The historic use of textiles in traditional rituals have enabled us to connect with lost or little known cultures and provide an insight into their way of life, values and beliefs. Textiles beyond their practicality could signify status, provide protection in the afterlife and invoke spiritual powers. Textiles distinguished and united members of a community or family, the idiosyncratic use of fibre, colour and pattern intrinsically part of their identity. In the pre-industrial age, the time and effort it took to make textiles meant they were greatly valued, treasured and handed down, often with a verbal or written account of its provenance. I was christened wearing a linen gown and bonnet that had been worn by generations of my family on their christening days. As family mythology goes, the outfit, at least a century old, was originally made and hand embroidered by French nuns. The stitches are tiny and beautiful but, commensurate with it's age, it is far too delicate now to be worn. It is stored carefully in my 'glory box' along with many other precious textiles and garments that I can't bear to get rid of because they remind me of a significant person or event in my life.
These items are a tactile link to memories of moments and loved ones. When I look at my wedding dress, I remember not just our wedding day but all the days before I spent cutting, stitching and fitting, thinking of our future. The garments I have of my mother's, who died when I was 23, still smell like her, as if she were still here. I've kept and framed a vest I knitted for my son that he wore as a newborn, every time I look it I marvel in disbelief that he was ever really that small.
Just as they have for thousands of years, textiles clothe and decorate but they also have the ability to tell a story and connect people via that narrative. Two recent experiences of mine demonstrated the enduring power of textile tradition and symbology particularly when used as a secular ritual and especially when associated with the difficult reality of human mortality.
Last year an old school friend of mine died suddenly and unexpectedly, she was healthy and happy. Everyone who knew and loved her was distraught, there was no making sense of something that made no sense. Earlier this year I received a request to send a short hand written memory of her. Handwritten memories from her friends and family were collected and embroidered onto fabric squares to be made into a quilt for her parents. It's a lovely idea that they can quite literally be wrapped in and warmed by memories of their daughter gifted by her circle of friends and family, I hope it will be a comforting but enduring reminder of her bubbly and hilariously irreverent character.
And sadly not long ago I lost a close friend to cancer, she was young, full of life and had a wide circle of friends around the globe. A few of us met the day after she had died, to remember her. The conversation turned to how we could connect and unite our dispersed group of friends in remembrance. We realised that there were items of clothing and cloth that had meaning for her and for us all. I suggested the idea of using them to create something we could all wear on the day of the funeral. And so I made a collection of bright red wild roses pins, for the bold and colourful, free and rambling soul that she was. As I sat stitching each one I was able to grieve and reminisce securely anchored to the real world by the meditative process of my hands. I felt able to let go without completely losing myself in the abyss. The roses posted off around the world provided consolation and solidarity to those isolated by distance with their own feelings of loss. The making and the wearing of the roses symbolised that we were united in our grief and love for our friend, irrespective of our geographic location, personal background and beliefs (or non belief). Just having something to touch that represents her is healing, but it also encourages and permits the flow of emotion. The tradition of wearing black or a mourning keepsake for a period of time after the loss of a loved one was largely for the same reason. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it's ok to feel sad and that we are not expected to be immediately as we were before. I deliberately left the edges of the roses raw and unfinished, over time the petals have frayed slightly, ageing and softening the bloom. An unexpected visual metaphor marking the passing of time, proof that life moves on and so inevitably we must move on too. I have had the opportunity to pause and reflect on how common and varied textile traditions and rituals continue to be in our modern society. Do you have any experiences which illustrate the important role of textile traditions in your family or community?