Mae Festa: My First Forty Years of Collecting
On March 20, 2010, Mae Festa’s collection was the focus of the “Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning” program.
Mae is very experienced as a collector, but shy as a public speaker, so Wendel Swan
facilitated the presentation of selected pieces.
Here is the resulting program, approximately, as given. During the TM session, the actual objects were shown side-by-side with screen images that often provided closer details. Many of the items are fine or small and so seeing these details is important. Here, in order to preserve the size of the detail images, the various photos of each piece are presented sequentially.
After the session the objects were available on tables for attendee examination.
Welcome to The Textile Museum for a presentation of objects from Mae Festa’s collection, which are being displayed as a group for the first time outside her home.
While many approaches to Mae’s eclectic collection are possible, we decided to discuss the objects geographically, moving eastward from Connecticut and ending in Indonesia.
Mae is of Greek ancestry and grew up in Manhattan. Her first serious job was with a contemporary furniture and design firm.
Later, when she and her husband Gene
were living in Athens, she began to find and appreciate folk textiles
and early embroideries. It was then, in the 60s, that she acquired her first small pieces from Greece, Asian and Africa.
During the 60’s and 70’s she raised a son and began working professionally as an interior designer in a prominent architect’s firm. This gave her the opportunity to use textiles as part of art collections in many projects.
This experience also gave her access to some of the textile world’s very best dealers and opened up the world of collecting to her.
Not until her first trip to Turkey in 1979 did she begin traveling to regions where tribal and ethnic textiles were still available, such as Bhutan, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Mae’s husband Gene designed their home
and it is a tremendous foil for displaying the textiles.
Mae is a true collector. Many pieces you will see today are more or less permanently displayed in Mae and Gene’s living room, yet Mae is unfailingly enthusiastic when discussing textiles she sees daily.
We begin our journey through Mae’s collection with the object created closest to her Connecticut home.
Quite different from other beaded American Indian belts, this 19th century Iroquois belt, from the Northeastern United States,
has a velvet face on leather backing with glass beadwork applique.
Although the imagery is not traditional Iroquois, and may have been influenced by the crewel work of English settlers,
the drawing and execution mark the work of an experienced craftsman.
The oldest textile you will see today is this plaited band from the late Paracas period (meaning 200 – 200 BC) in Peru.
Made of camelid fiber, this very rare decorative addition to a sash or headband is in excellent condition for its age.
Note the fascinating structure and that the design is one band of orange and gold,
interweaving another band of pink and blue. It almost seems as if the two bands were woven independently, but it was all woven at once.
Perhaps no other object in Mae’s collection better exemplifies the minimalist end of the spectrum than does the Inca tunic fragment, below, from Peru.
It was made of camelid fiber and cotton sometime between the 15th century and the middle of the 16th century.
This panel was apparently one of several similar variations used during this period as badges of status or merit. It certainly make us ponder the meaning of “modern” design.
This breech cloth fragment below is also from Peru, but 14th century, Chancay.
It is of very fine tapestry weave with narrow bands, each just 1/4 inch wide, sewn together to form an irregular, stepped geometric design.
The distribution of soft colors creates a very appealing and energetic overall design almost like rippling water in a pebble-lined stream.
Like the Paracas band, this is one you must see up close to appreciate.
Although it was not in the room for this presentation, this is another candidate for the minimalist award.
This ceremonial chest cloth is from the Peruvian Huari period (roughly 8th to the 11th centuries) and is made of macaw and parrot feathers on a camelid and cotton backing.
As early as the first millennium BC, feathers have been used in Andean textile art for ceremonial purposes. Those who wore such textiles were in the upper echelons of society.
The mid-20th century ceremonial underskirt panel below
was woven by the Bushong ethnic group of the Kuba Kingdom of the Congo for use on special occasions.
It was made from raffia palm leaf fiber, plain-woven, then embroidered and appliqued.
Wendel said that the motifs that look like arrowheads and interlacing are ubiquitous, but that the overall effect reminded him of a map of a village, with houses, trees and pathways.
