Tag Archives: Textiles

Streets of North Adams

I found myself in the western Massachusetts city of North Adams on this past Saturday morning, having driven across the state to sit on a panel for an honors thesis defense at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts the day before. I love the Berkshires, but I must admit that if I’m driving out on Route 2 I generally drive right through North Adams to reach more pastoral destinations except for a few visits to Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, splendidly housed in an old textile/electrical factory in the city center. But as I woke up in North Adams (in a beautiful bedroom at Porches, quite literally in the shadow of Mass MoCA), I was determined to stay there and explore for a bit. So I set off on foot, armed only with my phone, which was loaded with a walking-tour app provided by Historic North Adams, a collaboration between MCLA’s History Department, the North Adams Public Library, and the North Adams Historical Society. After I got the downtown down, I headed up one of the city’s several hills to discover its houses.

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Judging from the simple house plaques that adorn many of North Adams’ eclectic Victorians, North Adams became a boomtown in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, with the Arnold Print Works (1862-1942) turning out textiles for a global market from its complex of mill buildings along the Hoosac River—later the home of Sprague Electric, and now Mass MoCa. The Hoosac Tunnel was completed in 1875 (at great cost of treasure and lives—its workers named it the “Bloody Pit”) making North Adams a railway gateway to the west. Walking the streets of the city, you can feel and see the expansion of that era through the architecture: every single structure seems to date from the 1870s and 1880s with nary a Colonial in sight. The sound of hammers must have been constant in this period, along with the smell of smoke. There were several larger Victorians in divided and dilapidated states, but it was also clear that preservation was at work in North Adams, and as our entire region was plunged into a prolonged period of gloomy rain last week, it was nice to be among more colorful houses. This is just a small sampling: I’ll need to go back!

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20190504_090957Some of the larger Victorians on Church Street (just above) need some help, but just up the hill is a lovely neighborhood of mostly-restored structures. Below: the Arnold Print Works produced a full line of textiles over their long history, but one of their popular products in the 1890s were these stuffed animal templates (examples below from the collections of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum & Cooper Hewitt): the finished products are very collectible and you can buy reproductions too (here are some Etsy examples). 

North Adams RISD North Adams 1892

North Adams Arnold Print Work Owl Cooper Hewitt

North Adams Cat


Fabricating Revere’s Ride

Because of his entrepreneurial engravings, his silverwork, portraits of him and by him, his storied ride, and his boundless brand, Paul Revere as always been the most material of our Founding Fathers: he didn’t just act, he produced, and after his legendary life was over he continued to be a focus and force of production. As we head into (a rather early) Patriots Day weekend, I am thinking about Revere, mostly in reference to Grant Wood’s 1931 painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, which supposedly aims to highlight the mythology overwhelming the event from the publication of Longfellow’s 1863 poem. The painting is so very accessible, however, that I fear that it simply reinforces Revere’s singular ride, or it has just become an aesthetic object: Wood himself transformed the image into a textile design (in which the rider gets lost in the landscape) for the Association of American Artists, and now you can even buy laminated placemats of it on Etsy! Revere the Midnight Rider was featured in a design by Anton Refregier in another “Pioneer Pathways” design, issued in several colorways by Riverdale Fabrics in 1952. A few decades earlier, Walter Mitschke also included Paul Revere’s ride in drawings for his “Early America” series of textile designs produced by R. Mallinson and Company.

Revere Wood

Reveres Ride of Paul Revere Textile

Revere the Rider Pioneer Pathways

Revere Red

Reveres Ride Mallinson

Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Textile designs by Grant Wood and Anton Refregier for the Association of American Artists, produced by Riverdale Fabrics as part of the “Pioneer Pathways” series, 1952, Cooper Hewitt Museum; Walter Mitschke’s drawings for the Mallinson Company, 1927, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

Obviously Paul Revere’s Ride is larger than the man himself in terms of its myriad representations in text, image, and fabric, but I think the most effective displays are those that were created close to home: Robert Reid’s 1904 mural in the State House, the iconic statue of Cyrus Dallin, the Paul Revere pottery produced by the Saturday Evening Girls Club, all those calendars issued by another institution with a founding- father-affiliation, the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. For a more updated presentation of the route rather than the ride, there is an exhibition of drawings by artist and illustrator Fred Lynch on view now at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in Lexington (which used to be called the National Heritage Museum) titled “Paul Revere’s Ride Revisited”.

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Reveres Ride Tile MFA

Revere Calendars

Robert Reid mural in the Massachusetts State House, 1904, Caproni Brothers plaster bas-relief sculpture, Skinner Auctions, Tile by Paul Revere Pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls Club, 1917 (decorated by Sara Galner), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 1889 & 1903 calendars by the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, Historic New England.


