2010 Weave of the week #7: Two fancy aprons, one mystery
June 27, 2010

Mystery apron

In December 1977,  at a thrift shop in Soho,  I bought a vintage bathrobe for my honey,  and the intriguing garment shown above for my haphazard textile collection.

I find this apron such a fascinating cacophony of fabrics,  colors,  techniques,  and design motifs,  that from time to time I try to find out where it came from.  A knowledgeable friend thought that it might be from Salamanca,  Spain,  but that’s the only clue I’ve got,  so when I decided to write this post I contacted Mr.  Constancio del Alamo, the textile curator at the Hispanic Society of America in NYC, to ask him about the piece. He graciously agreed to look at my pictures and said,  by e-mail,

I never have seen an apron like this one,  and we do not have anything similar in our collection.  The designs of the embroidery,  and the use of lentejuelas [sequins] could be Spanish,  but I am not a specialist on these textiles.

So the apron’s identity is still a mystery to me.

I have posted images of several views of the apron in the slideshow below,  and here’s a brief description:

The black base fabric is coarsely woven (possibly wool),  and a sash and ruffle,  made of a lighter-weight silky plaid,  have been added to the top and bottom.  The sides are edged in a worn burgundy-colored brocade fabric.  Curvy leaf and flower shapes have been embroidered on the surface of the black cloth with chenille yarn and trimmed with metallic beads,  and in between the embroidery sections is an appliquéd light blue panel embellished with silvery metal sequins.

The waistline is tapered and gathered to give the apron shape,  and the ribbon apron strings are long enough to tie around the waist.  It is wearable.

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All this time I have assumed that the apron is part of a traditional folk costume,  but it has also occurred to me that it could  have been created by an unknown fiber artist.  That thought reminded me of another apron from the same period of my life.

In 1976,  I saw the “Glories of Russian Costume” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of  Art’s  Costume Institute,  and it rocked my world.  The lavish exhibition was curated by the outrageously flamboyant fashion priestess Diana Vreeland,  and even the peasant costumes were marvels of opulence and excess.  (The exhibition credits thank the men who “took infinite pains in arranging our three Russian chandeliers,”  and Chanel for the “Russian Leather” perfume.)

Entranced by the show,  I used some of the Russian costume elements (the color red,  a fancy multi-panel border on a plaid weave,  gold glitter, multicolored stripes,  mixed fabrics)  in an apron that I designed and wove with  yarns that I had on hand (shown full view below)

Russian-inspired

(and border detail shown here)

Border closeup

I made notes,  drawings,  samples,  and measurements before weaving the piece,  but my apron doesn’t fit me.  In fact,  it was not meant to be worn,  but to express the excitement I felt at seeing those magnificent Russian garments.  I wove the apron for pleasure and entered it in a juried exhibit of the Handweavers Guild of Connecticut where it was awarded first prize for fashion.  (I am still grateful to that jury for appreciating a piece of my work that is very close to my heart.)

Which brings me back to my original question about the provenance of my mystery apron.  If my red apron were to end up in a thrift shop years from now,  would people wonder what tradition it belonged to,  or would they know that it is simply a work of art.  Could it be that my mystery apron, too, was simply meant to be a nonfunctional work of art?

I hope that by posting images,  textile lovers who read my blog might help me identify it.  But even if I can’t find out where that apron came from,  I have enjoyed that exhilarating,  creative summer.

If you’re reading this and might be able to help me identify the mystery apron,  I’d appreciate it if you’d post that information in a comment, or e-mail ferndevny(at)gmail.com.

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2009 Weave of the week #42: Haitian sequined banners (“drapo”)
November 1, 2009

Traditional drum by Maxon, photo courtesy of Michelle Karshan

Traditional drum by Maxon. Photo courtesy of Michelle Karshan

As the days are growing shorter and darker (more so now that daylight savings time has ended),  I wanted to feature unusually bright,  colorful textiles this week,  so finding a “sequined Haitian ceremonial flag exhibition” in Brooklyn last weekend was pure serendipity.  I had never heard of,  or seen,  Haitian banners (drapo) before,  but something that is described as being “richly textured with hand-sewn beads,  sequins,  and pearls”  always gets my attention.  About a dozen sequined and beaded banners,  from Michelle Karshan’s collection,  were on display at Gumbo,  an eclectic store/gallery on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn (see below).

drapo exhibition

"Drapo" exhibition at Gumbo, Brooklyn

I spoke to Michelle and to Gumbo’s owner,  Karen Zebulon,  and both were very knowledgeable about the flags and generously offered information and written materials that helped me understand the exotic and unfamiliar work.

Vodou is Haiti’s main religion,  and drapo are used to summon the spirits (Iwa) in Vodou ceremonies.  Each spirit has unique characteristics,  and the images and symbols of each are the subjects that recur in the flags.  The sequins and beads are hand-sewn onto cloth or a rice sack, with a satin backing and border.

The glowing drum in the flag shown at the top  of this post (and on the left of the exhibition photo) is surrounded by a joyously beaded multicolored snake.  The American Museum of Natural History says,  on its website,  “the drum is the most sacred of the objects [that are used in service to the Iwa],  for it speaks with a divine voice.  Without it there would be no Vodou.”  The snake symbolizes Damballah,  loving father to the world.

Slaves brought drapo to Haiti from West Africa,  where they were an anonymous folk art,  but as the banners became more widely appreciated and collected,  Haitian artists started to bead their names into their work.  The drum flag above is very subtly “signed” by the artist, Maxon Scylla,  along the lower right edge of the piece.  Below is a detail,  but the blue letters are still too hard to read.

Drum-sig

Maxon signature

Drapo can be appreciated solely for their unusual beauty,  but as with all art,  the more you know about its context,  the better you can appreciate it.  If you would like to know more,  here are some good sources to start with:  To see more banners,  visit the Haiti Art Cooperative website,  here,  and for exellent historical and cultural information about Haiti and Vodou, see the American Musem of Natural History’s website, here.  Sequined ceremonial flags were included in the museum’s 1998 Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou exhibition in NYC,  but I missed it,  so I’m glad I got to Gumbo.