Dr Dana Sonnenschein, from New Haven, USA, was one of the participants of the TRC Intensive Textile course in September 2016. She sent the following review:
Last month, as part of the research for my sabbatical project, I traveled to take part in an Intensive Textile Workshop at the Textile Research Centre (TRC) in Leiden, Netherlands. The experience was amazing! Taught by TRC Director Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, the five-day course combined hands-on work in textile production with overviews of global and historical practices and interpretation of historical and contemporary textiles in light of the participants’ (new) knowledge of process and product. Each day involved at least one activity, beginning with a detailed study of a myriad of natural, artificial, and synthetic fibers; moving on to individually carding, combing, and hand-spinning wool; communally dyeing wool and silk using 21 natural dyes and four different mordants and, in the case of cochineal, two different temperatures of dye-bath (to produce a rainbow of some 120 colors); individually weaving a variety of patterns on small table-looms; and, also individually, producing samplers of batik, ikat warp threads, and plangi (tie-dye using Taiwanese techniques, which produce designs I never dreamed of back in grade school when I was rubber-banding flower-power tee shirts).
I’m not sure what I liked best, the forensics of finding out whether a scrap of fiber was flax or hemp, the pleasure of watching my hands and a simple spindle turn wool into yarn, the slow emergence of a pattern when weaving with a needle, or the adventure of painting a cotton scrap with hot wax. I learned that I will never be a master-dyer—that would take a lifetime—but I’ll always remember that iron “saddens” the color. And now I understand the basics of most of the processes involved in producing fabric and clothing, from prehistory through the present, knowledge that will inform future poems as well as my creative work with fiber. An historian or archeologist could use such skills to add an experimental component to her or his research, as Grace Mary Crowfoot did when she established that certain ancient Egyptian textiles were produced by the kind of loom still used by early twentieth-century Bedouins.
Each day of the Intensive Course also involved mini-lectures giving the “theory” of what we’d been practicing, followed by discussion of exemplary textiles, which Dr. Vogelsang-Eastwood guided so that participants learned to read/interpret everything, from pieces of cloth to garments from specific places and for particular purposes (for example, a symbolic sari, inexpensive and intended for purchase by a poor person as a temple offering vs. an expensive and carefully hand-printed sari, enormously valuable to its original owner but fallen in price/worth as soon as it became second-hand). As those examples suggest, understanding textiles is a way of understanding identity and culture (and vice versa). To truly read anything that came into one’s hands, one would need to study not only the object but when and where it came from. Fortunately, the TRC houses many stories as well as boxes and boxes of textiles. And, unlike most curated collections, which focus only on display, the TRC emphasizes research, so almost all its treasures may, with care, be handled.
Why does this matter? Well, as we learned, a lot can be deduced from a piece of cloth, when you can feel it with a fingertip and hold it up to your nose or eyes—what it is made of and, often, how—whether it was hand-woven or machine-produced, dyed in the wool or as threads or as fabric, block- or roll-printed, and with what sorts of image and/or pattern. And from these pieces of knowledge, one can begin to build a picture of when and where it was made, perhaps even by what kind of person for what kind of person. Such skills are central to the work of historians, archaeologists, and museum curators as well as to a creative writer trying to imagine the life of the maker of, say, a quilt, a tablet-weaving from Ghana, or an embroidered sampler.
Throughout the course, the TRC’s extensive collection of clothing, fabric, needlework, and artifacts was highlighted; participants could request to see particular items, and Dr. Vogelsang-Eastwood often used them to demonstrate particular techniques, such as examples of ikat (resist dyeing warp and/or weft threads before weaving). In addition, the TRC has a good library, with books in many languages. Because the TRC also has exhibition space, participants received a guided tour of the current show on the appropriate day, when we were discussing lace and embroidery. Dr. Eastwood is a walking resource, able to answer just about any general question one might ask as well as being able to speak authoritatively and in great depth on her areas of specialization—which are, not surprisingly, mirrored in the collection (North African/Middle Eastern textiles, including ancient Egyptian garments and tapestry, clothing and identity (globally but with an emphasis on Europe), and embroidery). My apologies to her if I’ve missed something in that list! She was helpful, whether I was inquiring about Indonesian master-dyers, Early Modern European cloth, or the head of a leopard-patterned garment found in King Tut’s tomb.
In terms of the areas explicitly covered by the course, she sent participants handouts (25-50 pages each) outlining the subjects covered each day, defining terms, and supplying illustrations to supplement what we’d actually be seeing in class. I’ve found these handouts of great help in decoding my handwritten notes and identifying photographs I took during class meetings. Throughout the course, I delighted in Dr. Vogelsang-Eastwood’s tone of friendly camaraderie and her professionalism. She, the TRC volunteers, and my fellow-participants made the week I spent in Leiden a pleasure as well as an education. Stories of this group of women as well as about the textiles I studied will feature in my sabbatical project, a book-length manuscript of poems about women’s lives and their textile production (spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting, etc.). In fact, I’ve already begun drafting related poems, four (linked) on the TRC’s chadri and burka, and one on lace-making, and I have a list of nearly a dozen ideas for other pieces to work on next. The course was as inspirational as it was informative.
Dr. Dana Sonnenschein, Professor of English Southern Connecticut State University New Haven, CT, 06515 USA. 12 October 2016.
The TRC Intensive Textile course is being repeated from 17-21 October 2016 (fully booked), 13-17 March 2017, 10-14 April 2017 and 16-20 October 2017.