This is a bizarre piece from our personal collection and one that has had us scratching our damn heads for quite a while now.
Although obviously constructed from quite oldish panels salvaged from a single dress, it has been deliberately and laboriously sewn into a shape that can only be described as baffling and utterly inutile... unless, to paraphrase Lovecraft, the intended wearer possessed brachiation and proportions quite unlike the normal run of earthly creatures.
The reverse is reinforced with pieces of hand-spun cotton plain weave (except for a single piece of lively kantha quilting) which presumably represent the original garment lining since the mirrors are sewn in through this layer. The glass segments are not of the murky early type (which you can see in the Banjara gala pieces here) so I'm lazily calling this a mid-century item.
While I would have loved to see the sadly deceased dress from which this item was constructed, there is something perversely satisfying about an object in your collection that resists your understanding.
It will sit over the back of a chair with the plain weave, mirrorless portions acting like 'shoulders', so my best guess is probably: mirror cover?
Or maybe some Banjara ladies just had effed-out dresses+homely chair issues too.
The heavy textures created by the puckered mirror stitching and its associated embroidery are taken to the next level by the addition of tiny pompoms on stalks and what appear to be lead-alloy or tin beads and plaques, the latter embossed with minute detail.
And it is ironic that illiterate, often marginalised women leading lives severely circumscribed by culture and religion have produced some of the most universally appreciated works of material expression. There is hardly a society in existence that has not valued personal adornment as a pillar of its collective representation; these textiles articulate the fundamentals of human existence- our immersion in natural chaos and our desire for order and distinction. That they are so often relegated in favour of 'higher' art speaks unflattering volumes about the perceptions and motivations of conventional curatorial practise.
In this case, both kentes were stinky landfill anyway so we literally had nothing to lose and I thought we might as well squeeze some learnings out of this misfortune.
Older kentes are generally medium-weight silk with some cotton. In my experience, ethnographic textiles from the 20thC often feature both stable and unstable dyes, and so it was with this piece.
Never, ever actively scrub an older textile, no matter how much you'd like to. A stain is always better than a bald patch or a hole. Below: the loose dye and general dirt that came free.
You want to flush the soap and keep that rogue dye headed for the drain. If you have a nice smooth concrete driveway with a slope, take it out there, lie it flat and hit it with the garden hose (not too hard). Blast all that loose dye and dirt away before it can be reabsorbed by the wet fibres. Try to refrain from concentrating too hard on any one area or you could end up with patchy colour.
When the rinse water was looking cleaner, I let the fabric drain briefly in the bath. There is still a slight danger of dye bleed so keep an eye on it and don't be tempted to squeeze or bunch the fabric.
Ideally, silk should be laid out flat somewhere shady to dry because wet suspension can stretch the fibres and cause permanent deformation. But it's the middle of winter and and I don't have clean dry grass or a concrete pad handy, so this guy goes on the washing line. Never peg silk or vintage cloth and if your dyes remain stubbornly unstable, try to ensure the doubled-over areas don't come into contact with each other while still wet. Laid flat and straight on an old towel or sheet is best if you can possibly manage it. I should have laid a towel over this wire line but I didn't think of it.
So from a purely chromatic point of view, the result was perfectly acceptable. Much of the speckly mould staining departed and what remained was substantially diminished, along with that surface dirt dinginess. Not a hint of nasty mould stink remained, even to my very particular nose. Silk is always texturally affected by washing no matter what you do, but in this case the change to its handle was limited to a maybe 5-10% loss of that absolute virgin pliability via a slight contraction of the weave, which did not amount to noticeable shrinkage. I forgot to take pics before I gave the kente back but any differences were too subtle for the camera to convey anyway. There is no hint of vinegar scent after a few hours in fresh air, if you were worried about that. I haven't washed the yellow kente yet and I will update this item when I do.
Verdict? Both thumbs up to this treatment in the case of (non-significant) textiles that are otherwise too stinky or too dirty to tolerate. I was surprised at the decent colour retention and pretty sure I could have gone a wee bit harder with the soap concentration without detriment to the fabric. Your results may vary depending on your dyes and construction, but if your item is otherwise destined for the discard pile, you might as well roll the dice and give this process a try. Substantial portions of these kentes can now be salvaged for further use, and that is gratifying.
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I still think it's worth sharing my amateur attribution process even if it is largely bollocks and that's what I'm doing here. We picked up this lovely suzani on the weekend which was fucking irresponsible of us because we are broke, but if we allowed impecuniousness to restrict our acquisitions we'd be living under a grain sack in an alley somewhere. Get off our dicks, man.
Sadly, it was this dynamism that caught collectors' eyes and tipped Uzbek, Kirghiz and Tadjik women off to the fact that there was a greater market for their domestic work which was historically only to be sold off in a pinch. Cue an avalanche of industrial dyes, synthetic materials, half-arsed drawing and sloppy execution; a quick flick through Etsy will familiarise you with the nasty tail end of suzani production.
I'm not an age-snob, though, and don't accept the generally-held view that older equals better, more valuable and more artistically worthy. There's plenty of shitty tat floating around with little but age and patrician provenance to recommend it. Agnostic curiosity fuels my interest in the history of the modest objects we collect.
