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Behind the Scenes: How to Teach a Hands-on Textile Seminar Remotely During COVID-19

Professor Phipps shares her new experiences here:

Under the present conditions, with the shift of a hands-on seminar online, most of my creative thinking has been dedicated to designing an engaging virtual experience for my UCLA students. To this end, I have invited several colleagues to contribute to my current course, “Textile Color Culture;” and asked for the Fowler’s help in enabling a virtual close-up study of a selection of textiles from the museum’s wonderful collection.

“Textile Color Culture” moves around the world, exploring the subject of color in textiles. Working color by color, we are examining the making and meaning of dyes, looking at their sources in nature, and addressing how dyers from various cultures throughout history have used colors.

For our class on Indigo Blue, I invited as a guest speaker Mary Lance, director of Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo (New Deal Films, 2011), the foremost documentary on the history of indigo’s production and use around the world. The filmmaker traveled to Africa, India, Japan, South and Central Americas, and Mexico to bring together the story of this dye from the plants that contain it, to the manufacture of the dyestuff, to its employment in diverse ritual and cultural contexts. Mary lives in Corrales, New Mexico, and joined us on April 15 via Zoom.

For our April 29 class on Purple, we were joined by textile artist Ruth Katzenstein Souza. Ruth recently returned from her travels in Oaxaca, Mexico, and its rocky Pacific coastline—home to the mythical shellfish that yields a beautiful, deep purple dye. She talked about her experience with the Mixtec dyers. As a textile artist, Ruth works extensively with natural dyes, and particularly with the “eco-dyeing” processes that utilize the entirety of plants. She showed students her process via a series of short video clips and talked about her love of color and lifelong work on obtaining colors from natural materials.

Mixtec dyer at the coast “milking” the shellfish directly onto the hank of cotton yarn.

Photo: Mexican Dreamweavers.

In support of this textile course, the Fowler has enlisted the museum’s photographer, Don Cole, to photograph a selection of textiles from the collection to be studied in this class. With his meticulous eye and superb skill, Don has captured fine details of Indonesian ikats, pre-Columbian tapestries, and African stitch-resist cloths, among others. While not a substitute for actual objects, these photographs will enable the students to get as close to textiles as is currently feasible via Zoom.

Detail of a skirt, Pinotepa don Luis, Mexico; yarns colored with shellfish purple dye, indigo, and cochineal. Fowler Museum at UCLA, X66.2476; Museum Purchase.
Detail of Paracas Embroidery, Peru, ca. 300 B.C.-100 A.D. Fowler Museum at UCLA, X65.12982; Gift of the Wellcome Trust. The ground cloth of this fragment of a burial mantle is completely covered with embroidery stitching.
Detail of Nigerian indigo-dyed skirt. Fowler Museum at UCLA, X70.779. Traces of sewing machine stitches are visible on this cloth, demonstrating the stitch-and-fold resist indigo-dyeing process.

About Elena Phipps

Elena Phipps worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1977-2010) serving as Senior Museum Conservator in the Textile Conservation Department and as special curator of several major textile exhibitions. She also served as Guest Curator for the Fowler’s exhibition The Peruvian Four-Selvaged Cloth: Ancient Threads/New Directions (2014). Phipps has published extensively on textiles, focusing on the relationship between materials, techniques, and cultural history.

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