Tufted Tales: Chenille Garments Volume 39.3

Georgia and textiles, cotton in particular, have a long association, and the West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail is bringing increased recognition to the history of the industrial growth resulting from that union. In addition to the expected cotton mills, the trail highlights numerous factories devoted to the production of garments and accessories including hosiery, underwear and—in Bremen—menswear. In the northwestern corner of the state, especially in the town of Dalton, the trail focuses on the old highway where small roadside businesses sold souvenirs like tufted peacock bathrobes and on the mills that manufactured chenille bedspreads and garments before focusing on the production of carpet. My book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion, published by the University of Georgia Press, is part of a growing body of research into the region’s textile history and the first to focus on tufted fashion.

      In the spring of 2015 the West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail organized a conference focused on using the arts to tell textile stories; the event included presentations about mill town music, life in a mill village, using theater to convey information about the past, and incorporating narrative elements into the promotion of historic destinations. I shared stories about the makers and manufacturers of tufted garments, encouraging the careful reconsideration of well-known stories and the inclusion of individuals at all levels of production, as well as stressing the importance of preserving objects. Following are five tufted textile stories.

CATHERINE EVANS WHITENER AND CANDLEWICK KIMONOS

CATHERINE EVANS WHITENER with a candlewick bedspread, circa 1960. Courtesy of Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia, Carpet and Rug Institute Photograph Collection.

      Almost any recounting of the history of Georgia’s tufted textiles begins with the story of Catherine Evans Whitener (1880-1964) and her “rediscovery” of the traditional candlewick technique for decorating spreads in the late nineteenth century. Actually, there was increased interest in these historic textiles in many parts of the United States as part of the Colonial Revival. As Americans celebrated the country’s centenary and reflected on the people, places, and objects associated with its founding, they turned to forms like candlewick spreads, originally popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for inspiration. 

Whitener, inspired by an antique candlewick spread in a relative’s home, made her first few spreads as gifts, then began selling them. Orders quickly outpaced her individual production capabilities and she taught neighboring women her process. She either drew her own pattern or copied an existing spread by placing it fluff-side down with a fresh sheet on top that she rubbed with a greased tin (or other “stamping iron”) to transfer the pattern. Then she stitched the pattern with plain running stitches, clipped the stitches with scissors, and boiled the fabric to shrink the weave and hold the stitches in place. Finally, she dried and fluffed the spreads, creating the familiar pompom decorations. The women she taught in turn instructed others, and a cottage industry developed. By the mid-1910s department stores throughout the Midwest and New England carried the popular southern bedspreads. As automobile travel increased (especially by the late 1920s), Dalton also developed a thriving culture of roadside stands, known as “spreadlines,” selling tufted products.

As consumer demand for the textiles increased, and due to government pressure for fair wages, the industry mechanized in the early 1930s. The new machine-tufted textiles were called chenille, French for “caterpillar,” to distinguish them from the earlier hand-tufted candlewick goods. As the mechanization process progressed, the machines evolved from single-needle converted sewing machines to large, multi-needle machines that could produce tufted yardage. Later, carpet became the dominate tufted product, eclipsing chenille in the 1950s. 

MRS. RALPH HANEY wearing a candlewick kimono with a peacock design, circa 1920. Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, gor466.

      The tufted textile industry whole-heartedly embraced and promoted the story of Catherine Evans Whitener by the 1930s. For example, in 1953 a buyer for Rich’s department store in Atlanta wrote an article for the Tufted Textile Manufacturers Association Directory, the industry’s annual publication, advising stores to tell their sales forces “about the young farm girl, Catherine Evans, who made the first modern tufted spread in 1895 and launched a multi-million dollar industry.” As Philis Alvic details in her book Weavers of the Southern Highlands, other textile production centers in southern Appalachia in the early twentieth century offered similar stories in order to connect their modern textiles with antiques and capitalize on the popularity of the Colonial Revival.

Though rarely mentioned, Whitener made garments—aprons and kimonos—as well as spreads. While none of her garments are known to survive, a single photographic image from the region showing Mrs. Ralph Haney (née Exzene Carter, 1894-1962) wearing a kimono suggests the type of work Whitener would have done. Haney’s kimono appears to be hand tufted in a single color on a solid color background and shows a peacock next to a vase in a trellis setting.

I found several advertisements from 1923 in northeastern newspapers for candlewick kimonos, and while the ads do not mention Georgia, the garments are similar in style and description to Haney’s. One ad, for the Joseph Horne Company in Pittsburgh, lists some of the color combinations of these garments as “gray with rose designs, orchid with lavender, orange with blue, pumpkin with white, black with rose, old blue with white, yellow with yellow, leaf green with green.”

