Tracing the origin of a fiber or textile is a common endeavor, but it is a rare occasion when materials are traced back to their literary roots.
At Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the “Text and Textile” exhibit connects fabric references woven throughout ancient and modern texts to notable historic and cultural events surrounding textiles, underscoring their latent and apparent impacts on society.
“Text and Textile” opened on May 3 and will run through Aug. 12 at Beinecke Library. The exhibit was conceived by Kathryn James, curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts and the Osborn Collection at the Beinecke Library; Katie Trumpener, Emily Sanford Professor of Comparative Literature and English; and co-curated by James, Trumpener, and Melina Moe, a research affiliate at the library.
“’Text and Textile’ traces the weave and entanglement of these threads of myth, labor, self and memory,” James said. The exhibition “invites viewers to examine the ways in which textiles call us to a remembered or imagined body, childhood [or] past,” James said, by uniting pointed texts with material items that convey the importance of textiles to industry and their symbolism expressed in themes such as domesticity, production and consumption.
And naturally, the exhibit begins with Eve, illustrated in the margins of an Arthurian romance and late 13th-century manuscript. The subject is clothed in a slate blue dress and spinning thread, standing opposite a barefoot young woman working in a cotton mill.
Moe said “textiles are the stuff of myth, but they are also the product of industrial capitalism.” She added, “On one side is a medieval illumination of Eve spinning, her work reminding us of Eve’s thirst for knowledge, of the clothes that humans hid behind after being expelled from Eden, and of the tradition of women textile-makers who spin yarn and make the cloth that protects our bodies from birth to death. Eve points the way to the portion of this exhibition that explores the metaphorical language of textiles, from networks and relationships to the fragility of life as a single, delicate thread.”
Thoughtfully selected ancient “spinning stories” take the form of The Three Fates, overseeing “the thread of each life” in texts from Greek and Roman mythology; or in Ovid’s tale of Arachne, in which Arachne wins a weaving competition and is transformed into a spider by the goddess Athena.
Sleeping Beauty, too, “relentlessly finds the stairs that lead her to the spinning wheel” in a featured woodblock profile in a 1933 edition of Arthur Rackham’s “The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book.” And a mid-20th-century etching by Ingri Parin d’Aulaire illustrates a young girl looking up from her spinning at Rumpelstiltskin, who looms above.
Moe continued, “These mythological threads, common to us all, are media for distinction and personalization, much like the clothes we wear today. Woven cloth is an envelope that surrounds the human body, simultaneously protecting it and revealing its vulnerability.”
Modern selections include a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s “Spinning-Wheel Stories” from 1884 and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” dated 1878. A copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” from 1925 — which references Daisy Fay Buchanan’s dramatically delivered line, “I’ve never seen such, such beautiful shirts before” — is placed alongside a white Hermès scarf with a print of needles, threads and tassels. And Zelda Fitzgerald’s elaborate paper dolls that were made for her daughter, Frances “Scottie,” are also on display.
“‘Text and Textile’ observes the shop counter and factory floor, the parlor and fireside, the dressmaker’s workshop, the cotton field. It listens to crones telling tales to children by the fire, to sisters distracting each other as they spin, to mill workers describing the noise of the machines that surround them,” James noted.
Visitors can view manuscript patterns and loom cards from French Jacquard mills, which served as inspiration for Charles Babbage’s computer technologies developed in the 19th century. Moe said the exhibition “examines the underbelly of textiles, the global slavery and exploitation of the cotton trade, the deadly fire that took the lives of mostly immigrant workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, and the courageous community organizing that led silk workers in Paterson, N.J., to strike for better working conditions in 1913.”
Textile themes are further explored and unified through the poetry of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Susan Howe, as well as Edith Wharton’s manuscript drafts of “The House of Mirth.”
Gertrude Stein’s bolero-style waistcoat is also on display, a textile of muted colors donned with flowers, trees, animals and figures, woven by her partner, Alice B. Toklas. There’s also the “Souper” paper dress inspired by Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans, circa 1967, and a 14th- to 16th-century Incan “quipu” — a series of knots and colored threads used as a form of communication — adds another historical dimension to the exhibit.
In honor of “Text and Textile,” a keynote address titled “Pink: The History of a Color,” will be delivered on May 23 by Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Text and Textile” is accompanied by the exhibition “Text & Textile in Arts Library Special Collections” at the Robert B. Haas Arts Library at Yale, and by a thematic wall display of works in the Long Gallery at the Yale Center for British Art, according to the university.
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