Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color

Textile Tales

Bhutanese hand towel. Photo by Joe Coca

One of my favorite chapters in my book (“Threads Around the World: from Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe”) is about Bhutanese weaving–I take joy in the story behind the weaving of a particular piece. My friend, Leki Wangmo, a master weaver, was a weaver to a king of Bhutan (the grandfather of the current king). She wove him a beautifully embellished silk hand towel. However, about to visit the US, instead of presenting it to him as she’d originally planned, she brought it with her to sell to help subsidize her trip. I had the good fortune to purchase the gorgeous textile from her. As I fumbled in my purse to pay for the textile, her daughter, Rinzin, told me the story.

Stories are inherent in traditional textiles, about the artisans and their communities, and about their cultures and traditions. Some of the stories are in the process, others are integrated in the designs, through figurative or geometric motifs. Though we usually associate stories with words, many are told through symbols or images, whether through hieroglyphics, geometric designs, or figurative imagery. Stories do not have to have a beginning, middle, and end, and they can take many forms, such as prose, dance, poetry, or even a list.

Another favorite chapter in my book is about Berber weaving. Partly because of the beauty in the designs, but mostly because of the significance of the process itself. The Berber weavers of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, regard the act of weaving as an embodiment of the circle of life of a son in a male dominated society (weaving is women’s work amongst the Berber), from birth to death. Setting up the loom for weaving in a metaphor for the birth and tying on the WARP represents the life of a male child within the sphere of women’s influence. The act of weaving tells the story of his journey through adulthood, where women have little impact on their sons’ actions. Each glitch in the weaving symbolizes obstacles the man may face, a broken warp thread, an error in the design. Finally, once the textile is complete, cutting it off the loom represents death. No, we are not surrounded by dead textiles—the entrance of the textile into its intended home is symbolic of the textile’s passing into the afterlife.  

I originally thought that my book was about a variety of traditional textile techniques. But as I wrote, I realized that my story was merely a conduit to convey a deeper message—traditional textiles shouldn’t be valued merely for their aesthetic, but they also play an important role in our world.

Obviously, textiles are fundamental to our lives, whether for attire, home furnishings, or for décor, for daily use or for special occasions. Also, art in general and specifically textile art nourish our inner beings. In addition, ethnic textiles in particular connect us to our past, which, of course influences our future.

As a made progress in my writing, it occurred to me that there was another aspect of ethnic textiles that adds to the crucial role they play in our lives. Traditional textiles clearly celebrate our individuality—they mark the differences in cultures across the globe. Like many traditional textiles, Berber weavings are unique to their locale. For example, the rugs of the High Atlas Mountains versus those of the Middle Atlas are visibly distinguishable.

What I hadn’t thought of before I started writing my book was that the stories behind ethnic textiles are universal. They speak to our commonalities. For instance, the Berber story in embedded in the weaving process speaks to mothers across the globe. I well remember that little twinge of grief I felt when my son moved into his own home, when I realized that our relationship was changing as he started his journey into adulthood.

Traditional textiles speak to the individual, as well as to society as a whole. they speak to our commonalities. They tell the story of humanity.

When I first started working on my book my intention was merely to share my knowledge land love of ethnic textiles. But as I progressed in my writing, my grasp on the bigger picture improved. All the pieces fell into place—textile traditions a crucial to our existence. They prevent us from losing our humanity.