These were part of a vogue for Orientalism in fashion, and the butterflies, peacocks, and kimono form are relevant to that theme. The production in southern Appalachia of kimonos that were handcrafted using a traditional technique related to the Colonial Revival and reflecting a Japanese-inspired contemporary fashion trend, represents a remarkable combination of influences that enriches Whitener’s story and helps expand its significance beyond local history.

A PINK CANDLEWICK DRESS

CANDLEWICK COTTON DRESS, circa 1930s. Photograph by Michael McKelvey. Collection of Bradley Putnam.

      While visiting with a collector in Tunnel Hill, a small town north of Dalton, I encountered an unusual pink dress and bonnet. The dress was a mystery to the collector; he purchased it because it was tufted, but did not know its history.

At the time, I was well into my research and particularly interested by how in the late 1920s and early 1930s women from the region helped promote candlewick spreads by traveling to department stores throughout the country to give hand-tufting demonstrations. Often these women wore Colonial Revival style costumes with bonnets. An ad for a demonstration at Macy’s in New York in 1931 reads, “You’ll have to imagine the log cabin and the cotton fields background. But the girls themselves, in cotton frocks and sunbonnets, will be here, tufting the spreads by hand, just as they do in their native Georgia.” Other evidence suggests that these “native costumes,” as they often were called, were sometimes tufted.

As I examined the pink dress—hand tufted then dyed, assembled with a sewing machine, a silhouette that recalls a French shepherdess—the details all suggested that this was a rare survival: an example of a costume worn by a hand-tufting demonstrator. It is not an accurate copy of anything that existed historically and it is not a style that was ever popular during the twentieth century, but it is appropriate as a circa 1930 interpretation of something from “golden olden times.”

The marketing of candlewick spreads was not the only entrepreneurial enterprise that benefited from the incorporation of Colonial Revival style costumes. Fashion historian Beverly Gordon, in an article on Colonial Revival fashion published in Dress, explains that by the interwar years the practice was popular in businesses such as Colonial-style tea rooms (with costumed waitresses) because the high moral associations with the style helped increase profits. She also notes that historical accuracy was less important than conveying a sense of a charming and picturesque past. The lovely image that the candlewick demonstrators presented helped sell bedspreads, but it was actually a far cry from the experiences of many of the tufters, often desperately poor women working long, hard hours for very little pay.

EMILY BENNETT AND U.S. 41

TWO VIEWS of Mrs. J. H. Bennett’s chenille business, with Willie Jean Chitwood, Helen Bennett (Mrs. Bennett’s daughter), and Aveline Chitwood seated at left, circa 1937. Photographs probably taken by Iduma Chitwood. Collection of Helen Johnson.

      Many small businesses existed along the highway, first called the Dixie Highway and later U.S. 41, in northwestern Georgia. One belonged to Mrs. J. H. Bennett (née Emily Mealor or Mealer, 1904-1997). Select records from her business survive in the collection of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society in Dalton, and one of her daughters, Helen Johnson, who lives a few miles from where her mother worked, recalls many details about what she made.

Bennett began working as a hand tufter while her husband farmed; they lived out in the country at the time and she sold her wares on the spreadline of a friend who lived near the highway. Then the family moved to U.S. 41 and she set up her own spreadline near the Resaca Confederate Cemetery, just south of Dalton. In the early 1930s her husband built her a little log cabin and she worked there alone. In many ways, she epitomized the popular notion of a traditional Appalachian craftswoman; she almost always wore a bonnet, she used an old-timey needlework technique, she was near a Civil War historic sight, and she worked in a log cabin, albeit a brand-new one. In 1936 the Atlanta Journal even included two photographs of her business on a rotogravure page about Bedspread Boulevard, as the highway was called at the time. In addition to bedspreads, she made pillows and aprons, which the newspaper described as “novel.”

CHENILLE COTTON APRON by Mrs. J. H. Bennett, undated. Photograph by Michael McKelvey. Courtesy of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society, Crown Gardens & Archives, Dalton, Georgia, gift of Helen Johnson.

      Bennett soon acquired a single-needle tufting machine, adding bath sets, capes, jackets, and robes to her inventory, then moved to a new spreadline down the road. Her daughter believes that Bennett’s ability to sew clothing—a skill learned of necessity because she had four daughters and limited income—helped her translate the tufted textiles into appealing garments.