Allegorical Arrows

Historical imagery often contains symbols and emblems that we don’t understand:  we must learn to read them; whereas a contemporary audience could simply see them and understand the message within. I enjoy teasing out the meanings behind images from the past both here and in class–though here I’ve got a bit more creative freedom, and can chart the evolution of images all the way up to the present, when they have often lost their associations and exist simply as images. A great case in point (literally) is the simple and straightforward arrow: once I’ve swept away my seasonal decorations at home I’m often left with a bunch of arrows here and there as they are seasonless, timeless, and largely meaningless: I simply like their form. This is an Americana week for several auction houses, and yesterday as I was perusing the digital catalog for an important auction of folk art at Sotheby’s (The History of Now: The Important American Folk Art Collection of David Teiger|Sold to Benefit Teiger Foundation for the Support of Contemporary Art) all I could see was arrows, which for the most part had assumed their modern directional meaning on myriad weathervanes.

artful arrows horse weathervane

artful arrows diana the huntress sothebys

artful arrows soaring bird sothebys

artful arrows goddess of liberty sothebysPrancing Horse, Diana the Huntress, Soaring Bird, and the Goddess of Liberty weathervanes from the Teiger collection, Sotheby’s.

Another lot in this same auction is an incredible later nineteenth-century Chinese wall plaque representing the Great Seal of the United States, with the emblazoned bald eagle clutching a cluster of arrows in his left talon—thirteen to be exact, representing the thirteen colonies, but also strength through unity. There is an explicit sense of martial strength on display as well, projected through the contrast with the olive branch in the eagle’s right talon. The Great Seal’s designer, Charles Thompson, was influenced in his use of arrows by other confederations such as the Iroquois (with their five nations) and the Dutch Republic (with its seven provinces) as well as by early modern emblem books such as Joachim Camerarius’s Symbola et Emblemata (1590-1604), merely substituting them for the more classical lightening bolts.

artful arrows chinese eagle sotheby's folk art auction 20 jan

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arrows symbols 16th c.The Chinese Great Seal and Charles Thompson’s original sketch, US National Archives; Joachim Camerarius, Symbola et Emblemata.

Emblem books are one of the rabbit holes of early modern literature, as you will see if you go here: but you can also find many arrows, representing not only military force, but also time and inevitable mortality, flight, children (Psalm 127), punishment, and of course love, when in one of the countless cupids’ bows. Medieval arrows are never ambiguous: they represent force and violent death in general, and martyrdom in particular. Saint Sebastian (died 288) and King Edmund the Martyr (d. 869) were both attacked by hordes of pagan/heathen archers, and so often depicted as shot so full of arrows they resemble porcupines; arrows remained their essential attributes as their cults developed over the medieval era. In the later medieval era, Sebastian re-emerged as the most popular plague saint, as the arrow came to symbolize the plague itself: the most dramatic expression of this motif is a fourteenth-century fresco on the wall of the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint-André-de-Lavauadieu in France, depicting a faceless woman armed with the arrows of plague and her pierced victims all around her.

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arrows of black death

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Some early modern arrow emblems: “Ich fliehe sehr schnell”– Fly far and fast; “Vis nescia vinci”–force cannot be overcome with force; “Supplicio laus tuta semel”—he that was worthy of praise was one free from punishment; Cupid holds up the world: “Sublato Amore Omnia Ruunt“–When Love is Removed, All things tumble down; the Lavaudieu fresco, and a street sign in Bury St. Edmunds, bearing the three arrow-crossed crowns that have come to symbolize the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund the Martyr.

Back to the future: I guess arrows are just arrows, or mundane symbols telling us where to go, BUT who knew there was a hidden arrow in the FedEx logo? Not me.

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Mid-century textile design by Tommi Parzinger, Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

 


Presidential Fabric

I always commemorate Presidents Day by remembering all (or many) of our presidents rather than just Washington and Lincoln: different themes each year have yielded interesting perspectives on both the institution and the individuals. This year, for instance, as I looked through several archives of textiles associated with presidential campaigns and commemoration, I was surprised to ascertain a certain focus on William Henry Harrison, not really one of our more notable presidents as he died only a month after swearing his oath. Not being an American historian, I was not aware of the coordinated tactics of the 1840 “Log Cabin Campaign” of Whig candidates Harrison and John Tyler, involving popular symbols (the log cabin and whiskey barrel), slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”) and silk banners, which dislodged incumbent Martin van Buren. The bulk of Presidential textiles are banners, ribbons, handkerchiefs and bandanas (along with flags, of course), but I also sought out bolts of fabric which could encourage campaign creativity on the part of the constituency, and which likely ended up in quilts in the nineteenth century and on all sorts of creations in the twentieth–when first Teddy Roosevelt and then Dwight Eisenhower dominated textile tactics. In the 1950s, I believe that you could dress yourself exclusively in “I like Ike” garments: I found hats, socks, dresses, underwear, and all manner of accessories for men, women and children so embellished.

