Textile Milestones

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Telling the readers of this blog that textiles and clothing are a significant part of our lives, and that individual objects have great importance during milestones and transitions in those lives would be the dress studies equivalent of preaching to the choir. But it is a question that those of us in the field are often asked, and of course its obviousness does not negate the subject’s being explored.

Exploration of the roles textiles and garments play in the major moments of our lives is precisely the purpose of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles‘ current exhibition, Milestones: Textiles of Transition. The exhibit is one that curator Deborah Corsini has long wished to do, and instead of simply featuring objects from significant life events, Corsini has blended such objects with modern art pieces inspired by the exhibit’s theme.

The museum’s exhibition space lends itself perfectly to the exploration of life, death, and reflection on the two, being separated into two main rooms and a third, smaller display space. I had never thought of the museum in this way, but for this exhibit you come away feeling as though you have seen three separate exhibitions, and yet one. Rather the way we live separate stages of life, and yet one life.

Forever Yours, Susan Else 2010
Commercial and hand-treated cloth
Machine collaged, machine quilted, surface collage hand sewn over armature

Opening the exhibit is a beautiful, quilt sculptural piece (seen above and at the opening of the post) entitled Forever Yours by Susan Else. The piece features two perfectly sculpted (and anatomically correct — note the differences in their hips) skeletons locked in an embrace and representing the romantic ideal of love surpassing life. The piece is wonderful as much for its technique as for its symbolism, but it also makes a clear statement that this will be as much a textile arts show as an examination of milestone textiles.

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The first room explores the important life events of love, marriage, conception, birth, and transition to adulthood. Two antique wedding dresses are featured, on loan from The Lace Museum in Sunnyvale, along with several double wedding ring quilts. The two dresses are from the 1920s and 1950s, showing how the same garment can be adapted for the same ceremony depending on the fashions of the time — a trait reflected in the variety of adaptations to the quilts, and the way in which the quilts were reinterpreted.

Right: Bride’s Dress, late 1920s
Silk, silk crepe, machine lace, glass beads, rhinestones
Sewn, machine lace
Collection of The Lace Museum, Sunnyvale, CA
Left: Bride’s Dress, mid 1950s
Silkscreened tulle, hand-applied gimp,
underdress is polyester satin
Collection of The Lace Museum, Sunnyvale, CA

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Mixed in with the archival quilts are modern adaptations. The first wedding ring quilt (far left in the image above) is indeed an heirloom, but one onto which body scans of a man and woman have been embroidered symbolizing, as the piece is named, Marital Bliss (Paula Chung, 2012). By mixing such contemporary pieces in with the heirlooms, the exhibit encourages immediate reflection, causing myself at least to consider not just the beauty of the objects, and the importance of the occasions, but also to consider how marriage has changed within our society in the last century or more. The reflections are not entirely positive, either. A third wedding dress is featured, which from a distance looks like a simple, if meringue-like wedding dress made of a pink and white fabric. Upon closer examination, the fabric is printed with quotes from a “Bridezilla” blog or forum, revealing the nastier side of modern wedding culture.

Bridezilla, 2005
Noel Palomo-Lovinski
Duchess satin, tulle, pearls
Fiber-reactive dyed, printed on digital paper

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Opposite the wedding ring quilts and the dresses is an entire wall of baby and birthing quilts. These tiny quilts display the sort of mix you would expect, from the miniature versions of traditional quilts (see the Irish example centre above and detailed below), and modern perceptions of pastels and sweet motifs.

Red and White Check Baby Quilt, c. 1870
Maker unknown
Hand pieced, hand quilted
Private Collection

Again, contemporary pieces are mixed with the historic. Ruth Tabancay’s Blankie (2012) creates a quilt using embroidery floss, a found blanket binding, and used teabags. Stephanie Metz’s Baptism Pelt (2009) explores our obsession with being hairless, despite our mammalian nature. Radka Donnell’s simple, but exquisite Birth of Tenderness (from Paradise Dozen) (2006), creates an exquisite sense of the delicacy of newborns in her combination of two different colours of the same fabric.

