Handmade tales

    Discover the secret stories of stuff in this surprising U of A collection

    By Stephanie Bailey, ’10 BA(Hons), on August 9, 2019

    Photos by John Ulan

    An ancient Egyptian tapestry and the rubber boots Lois Hole wore while gardening. Both items tell stories of everyday life. And they’re both part — perhaps an unexpected part — of the U of A’s Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection.

    “Most people come to the collection expecting to see a very specific sample of historical clothing — garments you might see in Downton Abbey,” says Vlada Blinova, a researcher and collections manager who leads public tours. “[People are] often surprised to see that we also have lots of cultural textiles, tools and accessories.”

    Indeed, the donor-supported collection holds a seemingly bottomless well of artifacts — more than 23,000 pieces that span 350‑plus years of history — that expand our understanding of the world. Students, researchers and other curious folks can learn first-hand about historical and cultural traditions from around the globe. Here are a few objects that tell us stories about the world that once was.

    View the collection at Alumni Weekend, Sept. 19‑22, or sign up for a public tour by appointment.

    Stumpwork Box

    ca. 1650–1675. England

    It’s hard to believe this intricately embroidered box could have been fashioned by an 11- or 12-year-old. In the 17th century — long before Polly Pockets and iPads — young girls were put to work learning how to sew. As early as age six, girls of all social classes learned basic needlework techniques, such as hemming and seaming, to help make undergarments and basic household linens. These skills were essential to running a household in a time when popping out to Bed Bath & Beyond wasn’t an option. But only a privileged few were able to afford the time and materials to create embroidered boxes like this one, which was created in England. For young girls who spent years practising embroidery, these boxes were seen as the “final exam” of their needlework education. The panels often featured stumpwork embroidery, where stitched figures depicting scenes from the Bible — like the stories of Joseph and Moses seen here — are raised from the surface in a 3D effect. Not just mantelpiece dust collectors, stumpwork boxes were functional, housing jewelry and writing tools.

    Snow Goggles

    1954. Kugluktuk, Nunavut (formerly Coppermine, N.W.T.), Canada

    There is a whole lot of snow in the Arctic. And where there’s snow, there’s glare. And where there’s glare, there’s the risk of snow blindness (think: a painful sunburn for your corneas that takes days to heal). To protect their eyes from the harsh spring sun while hunting, Inuit traditionally wore snow goggles carved out of bone or antler and, later on, out of wood — like the ones shown here from the 1950s. The narrow slits acted like a permanent squint, shielding the eyes from harsh ultraviolet rays and helping bring objects at a distance into better focus. Each pair would be custom-made for the wearer’s face to block out as much sun as possible. Sometimes soot was applied to the inside of the goggles to cut down on glare even more. They’d never fog up or ice over, making them superior even to modern, high-tech sunglasses. Eat your heart out, Oakley.

    Family Hair Wreath

    ca. 1890. North Dakota, United States

    We’ve all heard of a family tree but what about a family hair wreath? However hair-raising this might seem to our modern sensibilities, hair art was common during the Victorian era. Hair doesn’t decay or lose its colour, making it the perfect sentimental token of love and friendship, or a way to remember the dead. To make a wreath like this one, hair was collected from family members and then painstakingly woven into intricate designs, often in the shape of flowers. If you wanted to make your very own family “hairloom,” you could find patterns in stores and in women’s magazines. Victorians were less squeamish about death than we are today, perhaps because mortality rates were much higher and most funerals happened at home. In fact, the living room used to be called the death room because that’s where most Victorians would host funerals and display the deceased for viewing.

    Batik Cap

    ca. 1945. Java, Indonesia

    Indonesian batik is a method of hand-drawing intricate designs onto fabric with wax. After soaking the cloth in dye, the maker removes the wax with boiling water and draws another design before re-dyeing. (A method similar to that of decorating a Ukrainian Easter egg.) A far cry from fast fashion, a fine piece of batik could take anywhere from a few weeks to a year to create, which meant that high end batik fabric was only accessible to the elite. In the 19th century, copper wax stamps like this, known as caps, helped speed up the process and lower the price of textiles to compete with cheap European imports. Batiks are still woven into the everyday fabric of Indonesian life today, including celebrations of marriage or pregnancy. Some royal batiks are even thrown into volcanoes during ceremonies to prevent eruptions. You can celebrate this cultural tradition every year on Oct. 2, international Batik Day, which marks the anniversary of UNESCO declaring Indonesian batik a part of humanity’s intangible heritage.

    Lotus Shoes

    Guangdong style, ca. 1890–1910. China

    These Chinese shoes are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. So, how could they fit the feet of a grown woman? For more than a thousand years in China, some mothers and grandmothers would begin tightly binding the feet of girls as young as four years old. The ultimate goal of this painful process was to deform feet to a mere 7.6 centimetres long, roughly the length of your thumb. These were called “golden lotus” feet for their pointed lotus bud shape. Though few achieved this ideal, women would go to extreme lengths trying, despite the fact that foot binding could limit a woman’s mobility and lead to a slew of health issues like gangrene and ulcers. But the practice promised a different kind of mobility: social. Tiny feet in China — much like tiny waists in Victorian England — were the height of feminine beauty, elegance and status. It was common for a pair of a girl’s handmade lotus shoes to be given to a prospective husband, especially when the family hoped to “marry up.” Very small and elaborately embroidered shoes were seen as evidence of self-discipline, patience and fortitude, as well as artistic and household skills. While the practice was outlawed in 1912, it persisted until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

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