Kirk Keshishian and John Howe on “Repurposed Textiles,” Part 1, the Lecture
On December 1, 2012, Kirk Keshishian,
and John Howe (that’s me),
gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program, at The Textile Museum, here in Washington, D.C., on “Repurposed Textiles.”
Kirk is the older son of Harold Keshishian, for whom the RTAM programs are now named. He is a 2007 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a B.A. in economics and classics.
He currently serves as the senior analyst for a financial services firm in Bethesda, Md.
Born and raised here in Washington, Kirk became interested in textiles at an early age. He attended numerous rug mornings with his father, since he was a child, and has served on the Textile Museum Advisory Council since 2009.
Kirk’s other interests include backgammon, mathematics, economics, and cooking.
Most readers will know that I am a collector, who lives within walking distance of the TM, and who “haunts” these programs, sometimes from the front of the room.
During my work years, I was an instructional designer in private business, government and academia. I retired in 2003.
I been a collector for over 20 years and am a member of the TM’s Advisory Council. I write and publish two internet blogs that treat textiles: 1) Textiles and Text (the one you are reading), devoted to providing virtual versions of some of The Textile Museum’s RTAM sessions to a larger audience, and 2) Eccentric Wefts, where I hold forth on aspects of the textile world that catch my eye. I am active in the local rug club and, with Mark Keshishian (Kirk’s cousin), recently designed and conducted a workshop for it on “handle.” I have presented more, previous, RTAM programs, than my level of knowledge and experience warrants. But I do have a keen, continuing interest in textiles. I try, always, to focus on the enjoyments that textile collecting affords.
My wife Jo Ann and I live in a one-bedroom condo, populated by one champion collie dog, hundreds of collie artifacts (Jo Ann collects in this area), and way too many rugs and textiles.
During parts of 2011 and 2012, The Textile Museum had an exhibition, Second Lives, on recycled textiles. You can still see a glimpse of it on the TM’s web site using this link:
The material in this exhibition was often opulent and rare, and, when it was up, I wondered whether it might not be useful to prepare an RTAM program on more accessible repurposed textiles, items more like those that might be found in our own collections.
I mentioned my idea to another experienced collector, who said, “But what could you say? After you indicate that they’re “repurposed, there seems little else.”
He did have a point. An array of additional things one might say, usefully, did not immediately suggest themselves.
But, at bottom, I disagreed.
Courtesy of The New Yorker
might be wider than our initial sense of them suggests.
The program Kirk and I presented was composed of the two most usual RTAM components: first, a lecture (which you are about to begin to read), and, then, a show and tell of pieces brought in.
This latter is treated in a separate, Part 2 post that you can find at this internet address:
In our lecture, we “passed the baton” back and forth, so to speak.
One of the first things we might consider is “why do people repurpose textiles?” What is its “logic,” so to speak.
An initial set of reasons seem reflective of general tendencies toward frugality. The Japanese have a category of textiles called “boro,” which means “rags.”
“Boro” items are made originally by sewing together such things as remnants of old clothing. Boro items look to be made from patches, but are “patched” further as they become worn.
There are large “boro” items, like futon covers, but some instances are quite small, like this rice bag.
A second seeming frequent reason for repurposing is the need for inexpensive weaving materials.
It has been known, nearly world-wide, and for a long time, that various worn-out and cast-off textile items can be woven into “rag” rugs. We are going to see that there are rag rugs in the U.S. and Scandinavia and Japan and Morocco and, in fact, it might be easier to attempt to identify what places in the world have not resorted to them.
Meanwhile, this is the sort of thing you will see frequently in antique shops or flea markets.
Third, repurposing occurs because folks find a particular application of a textile outside the context of its traditional use, interesting, attractive, useful or economically advantageous.
This is a big category and we will examine some of its components.
Here is just one example. At ICOC XII in Stockholm, there was a dealer with two antique chairs upholstered with materials that were originally parts of Turkmen bag faces.
He said that he had six, with a matching table.
From another perspective, we could ask “what is the nature of a given repurposing?”
The most frequent and, perhaps, fundamental, kind of repurposing is something we don’t really think of as one. It is when we “collect” a textile, or worse, place it in a museum.