Presidential Prints 11 Jackson Cornell

Pres Fab collage

Millard Fillmore Fabric

Presidential Prints 5 Cornell Grant

Presidential Prints 6 Cornell

Presidential Prints 3 Cornell

Presidential Prints TR Cornell

Presidential Prints Next President 10_Theodore Roosevelt Pillow Cover_web GWU

Calvin Coolidge Fabric

Presidential Prints Cornell 4

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All fabrics (Jackson, Harrison in three colorways, Grant, Cleveland fabric and bandana, TR bandana, and Eisenhower items) from Cornell University’s Collection of Political Memorabilia, except the TR pillow cover (from 1906–commemorating the signing of the Treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War, from the George Washington University/Textile Museum exhibition entitled Your Next President . .. ! The Campaign Art of Mark and Rosalind Shenkman) and the Millard Fillmore and Calvin Coolidge “swatches”, which I created myself via Spoonflower.


Busy Bees

I know that bees are experiencing some serious challenges at the moment, but it seems to me that there are much more of them out there than in previous summers—at least in our region. I’ve encountered mini-swarms on rural walks in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts over the past month, it seems like individual bees have been buzzing around my garden constantly since July, and just the other day I saw hundreds of bees affixed to the sunflowers in the large patch at Colby Farm up in Newbury: neither bees nor people can resist this flagrant perennial display!

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Bee Sunflowers Closeup

I went into my clip file—comprised of very random digital images which I find interesting or attractive and store away for whenever or whatever (other people seem to use Pinterest this way but I just don’t)–and found several bee images there that I had clipped or snipped over the last few months: books, ephemera, creations. So clearly I’ve had bees on the brain: maybe because I decided to forego sugar over the summer and thus became more intensely focused on honey. In any case, this seems like a good time to get these images out there–Thomas Tusser suggests that the ongoing process of “preserving” bees demands a bit more human attention in September in his classic agricultural manual Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573):  Place hive in good air, set southly and warm, and take in due season wax, honey, and swarm. Set hive on a plank (not too low by the ground) where herbs and flowers may compass it round: and boards to defend it from north and northeast, from showers and rubbish, from vermin and beast. Tusser is one of many British and continental authors writing about bees and beekeeping in the sixteenth century, and over the succeeding centuries this sub-genre continued to flourish, right up to the wildly-popular Beekeeper’s Bible. I’ve written about bee books before, but my favorite recent discovery is Samuel Bagster’s Management of Bees, with a description of the Ladies’ Safety Hive (1834). Bagster has a very entrepreneurial attitude towards bees, and is striving to transform their keeping into a feminine avocation with his promotion of the “Ladies Safety Hive”: they can be built at home or delivered by Bagster, fully-equipped.

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Bees Bagster

My apian ephemera is focused less on the bees than their hives: which of course serve as an accessible symbol of industry and by extension, achievement. The most prominent uses of beehive symbolism on Salem ephemera that I have found were issued by the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association (which it clearly borrowed from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, or vice-versa) and Frank Cousins’ many trade cards advertising his Bee-Hive store but there is also an early trade card for the Salem goldsmith and jeweler Robert Brookhouse which features the very Salemesque combination of hive and ship. I discovered a completely new type of ephemera this summer–watch papers–of which there is an interesting collection at the American Antiquarian Society, including several embellished with beehives.

Bee Certificate

Bee Hive MA Charitable HNE

Trade Card beehive

Bee Brookhouse

Bee Hive Watch Paper AAS

Ephemeral beehives: Phillips Library (printed in EIHC Volume 113); Historic New England; and courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Another discovery of this fading summer are the amazing textile creations of Mister Finch, which you must see for yourself. His bee is among the more realistic of his species–check out his website for more surrealistic creatures. And then there is Tamworth Distilling, to which I returned several times, which manufactures several varieties of botanical gins, including the Apiary Gin pictured below. To be honest, this was a bit too honey-based for me: gin is my favorite spirit and I tend to be a London Dry traditionalist. But I love the bottle, of course (and their cordials).

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Bee Gin

Mister Finch Bee and Tamworth Distilling Apiary Gin.


