On Teaching Fashion: Fundamentals of World Textiles and Textile Design History

This post is the first in a series of posts on the textile design and history topics essential in an introductory textiles course.

As many of you already know, one of my courses this term is a basic fiber and textiles course. This one has presented several enjoyable challenges thus far. One, it has been a couple of years since I last taught this course; two, I used a different textbook last time; and three, the official course outline has me deviating from your typical introductory textiles course. Truly, all three are welcome challenges. After all, they just make my job that much more interesting–not that what I do is ever in danger of losing my interest—maybe after 40 or 50 years, but even then, I doubt it.

Have I ever mentioned that I am a graduate of the program I now teach in? It was, as I like to tell my students, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and smoking was still allowed on campus, that I, myself, sat in their places, yea, in that very room, and took my first basic textiles course. Since that time, the room has been remodeled, my mentors have retired, and yet, I have available to me many of the instructional materials that were used when I was a student.

Several years ago, I was preparing a lecture on wool at a previous institution, ten years after taking my first textiles course, and I thought to myself, “Man, I wish I had that picture of the model astride the merino sheep,” an image my teacher showed in lecture when I was a student. Just another one of those moments when I again confirm for myself, that, yes, I am a born professor, if ever there was one.

Can I tell you just how overjoyed I was to find that photo in my current classroom? Did I put it in my lecture on wool this year? You bet I did.

See? The merino is a darn wooly breed of sheep. It’s wrinkled like a sharpei. And you just know that the sheep in the picture has never been washed in its life…well, maybe once a year, but only after being shorn…and that model is wearing a micromini. At least she’s wearing hose.  It could have been worse.

But enough of vintage models suffering for fashion so future generations of fashion students could learn about fine quality specialty wools and animal husbandry.

I mentioned earlier that my official course outline is atypical. What makes it unique is a special focus on textile history. Typically, as this course has been taught in the past, several weeks are devoted to the coverage of world textiles and textile design history. Now that I am the instructor, I am covering most, if not all, of the topics I was taught, plus others I find relevant.

We start with the Pazyryk rug, cover Greek and Roman motifs, travel to North Africa for Coptic textiles of the 5th and 6th centuries CE, and then work our way through European textiles, including eastern Europe. I also cover sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South American, and Middle Eastern carpets. When this class ends, my students will know the differences between a kirman and a kilim, bobbin lace and battenburg lace, an Arras tapestry and a Willam Morris, and a mola and a Hmong reverse appliqué.

How many of you dear readers were exposed to any of the above in your fashion education? In your introductory textiles course, what textile history, if any, was covered, other than Richard Arkwright and Samuel Slater? In other schools, I have seen this type of material relegated to another course, sometimes mentioned in a history of dress course, other times in another design history course never offered because no one can be found to teach it. Other times, this information is left out of the curriculum altogether. My program, on the other hand, is one of the lucky ones. It is important to know where you’ve come from, now isn’t it?

Photo credits:

Top:  From Weaving a Tale by Michael Sherer, Central American Travel Examiner

Middle:  Unknown.

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  • Erin April 23, 2010 06.19 am

    Goodness. I’d love to take your course, it sounds amazing. I have a diploma in textile studies, but history was only covered in a very general sense. We did have a craft history course, but this was…8 years ago now, so ask me what I remember!

    Since I don’t see myself making it out to California anytime soon, have you any recommended reading for someone wanting to brush up on their textile history?

    (Also – is it possible the model is wearing shorty-shorts? I sure hope so. Sheep are truly dirty creatures. *shudder*)

  • EmilyKennedy April 23, 2010 06.27 am

    I would love to hear what text book you are using. It sounds amazingly diverse!

  • Elaine April 23, 2010 08.42 am

    This course sounds fantastic. So many of these textile traditions are in danger of being lost, but they’re rich with cultural history and inspiration. Wish I could audit the course online.

  • Worn Through » On Teaching Fashion: Resources for Teaching Textile Design History
    June 4, 2010 - 5:02 am

  • Monique June 19, 2012 09.40 pm

    Hi – Where do you teach and what is the program? I would like to find out more- thank you


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