The exhibition is on display at the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery through December 4.
In a world of fast fashion, weaving is defiant. In the millennia-old tradition of weaving in the Andes, it takes hours to get the fur off an animal, clean the fur, spin the yarn, and dye the thread. This process is still kept up by a lot of Indigenous weavers across various parts of the globe. Uncut Attire, an exhibition on display through December 4 at the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery on the UW-Madison campus, tributes this artisanship, showcasing an international collection of innovative handwoven pieces. The uncut attire—that is, literally made with no to little cutting of fabric—is symbolic of the wholeness of the cloth, the purity of the fabric, and labor-intensive but more sustainable processes wherein nothing goes to waste. This approach to design values every thread.
Addison Nace is a PhD student in the Design Studies department at UW-Madison’s School Of Human Ecology with specific research in Mayan textiles. Her interest in it began when she worked as a research assistant at SoHE’s Helen Louise Textile Collection. Recent donations to the collection compelled Nace to dig into the history of regional dress in Southeast Asia and its similarities to her past experiences in Central America. Nace wanted the Uncut Attire exhibition to expand the definitions of fashion.
Western fashion is silhouette-focused. Nace illustrates this contrast by positioning an unfinished bodice—an outfit comprising multiple parts of cut cloth—near the entrance of the exhibition. On the other hand, woven cloth is heavily structured and uncut. “From a weaver’s perspective, so much labor goes into making the cloth, especially since it is made by hand,” Nace says, “You wouldn’t want to cut it all up to redo it.”
The uncut thread brings attention to the design, enhancing the role that fashion plays in expressing the wearer’s identity. “You can identify where people come from with textiles,” Nace says. “It doesn’t just convey a community identity but also an individual identity.” Nace mentioned that Indigenous communities in Guatemala, facing oppression at various points throughout modern history, wore their clothing as anti-colonial acts of resistance. An example of this is the traje from the Highland Maya, which marked its wearer as indigenous. Their identities were tethered to what they wore, hence revitalizing their clothing was necessary in demonstrating their resistance to colonial worldviews. Clothing signals what kind of group we belong to, creating a dialogue with those around us. Some of the pieces in the show have been used as symbols of dissent.
This theme is also seen in different parts of the globe. Hailing from Ghana, a wrapped garment made of Kente cloth included in the show was created between 1980 and 1991 through stitching, plain weaving, and supplementary-weft patterning. Made from rayon and cotton, this yellow, blue, and green patterned garment was not only a symbol of royalty but also a global pan-African symbol in liberation movements. During the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it became an emblem of subversiveness for African Americans who felt divorced from their cultural heritage. To this day, the garment continues to be used to honor Black and pan-African culture.
Like the Kente cloth, the sari is also emblematic of protest. Gandhi himself used hand-spinning as a form of activism. Making his own cloth was a way of slowing down. The kapta sari featured in the show was handwoven on a floor loom with a dobby attachment in 1958 in Odisha, India. It contains complex patterns and bright colors, suggesting that it may have been worn for a special feast. To this day, Indians living in the diaspora use garments like this as a symbol of their ethnic identity. Saris are not only aesthetically striking—they also communicate one’s social status and geographical home. Cotton weaving has been a long-standing practice in India, dating back to 2600 BCE. To this day, India still is one of the leading global suppliers of textiles, with its strong craft economy and vibrant culture of weaving.
It is fascinating to see tradition passed down from one generation to the next. The show includes pants made in 1934 in Santiago, Guatemala, where a majority of the population identifies as Indigenous. Made of cotton and wool, the pants were handwoven on a backstrap loom and hand-embroidered with colorful figures of plants, chickens, and humans. According to Nace’s research, Guatemalans generally believed that the cloth had living characteristics. The cross, which had to be maintained, is the heart of the fabric. Sadly, with migration and the rise of industrialization, Indigenous knowledge about weaving has been lost through the decades, and now young people are less interested in these traditional ways of making clothing.
“Traditions are living and changing. Woven cloths can be contemporary, modern, and fashionable,” Nace says. The kimono is one enduring example of this, and two are included in the exhibition: a bright red one with patterns of white flowers seemingly falling from the cloth, and a blue one that is patterned with white and yellow geometric lines and shapes. Kimonos have remained prevalent for so long that, even in the mainstream, they’re considered modern and elegant. With that said, weaving is not only aesthetically pleasing but also sustainable, which makes it all the more valuable in an era of environmental crisis.
Expanding fashion history to include anti-capitalist fashion systems, which do not rely on brands to set trends, is so necessary in a world facing ecological decline and catastrophic economic imbalances. As I walked through Uncut Attire, I was compelled by the weight of past history that came with the pieces on the wall, and I left excited about the future of weaving—an art form that stands the test of time.
In tandem with the exhibition, Addison Nace will hold a Backstrap Weaving Workshop on Friday, October 7, at 1 p.m. in The Link, Main Entrance at the Nancy Nicholas Hall.