He invited contradiction, got none, and said, “OK, it’s a village.”
Below is another example of Bushong work, probably earlier than the previous example, likely from the early 20th century.
This piece was not in the room for this presentation.
Full-sized over-skirts were reserved for female members of the royal family. This, however, is a rare miniature version.
The raffia palm leaf base is woven by men.
In another realm, we see the 18th century English mending bag below,
made of polychrome wool embroidery with silk accents, using a variety of stitches on a cotton and linen twill.
The tree of life design has many of the same small and large animals, birds and flowers that we see in Middle Eastern work, but there is also an apparent Indian influence.
The piece below is a 17th century border fragment from Italy.
Indigo-dyed silk was embroidered on linen, using cross stitches and double running stitches.
It is a prototypical example of Assisi work, using a single-color cross stitch to fill in the background.
These embroidered bands were often made in very long lengths and were used to decorate the edges of large linens, such as table cloths and bed covers.
The next object is a real mystery.
In Mae’s inventory, someone described it as “Central Asia – Uzbekistan, hammam bag, 20th century.” No one, Mae included, believes any of that except the 20th century part.
It is silk embroidered on silk in a tambour stitch.
The fleur de lys certainly is reminiscent of the French crest, but only one thing is certain – it was purchased from someone in Jerusalem.
Wendel welcomed any ideas of attribution, but none were given.
Although the next example of silk brocade on damask ground with silver metallic thread, is from Lyon, France,
for a brief period, beginning at the end of the 17th century, a strange style, known now as “bizarre,” was popular in European textile design, especially in Sweden and Denmark.
Especially seen in woven silks, this style included a variety of juxtaposed motifs of different origins and in different scales.
This cranberry red example dates from the early 19th century.
The first of several Greek textiles we’ll see today is this 19th century shawl, done in silk embroidery on a fine linen ground.
It was woven in the city of Metelini on the island of Lesbos, only 15 miles from the Turkish coast.
The ends show a garden with cypress trees, birds, stylized flowers, and a house in the center of each end.
A variation of a Greek wave design surrounds the garden.
It is no wonder that Mae would be attracted to the garment fragment below, from Crete, circa 1800.
It is probably a skirt border, with silk embroidery on cotton, in Italianate style.
Using a variety of stitches, there is a narrow frieze set upon a narrow edge band based on flowing floral tendrils.
The spaces are filled with double-headed eagles, snakes, flowers and birds.
The next object is a fragment of an 18th century bed curtain from Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades group in the Aegean.
Its pattern is ancient in the Near Eastern area…and virtually the same is the Roman mosaic on the right. But this item in Mae’s collection is silk embroidery on natural linen, using a darning stitch.
Wendel then asked what he called a “trick question.” It was “How many shades of red are in this embroidery?”
Please write your own answer down on something.
Answer: Only one.
There appear to be two shades because the stitching in the lighter-seeming areas is done in a different direction than those in the darker-seeming ones.
It is the way that light reflects on silk placed at particular and different angles that creates the seeming difference in shade. One sees a similar effect when one turns a silk pile rug upside down: one side with be markedly lighter than the other despite the fact that all of the colors are precisely the same.
The next piece is a textile that is the antithesis of the sturdy floor-covering oriental rug. It is referred to as a “Turkish napkin” and is estimated to have been made in the mid-19th century.
It is probably workshop production
and is silk and silver embroidery on cotton with a gossamer quality.
The 17th century Persian velvet below
was too delicate to travel for this session, but it is clearly worth seeing, in part, because Mae has relatively few Persian pieces.
The design is quite similar to what we expect to, and will, see in Central Asian and Indonesian textiles.
About the piece below, Wendel said,
“When I saw this piece at Mae’s house, I immediately recognized it as an unusual and very attractive Kurdish khorjin or saddlebag face that I had seen advertised in Hali many years ago.
It was probably made in the 19th century by either the Jaf or Sanjabi Kurds in Southern Kurdistan on the Iraq/Iran border.