Horse blankets are used to trick out one's pony wherever their tremendous value as companions is recognised. This one is 150cm wide at the flared end xs 125cm long, with an unusual leaf-green cotton ground and lavish chain stitch in flossy handpsun silk.
Green is the colour of paradise (pardaes/ferdaws) in Islamic tradition, gardens were viewed as aspirational luxuries by nomadic peoples and both notions are expressed in this design, which pleases me greatly.
Most of the dyes appear to be organically-derived and I say that for two reasons. They exhibit the wandering variation called abrash, from the Persian 'mottled', and that's the first thing out the window when commercial dyes are in play. Also, these shades are relatively easily achieved by tweaking a handful of humble dyestuffs. They aren't the insane clown posse colours- the Cadbury purple, sizzling lipstick red and Travolta black- that are the usual aim of synthetics. The orange is perhaps suspect, but it's not as hot and solid in life as it appears in some of these pics. Would a Central Asian lady really have reached for the Dylon to achieve a perversely naturalistic palette? It's a bit counterintuitive.
The embroidery is suffocatingly dense rather than loosely indifferent, nor are there the usual expanses of expedient plain stitch seen on commercially-intended pieces. If these are natural dyes, then this all-over chain stitch suggests an earlier date along with the absence of any machine sewing and artificial materials (as far as I can tell).
Except to say that common sense and lex parsimoniae scream obviously vegetal. Sorry- couldn't help it.
The internet hasn't coughed up any similar examples, so I'm going to take a punt and say Kungirat, circa 1930.
Is that crazy? You tell me.
Ye olde graphic design is moving me at the moment, so I thought I'd share a detail from a vintage dress length that somehow turned up on the doorstep almost like it'd been bought online.
Some people might think $10 is 9.99 dollars too much for parrots that look like they were chundered by a jaguar channelling a shaman rolling on something out of a dirty bucket,
but yeah I'm wearing it.
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As a child of the Seventies I used to sit staring at the violent blue paisley and peacocks papering the walls of my great-grandmother's new summerhill stone flat and let my eyes go out of focus until the feeling of tilted dissociation became too intense for my small brain. The sight of my dad, a deep russet ginger, in his goldenrod-yellow terry towelling top with laced-up neck is another enduring aesthetic memory of the period. If you were there too, you know how deeply that shit soaked into our DNA.
I've tried to prod and coax and nag the reason why these perfectly normal, conservative people suddenly decided to dress both themselves and their houses like opiated nightmares but no one really seems to know. Rejection of postwar austerity yeah yeah blah blah; all that academic rationale gets us no closer to the empirical truth.
^ My finest recent acquisition and a Modernist/Scandi floral triumph. I probably should have ironed it but you know... domesticity: who has the time for that shit?
Awesome scale and colour attracted me to this piece. The dyes are vibrant and well-registered and the largest white daisy is about ten cm across! Scored about... is it thirteen metres of this rather pristine midweight cotton and will sell some, so if you're in the market for up to ten metres of gorgeous, spacious retro floral abstract, hit me up via Contact. I'm happy to cut it to smaller lengths and will post overseas (at cost).
I feel we should throw this stuff up online as a resource and a bit of insurance against such batshit design heritage being lost to landfills and natural attrition. Feel free to use the pics in your projects if you'll be kind enough to include a link back to this site. I've got a bunch of other prints all squished up in my stash and I'll get round to posting those as a second instalment in this series in the fullness of time.
Though I've always loved batik we possess very few examples and I was pleased to buy this tok wi or Taoist altar cloth locally for an extremely modest sum.
Peranakan Malays maintained the Taoist beliefs of their Han ancestors amid the Islam and Animist traditions practised by the surrounding peoples. Tok wi were used to decorate altar tables during important occasions. This one features a recognisably Chinese cast of auspicious characters; the lotus, the pearl-chasing dragon, the eight anthropomorphic Immortals and a pair of romping Qilin and Fenghuang birds. Together they represent longevity, good fortune and familial harmony.
These stalwarts of the Chinese pantheon have been interpreted by textile artists on the northern coast of Java, working in this traditionally Indonesian medium to produce these cloths for their wealthy neighbours.
I love the fierce acclaim expressed by the flanking qilin, the googly dragon and unapologetic palette, obviously derived from traditional Chinese famille rose (or vert) ceramics, with its brilliant interplay of rouge, fuchsia and jade.
Batik is a wax-resist technique, the fundamentals of which are covered by a fairly decent Wiki page. Areas of cloth are alternately protected from and exposed to dyes in sequence with the careful application of hot wax from a canting vessel. The wax inevitably cracks during the dying process, allowing spidery seams of colour to stain the underlying fabric (below right), producing the veining that is a signature of the technique. Some designs allow block-stamping but this tok wi looks like freehand or batik tulis to me.
A year or so ago I was lucky enough to score a large cache of old Indian and southeast Asian textiles on a local auction site, and for very little money (because we po). As I began to ease the individual pieces out of their plastic shrouds it became apparent that we had done quite well. Enjoying them in the privacy of our own home feels rather selfish and we'd like to share these delightful works of art with a wider audience.
We began this series with a post on a couple of Banjara gala and encourage you to read that first for an overview of this sort of thing.
Domestic textiles, especially tribal work, have long been seen as the poorer cousin twice-removed of the princely silks and ikat favoured by prominent collectors and institutions, but with the latter examples being priced so far out of many enthusiasts' reach in recent years, perhaps these 'homelier' items are starting to get the attention they deserve. There's nothing basic about this gorgeous gem-like Baluch breast panel. The casual trade often just calls these pieces 'tribal Afghan' or 'Kuchi' but I'm going to stick my neck out with the specific attribution because of the characteristic nature of the motifs.
These are sections from voluminous robe-like dresses simply constructed from plain fabric- homespun or trade cloth- then embellished by the female relatives of the recipient. I don't know if these older panels were saved for use in newer garments and assume they're being salvaged mainly for sale these days, but exemplary tribal textiles and dowery work were historically treasured and recycled, for instance into appliqué covers and festive hangings.
The field is dominated by hooked designs that are variously interpreted as stars, spiders, scorpions, flowers or ram horns etc etc; as with all tribal iconography, some derivations are obvious and others are deeply obscured in the earliest cycles of shamanistic ritual practice and not even the peoples who utilise them are sure of the distinction. It is sufficient to say they are intended as protective amulets and their efficacy is derived from the very ancient principle of confusing the scrutiny of malevolent forces with visual sophistry. Note the imperfect symmetry in the outer guards; these seemingly purposeful misalignments are also found in rugs. You can see a detail of the reverse below.
I guesstimate this piece was made in the first half, maybe even the first quarter of the 20th C.
In contrast is this suspiciously tourist-friendly niqaab type-construction below (I have neither the patience nor inclination to unravel the intricacies of veiling terminology), recently acquired from a bazar in northern Afghanistan that began life as a circa 1980's dress front. Although I don't know which group produced this work, the material differences are obvious and the sizzling modern palette certainly underlines the gulf between contemporary and traditional dyestuffs. Personally, I enjoy both the mellowed harmony of the older piece and the eye-humping garishness of this later example.
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Disclaimer- I have a pretty superficial knowledge of Indian textiles and this series won't be any scholarly dissertation. But we do collect an eclectic range of Islamic and Asian material and have a very broad sort of meta-familiarity on our side, so hopefully our observations will be of some use. We both love this field and it has never been easier for the dufus or layperson to appreciate and acquire items from its immense artistic legacy.
The Banjara (or Lambadi/Lamani) people are a formerly nomadic tribe, largely (sometimes nominally) Hindu, distributed across India and are one of the putative ancestors of the Roma populations scattered throughout Europe. They've suffered their share of the socioeconomic disadvantages incurred by virtually all traditionally mobile groups compelled by policy and circumstance to take up subsistence agriculture, but seem to have retained a distinct identity.
It's safe to say they enjoy ornamentation. To my dilettante eye, their aesthetic has a lot in common with that of other designated 'tinker/gypsy' (I find these terms borderline derogatory but they have wide historical currency) and dissenter groups across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and into Central Asia such as the Kutchi, Kalashi and Baluch. It rejoices in the vivid hues and massed amulet devices of fortune and protection and declarations of portable wealth.
Settlement seems to instigate a pattern of divestment familiar to any collector of ethnographic textiles. The stuff that Nana wore loses its relevance as the cultural context is lost; these pieces are sold to traders who then move them on to tourists and western collectors. While this may seem a melancholy reality, in practise it has resulted in the preservation of a lot of wonderful material. I bought a collection of really nice vintage textiles from a lady who'd spent time in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, getting to know the locals and being gifted old family items as tokens of appreciation for the work she was doing. These two pieces are the first from that group that I've posted so far.
GALA WITH CHAIN-STITCH, LEAD BEADS AND COWRIES, KARANTAKA, EARLY 20TH C
A gala is a rectangle of embroidered cloth, usually homespun cotton in older pieces like this one, worn a little like a hood to protect the nape of a woman's neck while she's carrying pots on her head. It is secured via the tassels at the top. Cowrie shells are ancient symbols of the Feminine and divine protection and are used pretty lavishly in Subcontinental textiles. They also have a more practical attribute in that they weight the piece so that it sits well in situ. This one measures 35 x 27cm, excluding fringing.
In some traditions these older gamuts gave way to brighter 'chemical' dyes as far back as Victorian times, basically as soon as they were synthesised and distributed by western manufacturers. You'll see these azo and aniline colours, often solid greens, blue-purples and freaky reds, creeping in amongst the softer shades in rugs, clothing, scarves, tent and animal ornamentation from around 1870 onwards. Other groups held tight to organic dyestuffs until the last few decades and even today some of these mind-bogglingly old techniques are being revived, often through womens' craft collectives. Below right- rear detail.
GALA WITH APPLIQUÉ, SHISHA MIRRORS & COWRIES, MADHYA PRADESH, EARLY 20TH C
I'll be continuing this series so if textiles are your thing, keep checking back.
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