No longer does it, nor can it, serve its original purpose(s). We have, in one move, sundered it from the context of its creation. Joseph Alsop argues that the fine arts items we now “admire for themselves” rather than for any purpose, were all originally made to serve a purpose, be it conveying of a religious setting, or as “decoration” in a Renaissance palace or Greek public building.
So, when we “collect” a textile, we force it into the “art for itself alone” category. A fundamental repurposing.
Let me illustrate this point with two other pieces: first a Dida tube skirt from the Ivory Coast.
It is couched onto a backing and hangs on one of my walls, entirely separated from being worn at one of the “prestige” occasions for which it was created.It is now a modest work of “art.”
A second piece makes this point in a somewhat less emphatic way.
This, most will know, is a fragment of a Central Asian silk ikat panel. It was , likely, once part of a coat, which it cannot hope to be again. It has been repurposed, initially, by being fragmented. But then, more permanently, as the result of being collected.
The more usual kinds of repurposing we see include:
Textiles woven, or otherwise produced, using materials taken from other textiles.
There are textiles , sometimes only fragments of textiles, used as covering of various sorts.
We’ve already seen one upholstery use, but some pillow coverings were not originally made for that purpose, and are one of the most frequent instances of repurposing.
Textile fragments assembled to resemble other formats. Coptic clothing or Greek Island embroidery fragments assembled to look like rugs or other formats. A particular textile made by cutting down a larger textile from another format.
Some salt bags are made this way. (Warning: Some textiles that may seem “constructed” in this way are not.)
Resizing. Cutting down or supplementing a textile so that if fits a particular space or a different person. (Perhaps a marginal case, since the basic purpose is unchanged.)
Let’s examine some of these kinds of repurposing more closely.
First, “Rugs woven or otherwise produced using materials taken from other textiles.”
We mentioned rag rugs, above. Let’s do them first.
There are at least two different types of the “rag rugs” that are important components of this category.
The most common type is flat-woven in a weft-faced plain weave. Here are two examples of this type.
The one below is Swedish.
The detail, below, you have seen above, and is from a runner woven in the U.S.
Here are a two more rag rugsfrom Sweden.
Rag rugs have been woven for a long time and in many of parts of the U.S.
Here is a 19th century example.
And it’s still going on…vigorously.
There is an internet site you can find called “Rug Talk,” almost entirely devoted to the discussion of problems and techniques by folks actively weaving rag rugs. They are serious about their focus. If you try to talk about anything except actually weaving rugs, they will throw you out. Peter Collingwood, the late, famous English weaver, used to join their conversations.
The Amish frequently wove rag rugs. Here is an Amish example.
The colors look somewhat different in the closer detail, below, but this is the same rug.
I mentioned, early, that the Japanese wove rag rugs. I only have one example, but it’s a formidable one.
This large, pieced rug was used as a bed cover.
I mentioned earlier that most rag rugs are flat woven and made with a weft-faced weave.
But not always.
Here is one flat woven rag rug that is warp-faced, a more difficulty and limiting structure.
There is another kind of rag rug that has rather recently emerged in Morocco. As settling occurred and traditional materials, especially sheep’s wool and goat hair became less available, Moroccan weavers have moved to other materials. These Moroccan rag rugs are called “Boucherouite,” (from scraps of material)
and are made from a variety of “non-animal materials , such as old clothes cut up in strips, synthetic fibers, Lurex, nylon and plastic.” The designs, only sometimes, echo the traditional, and the colors are often vibrant.
Despite having been woven in numbers only since the early 1990s, these rugs have already earned their first Hali article (in Issue 162) and several exhibitions.
In the U.S., hooked rugs seem to originate in the mid-19th century. Despite the fact that they could be sophisticated and opulent, they were known as “poor man’s” rugs.
The rug on the below is a 19th century rug of this more sophisticated type (notice the “3D” effects in the drawing of its field). A poor man could no longer afford it.
Sometimes, the designs in hooked rugs seem nearly a matter of chance. Color is used, but, mostly not to any real design purpose. This practice is a mark of economy. Any color can be used anywhere without worry. So no strip of hooking material is wasted. Only the narrow black strips in this rug need to be of a given color This is a hooked rug I bought in the local flea market.
It may be older, but I do not know that. It IS, though, made in a way that older “poor man’s” rugs were often made, largely, without design.
The need for borders point to a need, even with impoverished hooked rug makers for materials of a single color, for use in such borders and in background areas around specific designs.
This need, in turn, has called for strategies for producing a single shade from a series of materials to be used in hooking from a variety of colors.
One morning, looking around the internet for something else, I ran into some rug hookers, who acquainted me with a new term “marrying the coats.” Here’s their description of what that is in their own words:
“We rughookers call overdyeing fabrics without using any dyes at all – just using the ‘bleeding’ from one fabric color into another - the marrying of the coats. While I am sure no one knows how the name came about, people used the technique to make varying colors of black, navy, wine etc. to meld together in a hooked mat especially for a background. One article of clothing was not large enough to complete the project so they put enough fabric together in a pot and simmered it on the back of the wood stove until the colors ran into each other. Usually, that is not what we want for our usual laundry, but for rughooking it’s ingenious…. using what we have without buying a thing.”
There are also the terms “marrying the colors,” stewing,” and even “marbling,”
(the latter has features of “tie-dye” in its process).
In each case, the process is approximately the same.
First, one selects the items to be used. Some pay no attention to the various colors in the pieces, but in most versions, items are combined that have, say , “complementary” colors, or “analogous” ones together.The items selected are put into a large container to which water is added. Then heat is applied to the container so that some of the dyes in the pieces are loosened and begin to color the water (if wool, actual boiling is avoided to prevent felting). The mix is “simmered” until goodly amounts of dye have been loosened and mixed together, re-coloring the items. Then vinegar is added to help set the dye as the temperature is reduced.Drying is usually done in a dryer, with a softener sheet added The result is a quantity of hooking material with the same basic color.
Designs of hooked rugs, since the process is digital, can be anything.
There are floral designs.
Animals are popular. One variation is the “animal-tree,” a design with deep historical roots.
Hooked rug type fabrics are employed for a variety of purposes. Room-sized and scatter rugs, and pillow faces were hooked.
Even the, historically, controversial ,“carpet bag” was often a hooked rug fabric.
It might be tempting to think that finer hooked rugs are more likely to have been made from yarn, rather than from cut-up textiles of with previous textile lives. Not so. At least, not historically. “Grenfell” hooked rugs are among the finer sort and were made from cut up women’s silk stockings and other underclothing.
This is my favorite Grenfell from Paula Laverty’s nice book.
Let’s end our look at this large category of repurposed textile with this unusual hooked rug. The dealer, on whose site I found it, indicates that it is unique in her own considerable experience.
I am a sucker for compartmented designs.
One further instance of our category “Textiles woven, or otherwise produced, using materials taken from other textiles, is textiles made from raveling other textiles.
Some Navajo weavings were woven, in part, from raveled cloth. Early, the Spanish “bayeta” cloth they raveled was fine, worsted wool, 100 threads per inch. Later kinds of bayeta were from “Germantown” (a mill near Philadelphia) and included synthetic dyes.
As we have considered our first category of “repurposed textiles, “Textiles woven, or otherwise produced, using materials taken from other textiles,” it is not surprising that the first two occupants of it that came to mind were rag rugs and hooked rugs.
But if we think about repurposed textiles that seem clearly to reflect a general urge toward economy, it would be difficult to exceed that visible in the group of Japanese textiles called “boro.”
“Boro,” is a Japanese word the literal meaning of which is “tattered rags.” But the term “boro,” is also used to describe patched and repaired bedding, clothing and some utilitarian bags, for example,
Items of boro are not only made by sewing together pieces of textiles, originally, part of something else.
When the pieced items become worn, the patches are, themselves, unembarrassedly, patched.
Boro is made in a number of formats. Futon covers are frequent.
Coats and jackets are also made in the boro mode. Here is the front of one.
And here is its back.
Smaller formats, like rice bags, are also made in the boro mode. This is the level of boro that I have been able, personally, to afford. Rice bags can be quite small.
My own example is about 11 inches square when flattened out.
As you have seen, blues, grays, and some mild whites dominate boro coloring.
I have found one, predominantly white, boro coat, but it seems more recent.
While researching boro, I came onto “Zokins,” traditional Japanese multi-layered cleaning cloths.