The combination of motif is unlike that of any other Kurdish piece that I know.
The elem design is particularly unusual.
It is very heavy and substantial.”
The powerful 18th century piece below
is one of several silk embroideries on hand-loomed cotton from Daghestan in the Caucasus that are in Mae’s collection.
Invariably called “Kaitag,” for the multi-ethnic people who made them,
these panels incorporate traditional Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and pagan symbolism.
The Kaitag, below, is another from Mae’s collection.
They were ritual cloths made by women to be used at times of birth, wedding, and death.
The dimensions of almost all Kaitags we see confirm their use as crib covers for infants.
However, they were also used at funerals to cover the face of the dead.
The isolation of these mountain communities resulted in an unbroken chain of traditional design.
The cloud-like motifs may be irregular pinwheels, as precision in drawing is not a hallmark of Kaitag embroideries.
For rug lovers, here is a mid-19th century torba bag face from Kygyzstan.
It is all wool and has natural dyes. It was probably used for storage of some sort.
Although the structure suggests that it is Karakalpak, the design motifs clearly have Kyrgyz origins.
The muted blue, red and soft pink of the field.
are enlivened by the golden yellow border.
The double cross in the border and the central panel’s stepped guls are both very traditional Kyrgyz forms.
Mae purchased the early 19th century Turkman chuval or bag face fragment, below, in Bokhara in 2000.
Originally, it would have been about 45 inches wide.
It isn’t unusual to find fragments of old weavings in rug producing areas, because treasured textiles were used until they virtually disappeared.
But it was unusual, even ten years ago, to find such a piece in a city like Bukhara, where dealers have combed the shops for years looking for just such pieces.
The charming and unusual late 19th century Ersari group bag face below
differs from most of the objects in Mae’s collection in that its drawing is much less precise and controlled,
The colors are nice, especially the green, while a lovely floral motif fills the field.
The next piece, below, is a fragment of a Kyrgyz band probably woven to decorate the interior of yurt.
The full length isn’t known, but we can see what appears to be one end.
Although done in pile, other structures may have been the inspiration for its ascending pattern.
Decorative yurt hangings, such as the 19th century Lakai example below from Uzbekistan,
were discovered by collectors only relatively recently, but Mae collected one of the earliest extant.
It is silk embroidery on wool mounted on a cotton panel.
It is possible that its subtle internal design, achieved in a single color in each motif repeat, may be a point of departure for more highly developed designs in following decades.
The decorative pouch, below, comes from 19th century Kyrgystan
and is made of leather applique, felted wool and Russian or British broadcloth.
Such pouches were traditionally used for storage and had a back and closure flap. They were later used as purely decorative hangings and most often were embellished with tassels. This piece has neither back nor tassels, but is beautifully wrought with one of the most ancient Kyrgyz motifs in four rich colors.
The extraordinary richness of the dyes and the talent of the dyers is apparent in the three lengths of Uzbek silk velvet below.
They are late 19th century and from near Bukhara.
In the two on the left, the same motif repeats in offset rows
enlivened by alternating colors.
In the central length, there is a center length
there is an additional central motif with botehs at its corners.
There are five colors (natural white, red, yellow, blue and green), suggesting three dye baths. Each has selvedges of multiple hues. Although Mae has a number of velvet textiles in her collection, these silk velvet ikats have a very special attraction by combining the luxury of velvet with very bold and usually geometric patterns.
There are also botehs in the right length, repeated here below.
The overall format of the small suzani, below, from Uzbekistan probably third quarter 19th century,
seems fairly conventional, but it has several distinctive design features.
The suggestion of a medallion that spans the width of the field and the quartered flowers in the corners provide a Persianate feeling.
It also alternates paired botehs (uncommon in suzanis) with large, open flowers in the borders.
Blue, in two hues, is present here to an extent rarely seen in suzanis, particularly in the flowers arrayed in profile throughout the field.
The lovely Indian shawl fragment below
comes from 19th century Kashmir.
