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Monday, 29 September 2014

A life dedicated to textiles

The major exhibition showing at the textile museum while we've been here is 'Irmgard Weitlaner Johnson – A Life Dedicated to Textiles'. I think I've been to see it three times!

Irmgard was an American who first travelled to Mexico with her anthropologist and linguist father when she was quite young. While she followed in her father's footsteps, she gradually began to focus her studies and life's work on the traditional textiles of Mexico. She realised the enormous amount of cultural change the country was going through from the time of the 1910 revolution and began to not only collect textiles where the techniques for making them were at risk of being lost, but recorded the method of making them, the materials and dyes used in their construction, and also drew very detailed patterns of the motifs and designs contained in the pieces.
Irmgard's notes accompanied each piece in the exhibition.
Pictured below is the first piece Irmgard ever collected. It's a traditional top that would have been worn with nothing underneath. It had a very practical purpose in that women could still breastfeed without the need to undo or remove the top. What's amazing is that it's woven in a single length. The community known for this type of weaving had a way of turning the warp threads into weft threads – and vice versa – half way through the piece to change the direction. I have no idea how they did this!

While the work in the exhibition is truly beautiful, it wasn't until we had a tour of with Eric Chavez (the museum's education director) that the real nature of what we were looking at became apparent. The example below was one I certainly didn't pay much attention to the first time I visited. The borders on the pieces are manufactured lace, but the main body of the work is a type of plaiting, a bit like the child's game of cat's cradle. Irmgard did her MA on this technique, as it was disappearing even at the time of her writing. Her notes were so detailed that the museum is able to have experts trying to relearn the craft. The hope is that they will be able to return these skills to the communities they originally came from.
The pattern on the skirt below was created using a resist dyeing technique. It's a wool woven skirt in a natural colour that would have been dyed with cochineal and then over-dyed with indigo. For anyone who has ever done resist dyeing, the sharpness of the shapes on this piece are astonishing. Despite Irmgard's notes, scholars are still at a loss as to how the patterns were created with such precision.
The curator of the exhibition here at Oaxaca has chosen pieces that specifically illustrate special techniques and the largest room is dedicated to items from Oaxaca. The image below shows a traditional huipil (pronounced wee-peel or wee-peel-es for the plural form). It is created as three lengths on a backstrap loom, which are then sewn together. The patterns are created using a supplementary weft. This is the exact technique we learnt during the residency so it was wonderful to see so many examples of it. The purple dye on the huipil shown here is from a coastal sea snail and was greatly prized. It is now endangered and only certain people are licensed to extract the dye.
The huipil below isn't exactly a huipil. You can see how the head hole has been cut out at a later stage. This garment would have previously been worn with the arms still going through the armholes but the rest sits around the shoulders and over the top of the head. It is only after death that the hole is normally cut and the body is dressed in it as a standard huipil for burial.
The items in the exhibition also record changes in fashion over time. The following three huipils are all from the same area or community – Chinantec. The first was from 1934–5 and shows a traditional red and white huipil with the coloured embroidered centrepiece over the breastbone. The placement of these motifs held special significance.
The second huipil below was from 1942–3. You can see the style has changed in that they've now over-dyed the embroidery in the centre with indigo. It's not quite known why they did this – maybe to prolong the colour of the dyes. To be honest, that seems a little pointless to me when it's covering them up entirely, but who knows?
The last huipil in this series is from a little after the second, and still shows the use of indigo, but instead of covering the embroidery, it's used to over-dye the white areas of the huipil. I think it's interesting how we often think of these traditions as being static, but of course they were just as influenced by new techniques, materials and fashions as we are today.
In a sad twist of fate, the entire Irmgard Weitlaner Johnson collection is actually owned by the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands and is on loan for this exhibition. Irmgard needed to sell the collection a number of years before she died in 2011. The Oaxaca Textile Museum was only just starting up and they put in an offer for the collection just after the deal with the Netherlands had been done! It's a real shame, and I hope one day they find a way to bring the complete collection home.

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