Grandma’s Gift: A Love of Textiles

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One of the greatest things I’ve experienced since leaving the corporate world has been a reawakening of creative thoughts, time to slow down and really “see” little details around me that I was in too much of a hurry before to notice – time to again pursue creative interests that, once passionate about, I had left in a state of “hibernation”. One of the quickest of these to raise its head has been the field of textile design.

Since childhood, I have been surrounded by colorful textiles. Any child growing up in Hawaii has the same experience – these brightly-colored botanical prints following us from the soft blankets (“kihei pili”) under our infant bellies to the billowing cloth of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ cool, cotton mu’umu’us, to the crisp and handsome “aloha shirts” of our fathers and grandfathers. When these were outgrown, worn out or damaged, the textiles were recycled – pieced together in colorful, patchwork blankets and quilts. A particularly brilliant one graced the pune’e (daybed) in our living room; and I spent hours lounging there, lost in the imagery represented in each swatch of fabric. Like a riotous, fabric jigsaw puzzle, I would look for the same print design in various pieces scattered throughout the blanket. I never tired of it. Who knows, decades later, whatever happened to it; but I would give anything to have that beautiful “kihei” again, wrapping me in my Hawaiian childhood.

Here I am at my 5th birthday party in Honolulu, surrounded by my siblings and cousins, all of us aglow in brilliant, 1960’s Hawaiian-print textiles (Yes, that’s me in the blue, mosaic print and shiny hair!):

My 5th birthday party, Honolulu, Nov 1969

My 5th birthday party, Honolulu, Nov 1969

That fascination in graphic design applied to the surface of cloth was soon followed by a curiosity of the structure and construction of the cloth itself, beneath the printed design. Watching my mother stitch flat scraps of Hawaiian-print fabric into clothing that conformed to the contours of mine and my siblings’ little, sun-tanned bodies was amazing. Studying her working that ancient, black Singer treadle sewing machine – amazed at how, all at once, she controlled the stitch speed with the filigreed foot treadle, raised the presser foot with a knee lever, and used one hand to guide the fabric while raising and lowering the needle with the other – she may as well have been a wizard or a one-man band from outer space, playing for an astonished-but-appreciative crowd of spectators. I noticed the difference between those soft, cotton broadcloths and the rough, course weave of the canvas fabric my father stretched over wooden frames for his paintings and thought, “Hmmmm…”

My grandmother spent hours at a time crocheting the most intricate doilies, tablecloths, shawls and jewelry, dripping with pearls or incorporating 3D bouquets of orchids and pansies in brilliantly-colored cotton thread of the finest denier. My sisters and I loved digging through bins of her work at her tiny apartment in Honolulu; and still, the acrid scent of naphthalene in the moth balls she used to preserve them takes me back to her, and my childhood. Our house was ornamented with her brilliant throw pillows quilted in the Hawaiian style – one brightly-colored botanical design appliqueed against another, brightly-colored ground. My brothers and I slept (and drooled) on them, engaged in mad pillow fights with them, and built giant piles of them on which to land, safely, from daredevil leaps on high. And when she, probably in an attempt to keep me and my sister busy and out of her hair, cut a square piece from a cardboard box, slit it in regular intervals on all sides and taught us how to weave a pot holder on it using strips of colored scrap fabric left over from her own sewing projects, I was smitten.

That love of textiles never left me; and I followed it, willingly, through a career in fashion design, then a passion for computer-aided textile and surface design, to a late-found love for interior design. And no matter what artistic twists and turns I took, from pottery to lighting and home furnishings, the influence of textiles – particularly the structure of the basic, basket-weave pattern – always revealed itself in my work:

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Ceramic bowl, 2001

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Ceramic and copper wire bowl, 2002

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Paper lanterns, 1999

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Wood and bungee cord chair, 2013

Living in New York City has continued to nurture that passion. I took up knitting in the East Village back in 2005 as a way to occupy myself on my daily subway ride, and to “connect” spiritually with my grandmother. About a year ago, I began practicing the free-form Japanese art of weaving, Saori, in a small, basement studio on the Upper East Side. The possibilities and offerings in this city are endless – at the tip of one’s fingers, one can seek and find classes in upholstery, shibori dyeing, portrait embroidery, lacemaking, yarn spinning, silkscreening, reverse appliquee or felting.

A few weekends ago, I stepped into a fairytale land of creativity and experimentation. Through some of my recent textile print-design work, I was notified of an opportunity to spend a weekend at the Textile Arts Center, experimenting with textiles under the guidance of Pascale Gueracague, textile designer for the fashion house of Helmut Lang. Knowing this fashion collection well for its pushing the boundaries of textile surface design and construction, I jumped at the opportunity to work with its creator and hopped on the R train to Brooklyn for the weekend.