Its three rows of roses, done in twill weave with Pashmina wool, echo its Mughal ancestry.
Its pattern is also similar to Persian textiles and to those in some familiar 19th century Caucasian rugs.
Although it was too fragile to make the trip, this fine fragment below is an example of the silk velvet woven in India during the Mughal period.
This particular fragment has been dated to the last decade of the 17th century.
The very fine and colorful textile, below, is called a “rumal” and is from the Chamba Valley in Northern India.
This type of rumal was used to cover gifts or offerings and was sometimes used to cover the images of deities.
The fine embroidery, done with silk floss on fine, white cotton, appears the same on both sides. The patterning is sketched onto the cloth and then the embroidery is done by girls and women.
As we sorted through Mae’s pieces to decide which to include in this program, she said that the one below is one of her favorites.
It is a man’s shawl from Northeast India made, in the 20th century, of tie-dyed cotton.
The simple pattern contrasts sharply with the details we just saw in the rumal,
but it illustrates Mae’s fondness for a range of textiles.
The piece below
Note the dragons, the symbolic spirit of life, opposing flaming pearls, which have the power to protect against fire. The dragon is the spirit of life itself, representing strength and goodness.
This is silk brocading, using gold-wrapped silk thread.
In the 18th century Tibetan ritual cloth below
small triangles of Chinese silk damask were pieced into squares, which are in turn arranged in a 5 by 5 grid.
It has yellow and blue damask borders. Silk was often used in these geometric ritual cloths because of its value. Small patchwork cloths were used to wrap sacred objects. This example shows incense staining due to ritual use.
One could almost be persuaded, at first glance, that this is an Amish quilt.
The 19th Tibetan saddle blanket below, which was not in the room,
has three horizontal bands of twill-weave wool, hand-stamped red and blue cruciform motifs, and a red cotton top border.
There are three triangular ornaments and a backing of heavy raw silk with a blue cloth edge band.
In the 18th century Tibetan square, below, of blue silk damask with chain stitch embroidery,
the central motif is a “double vajra,” said to represent a double thunderbolt, an important symbol in Tibetan Buddhism.
Ritual implements were placed on cloths with this design to empower the objects, which were then wrapped in the cloths for safe-keeping.
The cruciform motif is common wherever textiles are woven, but the groups of three circles or balls, both within this version, and at its edges, are reminiscent of the Chintamani pattern.
At first glance, the piece below looks like a prop from a 1950s science fiction or horror movie,
but, in fact, it is a Bhutan rain hat made of yak hair that was given to Mae by John Sommer.
The idea is that the rain is wicked off the head by the five leg-like long points. Wendel asked Mae whether she had ever tried it to see whether it works, but I did not capture her response.
In the 19th century Chinese jacket, below,
small, hollow, bamboo beads were threaded together to form netting and the edges were bound in silk. A silk ribbon tie was added at the waist.
Men’s bamboo jackets were worn as undergarments to provide a layer of insulated air under clothing in both warm and cool weather.
Notice how the “stripes” at the bottom were created.
The Li ethnic group of Hainan Island in China produced the head cloth, below, probably in the early 20th century.
The silk embroidery end panels
are on a woven indigo-dyed band.
Here is a close view of the other embroidered end.
And a further half detail of it.
The Miao ethnic group from Guizhou in China produced the woman’s garment below
in the early 20th century by embroidering cotton on cotton.
The striking geometric patterns of the center square
are surrounded by soft red representations of flowering water courses.
Traditional diamond shapes are in the side panels.
The Miao also made the sleeve fragment below in the late 19th century of plain weave cloth with very fine silk running stitch embroidery.
The design is dominated by three central dragonflies,
which signify summer and transience. Other popular symbols represented are birds, insects and the ever-present swastika.
The richness of the design motifs belies the fact that only two colors, red and blue, are used, with a tiny bit of gray.
Stylistically, one is reminded of some of the Caucasian covers, also from the 19th century.
The brocade fragment, below, comes from Northern China during the Mongol period, likely late 13th or early 14th Century.
