A friend of mine gave me a large bin-full of vintage textiles that once belonged to her Aunt Electra, who lived in Tennessee and sold them for a living. Until she died, that is. Over the years, my friend has given them to me in increments, a pile at a time, knowing that I appreciate their intricacies and the skill and sheer patience that went into each one. She usually says, "Robyn, I know you love these, maybe you can make art with them." Sometimes I even find little price tags on them.
I brought this bin with me up to Ithaca because, truth be told, these beautiful, precious textiles have felt a bit like a stone around my neck. What good is it to hoard them in a plastic bin? Yet, the idea of making something with them was mostly horrifying. A lot of the work I see made from vintage textiles (Shawn, you are an exception!) looks like, well, not what I want to make. And the idea of cutting them up or otherwise altering them seems like sacrilege. I know only too well what has gone into their making.
On the morning that I left for Ithaca, I stopped by my studio and, at the last minute, I grabbed the bin. I will be brave, I thought. I won't get intimidated by their beauty and their age and by the ghosts of the hands that made them that still hover around them. Once I arrived, I unpacked the lot of them, which is how I found my old pillowcase which isn't quite to the standard of the other stuff but clearly sparked something. Or maybe it just felt ok to cut up because I was the maker? Whatever. I divided the contents of the bin into categories: 1. Still too beautiful to use (these went back in the bin) 2. Usable to alter and manipulate i.e. cut up and 3. Suitable for embroidery. And then I forced myself to use them.
Some of them, I ruined. I choked. I let their preciousness overwhelm me and, by caring too much, I ruined them by being too stiff and too self conscious. It's the worst feeling - knowing that every mark, every action is just compounding the awfulness. It is a lost cause from the very beginning, and even as I know this - I see it, feel it, taste it - I keep working as if I can turn the tide. When has that ever worked?
Every now and then, however, things did work. The stain became the perfection. When that happened, the lovely vintage textile became more than what it was. How? The textile is still the textile. The ink is still the ink. The embroidery thread is still the embroidery thread. By ruining it beyond repair, it became bigger than it was. It is process that can't be replicated. There is no system or technique. Each time I pull one from the pile, the questions are as fresh and new as they were for the one before. Do I know you? What do you want? What do I want? And how shall we make this happen?