“Zokins have been used for centuries in Japanese homes, temples and schools to hand clean wooden
floors and tatami mats. Zokins are made from layered pieces of old fabric held together with“sashiko”stitching. They were boro-patched, regularly, as holes appeared, reused again and again.”
I suppose that “zokins” could be considered a kind of boro, but an experienced Japanese textile collector told me that it makes no difference, in this case, since this example is not “collectible.”
So, if you want a challenge, look for zokins that are worthy of collection.
As I was completing my work on boro, Jeff Krauss, the serious Japanese textile collector, wrote me about another instance of Japanese textile repurposing.He wrote:
Did I ever tell you about my collection of Nagajubans (under-kimonos) made from
previous year sample bolts?
Each year the kimono fabric salesman would go around to the kimono shops with sample bolts showing the patterns that were in style for that year. The following year, new patterns were created,
so some of last year’s sample bolts were cut up and made into nagajubans. They look like patchwork but they are continuous lengths of fabric with one pattern after the next.
The piece below is such a naganjuban, made from such sample bolts.
Here is another.
Kirk took us into our second category of repurposed textiles:
Textiles , sometimes only fragments of textiles, used as coverings of various sorts.
He said: “Perhaps the largest number of objects that fall into this category are pillow coverings, not originally made for that purpose.”
We exclude from our “pillows” group those, like yastiks,
or Baluch balishts,
that were originally made for that purpose.
Here are some pillows made from textiles that were originally something else.
Here is a pillow made from part of a quilt with the difficult “cathedral window” pattern.
Quilts of this design, you can see, COULD, in turn, be made from material taken from old clothes, although they are often made from store-bought material.
This large pillow was made from a full width of an interesting NW Persian rug.
Here are two pillows made from flat woven materials from other 19th century formats. The one on the left is Anatolian: a Sivas cicim weave, wool and cotton, with brocading.
Courtesy of Marla Mallett
The one on the right is Kazak from Azerbaijan, wool in slit tapestry.
The pillow, below, is from the fragment of a Tekke Turkman main carpet.
Its maker shaped this pillow to make sure its designs were restricted to one part of the field of a Caucasian rug.
In 1980, Pinner and Franses edited a self-consciously serious piece of rug literature, “Turkoman Studies I. But contained in it are a few articles of a lighter sort. One of these is by G. Lownds, and is titled “The Turkoman Carpet as a Furnishing Fabric.”This is a broader version of the second category in our initial outline of kinds of repurposed textiles, which is:
Textiles, sometimes only fragments of textiles, used as coverings of various sorts.
Lownds admits that he does not know how long it’s been going on, but does know that it’s been for a very long time.
Here are two chairs which have been covered with 16th century carpet materials of recognizable designs.
The first is covered with a Lotto rug;
the one on the right with a “Holbein.”
In a recent issue of Hali, a similar chair was offered for sale.
Its description was: Flemish tapestry, 17th centuryon Renaissance revival chairframe.
Lownds also provides an illustration of a view of a room in which Turkmen weavings have been used for particular furnishing purposes.
I’m going to show you a few more chairs upholstered with a variety of traditional textiles not originally woven for that use.
But first, one more Turkman example:
a settee covered with material from a Tekke main carpet, with pillows made from Tekke bag faces.
Here are some more chairs covered with a variety of antique textiles. The first example, below, is upholstered with an Indian, Robari wedding shawl material.
Below you can see what such an embroidered shawl looks like before this application of it.
The next example is done in a spectacularly colored and designed Uzbek suzani embroidery.
A third chair upholstery example is plural, and takes us back to Japanese “boro” materials.
The chair below is upholstered with a Bangladesh textile that is pieced very much like Japanese boro. It is called “kantha.”
Kantha (pronounced kahn-ta), whose name is derived from Sanskrit word for rags, is the original recycling art.
Traditionally, old, well-worn saris were layered together and quilted using colored threads from the sari borders, to make warm, kantha blankets or clothing.
Hali, 174, that just arrived, as we are publishing, includes in its auction reports a pair of “verni covered armchairs.” Hali admired the color and the quality of the upholstering. The pair sold for over $22,000, so someone else liked them, too.
And, Kirk said,
John, reports, that he has done it himself.
This is his favorite reading chair done in materials taken from a Caucasian rug. He said that it gets admired even by experienced textile collectors.
