Thoughts About: Embroidered Textiles by Sheila Paine

A couple of posts back, one of my readers gave me what has been perhaps the nicest compliment I have been paid to date. She commented upon the amount of thought and research I put into my posts, and that really made my day.  I am always reading and doing research on different textile traditions, DIY procedures, symbolism, etc. I thought I might give an overview and share a few of my thoughts on what I feel are some of the more influential works I have encountered. I will henceforth call this category of posts “Thoughts About”.

The last couple of weeks I have been reading Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns by Sheila Paine. I borrowed a copy from my local library, but after having read it, I will certainly be purchasing a copy to add to my bookshelf for continual reference.
This book is full of brilliant, stunning photos and information about embroidery from around the world. She breaks the information down into 4 chapters.

The first of these is “Guide to Identification” which breaks down major traditions by region and points out key identifying elements of the embroidery work. I have to give her props for including a brief mention of Hmong (which she refers to as Miao… which is indeed another name, but by and large they prefer to be called Hmong) and their work, which I wholeheartedly admire.

Chapters two and three, “The Decorative Power of Cult” and “Religion and its Patterns” respectively, deal with symbolism within embroidery as it relates to the divine and otherworldly. Both chapters look at meanings and how some of the representations have changed through time.  The only real difference between the chapters is that “cult” refers to earlier objects of worship such as the sun and the goddess and significant events like hunting, whereas “religion” is meant to refer to major religions as we know of them them today with their rules and structure, such as Christianity and Buddhism.

The final chapter, “The Magical Source of Protection”, looks at decoration as charm or talisman. Locations of stitchwork, beads or trinkets that are added into the embroidery, even the colors used all have a function and a meaning.

I love this book because it is such a rich source of information on symbolism and communication within textiles around the world… everything that I am interested in and that this blog serves to discuss. I will likely be referencing this book again and again in the future. 🙂

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Fashion Burkas

Last week I went to see my friend, Saad Ahmed, do his thing at an open mic in town… it’s one of the things I like to do when I am not glued to my computer screen or locked away in my room sewing. I always like to support local artists (comedy is an artform), and Saad is probably my favorite local comedian (if you ever get a chance to see him, I recommend it).  This blog post is credited in part to him for unwittingly implanting the initial idea.

In the setup for one of his jokes, Saad brings up having seen a fashion show in the middle east with all the women wearing burkas. This got me wondering if there actually was such a thing… There IS! And contrary to the remark within Saad’s joke, it is nowhere near boring. 🙂

Whether you realize it or not, when you get up in the morning and get dressed for the day, the clothes that you wear speak to other people and the rest of society about who you are. Our clothes are a form of non-verbal communication. They communicate information such as our age, our gender (whichever we identify with), what kind of work we do (sometimes how much money we have or don’t have), what part of the country or the world we come from, and sometimes, as in the case of the burka, we communicate our religion as well.
The burka is perhaps one of the most expressive and talkative of all wardrobes. There is so much that is connected to the burka.. politics, religion, women’s issues, oppression/freedom, deep and rich histories.. who on this planet does not hold some manner of fascination for the burka?

What you can wear, what you can’t wear

At it’s root, the burka is meant to provide modesty for Muslim women. It is loose clothing that covers the body, the head and sometimes the face as well. While the Koran never specifies the need to wear a burka, it does cite the need for modesty, and for a lot of Muslim women around the world, there are indeed a wider range of options. A lot of the Muslim women I went to college with wore nice abayas and hijabs, some also wore their hijabs with jeans and a shirt. I also know women who don’t really even wear hijab most of the time. There are places where full burkas are enforced, such as places in Afghanistan, and places where burkas are forbidden, such as Syrian schools and there have been a lot of controversies concerning burkas in France. (I remember reading a story last year about a woman in a burkini getting kicked off a French beach.)

Burka as a Fashion Statement

Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. donned this burka at an award show in October 2010.

This outfit, part of Iran’s 2008 fashion show, is actually quite pretty (in my opinion).

