These four paperbacks in a new series, Fabric Folios, draw on the British Museum's textile collections from India and Pakistan, Guatemala, China and Africa. They contain an introductory text written by an expert in each field, with 20-30 textile pieces illustrated by more than 100 photographs. The texts are detailed and give information on the people of each region (with maps), their textile skills and methods of making, fibres, dyes and patterns. There is a glossary, a selected reading list and an index.
Each superbly illustrated piece is fully captioned with origin, manufacture and size, followed by photographic details, showing thread, weave and stitch, fold and crease - vital information on a textile that makes you feel it is laid out in front of you, British Museum accession numbers are also included. Within the text, smaller photos illustrate the country and the fabrics used or the costumes worn. As a maker myself, I wish that more had been shown of the techniques as most of us will probably never see these first hand but some of us may be stimulated by these books to try them.
The final section in each book, "Tradition and change", is an interesting idea. Changing lifestyles show an increasing threat to the continuity and excellence of these textiles. The causes vary from country to country but mainly they are due to economic changes, increased education for women, television and the availability of western-style clothes. As one writer puts it, "the phenomenon is unstoppable".
Embroidery from India and Pakistan is written by someone who has regularly visited the subcontinent to research women's embroidery. Sheila Paine writes of a brilliance of colour used in poor and arid regions and of the traditional skills of stitching and dyeing found there, handed down from mother to daughter, who starts "when her first tooth falls". This volume is a rich resource in its presentation of embroidered clothing and domestic articles, and shows the elegance and discipline of geometric pattern used by Muslim women, stitched in silk, catching the light in glowing colours. The figurative designs of Hindu female embroiderers depict subjects from the Hindu epics or daily life, with cowrie shells, buttons and mirror cloth added for talismanic potency.
Textiles from Guatemala is by Ann Hecht, a weaver who spent three years researching the British Museum's collection of textiles and costumes of the Maya Indians from the southwest highlands of Guatemala. From her travels, she tells us how they preserve a distinct culture and lifestyle; most women weave using back-strap looms. Tracing traditional garments back to reliefs and frescoes in pre-Columbian sites, she describes the techniques used to make them, then and now. The photographs show textiles rich in weave and stitch, with colour, nurtured in the past by natural dyes and now by synthetic dyes.
Gina Corrigan, author of Miao Textiles from China , has travelled in China since 1973 and leads study tours there. The Miao people live mainly in the mountains of Ghizhou province in the sub-tropical zone of southwest China. Many live near poverty level, their wealth lying in their distinctive garments of complex design; they are described as "the major living art-form of Miao culture". Corrigan writes about the preparation of fibres and their use of ramie, hemp and cotton, extensively discussing indigo dye and stitching techniques. This fascinating text is followed up by photographs of exquisite garments, colour and thread. There are costumes worn on festive occasions where a girl sings and dances before suitors who judge her marriageability by her skills.
Printed and Dyed Textiles from Africa is the work of a collector who regularly travels in Africa. John Gillow gives background information on textiles from ten areas, concentrating mainly on the work of tribes and ethnic groups that pattern textiles by printing and resist techniques. He writes about the materials used - raphia, wool and cotton - and resist methods using stitch, wax, tie and dye ikat and pastes. The photographs illustrate the wide range of pattern achieved, the quiet subtle colours of natural materials and dyes, and the strong indigo and white resists. The text and photographs are particularly informative, and could be a starting point for anyone who wants to try these methods. The principles could be adapted to materials available in the United Kingdom.
For such small paperbacks, the specialised knowledge that informs Fabric Folios is invaluable. The layout is refreshing and innovative, and provides an opportunity to focus on a specific detail in relation to the whole. This makes each book a compulsive page-turner for anyone interested in textiles. At the reasonable price of £12.99, students, makers, teachers and librarians should welcome the series.
Bobbie Cox is a tapestry designer and weaver who taught at Dartington College of Arts.
Textiles from Guatemala
Author - Ann Hecht
ISBN - 0 7141 39 6
Publisher - BMP
Price - £12.99
Pages - 87