I have a confession to make. Textiles, in and of themselves, don’t really do it for me. There, I said it. Now let me explain.
My academic background and interests are not textile-related at all. In fact, I started my studies in Greek and Roman history, moved into museum studies and historic houses, and ended with American domestic history from the 1880s to (roughly) the 1950s. Archaeology, architecture, Victorian culture, and the history of domestic servants…count me in! The textile industry? I’m not so sure.
Looking back, it was while working in an historic house that I developed my first connections to the world of textiles. The family that had lived in this house had left everything behind, so I spent much of my time on projects such as vacuuming and rolling over a hundred beautiful Oriental rugs, cataloging the women’s clothing, and reading and organizing the archives. Day by day, I began to realize that these objects told stories about the people that had used them; the quality of the fabrics, the cost of the piece, and the amount of visible wear and tear were all small glimpses into the daily life of a family of three in the 19th and 20th centuries. I could look to the letters they wrote and diaries they kept and hear in their own words how and why they came to acquire these things. They even pinned notes to the quilts, clothing, and fabric swatches that gave a history and personal significance to each piece. It’s this social history, the connection of the objects to the people in a particular place and time that really piques my interest.
So I guess it makes sense that I don’t get too excited over the everyday donation of a coverlet, textile tool, or piece of clothing. I can certainly appreciate an object for its inherent historical significance, but still, I don’t have the expertise to really know what I’m looking at. What I (and I’m not alone in this) really love is when an object is offered to us with a complete history of who used or wore it, in what place and in what time period. It’s these personal stories and memories along with photographs and family histories that bring the object to life. It’s similar to how seeing an object in an exhibit puts it into context – whether it is social, functional, or aesthetic – and that’s when I, like any other visitor to the museum, can start to appreciate the textile (or related object) from a new perspective and make connections to my own life and experiences. One of my favorite things about our new exhibition, Textile Revolution, is that some of the objects have extra information provided about them, specifically about people, art, or science, depending on the type of object. The “people stories” are my favorite, of course!
Maybe I like textiles a little more than I initially thought. I am certainly learning more and more every day! I can say that I feel fortunate to work for a museum that strives to interpret textiles in such a myriad of ways. Who else can appeal to children and adults; artists and engineers; historians and fashion designers; and even to me, an example of all those visitors who come with little or no knowledge of the world of textiles!