In the summer of 2008, Iran held a government approved fashion show (1) in which they tried to enliven the expression of women’s attire while still keeping with the law. While I’m not entirely sure what women in Iran would chose to wear if there were no strict dress code in place, and I doubt that Culture and Islamic Orientation Minister Saffar Harandi was really getting into the women’s psyche in his feelings that, as source 1 states,  “the show ‘freed’ Iranian women from the ‘shackles’ of the western fashion industry”, he does have a valid point for consideration. While western women (like myself) are supposedly free to wear what we want to, even we are pressured to conform to a social image and are confined either to what we have access to buy or are able to make for ourselves (if we know how). I know that I have often felt uncomfortable clothes shopping because mainstream women’s clothes in America are meant to hug your body, sit low (low-rider jeans, v-neck shirts), and more or less sexualize you. I wore men’s pants and baggy shirts for the longest time and still dread going swimming as I feel eternally self-conscious in even a one piece swimsuit. (Maybe I might opt for one of those burkinis myself, heh).

This is pretty much the “anti-burka” burka. I find the constroversial piece to be artistic and interesting. Photo from source 2. (Mattis Sanblad, Scanpix/AP Photo)

Probably as a rebellious comment upon the burka bans in France, I have come across a number of burkas and burka inspired pieces coming from French designers like Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Marithé François Girbaud (3). Of course, while it could be argued that some of these designs are offensive in that they steal another’s cultural dress and distort it to suit their needs/desires (don’t act like it hasn’t been done before multiple times by almost everyone, it’s part of cultural diffusion. Look at Japanese Lolita outfits sometime.), I think that these designs are coming as a reaction to the ban (or proposed ban.. haven’t been able to pin down how far it went, someone enlighten me) actually goes in the favor of Muslim rights.

A Lela Ahmadzai design, truly gorgeous. A work of art.

Perhaps my favorite of all the sites and articles I have come across is Burka Meets Haute Couture.
Lela Ahmadzai is an Afghani woman who, while having left and attended school outside Afghanistan, is proud of and in touch with her heritage. As part of a diploma project, she designed a series of outfits that reached out and bridged her Afghani self with the western world she was living in. I find her pieces both beautiful and inspirational… truly, this is fine art.

Sources

1) http://deathby1000papercuts.com/2008/07/iran-fashion-show-the-burka-patrol-and-the-crackdown-on-immorality/ -Article

2) http://abcnews.go.com/International/popup?id=4421425 -The Burqa Gets a Makeover

3) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/news/paris-designers-react-to-burka-ban-1919187.html

4) http://www.celebuzz.com/mias-fashion-burka-yay-nay-s263081/ -M.I.A. Wears a Burka to Promote Album

5) http://www.anorak.co.uk/254149/media/syria-bans-the-fashion-forward-burqa-as-britain-embraces-muslim-punk.html

6) http://relijournal.com/islam/the-burqa-facts-issues/ – Very informative and serious article addressing the facts about the burka

7) http://www.burkameetshautecouture.com/hm_englisch.htm – Lela Ahmadzai’s diploma project addressing fashion and her Afghani heritage. Very beautiful and Highly recommended!

Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. donned this burka at an award show a couple months ago.

The Original Lord of the Dance (Stand aside Michael Flatley)

Last week I talked about the Batman quilt I am making for my brother, and I mentioned how it all started with that center panel. Well, I have an idea for my next quilt, and the concept is similar. I have another centerpiece that I need to design around. I don’t know where it originated, but I stumbled upon it at the Goodwill in Champaign, IL.

This is the Nataraja. The name comes from the words nadanam, meaning “dance” and raja, meaning “lord” or “king”. The image is of the Hindu god Shiva dancing tandava, which has the power to destroy and re-create the universe.

