In the “Antiques and The Arts” newspaper, some years ago, I came across a small item that thrilled me. It said that Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, wove textiles for wall hangings early in her life, and when she moved to Indonesia with her son in the 1960’s, she began to amass a collection of the vibrant batik textiles of the country. “She did not acquire rare or expensive pieces, but rather contemporary examples that were an expression of a living tradition, patterned with both classic designs and those of passing fashion.”
Later, I learned, when Ann was studying anthropology at the University of Hawaii, she tried to find ways to help craftspeople. She worked with the Ford Foundation in Jakarta and with USAID and the World Bank, and set up micro-credit projects in Indonesia, Pakistan and Kenya to benefit poor women making textiles.
I have always considered textile-making (weaving and embroidery) a fascinating art form. In many countries this is the only medium of artistic expression available to women and the only way they can earn money. Whenever I travel, I buy textiles –ideally from the women who created them. Now my walls are covered with antique American quilts, Mexican huipils, Haitian voodoo flags and Greek embroidered table runners.
Most pieces cost under $100 but they’re priceless, because they embody the maker’s artistic talent as well as (in some cases) their religious or political beliefs and their dreams, for example the wedding couple on a tablecloth that a young Greek girl embroidered as part of her dowry. (The teapot is also from an Anatolian tablecloth.)
Around 1970 I got interested in antique American quilts. On our second floor stair landing I hung a “Tumbling Blocks” quilt behind a sea captain’s chest full of teddy bears.
The section from an unfinished velvet and silk Victorian quilt is called “Windmill Blades” and the large “Barn Raising” quilt on the staircase wall is from a very old variation on the Log Cabin pattern.
Mexican and Guatemalan embroideries fascinate me with their sophisticated and wild use of color. I’ve decorated the wall of my studio (shown at top) with antique, wonderfully embroidered Mexican huipils. The design of each blouse indicates the native village of the woman who wears it.
The lady posing above with her work is Maria, whom we met in the marketplace of San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico. She was the best among the many women weavers and embroiderers who crowded the marketplace. (San Cristobal is heaven for the collector of textiles.)
Near the border of Guatemala I found the embroidery at left made by a Sandinista woman who was also selling dolls with faces masked like Comandante Marcos. The pillow at the right, made in Guatemala, looks to me like a man walking in a graveyard. Could this be a memorial or something to do with the Day of the Dead?
Daughter Eleni, who studied folklore and mythology, introduced me to the sequined voodoo flags made in Haiti and used in religious rites. They are usually made (and signed) by men and they represent the gods who take possession of the worshiper. These sequin flags and the artists who make them are taken very seriously as art now, which means they can be very expensive. The two large ones represent La Sirene—-The Enchantress—and Baron Samedi—who mitigates between life and death.
Textile artists reflect the life they see around them—the Greek wall hanging is an island scene with table, chairs and cat. The festive wedding scene (brought from Pakistan by Eleni) shows a wedding party celebrating beneath an umbrella.
This exquisite, antique Chinese embroidery (now framed under glass) was in a box of textiles that I bought for $75. The detailed work and the wonderful reproduction of all those birds, animals and flowers make it beyond price. The knots are so small, I think it must include the “forbidden knot” that would make the sewers eventually lose their sight.
Finally there is lace: a simple lace handkerchief and lace runner that I'm told represents French cathedrals. It may sound silly to buy pieces like this for a few dollars and then spend a great deal more to frame them, but I do it, because I consider them found art.
It cost a lot more than a few dollars when I encountered this stunning set of Madeira lace work – ten place mats and a table runner—at a summer yard sale near our village common. They came with their own blue brocade carrying case plus a handwritten note that it was “Made on the Island of Madeira for the Beede Family, makers of Madeira Wines”.
I couldn’t resist, telling myself it was for a daughter’s trousseau, but let’s face it, young women today have no use for fragile lace tablecloths, napkins and embroidered linens, so the fine Madeira set now lives with the “turkey work” embroidered pillow shams, the hand-smocked baby dresses (mine! from 75 years ago!). and the Dresden Plate quilt that my grandmother made for my mother’s wedding in 1932—all stored in tissue and special boxes, hidden under my bed.