Expecting a haughty, strict and probably judgmental European teacher, ruler in hand, ready to pounce on her hopeless and untalented American wanna-bes, I was thrilled to find instead a beautiful, young, half-French-half-American woman with a huge smile and kindness oozing from her pores. As she sat with her Mac laptop, struggling to make it “talk” to the video projector and ready to pull her hair out, I thought, “Ahhh…she’s one of us!” Little did I know that once she got the technology in sync and began her presentation of visual ideas and trends, me and the other handful of students in attendance would be completely and overwhelmingly inspired, our creative juices running amok, chomping at the bit, ready to start our weekend of artistic abandon.

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But, oh, no…forget about those baubles and beads, those brilliant prints and fabulous embellishments we all brought in our backpacks to work with! Au contraire! This will be a series of EXERCISES, of “quick studies” that will challenge us to analyze a fabric’s properties and take that fabric to a completely different level, Pascale tells us. As she leads us to the table of fabrics we are to work with, we are all, at some level, disappointed, challenged, confused…no, HORRIFIED at the selections cast before us. No Gaugin-esque, painterly prints in sight. No luscious limes, funky fuchsias, sparkly metallics here. No rock star, no Disney princess, not even a Downtown drag queen would be caught dead in these fabrics. (Well, there IS this one blindingly fluorescent orange fabric – a strange, stiff, transparent knit that could only be described as “radioactive construction-worker ballet-tutu”. We all stayed WAY away from that one!) “Breathe, release, accept the challenge,” I tell myself. “Hmmm, should I pick the flesh-colored toile, the spiderweb-colored organza, or the gray-black, casket-liner satin?!”

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Luckily, as it turns out, none of us have to pick at all. Pascale has chosen for us – a very pale gray crepe de Chine. We are all given a piece of the same fabric and a pair of scissors. Our challenge is to create a new fabric using only scissors; and we have 20 minutes to do so. Surprisingly, as soon as the fabric touches my skin, I am energized, excited, ready to take this on. I add yet another challenge on top of Pascale’s – to resist cutting the fabric into more than one piece and reconstruct it – but rather, to keep the entire piece intact. As if summoned by some silent incantation, I notice my creative self rising to the surface, leading me in the project. Folding the fabric in half lengthwise, I make a series of horizontal slits, cut the floating strips in the center of the fabric in half, and tie each half together in a knot:

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Once our time was up, we all pinned our swatches to a large, felt-covered presentation wall and described our thoughts, our processes, and received feedback and guidance. It was AWESOME!!! I think we were all completely hooked on Pascale’s process. The weekend consisted of one challenge after another, sometimes with fabrics Pascale chose for us, other times with fabrics we chose ourselves. Oftentimes, Pascale gave us a particular method/process with which to create; and at others, we could go “wild” and create our own challenges, using whatever method/process we felt compelled to use: sewing, pressing, cutting, tying, gluing, tearing, puncturing, stretching, sanding…the gerunds here could go on and on.

Challenge: Play with texture and “motion”. Rough-cut circles, sanded to fray the edges, plus a zigzag stitch on the sewing machine, creates both stationary and “moving” layers of texture. This would be fun to dance in:

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Challenge: Experiment with layers. I wanted to play with layers both at the main visual plane, above the main visual plane…and even beneath the main visual plane. I sandwiched 2 pieces of somewhat-transparent fabric together and stitched parallel rows across the entire surface to create texture at the initial visual level of the fabric. To add more texture ABOVE the initial visual level of the fabric, I cut small pieces of the fabric and stacked/assembled them into 3D fabric “roses”, attached with embroidery floss:

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And when, as a soft and feminine dress, its wearer passes the light of a window or doorway, the fabric reveals yet another, surprise level of texture – small pieces of the fabric “floating” between the two sandwiched layers, caught in the parallel rows of stitching:

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Challenge: Use the same fabric as before, but go in a different direction, using textures and layers, to transform it from soft, feminine and delicate to something harder and more “threatening”. Free-form, black zigzag stitching on two, sandwiched layers of flesh-colored fabric, then scissor-snipping and sanding to rough up the edges, creates a slightly ominous, “botched-surgery”/“Frankenstein” effect:

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Challenge: Tackle the freaky, DayGlo orange knit. Pascale encourages us to “sit” with a piece of fabric for a while – touching it, observing it closely, manipulating it with our hands to identify its innate qualities and characteristics. It was stiff-but-stretchy, bold in color but delicate in transparency…a very intriguing textile. I noticed when I pulled it in the bias direction that it began to curl inward or, by contrast, expand outward. It reminded me of an unusual sea creature – a coral or anemone, a sea fan or manta ray. At the sewing machine, I pulled it on the bias while stitching darts across it surface. To my astonishment and delight, it began to take a new and unexpected shape – a prehistoric, “living” creature, ready to attach itself, at just the perfect, stylish angle, to the head of some eccentric, Downtown fashion maven:

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Pascale models an amazing, iridescent, sequin-encrusted jacket she designed. Once we have gotten over the shock at its beauty and detail and ended our photo-taking frenzy, she explains that she used iridescent gift wrap from Party City, had it sent to India to be made into sequins, and had the sequins sewn all over the base garment:

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Challenge: Explore non-traditional materials and incorporate them into a sculptural textile. An avid “dumpster-diver” who has rescued many a “treasure” from a municipal-landfill grave (see wood chair pictured, above), I immediately head for the trash bin. Lo and behold, someone’s plastic, take-out salad-bowl lid calls to me. A quick rinse, a few snips of my scissors, some tearing of fabric, and some quick finger-weaving result in large, “sparkly” medallions – “Les Miserables”-style embellishments for the hem of a voluminous skirt in blood-red, duchesse satin:

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Challenge: Experiment with quilting in a different way than usual. Since poly batting is usually only used for loft and softness but never actually seen (since it is sandwiched inside 2 outer layers of fabric), I wanted the handler of the textile to actually SEE the batting. I sandwiched it between 2 layers of transparent fabric, a pale gray organza. After stitching my design for the quilted area, I hand-trimmed all the excess batting away, then continued to stitch the 2 layers of organza together with parallel rows of stitching. For additional texture, I shredded one side of the textile and left the other intact, creating a “jellyfish” effect:

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With light passing through the translucent fabric

Challenge: Use only waste material to create a textile. As many of us in the workshop spent lots of time shredding fabric to create “fringe”, it occurred to me that on many fabrics, the selvages (the lengthwise edges of a woven roll of fabric) are naturally “fringed”. In addition, on the production floor, all these selvages are cut away (not used in the final garment) and discarded. I gathered up lengths of selvages from the various fabrics we had been using in our quick studies throughout the weekend, reveling in their varied colors, widths and textures. I stitched them together, stacked one upon the other, to create a fun, colorful and highly-textured fabric that Pascale thinks would make a great, Chanel-style jacket:

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Challenge: Manipulate a striped fabric by incorporating the striped design into something new and unexpected. Pascale purposely had us work with solids the whole weekend, in order to concentrate on the structure and construction of the textile, rather than the surface graphic design. For our last challenge, though, she now wanted us to use a striped shirting fabric, giving us the opportunity to manipulate the visual graphic, as well as the structural qualities. I imagine the bright red stripes yearning to escape the staid, conservative fabric; so with a few slices to release every other stripe, then restitching the resulting gaps, my stripes leap from the 2D surface into a 3rd dimension, capped off with a knotted end to give them weight, movement and “life”:

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As our last day came to an end, no one wanted to stop. We were, as Pascale put it, “in the zone”. That’s the best place you can be as an artist or designer, with ideas swirling in your head, a cooperative and cohesive energy flowing between you and the other participants, a feeling of “oneness” with the materials you are handling, and an overwhelming sense of well-being. For me, I was also overcome with a mix of love, sadness and gratitude. Having lost my grandmother earlier in the year, this weekend connected me to her talent, her teaching, her love. My parents and siblings and I engaged in so many great discussions during and after our loss of her; and one of the common threads (no pun intended!) was the way in which immortality manifests itself through one’s teachings. We all learned from her and were inspired by her in different ways. For me, it was her textile arts – her gift to me. What greater gift can someone give to you than a lifelong passion? Mahalo nui, Grandma! I felt you next to me all weekend!

Dedicated to Rose Mary Ku’ualoha Mahelona, 1929-2013

Me and Grandma, Dallas, 1999

Me and Grandma, Dallas, 1999

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2 responses to “Grandma’s Gift: A Love of Textiles

  1. Marilyn McGregor

    I was drawn into your experiences through your writing. Very intriguing exercises with fabric. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Very interesting. I don’t know enough about textile/fabric art. I used to sew 80% of my wardrobe for over 10 years before cycling passion bit me. We were a poor a family, so sewing was the only way to become fashionable.

    I loved going into huge fabric stores…a source of inspiration like going into an art supplies store.

    Great art pieces you have there.

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