John also has a small footstool, upholstered to match his chair.
This stool is a double example of repurposing.
Inside, it has a horse-hair center, but its undulating edge is produced by placing tin cans around this core. In some ages, nothing got thrown away, not even some of the tin cans.
Sometimes the “covering” is more casual, as in the case of this strip of Tekke main carpet, converted to serve as a table runner.
The next category, Kirk said,
in our “kinds of repurposing” outline is:
Textile fragments assembled to resemble other formats.
The most impressive example we have encountered is this Czar’s throne coverlet,
composed of pieces of two different Persian embroideries.
It came into the Russian Czar’s possession in 1582, but is much older. (from Daniel Walker article in Hali, 161)
Greek embroideries have also, famously, been assembled to convert “fragments” into sale-able formats, like this piece, a little over 2 feet square.
Here is a little closer look at this textile which has been assembled from the embroidery trim on fragments of old Greek tunics and costumes.
In 1982 , in a TM publication on Greek embroidery, Kirk said,
My father, Harold Keshishian,
wrote: “…the Greek peasant kept all fragments of embroidery from old tunics and costumes” and sensing demand “capitalized” (ed.) on it and “skillfully fabricated these fragments into so-called Greek Island embroidery” (ed. he references the one we saw in black and white above).
Here is another similar one. Again, put together from smaller pieces.
Despite being constructed, some of these Greek embroideries were bought, knowingly, by experienced collectors.
They are, after all, comprised of pieces of 19th, sometimes 18th century, Greek embroidery.
My father, Kirk said, owned a large one, with a niche design. It hung sometimes in the hallway of our home.
Here is a poor photo of it, taken there, during a holiday party.
The next piece is a complete, constructed khorjin set that John thinks may have been put together to deceive. Here is its front.
And here is its back (the back is pretty obvious, but might fool a novice).
Fragments of quite different textiles have been combined to create this “khorjin” set. John found it a couple of years ago, in an antique shop in Pennsylvania, and bought it, inexpensively, as a teaching example.
Ten fragments have been put together to create a “complete” khojin set that might fool someone.
John has another entirely constructed bag, given to him by a dealer friend.
This time we don’t think anyone was trying to fool anyone; and they did manage to pick some old fragments for their combination.
That is, if you like a Yomut tent band front,
and a jajim back.
John handled our last constructed example,
because it requires a preliminary story from his experience.
‘My wife used to breed and show collie dogs and we’ve spent a lot of time, over the years, at dog shows.
One morning at one I was seated near an elderly woman who was a distinguished judge.
Soon a young man come in with a group of seeming acolytes to whom he was holding forth about the merits and faults of the dogs in the ring.
After awhile the acolytes left, and the old lady judge said “Young man, to like dog in spite of its faults, is understandable. But to like a dog because of its faults suggests that re-education is in order.”
It is usually thought that a constructed piece is inferior to one that is not, but I bought the next piece BECAUSE it was constructed, and following the old judge’s point, this seems to suggest that I need re-education, something may be the case regardless of how my tale here turns out.
Here is the piece.
It’s Coptic and, easily, the oldest textile I own. Estimated 5th to 7th century. It’s composed of pieces of decoration taken from Coptic garments.
This is the kind of Coptic tunic on which these pieces occurred.
One description of such tunics indicates that: Such Coptic tunics “often have stylized humans or animals and geometric designs, such as octagons or interlacing near their hem or running their entire length.”
These are the ways in which these kinds of decorated bands and areas were arrayed on Coptic textiles.
My piece has an interesting dense central medallion with four outlying ones. I’ve looked for representational indications in these dense devices, but haven’t found any.
Its main border has a, nicely, spacious “bird” design, with more medallions in its corners.
So you see, the old lady judge was talking about me.
I have bought a piece and like it, mostly, because of what is widely seen as a “fault”: It is constructed.
Here’s how badly I apparently need re-education. I understand the judge’s point, and agree with it, in general, but like this piece, anyway, for the wrong reason.
Kirk went on with the fourth item on our initial tabulation of kinds of repurposing. It is this one.
We were thinking of something like a salt bag that had been cut out of a piece of a larger textile and we don’t have one in the wool.
But we can show you what we mean.
