You Should Be Reading: Textiles and Ethnic Identification

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Textiles possess the unique ability to connect us intimately with our identities. They tangibly make up the garments we wear against our skin and carry with us throughout our lives–textiles are powerful tools in the creation of identity and memories of identity. Textiles can be made into uniforms, visually associating the identities of their wearers; conversely, textiles can be used to create garments that are totally unique and mark the wearer as “different,” for good or for bad. Often textiles hold special importance within ethnic groups, where they are used to create garments or items which promote a specific cultural identity and pride. The three recently published articles below highlight these aspects of pride and identity within various ethnic contexts, including German-from-Russia settlers on the Great Plains, Polish Jews during the Second World War, and a contemporary English-Punjabi couple. We hope you enjoy!

1. Braaten, A. W., & DeLong, M. R. (2013). Shawls of the Germans from Russia: Connections to the pastTextile History, 44(2), 197-213. 

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the shawls worn by certain women on the Great Plains of North America identified them as being Germans from Russia (GFR). Having settled in Russia for a century before relocating to the grassy plains of North and South America, attracted by the promise of land ownership and freedom from oppression, these Germans created a distinctive community. Their shawls served as shibboleth, a custom or usage that distinguishes one group of people from others. Over a century later, in the USA and Canada, these shawls are still found among GFR families who recall the customs and values of people of this ethnic community, and thus provide a medium through which to learn about the GFR. — Full Article Abstract

2. Lerpiniere, C. (2013). One wedding, two cultures, four outfits: The phenomenological exploration of fashion and textilesJournal of Textile Design Research and Practice, 1(1), 27-42.

Textiles can evoke an emotional response that is induced by the smell, texture, memory, and embodied experiences that are released through wearing, touching, and talking about textiles. The textile artifact is our most universal designed object, with the capacity for us to experience it simultaneously with all our senses and emotions. The personal textile archive is a term created for this study to describe textiles that have been taken out of practical use, and have been informally, yet purposefully, gathered together. Textile artifacts within the personal textile archive function as both a treasury of personal, social, and family memories, and as a treasury of design details. A series of interviews were conducted in which participants were asked to discuss their own personal textile archives, in order to uncover the embodied experience that arises through interactions with these sentimental textiles. This rich experience of textiles was explored through the use of qualitative research methods developed from a phenomenological research methodology, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Through a case study in which a couple of English and Punjabi heritage describe their wedding outfits, interviews set and analyzed within a phenomenological paradigm demonstrate this method’s facility to explore the interplay between design and experience. — Full Article Abstract

3. Taylor, L. (2013). Beyond words: An embroidery in memory of Anna Binderowska, married 1864Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 11(3), 300-313. 

Leora Auslander writes that: “Human beings need objects to effectively remember and forget; and we need objects to cope with absence, with loss and with death.” This text discusses the personal memories and thoughts about the author’s own Jewish family history in the context of the holocaust, which are embedded in the design of a picture, embroidered in wool on canvas, that she made in the mid-1990s in memory of her great-grandmother, Anna Binderowska. The picture was displayed in the exhibition “Hand Made Tales,” curated by Carol Tulloch at the Women’s Library, Whitechapel, London in 2011. Anna, who married in 1864 and had a large number of children, lived and died in the poor Jewish district of the Polish city of Słonim, then in the Russian Pale of Settlement. Four of her children, including the author’s grandfather, Morris, emigrated and settled in Manchester, England in the mid-1890s. Never having been to Słonim, Taylor invented a naive, comforting, idyllic vision of Anna’s gravestone in the old Jewish cemetery in the town, under fallen leaves and a blue sky. Researching that cemetery’s specific history twenty years later for Carol Tulloch’s conference, she found that in July 1942, SS Brigadeführer Eric Naumann, in command of Himmler’s special SS Einsatzgruppen B battalion, reached Słonim. The little town became an infamous killing ground, a place of mass Jewish slaughter and destruction. As all over Poland, the town’s Jewish cemeteries, including Anna’s gravestone, were smashed one by one. This text reflects finally on the fact that Naumann was tried at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal and executed in 1951. While he took no part in the Naumann trial, the author’s father had been a member of the British prosecution team at Nuremburg and she realized that her embroidery had also been made in memory of her parents, a Jewish mother and a Welsh father. — Paraphrased Article Abstract

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