Bennett had regular customers who would visit her when traveling U.S. 41 to vacation in Florida and who would write to her during the year to place orders. Sometimes travelers would make purchases as they traveled through and she would ship the goods to their far-away homes. She also sold to a few department stores in Chicago. Bennett continued her business until Interstate 75 opened in 1965 and drew away the tourist traffic from the older highway, though she still tufted until she was eighty years of age.

ARTHUR RICHMAN AND THE ART-RICH MANUFACTURING COMPANY

MATCHBOOK COVER advertisement for Blue Ridge Manufacturing Company, circa 1945. Private Collection.

      As chenille garments became increasingly popular in the late 1930s, several big spread companies realized that they needed to bring in specialized talent. They knew how to manufacture and design and market spreads, but clothing was new to them. Samuel Hurowitz (b. Russia, 1898-1975), who had founded Blue Ridge Spread in Dalton in 1933, added a garment department and in 1939 had hired Arthur “Artie” Richman (b. Poland, 1904-1965), an experienced garment designer in New York, to run it.

Richman’s designs for Blue Ridge included a series of chenille robes with playing card motifs, recorded through patent applications. He filed for the patents in April 1943 and was granted them in December 1943, but during that time much of Blue Ridge’s production was turned over to the war effort.
Blue Ridge featured the heart design in an advertisement in Glamour in 1944 that acknowledged the reality of wartime retail. Part of the text reads, “We are still trying to make shipments… to at least one store in each city so that you may have yours.”

Sometime before World War II ended Richman left Blue Ridge to start his own company, Ann-Lee Chenilles, which existed only briefly. By 1947 he had established Art-Rich Manufacturing Company, a large, long-lived business that focused on chenille robes for women and children. The overwhelming majority of chenille manufactories were in northwestern Georgia, and in 1949 the industry produced almost five and one half million chenille robes. Even though Richman’s business was one of the younger ones in the region and it never manufactured hand-tufted candlewick products, he still capitalized on the appeal of the industry’s early southern roots by adding paper tags to his robes that read, “This chenille robe is made where the candlewick tufting industry originated,” with an image of cotton.

MODEL wearing a chenille robe by Art-Rich, circa 1953. Courtesy of Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia, Carpet and Rug Institute Photograph Collection.

      For many years robe companies used the same basic pattern to make traditional wraparound robes, but as chenille robes started to lose favor in the 1950s—as national fashions changed and as carpet became the dominant tufted product in northwestern Georgia—robe manufacturers introduced a variety of different styles to try to maintain market share. Richman even wrote an article for the Tufted Textile Manufacturers Association Directory in 1954 addressing how the production of robes had shifted from employing single-needle machines (as multi-needle machines that could produce tufted yardage were common by that time) and one pattern that was used for years with just some variation in the decorative motifs to an industry with “constantly changing” styles requiring “new patterns... to keep pace with the trend.” He pointed out that the small changes, including the buttons and buttonholes and various trimmings, required additional materials and labor.

During the 1950s duster robes surpassed the popularity of traditional wraparound robes. These new robes, typically three-quarter-length, could be styled a variety of ways and appealed to the growing youth market. Chenille robes, though, never regained their former prominence and began to fall out of fashion. Art-Rich diversified its offerings, adding terrycloth robes. Shortly before Arthur Richman died in 1965, his son Martin Richman (1929-2007) took over the company. Art-Rich continued experimenting with new styles
and other materials, but could not compete as cheaper imported goods hit the market, and closed in the early 1980s.

MARILYN WOLF AND THE CHENILLE REVIVAL

POSTCARD of children’s recycled chenille bathrobes, 1997. Photograph by Michael Scott Studio, New York City. Marilyn Wolf Designs, collection of the artist.

      Chenille fashion experienced a revival towards the end of the twentieth century. Beginning by the early 1970s, crafters and designers began cutting up old tufted bedspreads to make new products, especially garments including jackets, robes, bloomers, aprons, bibs, skirts, pullover blouses, and hats. Many were motivated by nostalgia as well as an interest in recycling encouraged by the burgeoning environmental movement.

One of the designers to repurpose old spreads was Marilyn Wolf of Narberth, Pennsylvania. She had established a small manufacturing business around 1970 and in the mid-1990s she made a small collection of chenille robes using chenille yardage she had purchased from a close-out sale. Then, through an acquaintance who happened to own a rag factory (a business that collected leftover fabrics from thrift stores and other sources), she gained access to a seemingly limitless supply of vintage spreads. By the 1980s and 1990s, as many original owners of tufted bedspreads downsized their homes, secondary markets were flooded with inexpensive materials.

MARILYN WOLF JACKETS FLYER, “Jackets fashioned from vintage chenille,” circa 1997. Marilyn Wolf Designs, collection of the artist.