Here is the back of a khorjin set.
You can see a loop about halfway down that marks it center. If one needed a salt bag quickly and didn’t have time to weave one properly, it would be a relatively simple matter to cut this khorjin back down like this.
When finished and ready for use one side would look like this.
And the other would look like this.
This exercise give some hints of how one might detect a bag that had not been made originally for that purpose, but was cut down from a larger format.
One might look for material that is continuous front and back of a bag without changing its character of its fabric or designs as is the case with our example above. Not just shared warps front to back, but continuation of both the structure and the design.
Or in the case of a salt bag, a separate piece as a neck might be worthy of further examination.
This “continuous” fabric indicator is not infallible.
There are bags made originally by folding over and sewing a single piece of material. Sometimes you can tell that a suspected single, continuous piece was woven at the size of the bag (i.e. on a narrow loom). Here is a bag that seems to have been made in this way.
This bag (the guesses have been Luri or Char Mahal) was woven at the width this one exhibits, then, simply folded over and sewn up both sides.
A more, difficult to detect, legitimate, “constructed” usage is one in which the bag was, in fact, cut out of a piece of material larger than either of its woven dimensions, but was still made originally as the kind of bag it currently is.
Here’s an example of this second sort:
a piece made from what is likely a woven piece wider than its dimensions, but still not “constructed” in the sense we are talking about here, since, it was part of an apron-bag combination and likely made from a piece as wide as the apron.
It is folded vertically and sewn up the sides.
The back is exactly like its front.
Alberto Boralevi told me what it is. Likely, part of an apron-bag ensemble carried/worn by a Dalmatian lady. My bag was likely cut from a weaving as wide as this apron.
You would be able to tell that this bag was, originally, and legitimately, constructed only by being familiar with this costume combination and some of its features (like the top edge treatment) as Mr. Boralevi, who has collected and studied such apron-bag ensembles for years, is.
Here is my bag, again, together with a similar bag from Boralevi’s collection.
As for his being familiar with this format, Mr. Boralevi has an entire wall of such aprons,
and has published a small catalog them and their accompanying bags.
We should note here that all of our upholstery examples, above, entailed cutting down a larger textile.
We have retained one upholstery example for treating here, because it is such a clear case of cutting down.
This is a part of a quite old Tekke chuval that someone has cut down, very obviously, to fit as a seat cover on a particular upholstered chair. Places for the chair legs of a specific chair have been notched out.
Our fifth and last category is sometimes another instance of cutting down, but it can also be the occasion for enlarging.
We’ve called it “resizing.”
Resizing can be seen as a marginal category, since it doesn’t change the purpose for which the textile was made, but let’s include it, anyway, because we have a minor instance of it that we like.
This is a boy’s great coat, in a West Point cadet-like style and shade, and estimated to have been made in the 1930s.
Here is a view of its back ‘
and attractive lining, with a boteh design.
But the reason for including it as a repurposed example is that, when one looks more closely at it inside, one can see that it was cut down from its original size to be worn by a smaller child.
It is an example of repurposing if you are willing to count its being adjusted to be worn by a different person.
By the way, so-called “cut and shut” rugs and textiles are in this category. That is, rugs, cut, reduced in size, and then sewn back together to permit their use in a particular space.
John ended the lecture with a repurposed item that is, actually, an instance of our previously discussed category: creating a textile using materials taken from other textiles.
Here is the material taken from another textile.
It is the shoulder patch from the uniform of a U.S. Seabee in WWII.
The Seabees built roads, bridges, airfields, during the war, under battlefield conditions. Recruiters were told to look for smart troublemakers.
In 1949, a known Seabee veteran in Virginia, decided to use his unit’s shoulder patches in a quilt he was making. So he bought a goodly number and quilted them on a red backing in a medallion-like arrangement like this.
He made and quilted on a number of these medallions.
The result was this small quilt.
To a Turkman collector, the result was too interesting to pass up.
He even quilted in a minor ornament between the gul-forms.
My quilting expert friends tell me that his quilting is quite good.
I think this bizarre little quilt illustrates nicely our early caution that we should not be quick to say that the last word on repurposing has been spoken.
Kirk and John took questions, then, moved to treat the material in the room.
To see that you need to press your Control key and left click the link below.
R. John Howe