Maps, Storytelling, and Textiles

“I quite like them when they’re dying. A bit droopy, you know?” – overheard at the Victoria and Albert Museum café, a conversation about houseplants. 

I took advantage of the cheap RyanAir flights in January to make a trip to London. Walking around the city from museum to coffeeshop to river to restaurant was rejuvenating and inspiring. The Victoria and Albert Museum, in particular, was a source for much of that inspiration and some needed reflection on some of the work I’ve been doing in the studio. I’ve been hand-sewing away on the ‘tablecloth’ and patiently waiting for some clarity about just what that object is: a record, a meditation, an incarnation of a domestic art object… Well, despite the reflecting, I’m still not ready to pigeonhole it into any specific category, and honestly, it’s significance probably lies in it’s ambiguity anyway. BUT I did find some kindred art objects at the V&A – or at least some amazing objects to which my work could only HOPE to be kin. They were so inspiring that I thought about them for DAYS after.

My first encounter was with The Tristan Quilt (bed cover; Sicily, Italy; ca. 1360-1400; Linen quilted and padded with cotton wadding with outlines in brown and white linen thread; maker(s) unknown).

Detail of the Tristan Quilt (I couldn’t find a good picture of the entire quilt, and alas, my own images from the museum have glares from the protective glass, but these details give you a sense of the characters, the story, AND the craftsmanship.) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This quilted bedcover depicts scenes from the story of Tristan and Iseult, a story which became very popular all over Europe during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. One thing that immediately struck me about this object is that it is ‘Celtic’ story illustrated on a ‘Sicilian’ bed spread. This got me thinking about how stories travelled far and wide in an age when information moved at the speed of human, horse, or boat.

I adore the fish and the quilted waves in this detail. I also like the variations among the figures – they seem like individual characters rather than a repeated formula. I’m convinced that you can only achieve that kind of specificity by hand. It’ something I also notice when I look at images of the Bayeux Tapestry. The relationship between the hand-sewing and drawing is unmistakeable. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I’ve done some digging into the origin of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde), and there seems to be some disagreement about just where this story originates. It is indeed similar to some Celtic legends, but it also resembles a Persian story about “Vis and Ramin.”

The story that became so popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was likely influenced by both the Celtic and Persian sources, and probably many others. I suspect that as the stories travelled, North and West from Persia and South and East from the British Isles, they evolved, with storytellers making changes to appeal to local audiences or combining them with similar local tales.

And it never stopped evolving. It has taken the forms of oral folk tale, poem, illuminated manuscript, decorative art (of which this quilt is one), opera, novel, illustration, film…

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other inspirations at the V&A were in the forms of textile-maps, like this painted cloth tapestry depicting a Jain pilgrimage site.

Shatrunjaya pata (Shatrunjaya pilgrimage painting); large painted cloth; Rajasthan, India (Gujarat or southern Rajasthan, made); ca. 1870-1900; maker(s) unknown, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This shawl was also on display, hanging on a wall like a tapestry.

Shawl (with a bird’s eye view of Srinagar); wool embroidered with woolen thread; Kashmir, India; third quarter of 19th century; maker(s) unknown © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Below is a detail. Again, I was stuck by the individuality of the figures: so much more like drawing than my preconceived notions about embroidery! These figures also remind me of the Bayeux Tapestry, and I think there is a storytelling aspect to these map textiles as well. The Bayeux Tapestry is a linear narrative of the events around the 1066 Norman Invasion of England that unfolds (unrolls) across the expanse of its linen substrate. These maps also contain narratives, but instead of being read linearly, they occur as vignettes attached to locations on the map.

Another common theme is people on boats! In the Bayeux Tapestry, the Tristan Quilt, and this Kashmir Shawl. Rivers and waterways were information highways. People, objects, stories, ideas travelled overland and on the water. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

After these incredible textiles, it feels anticlimactic or maybe arrogant to show images of my own work, but here are some recent in-progress photos of the ‘tablecloth’ (maybe aspiring to be a tapestry/pilgrimage map/story???)

It’s too big for the iPhone camera, so the edges are cropped. It’s about 4’x4′ now.

Some details (unfortunately, I’ve dropped my phone so many times that the camera doesn’t focus very well anymore…but hopefully this gives you a bit of an idea of some of the stitching.)

Until next time…

One thought on “Maps, Storytelling, and Textiles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s