Inside the Collection

Design underground #2- telling stories about textiles

Christina Sumner, Principal Curator Design & Society, with visitors
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

On Wednesday 4 August, Christina Sumner, Principal Curator Design & Society, led an enthusiastic group of twelve visitors on a design underground tour of the Museum’s textiles collection. Visitors were treated to an up close and personal encounter with eight key textiles spanning the 14th-20th centuries and various geographical regions, including: Australia, India, Bangladesh, Peru, Italy, Tahiti, West Africa and Turkmenistan.

One of the first textiles Christina showed the group was this Tahitian tiputa (poncho) made from bark cloth, c.1815 (above). The tiputa is special on several counts: certainly as it’s nearly 200 years old and a rare example of top quality tapa from Tahiti, and for the evidence of European influence in the leafprint pattern, but also for its association with Governor Lachlan Macquarie to whom the tiputa once belonged. It was good to give this an airing as 2010 is the bicentenary of Macquaries’s appointment in 1810 as governor to the colony of New South Wales.

Visitor group examining textiles
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Above is a tapestry-woven top, made from lama or vic?na wool in pre-Columbian South America between about 1400 and 1600. The group were in awe of its astounding condition and bright colours (remember, it is 500 years old!), the use of tapestry weave and the identification of the small repeating feather motif, which in one section, actually appears to have been carefully repaired at some time.

Visitor group examining a tunic
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Both the pre-Columbian top and the West African Hausa man’s embroidered tunic (above) are made from narrow strips of handwoven cloth sewn together lengthways. However, while the top is tiny, the white cotton Hausa tunic – known locally as a babba riga – is huge by any standard. The narrow strips of cloth for these men’s tunics were woven by men and traditionally they also carried out the embroidery.

Visitor group examining textiles
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

The group inspected the embroidery on the tunic closely, examining the couched pointed motifs known as ‘eight knives’ on the front pocket and over the shoulder, and the dense areas of eyelet embroidery known as ‘one thousand ant holes’. Today these tunics are still worn, but are almost all machine woven and decorated.

Visitor group examining textiles
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

In addition to having a close look at traditional textiles from Tahiti, South America and West Africa (as well as India, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan and Australia) the group also saw a length of luxurious purple velvet from 16th century Europe. Velvet weavers, being keen to attract a good share of the market, developed a number of techniques in order to create a variety of attractive special effects. The technique used to weave this piece is called ‘pile on pile’, in which the pattern is created by cutting the velvet pile to two different lengths. This particular ‘pile on pile’ design was used by Venetian magistrates of the 16th century as a badge of office.

Christina Sumner and Melanie Pitkin

Editor’s note: Next week, some fellow curators will be leading a number of other design underground tours, including one on shoes, couture and lace! Check out the Sydney Design website for more information.

One response to “Design underground #2- telling stories about textiles

  • Do you have room for some huipiles from Guatemala, purchased around the late 1970s but created earlier?
    I just keep them in a box, so they may as well be in a museum. Apart from unpicking the side seams, they are in original condition.

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