On the Surface: Textile Embellishment Techniques

On the Surface: Textile Embellishment Techniques

September 12 – November 11, 2016

Curated by Janet Fitzpatrick and Christina Creel

Embellish [em-bel-ish]

Verb: to beautify by or as if by ornamentation; ornament; adorn

Synonyms: decorate, garnish, bedeck, embroider1

Why do we choose to embellish, adorn, and embroider? Embellishing apparel and household textiles with embroidery or appliqué doesn’t affect how well they provide protection from the environment or meet our daily domestic needs; but textile embellishment does satisfy part of the shared human desire to create aesthetic and meaningful lives. 

The “art of embroidery” had humble beginnings as a practical means for patching, mending, and repairing cloth. But people soon realized that developing their sewing skills also created an expressive outlet and had decorative potential. Owning and/or crafting finely embellished textiles became a symbol of status, wealth, and prestige. Today, these textiles are used daily as well as being reserved for special occasions.

Textiles enhanced with surface embellishment are appreciated and worn by men, women, and children around the world. However, in numerous cultures and across many time periods, the production of apparel and textile goods for the home has been considered a woman’s domestic responsibility. In many European and North American cultures, making decorative samplers for the home was how a girl practiced her alphabet while perfecting the stitches she would one day use in her household sewing.

Often starting as young as age eight, Kuna girls in Panama learn from their mothers how to produce colorful reverse appliqué molas. By perfecting their hand-sewing skills, the girls demonstrate the ability to contribute to the economic future of their families, as well as their readiness for marriage.  Among the nomadic Rabari living in regions of northwest India, as part of their wedding dowries, young women sew apparel and household furnishings that feature distinctive embroidered mirror work. Teen girls of the Lahu Na peoples of Burma and Northern Thailand spend many hours creating intricate “fancywork” with the goal of wearing the prettiest ensemble at the New Year’s Festival. Girls of a marriageable age wear the most elaborately embellished ensembles, meant to attract the attention of the eligible men at the celebration.

Why do you choose to embellish your life with decorative textiles? Are you someone who appreciates the embroidery, beading, and fringe associated with the boho fashion trend? Do the endless possibilities of color, pattern, and texture engage your senses? Are you part of the DIY movement, anxious to learn how to “do it yourself?”  Regardless of why you embellish, adorn, and embroider, the human desire to use textiles to enhance our lives is a common thread that connects us all on a level deeper than just “On the Surface.”

1 Definition of “embellish” from Dictionary.com. Retrieved 8 Sept. 2016 from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/embellish

Featured program: Meskwaki Ribbonwork by Brenda Ackerman on Tuesday Nov. 1, 5:30 pm in 2019 Morrill Hall