Flame-Stitch

For antiques aficionados, August is all about Americana auctions (couldn’t resist all the alliteration!) and there are always Salem pieces to discover. Among the lots of Skinner’s upcoming Americana auction, a late eighteenth-century pole fire screen captured my attention immediately, not just because it was made in Salem, but also because of its flame-stitch embroidery. Flame-stitch is one of my favorite perennial patterns, characterized by its durability and adaptability: it spans the ages (from at least the Renaissance) and can be easily adapted by time and place. It’s somewhat obscure origins–according to the curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is a technique also sometimes known as Irish stitch, Hungarian stitch, Florentine stitch and bargello stitch, the variety of names indicating the uncertainty of its origins–perhaps explains its mutability. It is one of those patterns that can appear both “antique” and “modern”: flame-stitch cushions, in particular, seem timeless.

Flame-stitch Pole Screen Skinner

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Flamestitch garden pillow

Mahogany pole screen, late 18th century, Skinner Auctions/ Flame-stitch pincushion, late 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum/ Flame-stitch “Jasper” pillow, Jayson Home/ 18th century flame-stitched pillow, 1stdibs/ a faux flame-stitch pillow in my backyard.

In its modern incarnations, flame-stitch doesn’t necessarily need to be a stitch: the zig-zag, chevron pattern seems to be sufficient for the more general identification. No needle required, pattern without technique. The vibrant contrasting colors of flame-stitch fabrics past have also given way to more tone-on-tone variations of the present. I’ve always wanted to upholstery one of my couches in a flame-stitch fabric, and I must admit that both the Federal-era embroidered version (on the left) and the more contemporary variation (on the right) both appeal to me (although I really love the 18th-century embroidery fabric from a Newport-made slip seat–which might have originated as a pocketbook–AND the early 19th-century French and Lee Jofa chartreuse fabrics below).

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Flame-stitch Winterthur

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Flamestitch Lee Jofa

American Country Federal Sofa, Northeast Auctions/ Southwood Mahogany Flame-Stitch Sofa, Chairish/ 18th-century slip seat upholstery, Winterthur Museum Collections/ Woven early 19th century French flame-stitch panel, 1stdibs/ Lee Jofa watersedge fabric.

Two historic flame-stitch items that often pop up at auctions are men’s pocketbooks or “wallets” and stools. An extraordinary example of the former is included in the upcoming Skinner auction: a later eighteenth-century Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American servants, or slaves, well-dressed but definitely in service. This was featured on Antiques Roadshow a while ago, and so I was not surprised to see it come up for auction (with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000). There are so many (somewhat less singular) examples in museum collections and auction archives that I imagine every late eighteenth-century man walking around with a flame-stitch wallet! For women, there were flame-stitch embroidered shoes, from earlier in the century. Obviously there are endless variations of both the historic technique and the modern pattern, but I think the form that captures the cherished quality of flame-stitch best are bible and book covers, which were also produced in great quantity in the eighteenth century.

Flamestitch wallet collage

Flame-stitch pocketbook bonhams

Flame-stitch purse CH

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FS stool collage

Flamestitch Book Cover PMA

Rare flame-stitch Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American figures, Skinner Auctions/ American silver-mounted pocketbook inscribed “Thomas Stubbs”, 1798, Bonhams Auctions/ Flame-stitch pocketbook, late 18th century, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of Mrs. Rollin Stickle/ Flame-stitch Latchet Shoes, c. 1700-1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Early 18th century French fruitwood stool, Bonhams Auctions/ Folk art painted stool with flame-stitch seat, Northeast Auctions/ Pair of mid-century modern flame-stitch benches, 1stdibs/ Bible cover, 18th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Fiddleheads in the Forest

We walked through the Salem Woods on this past Saturday and saw fiddleheads along the trail, the prelude to a carpet of ferns. I am embarrassed to admit that I reached this relatively advanced age without realizing that fiddleheads are in fact only a stage of a plant’s development rather than a completely independent full-grown plant. I know of course that nascent ferns (principally Ostrich and Cinnamon in our region) look like fiddleheads, but I thought that fiddleheads were another plant altogether! This was the weekend’s big revelation. I seem to have false childhood memories about fiddleheads too: my mother loved them and loved to cook them, and I have a hazy memory of bowls of buttered fiddleheads all summer long, but that can’t be true, as there are only a few months (chiefly April and May) when they are available. I’ve never been a big fan of fiddleheads on the table, but I like the motif, and I currently have a subtle fiddlehead pattern on my back-parlor couch—I found several artists who were inspired its signature curved form. For this May Day, fiddleheads seem like a very appropriate plant—or frond—to spotlight.

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Fiddleheads SW

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Fiddleheads Forest

Fiddleheads in flesh in the Salem Woods above, and on fabric below, on my couch and on screen-printed silk fabric by Georgina von Etzdorf, 1991, Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Fiddlehead fabric 

Fiddlehead 1991


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