A new exhibit at UCLA's Fowler Museum promises to be a botanist's dream.

A puff-sleeve blouse woven out of diaphanous pineapple fiber, a skirt embroidered with russet-tinted raffia palm, a robe crafted out of snow-bleached China grass and a hemp bag meticulously dyed with persimmon juice are among the stylish items on display in an exhibit on fabrics made from plants at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"Material Choices: Bast and Leaf Fiber Textiles" explains that before cotton became king of textiles, weavers in Africa and the Pacific region scrounged in the forest for wisteria, hibiscus, lemba, pandanus, elms, orchids, coconuts, banana trees and other foliage whose leaves and bast, or the layer of fibers found in the stems, provided the yarn to make clothes.

The exhibit has been under development for almost a decade and includes about 50 pieces from countries ranging from the Congo and South Korea to New Zealand and Samoa. The survey provides an introduction not only to the different fabrics and vegetation, but also to the painstaking technique of making clothes by first weaving, knotting, plaiting or twining the natural threads and then coloring them using indigo, batik and other dyeing techniques. It also addresses the challenges of preserving and reviving weaving traditions that almost disappeared after synthetic fibers emerged from laboratories in the 20th century.

For instance, in northern Vietnam, co-ops in Hanoi transformed the traditional hemp cloth made by the mountain-dwelling Hmong tribes into new products such as pillow cases marketed to foreign tourists. Manila-based designer Patis Tesoro spruces up formal men's shirts with piña, which is derived from the leaves of the pineapple plant. Snow-bleached ramie may never be accessible to consumers since it requires so much time and labor to bleach the stem-based fabric during the sunny days of February and March on the snowy fields in northern Japan. A bolt of the stiff yet airy cloth that is long enough to make a kimono would cost more than $20,000.

Nevertheless, the lessons for modern-day designers are enlightening. Even as industrial trade washes the world in homogeneity, consumers grow increasingly interested in environmental sustainability and one-of-a-kind garments made by hand. Visitors can cull tips for combining fashion with function, as exemplified by a jacket from Vietnam that was saturated with indigo before being appliquéd with tiny yellow diamonds nestled in red squares and polished with a stone to develop a water-resistant coating."What I was most interested in the exhibition was showing the aesthetic qualities of the fabrics," said Roy Hamilton, the museum's curator of Asian and Pacific collections. "They are in their natural ecru and beige colors, which is very attractive because it is warm."


"Material Choices: Bast and Leaf Fiber Textiles"

Fowler Museum at UCLA

Through Dec. 30

Located in the north part of the UCLA campus near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Westwood Plaza.

Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m.; Thursday, noon to 8 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday; (310) 825-4361, fowler.ucla.edu

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