The staggered rows contain images of hares, each under a flowering tree.
While the hunting of hares was an established Mongol tradition, the weaving itself is probably influenced by earlier eastern Persian usages.
About this next piece, Wendel said,
“At the end of this lecture, you’ll see this spectacular 19th century Tibetan Buddhist monk’s cape composed of 24 columns of golden yellow damask, pieced with blue silk thread and
with an embroidered medallion at the top, center panel. It would have been worn by a high-ranking lama.”
In Japan, there are many garments associated with protection against fire, including the well-known firemen’s coats.
Fire costumes were worn by nobility to protect against sparks from a burning building. The crest indicates that this chest protector might have been woven for ceremonial use. It would have been worn across the front of a fire coat, usually under a cape.
It is dark indigo wool plain weave, silk applique with silk embroidered edging, green cotton edge binding, and woolen straps.
From the large island of Hokkaido, in the northern extremity of Japan, comes this ceremonial carrying bag which has been opened.
Made by the Ainu people in the early 19th century, the ground cloth is elm bark fiber with cotton applique and tambour stitch embroidery.
The Ainu are bear-worshipping people whose decoration reflects ancient traditional forms.
Notice how these forms relate to some woodcarving and textile art of the natives of the southern Alaskan coast.
[Ed. Interestingly, some Alaskan textiles, such as the twined Chilkat dancing blankets, are also partly made from plant fibers.]
From the island of Java, comes the 19th century shawl, below,
done on highly prized yellow silk, with a wide batik border and a tie-dyed pattern in the field.
These two techniques are commonly used separately in Indonesian textiles.
The image below is of one of nine panels in a late 19th century banner from central Lombok in Indonesia.
It is done in a discontinuous supplementary weft.
Similar patterns appear in Indian textiles, but the format is the familiar “stars and bars”
seen in many Near Eastern ceramics, such as these 13th century tiles from Kashan in Persia.
Here, below, we see a huge, mounted Indonesian textile
that was simply too big to bring to this TM session.
The primary motif is a boat, but there are many other design devices as well.
The next to the last textile in this session was the late 19th century gift cover (or “Tampua”) below.
It was woven in the Lampug district of Sumatra in cotton in a supplementary weft weave.
For a wedding, elaborate gifts were given to the parents and relatives of the couple, and this would have been a cover for such a gift.
Horses with riders (ed. and lots of anatomically correct male figures) can be seen,
but the motif at the bottom is a dragon on a boat.
Having circumnavigated the world, we return to where you can see, again, how Mae lives with her collection and how her passion for textiles has affected her life.
She says, “In my collecting, I became aware that the textile arts are a common thread of all cultures, ancient and modern. I realized that my interest was not to search for origins or masterpieces, but the individual aesthetic appeal of each piece. To know it, to marvel at its beauty, technique, color, form, its refinement of design, or basic primal power. After my initial Turkey trip, I came back with a new focus. I joined the Hajji Baba Club, The Textile Museum, the Textile Society of America, and later, the New England Rug Society.”
Mae is currently engaged in compiling an extensive catalog of works from her collection.
Mae took questions and comments
and then indicated that folks were free now to look more closely at the pieces she had brought, including this one.
The applause was gratifying,
and the movement to the pieces and to small group conversations began.
I want to thank Mae, for sharing her collection with us, for her considerable work in preparation, and for permitting this virtual version of her session.
A large thanks is also due to Mae’s husband, Gene, who gave assistance throughout but who nearly single-handedly and meticulously, packaged and transported the large number of textiles we saw first hand in the room, from, and then back to, New Haven, Connecticut.
This program would not have been possible without Wendel’s Swan’s considerable work with Mae in preparation, and in his masterful presentation in the RTAM session itself. He traveled to New Haven, took photos and then fashioned the Powerpoint document that has been the primary source of the virtual version, you have just read.
A number of us have for years seen glimpses of Mae’s collection and always wanted to see more of it. I hope you have enjoyed this effort to make that possible.
R. John Howe