      Wolf used these to make colorful one-of-a-kind robes and jackets for women, as well as teddy bears and baby blankets, that are notable for their playful patchwork aesthetic and postmodern profusion of colors and patterns. As the supplies of chenille dwindled and material became more precious, and, she notes, as the market for high-end art clothing for children increased, Wolf turned her attention to small robes, rompers, and jackets for children. She often added non-chenille materials like marabou or vintage buttons. She sold her designs through exclusive stores including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s and in children’s boutiques across the country. When she could no longer find adequate supplies of quality chenille, she turned to other materials.  

 

Though the tufted textile industry was centered in the South, it became a national phenomenon. While Hollywood helped cement the iconic status of the chenille robe—with appearances ranging from glamorous actresses like Katharine Hepburn in Holiday in 1938 to Oscar-winner Shirley Booth’s downtrodden character in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952 to Michael Douglas as a creative writing professor in the Wonder Boys in 2000—its presence in the lives of everyday Americans led to innumerable personal stories and memories about the material. In sharing my research for Southern Tufts, I have heard many recollections—about a mother’s favorite aqua robe with flowers, a child’s fascination with the rows of tufts on a bedspread, a family member who devoted a lifetime to the industry—and I welcome more stories and encourage the preservation of tufted textiles and their histories.



SUGGESTED READING
Alvic, Philis. Weavers of the Southern Highlands. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2003.
Callahan, Ashley. “From Roadside to Runway: A History of Chenille in Fashion.” Ornament 34.4: 26-31, 2011.
The Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia. Images of America: The West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail. Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.
Deaton, Thomas M. Bedspreads to Broadloom: The Story of the Tufted Carpet Industry. Acton, Massachusetts: Tapestry Press, 1993.
Gordon, Beverly. “Costumed Representations of Early America: A Gendered Portrayal, 1850-1940.” Dress 30: 3-20, 2003.

 

     Get Inspired!

 
 

Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. The University of Georgia Press published her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion in December 2015. She grew up in Dalton—known over time as both the Bedspread Capital of the World and the Carpet Capital of the World—and is pleased to be able to share information about the tufted textile industry’s history and about her home state’s contributions to American fashion.

Sandy Swirnoff Volume 39.3

Sandy Swirnoff

Knotted Fiber Jewelry

FRIDA of nylon thread, Tibetan coral, glass seed beads, Indonesian silver beads, 2006. Collection of Grace Stewart. Photographs by Katie Gardner, courtesy of Mingei International Museum.

Sandy Swirnoff creates necklaces of intricately knotted nylon thread in colorful hues, embedding them with beads of all kinds, and sometimes with rescued shards of Art Nouveau glass. Thirty of these unique and wearable works of art are on view in Sandy Swirnoff—Knotted Fiber Jewelry, an exhibition presented by Mingei International Museum in San Diego, from January 14 to June 4, 2017. Swirnoff’s knotting process is a spontaneous style of macramé. According to the artist, “The best way to create free-form knotting is to watch carefully which direction the cords naturally want to go, to see if there is a pattern forming, a new shape wanting to appear, or some connection between areas that is graceful and has movement.”

 

To Read the Full Article

 
 

Christine Knoke Hietbrink is Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator at Mingei International Museum in San Diego, California’s Balboa Park, which she joined in June 2010. Her most recent curatorial projects include “Sandy Swirnoff: Knotted Fiber Jewelry,” “American and European Folk Art from the Permanent Collection” and “Black Dolls from the Collection of Deborah Neff.” Knoke holds a BA in Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles, and an MA in Art History and Museum Studies from University of Southern California.

Mood Indigo Volume 39.1

 

JAPANESE BEDDING COVER (futonji) of cotton cloth with indigo dye (kasuri), Meiji period 1900-1912, Gift of the Christensen Fund. Background: NIGERIAN ADIRE ONIKO with full moon (osu bamba) of cotton cloth with indigo dye, twentieth century. Gift of the Christensen Fund. All textiles collection of Seattle Art Museum; photographs courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

 
 

Spend an hour wandering through the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s seductive exhibition of indigo-dyed textiles and you will understand why blue is just about everyone’s favorite color. From Japanese kimonos and bedding, to Nigerian garments, Flemish tapestries, Korean wrapping cloths, and a Guatemalan huipil, the brilliant, saturated blue achieved with indigo dye gives the textiles a richness and depth that are unimaginable in any other color.