Now, I am not Hindu, in fact, the only thing I ever learned in High School about Shiva was that he is “The Destroyer” and is part of the trinity in Hinduism (Brahma – The Creator, Vishnu – The Preserver, and Shiva – The Destroyer) and that he pretty much just tore up the universe and was this destructive force. I have, however, done my own research and reading since then.. and I find the legends and the stories fascinating, and just because I may not worship a particular deity, does not mean I shouldn’t treat it with proper respect.
And so it is that while wanting to incorporate this Nataraja panel into a quilt, I feel I should approach the design with that respect in mind. What kinds of symbols are important? Are there any mantras or poojas (prayers) that belong to him that would be appropriate to applique somewhere? Being the script lover I am, I think it would be beautiful to try to work some text into the design.. but I want to make sure it’s appropriate before I just do it. So, I’ve been trying to do some research this afternoon, trying to learn more about Shiva and the tandava dance.

Here are the basic characteristics of the nataraja, according to Source 4:

Though there are minor variations, the characteristic features of Nataraj are as follows: he is shown with four hands, two on either side. The upper left hand holds a flame, the lower left hand points down to the demon Muyalaka, who is shown holding a cobra. The demon is being crushed by Shiva’s right foot; the other foot is raised. The upper right hand holds a drum, the lower one is in the abhaymudra, ‘be without fear’. Shiva’s hair is braided and jewelled, but some of his locks whirl as he dances; within the folds of his hair are a wreathing cobra, a skull, and the figure of Ganga. The entire figure stands on a lotus pedestal and is fringed by a circle of flames, which are touched by the hands holding the drum and the fire.

There is so much symbolism in that image alone, and because I do want the image to be the central focus, I want to be careful not to make the background too busy.  Here are a couple of very simple concept drawings:

With this first concept, I am considering the fact that Shiva brings about both creation and destruction. One corner begins as solid blue and increasingly breaks apart (becomes destroyed) as it moves closer toward the center (where Shiva is). As it progresses onward toward the other corner, pieces of pink begin to form, solidifying more as you arrive at the bottom corner (something new has been created). I chose the colors blue and pink not only because they are present in the panel and will look nice, but also because Shiva in one sense (Ardhanareeswara)  is also both male and female.^3   I have also put columns on either side of the main panel where I might be able to incorporate appropriate text (depending on space, this could be appliqued or embroidered).

This second concept incorporates some other symbols related to Shiva. Specifically, he has a crescent moon on his head from which the Ganga (the Ganges River) is supposed to flow. According to source 3:

Shiva bears on his head the crescent of the panchami (fifth day) moon. This is placed near the fiery third eye and this shows the power of Soma, the sacrificial offering, which is the representative of moon. It means that Shiva possesses the power of procreation along with the power of destruction. The moon is also a measure of time, thus Crescent also represent his control over time.

The other symbol is the snake, which Shiva wears as a necklace (though in the nataraja images the snake is around his waist). This is supposed to signify that:

Shiva is beyond the powers of death and is often the sole support in case of distress. He swallowed the poison kalketu for the wellbeing of the Universe. The deadly cobra represents that “death” aspect that Shiva has thoroughly conquered. The cobras around his neck also represent the dormant energy, called Kundalini, the serpent power. The snake curled three times around the neck of Lord Shiva depicts the past, present and future time. The snake looking in the right direction of Lord Shiva signifies that the Lord’s perpetual laws of reason and justice preserve natural order in the universe.

As yet I am not entirely satisfied with either of my concepts, but it is a starting point. I’m now more interested in doing this quilt than I was previously… I have always been keenly fascinated by duality- good/evil, creation/destruction..    and I find it a fitting link to the fact that a lot of the textile work I do involves creating new projects from old clothes or other fabrics.. destroying several pairs of jeans to cut out small diamond pieces and shaping them into a star, tearing apart an old dress and re-inventing it with some lace.

Sources

1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bksp8mpTeYY – A basic intro video about Lord Shiva

2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nataraja – The Wiki article about the Nataraja (Shiva in his dancing form)

3) http://www.mahashivratri.org / – A very informative site with legends and festival info as well.

4) http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/Avatars/Natar.html – The main site itself provides a wide variety of information about India, on everything from religion to social issues to history to the diaspora. Very good, and created by a History Professor at UCLA.

5) http://www.deeshaa.org/tandava-shivas-cosmic-dance/ – A blog post which breaks down Shiva and Nataraja in such a way that it is easily understandable by someone not totally knowledgeable about him (i.e. Me).