I am just home from a conference about handlooms held at the National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China, and what a conference it has been! I am so glad that I went. I was there to give a paper on the history of zilu weaving in Iran (and added a piece about taqueté in Egypt for good measure) and to work with the zilu weaver who came especialy from Iran for the conference. In addition, the TRC had donated a large zilu floor covering from Meybod, Iran, which was put on display in the exhibition. It let the visitors see and understand just how large a zilu loom could actually be.
The conference accompanied an exhibition about handlooms from around the world and for the next two months it is possible to see and come very close to a wide variety of forms. I would make a plea at this moment to larger museums interested in textiles to see if they could borrow this exhibition and the looms. It would be well worth it.
What made the whole conference and exhibition so interesting is that the Museum brought over to China a number of professional handloom weavers – to talk about and demonstrate their looms. Suddenly things that I had read about in books and articles or seen in films and photographs made sense. I had several ‘Oh so that is how it works’ moments. And I was not the only one.
But back to the conference: it was organised by the National Silk Museum and was curatored by director of the Museum, Dr. Zhau Feng together with Dr. Sandara Sardjono and the help of many (patient) members of staff. The conference was divided into two sections. The first day was dedicated to fourteen talks, of between twenty and thirty minutes each, about various aspects of handlooms and their related textiles. These talks ranged from Peruvian backstrap looms to those from Japan, Indonesia, India, Iran and Laos. Pride of place of course went to the many different types of handlooms from China.
One lecture was about the classification of handlooms, which was most useful and can be applied to handlooms from other parts of the world. It just helped to put things into family groups. The speakers, again from all over the world, talked academically, technically, or personally about various aspects of handlooms and their products. The work presented by those personally involved in the production of textiles (especially from Laos, Indonesia, Peru, Madagascar, Uzbekistan) was literally heart felt. They all talked with a passion, belief and a strong desire to preserve, protect and at the same time develop and expand ‘ their’ weave and textile forms.
The following three days were dedicated to short PowerPoint presentations about a particular type of handloom and how it worked, followed by a one hour demonstration and talk at the relevant handloom. Just watching the weavers at their looms showing how this worked and moved (sometimes literally) was amazing. At the end of the talks some of the weavers encouraged participants to sit behind the looms and try it themselves (under very watchful eyes!). I have long wondered how the Chinese backstrap loom with a wooden spring actually worked and it was a joy to see the weaver working so effortlessly, with her right foot going backwards and forwards to change the heddles (one of those OH moments). All too often the voice of the weaver is missing from such meetings, but having the chance to talk with weavers from so many different backgrounds was truly amazing. I especially enjoyed being with the zilu weaver from Iran and the ikat weaver from Uzbekistan.
I would like to say a big ‘Thank You’ to the Museum for inviting me to come to China to participate in this very special conference. It gave me the chance to learn so much about handlooms from around the world, meet colleagues and chat with them about looms and their products, and to watch weavers at work. It also gave me the opportunity to visit the National Silk Museum, which is beautiful, really an example to many other countries about what a textile museum is actually about and how relevant textiles are to the daily lives of everyone - literally.
I look forward to following the activities of the Museum and seeing all the many directions to which it can and will take the world of textiles.
Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Wednesday 6th June 2018
PS There is a small catalogue to the exhibition in English and a much larger version is being planned. I will let people know what happens with regards these publications.