      Take the large, sumptuous cotton cloth from Nigeria that shows an abstract pattern of full moons. The panel is a midnight sky of swirling moons, exuberant and wild even though, unlike many textiles in the show, it is monochromatic. The Nigerian artisan who made this piece seems to have been inspired by the same pulsating full moon that fascinated Vincent van Gogh. The dark indigo gives the cloth the look of an endless, cosmic night sky. More tranquil, and plusher, are the quilt-like yogi from nineteenth-century Japan. The thick cotton ‘kimonos’ were made as bedding rather than garments to be worn. The thought of sliding yourself underneath one for the night is delicious. The bedding kimonos are indigo though many are also decorated with imaginative scenes relating to dreams and sleeping. One especially charming scene shows hares leaping through frothing ocean waves. As a soporific, counting fat white rabbits leaping through a seascape is probably at least as effective as counting sheep—and far more magical.

JAPANESE COVERLET (detail) in kimono form (yogi), of cotton cloth with freehand paste-resist decoration (tsutsugaki). Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright.

      There are many antique kimonos in the show, most of them beautiful. An indigo-colored, nineteenth-century child’s kimono is decorated at mid-body with an ivoryand celadon design. Another kimono-shaped bedding quilt has light blue borders and a spectacular display of peach, orange and yellow fans across the back. As always when contemplating the beauty of antique kimonos of this caliber, it is striking how the long, boxy shape of this traditional garment is perfect for ornamentation. Like nearly everything in the exhibition, the kimonos come from the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection, which is particularly rich in Japanese and African textiles and artworks.

JAPANESE CHILD’S KIMONO of bast fiber (asa) cloth with freehand paste-resist decoration (tsutsugaki) and handpainted pigments and ink decoration, nineteenth century. Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright. JAPANESE SUMMER INFORMAL KIMONO (yukata) of cotton cloth with indigo dye (katazome), Taisho period, early twentieth century. Gift of the Christensen Fund. JAPANESE KIMONO of cotton cloth with indigo dye (shibori), Taisho period, early twentieth century. Gift of the Christensen Fund.

      Indigo dye has a fascinating history. Natural indigo comes from plants of the large Indigofera genus. The species used for indigo dye require tropical or sub tropical climates. They resemble basil plants and making dye involves drying the leaves then creating cakes of dye, a painstaking process. Indigo has always been grown in Asia, West Africa and parts of Central and South America. Europe lacks the climate to grow indigo successfully, so for centuries indigo dye came to Europe through trade with Asia and Africa. India was the first major producer and exporter of indigo, and it supplied the wealthy in ancient Greece and Rome. The name “indigo” is believed to be based on the ancient Greek word for India.

Indigo has always been valuable because it is the only reliable natural blue dye. After Europeans colonized North America and Caribbean Islands, indigo plantations on the islands and in South Carolina produced great wealth for their owners. Indigo was known as “blue gold.” Synthetic indigo was invented in the early twentieth century, and most jeans and other blue textiles today are made with synthetic indigo since it is cheaper to make and easier to work with. Unfortunately the exhibition offers almost none of this history, which would have been a welcome addition.

FLEMISH WOOL TAPESTRY OF ASIA by Jacob van der Borcht, late seventeenth century. Gift of the Hearst Foundation, Inc. 

      Among the most dramatic pieces are the three late seventeenth-century Flemish tapestries depicting allegorical scenes of the continents of Africa, Asia and America. At a square thirteen feet they are stunning and they are examples of indigo as the color of splendor and luxury in seventeenth-century Europe. In each tapestry the continent is represented by a woman who sits, queen-like, on a throne in what the Flemish tapestry designer presented as an idealized natural setting. In each tapestry the magnificent woman is surrounded by a cornucopia of plants, animals and rosy, cherub-like children. The visual clichés are amusing to our twenty-first-century sensibilities: Asia is shown with a camel and a fanciful pagoda in the background, for instance. But all the women wear blue clothing. Asia’s gracefully draping gown is a particularly deep, rich indigo—perhaps the designer’s homage to India as the traditional source of the dye.

Also of interest are the historic Japanese fire fighters’ suits. These remarkable mid-nineteenth-century outfits consist of pants, boots, gloves, short kimono, and full head and face covering, all made of thick indigo-dyed cotton. The entire outfit turns the firefighter into a superhero, which is what they were to the communities where they lived and worked. According to the exhibition notes, fire fighters put on these outfits, then soaked themselves—fully dressed—in water before entering burning buildings. Wrapped in thick, wet cotton, they were able to withstand the heat longer than they would have otherwise. Firefighters were important and much respected members of the community, and this was reflected in the indigo color of their protective uniforms.

BLOCKS QUILT by Annie Mae Young, 2003. General Acquisition Fund.

      Much of this handsomely installed exhibition focuses on textiles from Asia and Africa, but there are pieces to admire from the Americas. An early twentieth-century rug from the southwestern United States and a Guatemalan blanket of the same period are both designed to show off blue fibers. Both are classic examples of native weaving, with designs in indigo as the focal point. Another remarkable abstract composition is seen in a contemporary quilt by Anna Mae Young, one of the famous quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Her quilt suggests a Mondrian painting in which rich bands of indigo cloth play the starring role.

This exhibition will not travel. But if you are in Seattle before October, “Mood Indigo” is worth a visit. If the sun is out, the Seattle summer sky and the waters of the Puget Sound will be intensely blue. Our associations with the color blue, since it represents our natural world, are primal. “Mood Indigo” makes that crystal clear.

 
 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Robin Updike is a Seattle-based arts writer with a deep attachment to artist-made jewelry. As a former newspaper art critic she also has an interest in artists and the difficult choices they often face when it comes to their careers. For both reasons, she was pleased to have the opportunity to interview Julie Shaw, a jewelrymaker whose life as an artist is notable not only for the remarkable work she has made, but for the joyful, open-hearted way in which she has created a life wholly dedicated to art. In this issue Updike also reviews a handsome exhibition about indigo-dyed textiles at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The exhibition is a serene reminder of why blue is such a primal color for us all.

Chunghie Lee Volume 38.5

 

Chunghie Lee. Stillness and Motion

NO NAME WOMEN BOJAGI of silk screen printed on silk, 61 x 61 centimeters, 2005. Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. DREAM DURUMAGI of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, 2015. Model: Esther Kang.


The rippling of a sleeve with the gesture of a hand defies the weight of stasis that descends on garments when they lie on a table or against a wall. The contrast between motion and stillness in this opposition is central to Chunghie Lee’s art, not only as a consequence of materials and forms, but also as a means to a metaphor for the expanded perspective that this modern master of the bojagi technique has acquired from the lessons of life. She observes that the mind is a stultifying force when it is too self-assured, too rigid in its convictions to consider alternative perspectives. Over time, however, the mind’s defenses can begin to loosen under the influence of experience. “As I reach a more advanced age,” she explains, “I find that I am a lot less rigid seeing things. When I was young I thought that one perspective was best. At that time, making mistakes was something that I would not allow. Now I find that there is a great joy in discovery through mistakes. I am ready to embrace any situation, any perspective.”

      For Lee, one of the most consequential challenges to conventions of thought came in the 1980s when she returned to her alma mater, Hongik University in Seoul, to pursue graduate studies fourteen years after receiving her BFA. A major in weaving and dyeing, she produced some garments for family members merely as exercises in technique, but the works caught the eye of her adviser, who encouraged her to expand her horizons. “I said that I was not majoring in wearables or clothing,” she recalls, “but he pointed out that there was a lot of process in what I was doing creatively, and he thought that I could go in that direction. That was a little shocking to me, because back then my perspective was not as flexible as it might be now. In Korea there was rather rigid thinking at that time. Wearable art was not considered important. It wasn’t something that I could write about as an MFA student who was not majoring in clothing.”

NOVELTY LONGEVITY DURUMAGI of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, hand-embroidered goldfish provided by Cynthia Good, 2012 – 2014.
Photograph by Karen Phillippi.

     Foremost among Korean artists who would eventually dispel those biases, Lee aligned her explorations in the newly encountered territory of wearable art with research into a very old form of expression through textiles: the traditional craft of bojagi making. Similar to quilts without batting, bojagi were originally produced as wrapping cloths for Buddhist sutras and statues, but their long history is more often associated with the necessity of thrift. Dating back at least to the twelfth century, bojagi spread beyond temple and palace to become patchwork inhabitants of domestic spaces, in particular modest households. These everyday, or minbo, bojagi were pieced together from rectangles of salvaged cloth to serve primarily as food coverings: protection against flies in warm weather and insulators to retain the heat of cooked foods in winter.

For Lee, the visual appeal of bojagi—with their vivid geometric compositions that seemed to anticipate later nonobjective art by such modernist painters as Kandinsky and Delaunay—constituted only one of their attractions. Just as important were the associations of bojagi with generations of humble Korean women whose identities had long since dissipated into the obscurity of history and who had, moreover, passed largely anonymously even through their own times. The makers of historical bojagi lived under deeply engrained social strictures that discouraged self-assertion by women. “They were nameless,” Lee relates. “Back then people would have called me not Chunghie Lee but mother of my son’s name.” Consequently, the simple needlework of bojagi acquired for some women implications of psychological necessity: an affirmation of identity in the absence of more conventional means. Each colorful patch represented the freedom of choice, and the nonconformist asymmetry of compositions expressed personality. Each bojagi was in effect a signature stitched in cloth.

