Think for a moment about how many textile products are around you right now at this very moment. Your shirt, a sock perhaps, a carpet, a couch, a curtain, a kitchen towel. Day in and day out we are quite literally surrounded by cloth. They are ubiquitous, common even. So common in fact that it has become rather easy for us not to notice that every single fiber, every single thread, every single bit of cloth around us is broadcasting a story to the world. Each of the textiles that surround us, if you know how to look, tells its very own history of the world. A history that began thousands of years ago at the dawn of prehistory and lives on through us all here and now.
In pursuit of the skill needed to see and make sense of such long and complex histories, nine participants from around the world gathered in Leiden during the first week of September to partake in the Intensive Textile Course at the Textile Research Centre (TRC). Together we made up quite a merry lot—museum specialists, academics, amateurs, craftspeople. Gathered under the direction of Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, we journeyed towards an understanding of textiles through a series of daily practical and theoretical investigation. The schedule saw us studying one topic each day. First fiber, then thread, woven textiles, non-woven textiles, and finally decoration. As satisfying as it would have been to say we left each 8-hour day having completely exhausted all there was to know about each topic, we hardly came close! Who would’ve thunk it, but 8-hours is not enough time to say all there can be said about single threads.
The research center is also home to a truly incomparable collection of textiles. The scope of their collection is, well, everything! From the neolithic to now, from the Cameroon to China, the TRC is positively bursting at the seams with a collection that features samples of the ingenuity of human craftsmanship from all over the world. Each afternoon we would use this collection to put out newfound knowledge to the test, analyzing the techniques, impact, and cultural history of a wide array of objects first-hand. The goal was to learn how to read and listen to the stories that each item was telling. From the silly to the sober—from the so called “cellulite fabric,” a brand-new type of cloth that, yes, looks just like it says on the tin to the infamous lotus shoes, which can break your heart at a single glance—each object in the collection has a tale to tell.
Too often textiles are disregarded as too feminine, too frivolous, or too fleeting to be objects worth reflecting on. The TRC is one of the few institutions left that does the critical work of bearing witness to an entire genre of human technology that has, by no exaggeration of the word, been with us from the beginning. Textiles are an art that cannot be ignored for the cultural impact they have had on global societies and more expert study must be dedicated to them if we hope to understand either our past or our future. And, while we certainly didn’t exit this intensive course as experts of the study and trade, I think it is safe to say that we all now have the knowledge (and extensive sample swatch books!) needed to take informed first steps down along whatever journey of textile-based inquiry comes our way be that understanding ancient Cypriot textiles, conserving Estonian national treasures, or even, identifying which type of towel is best for drying our pets after a bath.
Pria Garcelle is a Ph.D. candidate on the Program in the Ancient World track. Her dissertation investigates ancient textiles and their varied sociological roles in the archaic and classical periods of Greece.