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The second room deals with the end of the life cycle: death and grief. The pieces in this exhibit explore this in a number of ways, from the quietly reflective to the comical. The reflection can be seen in a series of fabric collage portraits illustrating the last year of an older person’s life, as recorded by artist and hospice worker, Deidre Scherer (on the wall above and in detail below). The ‘Death Gets Married’ embroidery series (excerpt below) is particularly comical.

Detail, The Last Year
Deidre Scherer
Thread on fabric
Cut, layered, stitched
Death Gets Married, 2012
Mary Mazziotti
Cotton embroidery thread, muslin panel, archival batting
Hand embroidered

Victoria May’s Collateral Damage (2006) — the field gurney installation in the photo above — explores death on the battlefield and the darker side of war, while Mary Mazziotti’s Momento Mori pieces (below) examine our mortality, yet manages to be optimistic and find the humour in our impermanence.

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Momento Mori
Mary Mazziotti
Vintage garments, embroidery floss, beads
Hand embroidered, beaded
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By far my favourite piece in the room, though, was Wendeanne Ke’aka Stitt’s Bonne Nuit quilted tapestry seen below. In honour of Día de los Muertos, Stitt created this offrenda or offering at the last minute after another artist dropped out of creating something for an Oakland museum. The wall text states that Stitt created the piece while imagining all of her loved ones and friends who had died having a party together in the after life and talking about how they knew her. She realized while working on the piece that she was in fact, eulogizing herself, not those that she had lost.

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Bonne Nuit, 2006
Wendeanne Ke’aka Stitt
Contemporary, vintage, and recycled cottons and artist-made kapa cloth
Machine pieced, appliquéd, quilted

After life and death, you would think there was nothing to explore, but there you would be wrong. Through the display of ethnographic pieces and two art pieces, the final room of the exhibit enables the visitor to reflect on life and death, and on how they would like to be remembered. A Coat for Two Occasions (below) was created out of joss paper (burned ceremonially at Chinese funerals) by Erica Spitzer Rasmussen to be worn by her to her funeral and cremation.


A Coat for Two Occassions, 2000
Erica Spitzer Rasmussen
Flax, joss paper, acrylics, cotton thread, rayon, walnut stain
Sewn handmade paper


On show simultaneously is Threads of Love: Baby Carriers from China’s Minority Nationalities, which displays a private collection of Chinese baby carriers. Beautifully embroidered, each one different, and each culture unique, the pieces shown in this small exhibit are a wonderful compliment to the pieces in Milestones. The symbolism in the various embroideries for protection and love, and in the fact that the straps for each are cut off before the pieces are sold at auction as they symbolize the umbilical cord, are a testament to the universality of the love and hope we place on our children.

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The piece that has haunted me the longest was the last piece I saw in Milestones. Beverly Rayner created Accretion (2009) from the materials she found in several family albums at a yard sale. Despite having no connection to the people in the images, Rayner used the material in these albums to create the amazing housecoat you see below.

Accretion, 2009
Beverly Rayner
Polyester housecoat, fabric, ephemera, metal and stone lamp stand, wooden hanger, glue
Original housecoat extended with similar fabric, wire armature, ephemera layered and glued over entire surface, inside and out.

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The outer coat and its train are made of the various Christmas, birthday, and anniversary cards, the Valentines, the birth announcements, and the funeral handouts saved by the family. Newspaper announcements of births and deaths, or simply articles the owners found important enough to clip and save can be seen, as well as vacation souvenirs and other mementos. The lining of the coat is made of the family photos — the faces that the original collector must have held dear to her heart. I could not help but think of the cards and letters — all too rare in the days of text messaging and emails — that I have saved, along with mementos of museum exhibits, accomplishments, adventures with friends and families, and wonder what they might tell others about me when I am no longer here to tell my own story.

Milestones and Threads of Love will be on display until July 21, 2013.

San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, 520 S. First Street, San Jose, CA.

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