A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to take my mom and join our guild on a curator’s tour of a current exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. As we were driving out to the Vancouver Campus, it was a lot like coming home because my husband and I had lived out there for a number of years and still miss our condo, mostly for nostalgic reasons since we had a full drum set above us which was the impetus for us to move, but regardless, it brought back many good memories. Apologies in advance for the poor phone-quality photos.
The concept of the show was centered around humans wrapping themselves in cloth. The curator, Dr. Jennifer Kramer, had created areas of the show that felt a lot like markets in countries like India and Indonesia where textiles are piled on top of one another. The buyer has to sift through mountains of textiles to unearth the treasured one to purchase. The effect was stunning and the symbolism was not missed but unfortunately, it made seeing the individual textiles themselves difficult as they were piled on top of one another. Many (most) of the pieces were hanging – there were only a few that were not hung – and as one moves through the exhibit, they are taken down hallways in a sense between the textiles themselves in a large rectangular room.
I found myself casting back to this exhibit while driving recently as Victoria, BC, seeks to pass a municipal ban of plastic bags. The discussion on CBC Almanac was inevitably moved towards plastics in general when a gentleman called in from Rossland, BC. As soon as he started speaking, I immediately reacted with a very negative respond that he didn’t know what he was talking about. It was difficult to hear him because he mumbled slightly and had difficulty articulating his words but as he spoke, I listened. He made some excellent points, one being this move that we have made as a society away from natural fibres in more general terms. He asked whether some of these bans would help bring natural fibres back into everyday society. Hmm, I thought. I wonder if many people listening to his question are interested in that conversation? Then, I looked at what I was wearing and realised that even though I want to clothe myself in natural fibres, the reality is that many of my clothing still contributes to microplastics entering the water system every time it is washed. Microplastics come off of many of our outdoor clothing, synthetics, polar fleece (not natural wool – I’m talking about the fleece that is made from recycled bottles), nylons and acrylics. One load of laundry, according to the sources cited on Wikipedia, can shed more than 19,000 fibres of microplastics into the environment.
The reason I am mentioning the recent interviews on CBC and microplastics is that the MOA exhibit was all natural fibres. Mostly, the fibres used were 100% silk. There was wool displayed as well. It is hard to say what some of the fibres in some of the Kimono fabrics were but I would hazard to say they were 100% silk as well since many women are gravitating back to having at least one 100% silk kimono to wear in modern day Japan with the resurgence of their traditional culture and textiles. The Indonesian sarongs and Indian saris were silk. They were exquisite actually. Some were so gauzy and fine that the viewer can see right through the fine work. The effect creates a sense of power, luxury and showcases an incredible workmanship.
Something that was not mentioned in the tour was the fact that many of the items would have been spun by hand initially or used on some of the earliest milling equipment, which is quite remarkable. While the weaving just in-and-of-itself was amazing, the overall quality of the work was incredible. I felt myself constantly feeling a bit melancholy about this lack of reverence of cloth in our society now. Fast Fashion has completely taken the western world by storm and many of the conversations I have with people about it usually results in comments like, Oh I haven’t thought of it that way, usually followed by more questions. But these conversations do little to change behaviour.
Is it misplaced to hope for change towards clothing and shoes? Would it be better to focus on changing practices towards what we do with our clothing when we finish with it? Or work to lobby and change the processes in which it is made? I wonder how I will have these conversations with my own children as they get older and start wanting certain clothing because it is ‘in’? I know I want that clothing because it is trendy, too!
The natural dyes used in times past created a soft, comforting landscape as well – the room was full of soft light and warmth. Some of the reds and silken yellows were absolutely incredible, which was juxtaposed against a concrete room with a concrete floor. It made my think about our ‘modern’ colours that we are able to create with acid dyes, Procion and others. Neons, in particular, are often cold and repelling. We all love them for their own assault of our senses – they are fun and extroverted. Both qualities valued in our modern day society. These colours from various cultures around the world were able to create pieces that showcased various ideas of power, wealth, influence, fertility and prosperity with natural colours – Indigo, gold, madder and many, many others. I wonder why we have navigated towards such ‘loud’ colour to be able to tell our stories now? Is it a reaction to the fact that we can or a shift in our values and ideas?
