Archive for September, 2009

2009 Weave of the week #37: Wattle
September 27, 2009

Bonnefont Cloister garden

Bonnefont Cloister garden with wattle fence

The Cloisters, at the northern tip of Manhattan, on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, is not a church or a monastery but a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“the Met”) devoted to the art and architecture of the European Middle Ages.

In 1925,  John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated funds to the Met for the purchase of George Grey Barnard’s collection of medieval art, which became the core of the Cloisters’ collection.  Then, in 1935, Mr. Rockefeller gave Fort Tryon Park to New York City,  reserving the northern hilltop as the future site of the Cloisters.  And in the 1930s, he donated land on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission,  to ensure that the Cloisters’ beautiful views would be preserved.  Quite a gift.

Today the Cloisters’ collection comprises more than 5,000 works of art, mostly from the 12th to the 15th centuries — a profusion of illuminated manuscripts,  stained glass,  ivory carvings,  paintings,  wood sculptures,  and,  of course, the incomparable Hunt of the Unicorn and Nine Heroes tapestries. Both sets of tapestries were gifts from,  yes,  John D. Rockefeller,  Jr.

"The Unicorn in Captivity"

"The Unicorn in Captivity"

Maybe it is because those magnificent weavings are so well known and well loved that I chose the modest handwoven wattle enclosure in the Bonnefont Cloister garden as this week’s featured weave (see it at the top of the page around the quince tree, and in a close-up below).  The Bonnefont Cloister garden is one of three gardens at the Cloisters that were planted according to horticultural information gathered from medieval sources,  including tapestries.  Look,  for example,  at the amazing number of identifiable — and botanically correct — plants that were woven into The Unicorn in Captivity (shown above).   If you’re interested,  see The Flora of the Unicorn Tapestries,  by Alexander and Woodward,  an inexpensive booklet available on Amazon.

Wattle fence

Wattle fence

European wattle work dates back to before the 12th century.  Mother Earth News defines wattle as the art of weaving flexible green sapling wood between upright posts.  Their excellent article gives great information for DIYers, but (as you can see from Lynn Karlin’s photo at the top of that article), while making it yourself is economical and may be satisfying, the structures produced by weaving sticks and suckers just aren’t as rustically beautiful as the ones in the Cloisters’ herb garden.  I was curious about who made those fences,  so I posted a question on the Cloisters’ blog and  got a detailed response from Deirdre Larkin, the Cloisters’ Associate Managing Horticulturist.  I thought her letter was so interesting and informative that I asked her permission to reprint it here, and she graciously agreed:

Wattle fencing made from willow or hazel was often used in medieval gardens, and appears in many garden representations.  The wattle in Bonnefont Cloister is woven from willow,  and was commissioned for The Cloisters from English Hurdle in Somerset, England:  The wattle panels at the center of the garden,  underneath the quince trees,  were installed in spring of 2007.

We have gotten willow fencing from this company for a good many years now.  We often have inquiries from the public as to whether there is an American distributor for English Hurdle, but there is none at this time to my knowledge,  although it is a very attractive and well-made product.  This is probably because it is not cost-efficient to import it for resale,  because of the following factors:  It is heavy,  and the shipping charges are significant.  It must be inspected by U.S.  Customs on arrival because it is made from wood, and could be a source of insect infestation or plant disease.  it must be replaced every four or five years,  as it does break down.  (In the Middle Ages,  willow was an important renewable resource, and there was plenty of cheap labor at hand.)

Once we have custom-ordered our willow fences,  and they have been shipped,  a customs broker acts as the Museum’s agent and sees to the delivery.

It is now possible to buy a much cheaper willow wattle fencing made in China,  in various sizes,  and this is available in garden centers and online at websites like

There are American distributors for the Chinese wattle,  but I have to admit that it is not as handsome or as durable a product,  and we don’t use it in the gardens here.

Deirdre Larkin posts on the Met/Cloisters’ blog, The Medieval Garden Enclosed. There you can find fascinating bits of information about the area where medieval art, gardening, and the history of the Middle Ages meet,  along with gorgeous photographs.

Rose bush enclosed by wattle fence.

From "Medieval English Gardens" by Teresa McLean

Coincidentally,  I just read in the NY Guild of Handweavers’ newsletter that several of my fellow Guild members will participate in the 2009 Medieval Festival at Fort Tryon Park, Sunday,  Oct. 4.  They will demonstrate weaving and spinning in period costumes created by Desirée Koslin, a medieval art historian and a Guild member.  For more information about the Festival, click here.  Admission is free.

2009 Weave of the week #36: Nigerian hat (“Aso Oke”)
September 20, 2009

Nigerian man's hat

Nigerian man's hat

I chose the hat shown above as this week’s featured weave because I love the fabrics that were stitched together to make it,  the colors, and the overall design.  It came from a hole-in-the-wall African import store that once existed near Times Square.

There were no labels or tags, but identifying my hat was easy because it has several distinctive design elements that are characteristic of traditional Nigerian Yoruba handwoven narrow strip fabrics (Aso Oke).  The detail below shows those characteristics clearly:  plainweave cotton with a colored warp stripe, magenta weft brocade (possibly from waste silk), openwork holes made by drawing groups of warp threads together (or by using a comb), and discontinuous warp floats that are woven through the holes.  The gold metallic yarn was probably a Japanese import.

hat det

Wikipedia says that Aso Oke hats originated in Nigeria but are widely worn by African men for special occasions and religious holidays.  It puzzles me that although these are men’s hats, mine is only 10″ in diameter and barely fits my smallest mannequin’s head.  I didn’t come across any description of boys’ formal headwear, so perhaps it was made to fit a boy’s head.  And although hats of this style are typically worn draped over the ear on one side, the stitching and lining make my  hat too stiff to slouch gracefully.

As I mentioned, I shelved this article last week to write about Yinka Shonibare’s exhibition instead,  and since he is of Nigerian descent,  I like the idea of highlighting traditional Nigerian textiles this week.  Then too,  as my husband astutely observed, after all of Shonibare’s headless bodies,  it seems fitting to write about bodiless heads this week.

Desiree Koslin talks about medieval costume @ The Cloisters
September 16, 2009


Desirée Koslin,  FIT professor, author, and member of the NY Guild of Handweavers, will give a talk about medieval costume at the Cloisters this Saturday, Sept. 19, at noon and 2 PM.  The talk is free with museum admission.