Although the bojagi created by nameless Korean woman in the past were composed from diverse bits of salvaged fabric—handwoven from hemp, often by the same woman who would later reclaim it—Lee generally relies on new silk, which she dyes and cuts into swatches. Much of this cloth is industrially manufactured, though some is handwoven. “That’s very expensive now,” she notes, “because the cost of labor is getting higher and higher. The cloth that I use is all new. It’s not recycled. I can’t get used ones. One of the problems is that in Korea there is a custom that when people die their children and other remaining family members gather the deceased person’s clothing and burn it. That’s why there is so little chance to preserve beautiful fabrics.”

DREAM DURUMAGI II of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, 2015. Model:  Esther Kang. Photograph by Chunghie Lee. CHUNGHIE LEE in front of Kyoungbok Palace, Seoul. Lee is wearing one of her 3-D bojagi sculptures as body ornament. Photograph by Chanhee Choi.

Those rare antique bojagi that have survived into the present have been tremendously influential on Lee’s sense of propriety in color-arrangement, especially her appreciation of an overall harmony built upon the complexity of local dissonance: a unity of composition that stems from contrasts, even clashing, of colors in various parts of the work. The early makers of bojagi may have been constrained by the need to recycle a mix of cloth swatches in various colors, but they turned this potential handicap into an obvious strength, exploring dynamic asymmetrical color compositions that continually amaze Lee. “I teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the foremost art schools in the USA,” she relates, “and those nameless women never had any formal education. But when I see their bojagi compositions I ask myself, ‘What am I, even with my art degree?’ I think that they were doing a better job with color.” While Lee’s deference to the color sense of her predecessors is characteristically modest, her own use of color, particularly her vibrant juxtapositions of complementaries, can be stunning.

The vibrational effects of complementary colors, an electric trembling to which the cones of the retina respond with intensity, serve as significant bridges between Lee’s compositions and an aspect of her work that the makers of antique bojagi did not address: movement through space. Not limiting herself to the format of the wrapping cloth, Lee has created much of her bojagi work in a contemporized form of the durumagi, the traditional long-sleeved Korean overcoat. While her durumagi—delicate, diaphanous garments of open-weave silk that filter light like gauze curtains—tend to be worn by their owners only on such special occasions as museum openings, they are conceived as kinetic sculptures. In the free space of human action, Lee’s durumagi are agents in the realization of an often serendipitous aesthetic: one that cannot be fully anticipated and controlled by the artist. This freedom, communicated through the motion of cloth, is both an acknowledgment of the social freedom in which the nameless makers of antique bojagi could not indulge and a reminder to Lee to maintain an open mind and accept the beauty of spontaneity and even accident in art and life alike.

Just as important as the metaphor for freedom from convention and predictability, however, is the less dramatic role that Lee’s durumagi play, flat against a wall, when not in use. Complementary to the ephemerality of motion that they exhibit when worn, this stillness spawns reflection on the structure of eternity: those principles and values that do not fade with time. Motion and stillness together mark the spectrum of engagement with the world, from the rational strategies of reflection, planning, and carefully controlled action to the more intuitive methods of immediate and decisive response to events as they occur. Both poles are embraced by the perspective that Lee has acquired on her journey through life, so both motion and stillness are essential to her art. “The same situation,” she observes, “can always be perceived in more than one way. I can see both sides now. It’s a result of learning more about the world.”

NO NAME WOMEN DURUMAGI of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, 2001-2004. Collection of the Fuller Craft Museum. Photograph by Karen Phillippi.

      The contrasting states of motion and stillness that complement one another in Lee’s durumagi are equally important to the aesthetics of her most recent forms: boxlike structures sewn from stiff patches of black, red and white fabric. Small enough to be worn as oversized brooches yet large enough to be considered diminutive sculptures, these box forms are intentionally designed to serve in both capacities. “When they’re placed somewhere, I hope near a window, they become miniature sculptures,” Lee explains, “but on the body they become pendants. They could also be neckpieces or brooches. When I have put them on the durumagi, the durumagi must be very simple. They can be hung on the wall together, or someone can wear them together. It’s a new interest and direction for me, and it’s not necessarily connected to a historical tradition. The cloth is made in a traditional way, but I am reinterpreting it.”