It is an interesting thing to stop and think about textiles past, those of our present and the evolution into our future since we will continue to cloth ourselves for as long as humans walk to earth. I wonder what your thoughts are about how this story continues?
What a lovely exhibit and thoughtful post. I have been struggling with the microplastics news as well and working to change things about our household . . . it’s a struggle, though, given the larger systems in place. I suppose spinning, knitting and wearing our own wools is a small, local, step in the right direction :)
Yes, I totally agree! These smaller steps are important but I sometimes wonder if they are enough? Lobbying government seems to be the only answer for large scale change, especially with the advent of yet more pipelines when we are supposed to be working towards lessening oil use. It’s almost paralysing, huh?!
Oh My, so much to think about!
I honestly did not know about the sloughing of microfiber from synthetic clothing. Cotton here I come!
I have a lot to say about this, and you brought up a few different topics in this post. I know you’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time.
I find I can’t think about them any more apart from my context – I spend time crafting every week with Inuit elders, who are actively participating in preserving their own crafting traditions (not textiles exactly since it’s skins, but textiles are involved). They also remember what it’s like to live on the land, to sew for survival, and lived through the transition to modern “fast fashion” as you call it. I can’t speak for them, and they are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, but I have learned a lot from them. I’ve learned that those days of living on the land were deeply good, but also incredibly difficult, and while those ways should be remembered, they would not choose to go back. I’ve learned that traditional skills should be preserved, but preserving a skill because it’s traditional is very different from the reason the traditional skill was used. In other words, there is a difference between nostalgia and practicality. I’ve learned that everyone, no matter how traditional, will use the best materials available for their purposes, and the ones they think are the most beautiful, whether they are new or old. as a result, it’s become very much traditional to crochet and knit with brightly colored acrylic yarns and sew with gore-tex fabric, because that’s what’s affordable, accessible, and functional. We can’t all afford sealskin for everything, if we did they would all get shot, and it’s harder and much slower to work with than other fabrics.
Our tastes, as upper-middle class white north americans, has been affected by the fact that we are cut off from our traditional heritage. We don’t even have the nostalgia; there’s a whole generation or two or three cutting us off from handcrafts. It’s also effected by privilege. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work for change, shouldn’t think about the environment. But when we’re thinking about traditions, I think it’s important to acknowledge our relationship with tradition, to see where the relationships can still be built with the people who do remember from experience. And when we’re thinking about change, we should be thinking about change that’s accessible to all, including (for example) single working mums in the far north who have very limited time and access to materials.
I’m not trying to be contrary or critical or anything, i hope I don’t sound that way. I just wanted to add my perspective, because it’s easy to get caught up in concern the way things *should* be, without looking at the bigger picture of how different kinds of people experience these realities. Not that you’re doing that; I just have done and seen that in the past.
I appreciate what you have to say Rebecca. I’m from up North myself. And I have seen The things that you were talking about. I rode the school bus with many First Nations and saw the poverty that Is single moms, people struggling from the effects of residential schools, and certainly am not advocating that we go back to traditional methods of cloth creation or clothing creation. What I have a problem with, is the way in which we obtain our modern-day fashions, in the method that they are created. I’m talking about the factories of unskilled workers in sweatshops, in areas of Southeast Asia and Asia. That’s really what I am speaking of. In particular, but they microplastics and ways that dyes are disposed of into the water systems. Thank you for posting such a thoughtful comment.
Thanks for explaining more. I’m glad you’ve seen what I’m talking about. A lot of what I’m struggling with is my own participation in the past in the slow food conversation, and my fighting with my own deeply ingrained tendencies toward consumerism and materialism. I got so caught up in the rhetoric and marketing of organic and fair trade, and eventually realized we were all just trying to consume our way into connection with the past and self-righteousness, in a way that has very little to do with the realities of justice or living people we could connect with. When I started doing more hardcore research into food ethics, the reality was so different from the consumer message, and I got so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do, then I moved to the north and gave up on it. Food problems are just different here, and it became my job to deal with different problems.
I have not gotten that consumer vibe from you at all; it seems like you’re looking at the systems behind the systems even though it’s overwhelming and scary. But it triggered my own disappointments and frustrations, so I’m glad your post challenged me to try and work them out. Because we shouldn’t give up, even though it’s overwhelming.