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?