Thursday, July 27, 2017

Chinese Robe: Around The World From 80 Countries

My last blog post contained a photograph of the mandarin robe which is on display as part of the Benton County Museum's World Tour of Textiles exhibition. It is one of many beautiful embroidered pieces in the museum's collection.  Another Qing dynasty piece is this robe made for a lady-in-waiting at the royal court.

Both robes are made of silk satin, indicating they are meant to be worn in the colder weather. I was attracted to the intricate designs, the skilled execution, and the richness of color and sheen of the embroidery. To learn more about this Chinese art, I've been reading a library book, Silken Threads: A History of Embroidery in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam by Young Yang Chung.

I was surprised to learn that the Chinese were making silk cloth as early as 3630 BCE, based on dating of textiles found during archaeological digs. The Chinese were the only ones doing so for over 3 millennia! Embroidery is almost as ancient:  textiles from as early as the fourth century BCE are decorated with chain stitch embroidery in designs of clouds, vines, and other curvilinear patterns.
Embroiderers of the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) added straight and satin stitches and used these new stitches to copy famous paintings or combined ink-wash paintings with fine thread embroidery to make wall hangings and other decorative pieces. During this period, a palace embroidery workshop
brought together 300 of the best needle workers to develop the art and train others. Over time, other workshops opened to further develop this art.

The Qing dynasty (1644-1911) accelerated the extensive use of embroidery to adorn court robes.  The designs incorporated various animals, plants, and objects, all of which carried symbolic meaning.  The peony, the “king of flowers” represents wealth and honor. Butterflies represent young love and the bond between lovers; it can also symbolize the wish for someone to have a long life.

The peonies are done in satin stitch using untwisted silk threads to create a flat shiny surface. Dimension is added with color variations. Between the petals are French knots, also called a seed stitch or the forbidden stitch.  The stitch was not actually forbidden by law but so-called because it was believed that frequent use of this tiny stitch caused blindness.

 I would have assumed that the embroidery was added after the robes were sewn together but according to Young Yang Chung, the pattern was laid out on lengths of fabric which were the stretched onto rectangular frames and embroidered.  Then the pieces were cut out and sewn together.  If you look closely at the picture showing details of this red robe, you can see that the two sections of the butterfly do not quite match up at the center seam.  For important dragon robes, the joined pieces were re-stretched and a dragon embroidered over the center seam.  

This robe was one of several items given to the donors, E. A. and Ruth Hoy, by Princess Der Ling, lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager.  My next post will tell more about the Hoys and Princess Der Ling.  

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

World Tour of Textiles exhibition

The World Tour of Textiles:  Azerbaijan to Turkey is now open in the upstairs Moreland Gallery of the Benton County Historical Museum. If you like beautifully crafted items, be sure to check this exhibit out—even if you've already seen the Around the World exhibition in the first-floor gallery.

The words textile and cloth seem to be used fairly interchangeable with both referring to “ a flexible material consisting of a network of natural or artificial fibres ...” (Wikipedia)  As we began drawing a list of possibilities for inclusion in this exhibition, I was amazed at the wide variety in the fibers used and methods of making them into cloth. We tried to pick items that would illustrate this variety as well as being attractive pieces.

Sheep's wool is a familiar source of animal fiber but in the Andes, people also use fibers from llamas and alpacas to make shawls like the one included in this exhibition.  Other possible animal fibers include hairs from goats, camels, and yaks. Silk, made from the cocoons of silk worms, produces a lustrous but often delicate fabric. The exhibition includes one spectacular silk item:  a embroidered silk coat worn by a Chinese official. 

Embroidered Chinese man's robe

Many of the items on display are made of cotton, the most common plant fiber.  But we have also included items made from flax (linen), the bark of the mulberry tree (tapas), fibers from the trunk of a banana tree (abaca or manila hemp), and fibers from the leaf of a pineapple plant (pina).  I was surprised to find that the prickly pineapple plant produced such a lightweight, translucent fabric.  The Horner collection includes both the vest on display, shown here, and an altar cloth also of pina cloth.

Most of us probably think of making fibers (plant or animal) into cloth by first spinning them into yarn and then weaving the threads together using a simple over, under, over, under pattern (or plain weave).  But fibers can also be meshed together by pounding them (especially when wet) into a mat.  Felt is made of pounded wool and bark cloth is made by doing the same with plant fibers. Knitting, and knotting (lace-making, carpets) are also ways to “network” fibers. The exhibition includes items made with each of these techniques.

But what is amazing is the variety of techniques used to embellish the textiles.  It seems that people everywhere want to add beauty or meaning.  The simplest method is color-- dyeing the fabric a bright color or adding a few rows of a different color yarn to create a stripe.  More complex patterns can be created by dyeing only certain sections (preserving other from the dye with wax) or weaving in supplementary threads in certain areas. Designs can be painted on, or printed with stamps or modern presses.  All sorts of objects can be sewn onto the fabric:  pieces of a different color fabric (applique), beads, sequins, shells, mirrors and coins. But to me, the most beautiful pieces are those with intricate embroidery- using stitches in a different color thread to “draw” a pattern or fill in a whole area. The mandarin robe pictured above is one of many beautifully embroidered pieces in the Horner Collection.  I plan to feature some others in up-coming posts. 

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

Monday, July 17, 2017

British Indenture: Around The World From 80 Countries

My interest was piqued when I saw the listing for this document in the museum's database for it said “indenture” and the date of 1691.  As one who taught American economic history, I was thinking I'd find a document in which an English man or woman agreed to provide labor services for four to seven years in return for passage to the American colonies and room, board, and some “freedom dues.” These contracts of voluntary servitude were one method business owners then used to recruit labor. Not being a lawyer, I was surprised to learn that the term indenture also applied to real estate transactions.

With the help of fellow Benton County Museum volunteer, Walter Frankel, who had had experience reading old documents as a librarian at the Free Library in Philadelphia, we were able to translate enough of the old-style writing and spelling to determine that this is a contract in which John Morgan agreed to sell a fulling mill and the surrounding lands (known as White Mill Farms) to his brother, Christopher Morgan for three hundred British pounds.  The mill was located in the Frome-Selwood parish of Somerset county.

I did some research on the area 's history and discovered that Frome was a center of wool manufacturing as early as the 15th century. The River Frome provided power to drive the fulling mills in which the water wheel drove wooden hammers which pounded the wool cloth to clean it and make it thicker. Wool remained an important industry in the area until the 20th century but has been replaced by metal working and printing and other industries.  The last mill closed in 1965.  White Mill Farm is now the site of vacation cottages.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

Monday, July 10, 2017

Papal Medal: Around The World From 80 Countries

The subject of today's blog comes from Vatican City, which is an independent city-state located within the boundaries of Rome, Italy. Before unification in 1861, the Italian peninsula was ruled by many separate entities. The Catholic Church reigned over lands in the middle (the Papal States), with sovereignty in other areas divided among several city-states such as Venice and Florence, or claimed by France, Spain or Austria. The church-held lands came under the rule of the Italian government in 1870, although the popes did not recognize this authority.  In 1929, the Lateran Treaty made Vatican City an independent state in return for the pope recognizing that the territories once part of the Papal States were now party of Italy. The one square kilometer city is administered by a governor appointed by the pope and has its own flag, post office and banking system.

This papal medal is just one of over 70 such medals that are part of the Horner collection of the Benton County Historical Museum. Pope Paul II Barbo began the practice of issuing commemorative medals in the mid -400s.
Thousands have been issued since then.  They show the reigning pope on one side; the other illustrates some important event, a person recently elevated to sainthood, views of the Vatican, or important figures as such Saint Peter or the Virgin Mary. The profile on the front is that of Pope John XXIII, who ruled from October 1958 until his death in June of 1963.  The other side commemorates what is thought to be his greatest accomplishment, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.  He called for this council, a general meeting of Catholic bishops, in 1959.  The council, which ran until 1965, called for spiritual regeneration, put more emphasis on cooperating with other religious groups and changed a number of church practices to make them easier for people to understand, such as having services in native languages, not Latin.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon