilts I've seen, and I've requested Ms. Elwin's book from my local library.

Happy Father's Day, detail.

Straight Furrow log cabin, Amelia Jerome Perkins, c. 1880, detail.

One gallery in the exhibit is devoted to Victorian examples of the log cabin quilt; the example above has particularly compelling placement of alternating color bands within the overall light/dark sequencing of the straight furrow pattern.  This quilt really packs a graphic punch.

Silk Tobacco Premium Quilt, maker unknown, c. 1910.

In addition to dress-making offcuts and hat factory remnants, another source of silk for quilter-makers included the silk premiums enclosed with tobacco products. An skilled stitcher collected and arranged these into the small textile above. The word "baby" is embroidered on the back; consider the juxtaposition of tobacco products providing material for a baby quilt.

After the gallery tour our group continued to our second rotation, a study group session led by Lorie Chase, who briefly discussed alternatives to silk, such as synthetics, and cotton or wool treated to look more lustrous, either through heat-treatment to add shine, or through the fabric's woven construction, such as cotton used in a satin weave.  In a satin weave the horizontal threads, the weft, go under one vertical, or warp, thread but over two or more warp threads. (In plain weave each weft thread goes under one warp thread and over one warp thread.) The placement of the weft threads in the satin weave makes for an inherently smoother, more reflective fabric surface.

Satin weave - http://fm-textile.wikispaces.com/Section+3.1

I found it difficult to "change gears," from focusing on silk qua silk to a wider consideration of all the ways quilters and fiber artists add sheen and luster to their work. Ms. Chase, an independent scholar and quilt historian, had put much thought and energy into the study materials, including some wonderful handouts with actual fabric swatches. However, it almost seemed as if this segment belonged in a future seminar devoted less to one natural fiber and more to a general consideration of issues such as the artist's use of reflectivity, cultural attitudes towards sheen and texture, and the role of synthetics in the quiltmaker's toolbox.

After a delicious lunch at the ATHM and a tour of the wedding dress exhibit (see previous post) my group walked back to the NEQM, where the concluding session was a quick, illustrated tour of one of America's commercial failures - the abortive attempt to raise silkworms in mid-19th century New England. Marjorie Senechal, professor emerita at Smith College and co-author of American Silk, compared and contrasted the correct approach to silkworm husbandry, from "moth to cloth" as she put it, with the ultimately unsuccessful methods of growers in Northhampton. Silkworms are fussy little creatures! (Youtube video from my trip to Japan in 2012.)

Participants and presenters.

The final group activity was a "show and tell" by attendees, which was wonderful and too short! I wish more time had been left for this portion of the symposium.

As a sort of recessional at day's end, we were treated to an interpretative dance by The Luminaria Dance Company of Cambridge.  The dancers had energy to spare but, clutching my valued handouts, it was all I could do to slink to my car after such an intense day of learning and exploration.