When Lee created the first of these new boxlike sculpture/ornaments, she had no particular precedents in mind, but later she recognized that they recalled a series of sculptures she had produced in 2004. Consisting of fabric cubes suspended from flexible-wire poles set into the ground, those forms were free to sway with the movement of the surrounding air, their impression of geometric predictability thus softened by the caprices of nature. Lee’s new sculpture/brooches carry forward this active relationship between predictability and spontaneity, but the meanings that she attaches to these traits are more carefully considered in the context of human action and attitudes. Her works, subtly and through the simplest of formal means, reflect her belief that emotional and intellectual growth occurs through a dialectic between deeply seated conventions of thought and behavior on the one hand and the momentary suspension of those conventions on the other.

DREAM RED JACKET WITH BLACK ORNAMENT of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, 2015. Model: Esther Kang. Photograph by Chunghie Lee.

      Lee references the human in her new sculpture/brooches through line—more specifically, red threads representing longevity that run within the bojagi construction and dangle freely from the boxlike forms. These threads of life are lines that, like the abstract lines in geometry, can be measured with precision through a logical, mathematical system that is not subject to error. At the same time, Lee’s threads flutter with the movement of a wearer, invoking spontaneity as a theme. In this respect, her works call to mind the mobiles of Alexander Calder—kinetic sculptures that the Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously described as reflecting the human condition as a constant negotiation between facticity and freedom. The lengths of Lee’s threads remain constant in terms of mathematical measurement, but their flexibility gives them an almost infinite freedom to change their curves: to wave, curl and bend as they interact with the surrounding environment, submit to the force of gravity, and act under the influence of energy transferred to them by a wearer’s motions.

For Lee, the implications of time and continuity conveyed by the threads carry personal significance as well. In the first place, they are reminders that her work forms part of a historical tradition in which the bojagi sewn by women of the Korean past are in spirit carried forward into a still-unfolding future of textile art. Lee’s deep sense of participation in this historical process accounts for her enthusiastic promotion of bojagi through workshops, exhibitions and other events. More important, it has manifested itself in a desire to share her knowledge and shape the future through teaching: a commitment that has become as central to Lee’s identity as her creative work as an artist. “I would like to think that I can offer not only information but also experience,” she explains. “I can give some real help if the student is ready to use it. So I am prepared to take the next step. I would like to start a small school for underprivileged young people that would teach students how to go out and make a living. It would start with teaching fabric techniques, but who knows how it would grow? It would give students the confidence to say ‘I can do this.’ ”

The urge to make this simple assertion—to overcome restrictive conventions on thought and action, confront stasis with motion and counter oppression with freedom —lies at the heart of Lee’s work as an artist. Through her success in reviving and enlivening the bojagi technique she has, in a sense, imparted identity to generations of her nameless predecessors. Her pedagogical goals make clear that her motive has never been solely to gain her own voice but rather to instruct by example. Lee’s works in the bojagi technique, in other words, are not mere means to a successful artistic career. In their dynamic of stillness and motion lies a message of universal significance.

Organized by Chunghie Lee, the biennial Korea Bojagi Forum meets August 30 – September 4, 2016 in Seoul, Korea. For more information, visit www.koreabojagiforum.com.

SUGGESTED READING
Benesh, Carolyn L. E. “2012 Korea Bojagi Forum.” Ornament, Vol. 35, No. 4: 14-15, 2012.
Benesh-Liu, Patrick R. “Patchwork Community: 2012 Korea Bojagi Forum.” Ornament, Vol. 36, No. 1: 10-13, 2012.
Flynn, Janine Vescelius. “Reinterpreting a Tradition: New Meaning in Korean Patchwork.” Surface Design Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2: 17-22, Fall 1999.
Lee, Eunsook. “An Interview with Chunghie Lee.” Surface Design Journal, Vol. 31,
No. 4: 40-45, Summer 2007.
Peck, Nancy. “Chunghie Lee: Ambassador of Korean Pojagi.” Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot, Vol. 34, No. 4: 53-57, Fall 2003.
Searle, Karen. “Chunghie Lee: The Pursuit of Dreams.” Ornament, 19, No. 4: 44-47, 1996.
Updike, Robin. “Bojagi Cloth, Color & Beyond by Chunghie Lee.” Ornament, Vol. 36, No. 3: 28-29, 2013.

 

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When Glen R. Brown, a professor of art history at Kansas State University, met with Chunghie Lee at the Rhode Island School of Design he was impressed by the optimistic spirit of her work and her commitment to sharing her experience with the bojagi technique through conferences, exhibitions and publications as well as teaching. “What I enjoyed most when I spoke with Chunghie,” he says, “was the passion that she showed for bojagi, not just as a technique to employ in her own work but also as a means of drawing people together.” Next issue of Ornament, Brown writes on the work of James Thurman and Umut Demirgüç Thurman.