Last night my sister stopped over in Los Angeles en route to the Quechua village of Otovalo in Ecuador from Guangzhou in the Canton province of China and I strapped her down for an hour to ask her about her incredible crusade to study the textile trail for my podcast.
Vanessa is studying the semiotics of fashion in Halifax, Nova Scotia where she discovered the language of culture can be unzipped from the patterns found in textiles. From Chan Chan to Lake Titicaca in Peru to the mega-industrialized cities of Canton, there is a history of meaning woven into the very fabrics that under closer scrutiny reveals much about the culture. For example the pelicans find their way into Peruvian “mantas” – cloth used for everything from baby harnesses to satchels for carrying foodstuffs, because the behaviors of pelicans may reveal the stock of fish in a given body of water. The action of a certain animal running uphill may belie the coming of a storm. For these reasons, these systems of communication are transmitted in the images found in the weave.
Vanessa trekked four days up the Incan trail, not only laden with but constructed of a semi-precious green stone called Serpetina, to the mystic cloud city of Machu Pichu. She considered the flora and fauna along the way and how their colors and movements worked their way into the cloth.
At Lake Titicaca, the natives have created floating islands out of reeds where they have taken up permanent residence – powering their internet connection via solar panels. The implications of this are astounding and beyond the scope of this article. But consider what this means in light of a thing like the Principality of Sealand.
Although now some villages are using synthetic dyes and fibers, natural colors were created from insects to onions, from llama and alpaca wool – but now the global popularity of alpaca has forced prices to raise so high the the very natives who innovated use of the material can’t afford it.
A month later, Vanessa finds herself in Hong Kong en route to a tech convention in Guangzhou where the sky is, as she describes, a permanent ashen color from all the pollution to be found in the world’s central factory for technology. Nine-story high building filled with nothing but cell phone merchants bring on intense migraines and colossal skyscrapers – glass and steel wonders that put the best New York has to offer to shame follow the dictates of Feng Shui and yet these things remain virtually unknown and unseen by the Western world.
Textiles are made on looms and looms, which used punched cards to create the complex patterns used in textiles are essentially the precursor to today 8.9″ laptops, thus the patterns thereby created are miniature programs whose propriety belongs to those micro-cultures that developed them. To unlock these codes is to understand hidden knowledge about the world, language and development of a culture. In these times when thousands of unique languages are going extinct by the week, to learn to read these lines of code is to reveal much – to find the seeds for restoring their significance in the world.
I urge you to listen to this extraordinary interview with this designer on my podcast and explore further the possibilities and semiotics of fashion.
Listen to Episode 17 of the KeramCast – or subscribe at iTunes by searching for “KeramCast” in the podcast directory.