War Imagery in Textiles

Bench Overlooking Pond

Here is a review of War Imagery in Women’s Textiles.  I posted it as a Library Thing Early Reviewer.  Library Thing is an on-line cataloging service for readers, authors and librarians.  The Early Reviewer program offers the chance to obtain free books before they are put on the market.   You can read about Early Reviewers at  http://www.librarything.com/er/list

I first encountered war imagery in textiles when I attended an exhibit called Weavings of War:  Fabrics of Memory at the University of Wisconsin’s Design Gallery.  I was shocked by the images.  Huey helicopters were the focal point of a quilt and bullets formed the borders.  Appliquéd bits of red fabric depicted blood spurting from a woman who was shot on a bridge while appliquéd soldiers marched appliquéd peasants through appliquéd rice paddies and corn crops.  Rifles repeated in brown patterns looked like trees in a forest.

War Imagery in Women’s Textiles: An International Study of Weaving, Knitting, Sewing, Quilting, Rug Making and Other Fabric Arts by Deborah A. Deacon and Paula E. Calvin documents war as subject matter for textiles.  The authors, both art historians, review the Western tradition of depicting war in Europe, the US and Canada.  In Europe the story starts with embroideries such as the Bayeux Tapestry in the Middle Ages, and includes knitting campaigns during World War I and rugs woven by Bosnian women in the 1990’s.

The U.S. story begins with Betsy Ross, sewing flags for the new nation, a product of revolution.  For both the US and Canada, the authors explore the work of Native Americans affected by westward expansion and the 20th century wars.  Subsequent chapters explore the war textiles of women in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.  In Africa, the authors discovered there is not a tradition of using textiles to express reaction to war.  However, African art does incorporate reactions to colonialism.  In South Africa, apartheid is remembered through memory cloths.  However, neither of these artist traditions contain images of violence.

The pieces I saw on exhibit were made by women from Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, Somalia, Guatemala, and Peru.  The textiles depicted civil wars, colonial wars and foreign invasions.  There were designs showing men rounding up soldiers, peasants herded off their farms and people shot and left to die, unknown, anonymous pawns in national and international war games.

After the soldiers leave, the women do what they have always done:  they make quilts and other textiles about what they know.  They use the traditional patterns and colors and techniques of their grandmothers to sew planes and bombs and dying peasants.  In making the textiles, in recording the horror, the women remember the dead:  a sister, a husband, a child, a parent.  All people with names and hopes and dreams, who laughed and loved and who were loved, but who have been lost to war.

War Imagery in Textiles is thoroughly researched with detailed notes and a lengthy bibliography.  There is also a helpful glossary of textile terms.  The book necessarily traces the historic development of textiles independent of war imagery.  Most of the historical textile artists are anonymous, but each chapter notes the names and biographies of contemporary textile artists.  There are some black and white photos that illustrate historical subjects and a collection of color prints of contemporary subjects.  An index allows the reader to search for topics of interest.

In cutting and stitching, women re-claim themselves in color and texture and story.  They sew the past so they can live again.




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