By Marijke Kerkhoven and Sarah Quinton, 2001

Red is a sign of life; it is the colour closest to the body, the colour of the fluid that flows throughout. Perhaps this is why we are so attracted to it. Red envelops the physical, emotional and psychological elements of the artworks in this exhibition. Through their material and metaphorical forms of craftsmanship, Lyn Carter, Vessna Perunovich, Karen Thiessen and Laura Vickerson handle red in ways that call forth the human form and its contents. These physical manifestations of the colour are soft, polymorphous stand-ins for our hearts, our lungs, love and romance, pain, pleasure and forgiveness - in other words, for life itself.

Lyn Carter's hybrid body/garment forms are inside-out figures that conflate the inside of the body with outer appearances. In Two (heart) and Two (lung), the body is barely able to contain its vital workings, which threaten to ooze through the surface of the cloth. The long neck of Swallowing Roses prompts an empathetic gulp from the viewer, suggesting that the impossibly romantic crimson rose blossom might be nourishment for our naked, unprotected flesh and blood. Red is sustenance.

Vessna Perunovich's fecund (and humourously “up front”) crimson shapes teasingly incite lusty images of fertility, play and passion. Stretched taut, her red fabrics pulsate between violence and sexuality. Objects that are familiar to us, such as pantyhose, zippers, bullets, eggs and baseballs are sensually manipulated to invoke poetic haiku, in which feelings are suggested by natural or abstract images. Perunovich flaunts red with a knowing smile. Red is alluring.

Karen Thiessen's sanguine foray into making hand-stitched quilts is guided by her family's Russian Mennonite heritage, which has in turn led her to study the colour red's spiritual and intuitive connotations. Her small, stitched Red: Star is a willful fragment of the Russian star motif and a tribute to her persecuted ancestors. Forgiveness #1 is an irregular patchwork of naturally dyed fabrics that surround a motif coloured with the artist's own menstrual blood - a sign of fruitfulness and optimism. Red is warm.

Laura Vickerson'sWilliam's Carnations is an ephemeral, theatrical curtain of history that extends a romanticized image of hand labour. Her site-specific installation is secured as much in the past as it is in the present. Thousands of pinned-together rose petals revive William Morris's fragile 19th-century floral pattern, which resonates with the historic textiles in the Museum. Vickerson's blood-red roses fluctuate in and out of Morris's fragrant pattern from the past. They speak of love, death and hope. Red endures.

What is red?

Red covers a wide range of colours from deep orange to burgundy. We call brown cattle “red,” and purple onions “red.” The objects in this section are all considered to be red by the people who made them. It is possible that our ideas about a colour are influenced by the state of the dyers' and colourists' art. However, some cultures prefer a browner or more orange red even though their dyers are able to create brighter hues.

Physicists can express this colour as a precise set of numbers delineating the range of wavelengths of light we perceive as red. But what does red mean to us?

Many things and ideas come to mind when we think of this colour - fire, blood, warmth and love to name a few. For many, red is associated with marriage, family, good luck and sacrifice, and for some sensual people, lust and sin. Many holidays are occasions for red decorations or attire, such as Christmas, Chinese New Year or Canada Day.

Red is for fertility

In many societies adult women must proclaim childbearing capabilities by wearing clothing decorated with red, or by wearing a red accessory such as a belt or apron. Embroidered motifs reiterate the importance of fertility: not only of the women, but also of the livestock and fields. Red, too, is often the preferred colour for bridal wear.

Red protects

In many societies red also serves to protect the wearer from evil. A red belt or veil can serve as a shield against unknown harm. Red decorations along hems and other edges of garments guard against evil spirits that are trying to reach the vulnerable body parts within.

Red marks age

Certain cultures ascribe different colours to certain stages of life. Often the very young are allowed to wear the brightest colours, while the elderly are assigned plain clothing, either completely white, black, or a neutral muted colour.

Red is divine

In many spiritual beliefs, the gods love red. Red is assigned to fire gods, the sun god and the gods of war.

How is red made?

Red is also a testimony to the many anonymous dyers who for thousands of years tirelessly coaxed gorgeous colours from local resources.

Ochre is a soft, iron-rich earth, and is one of humanity's earliest colouring compounds. Other sources of red are flower petals and fruit stains. However, these substances are just pressed on the surface of the fabric and are not bonded with it on a molecular level, and are therefore not lightfast or washable.

True dyes are compounds, which not only reflect a limited range of light (that the human eye perceives as a certain colour), but also form a chemical bond with a fabric's fibre; the stronger the bond, the more lightfast and water-fast the colour.

For centuries, dyers around the world have preferred the following sources for red:

Rubia Tinctorum, or dyer's madder, is one of the foremost sources of red; Carthamus tinctorius, or safflower; Morinda citrifolia, or Indian mulberry; Caesalpinia crista, or sappan, also known as brazilwood; Gallium tinctorum, a native North American dye plant; Lawsonia inermis, or Egyptian privet or henna, and; Rocella tinctoria, or orseille, a lichen.

Small insects are also long-standing dye sources: Coccus cacti, or cochineal, is the most well-known dye source of the New World, and is used extensively around the world. Other insect sources of red dye are: Kermes illicis and Kermes vermillio, or Kermes, a traditional dye source of the Old World, and; Marargodes polinicus, or Polish cochineal; Murex trunculus, a small shellfish from the Mediterranean Sea was the source of purple from prehistory to the Byzantine era.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada