Historical Textiles: recycling biographies

By Lynne Milgram

Each of the historical textiles in this exhibition has its own individual life history. Although the production processes and the surface features of the pieces speak of continuity, the meaning of their physical format is neither static nor isolated. Rather, each of these textiles hides roots that have repeatedly responded to change depending upon the needs of the maker, the consumer, and the context of their use. The personal biographies of the materials used in items such as hooked mats, “rag” rugs or quilts include their previous lives as silk stockings, garments, blankets or table linens.

Similarly, objects may spend part of their lives in different cultures. In Western society we are most accustomed to adopting “exotic” objects from non-Western areas of the world. But what we consider as mundane objects in our everyday life may seem equally exotic to those in other cultures. Bottle caps in a Zambian skirt or zippers and buttons in a Nuristan dress, for example, indicate how objects move across cultures, and how their transformed (or recycled) application re-contextualizes their meaning to new users.

Most of the historical textiles in this exhibition were made in the early part of the 20th century and were produced primarily as utilitarian items. As such, they represent the response of their producers to make the most of available resources, whether with recycled fabrics or local plant fibres. When everyday items such as clothing and blankets wore out they were not discarded; instead, they were transformed into other necessary functional items. In some cases people used the natural plant sources growing in their local environment, transforming these fibres into pounded bark or woven banana-fibre clothing.

The utilitarian intent of the object, however, did not mean that the recycled fabrics were assembled simply to achieve an end product with little thought to aesthetics and composition. In fact, each of the pieces displayed in this exhibition from the tightly composed “yellow star” quilt and geometric hooked rugs, to the “woolly-sweater” mat and rag-woven belts and vests, demonstrates how makers have devised innovative colour combinations and designs as permitted by the materials they had at hand.

Each of the historical textiles in this exhibit thus simultaneously speaks of its past life through the physical characteristics of its materials, while being firmly identified with its purpose in its present incarnation.

Lynne Milgram
Curator, historical component


© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada