Textiles as Art

Adding textiles to your collection will take you literally around the world.

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While collecting textiles appears to be a new area in the widening collectors' circle, it is actually a tradition that goes back through time and may in fact be the earliest collected art form. Before the arrival of spinning jennies, power-generated looms and synthetic dyes, textiles were very time consuming and expensive to produce. The fact that they were highly valued, preserved and collected is shown by their inclusion in early wills and household inventories. Particularly highly prized, were fabrics brought from distant places. During the Renaissance, these treasures were kept in "curiosity cabinets" and in Europe many of these collections remain intact, having been passed down through the generations.

Navajo cross
Textile 2

Today thousands of yards of fabrics are produced in minutes by machines. With yardage a common commodity, we long for material that is made completely by hand. Handmade fabrics not only reveal the skill of the maker but reflect a long history and cultural tradition. Collecting textiles leads one in many directions: to the exploration of another culture, a link with history; to the wonder of technical ingenuity, and a feeling of connection to the person who masterminded this impressive object.

Sometimes it is the richness of color and pattern that attracts us to textiles, other times it is the pure tactile pleasure. After all, the touch of a soft blanket is one of our first sensual experiences. Numerous areas in the world have produced textiles, and Santa Fe abounds with opportunities to see them. Many of the textiles that you will find in Santa Fe were made in the Southwest. Navajo blankets and rugs are the most available but you will also find Pueblo and Hispanic weavings. Other textiles found in the galleries include American textiles. You will also discover the strongly graphic textiles of Africa, as well as the more luxurious tapestries and embroideries from Europe and the Orient.

Textile 3
Kuba cloth

What is it about these textiles that fascinates us? Take for example the forceful image of a Navajo blanket. Within the confines of a rectangular shape, the Navajo weaver tells you of her people. She makes a blanket that is evenly spun, and tightly woven, with a strong single-image design that is well proportioned and balanced reflecting the ideals of harmony ingrained in the Navajo culture.

Also of interest to contemporary art collectors are the playful and deceptively complex textiles of Africa. Even those that are centuries old have a sensibility that is fresh and modern to our eye. A recent exhibition in Paris showed the textiles of the Kuba peoples of Zaire accompanied by paintings of Paul Klee, Georges Noel, and Bradley Walker Tomlin. The influence of these textiles cannot be missed.

While you may not think of coming to New Mexico to find textiles from Europe and Asia, gallery owners travel around the world and collect material that has long been part of the eclectic and colorful Santa Fe look. More predictably, there is a good range of objects from the Americas. Several shops and galleries have the beautifully colored costumes of Guatemala, and the witty applique blouse panels or molas of the Panamanian Cuna peoples. There are also the exquisitely striped ponchos from Bolivia and the ancient garments from Peru, perhaps the most sophisticated of all South American textiles in terms of technique and iconography.

Collectors take note

As with other antiques, the questions of authenticity and condition are important. Authenticity can be learned by studying the objects and reading. If you have not built your own expertise, it is best to rely on that of a respected dealer. The condition of a textile should always be considered when making a purchase. A textile in perfect condition is ideal, but old pieces that have been used and loved carry a patina that may bring a deeper, more sublime pleasure. The problems of condition most common to antique textiles are dirt, wear and fading. Antique textiles can usually be cleaned either by dry or wet methods. Holes and other damage can also be repaired by sewing or reweaving. This is the work of a skilled restorer or conservator. Frequently, restoration work has been so successfully done that it is not apparent to the untrained eye. Always ask to have the restoration work pointed out.

Display ideas

There are many options in displaying your textile collection. A frequent choice is to sew the textile to what is known as a "rigid mount": a stretcher with fabric pulled over it. A rigid mount should be done only by a professional textile mounter because if it is not done correctly, the textile will eventually begin to sag. After the textile has been properly mounted, it can be further framed, with or without glass or plexiglass. Because textiles have great tactile qualities, it is a pity to cover them, but it should be done if they are to be hung in a high traffic or breezy place. Many creative methods for displaying fabrics can be used by employing poles, bamboo, plexi or lacquered dowels suspended from the ceiling or wall. A recent magazine article showed Kenzo's house in Paris filled with his textile collection draped over kimono racks: a traditional Japanese way of showing beautiful garments when they were not being worn.

One of the pleasures of collecting textiles is their comparatively low price. Being in the forefront of this new collecting area is a definite advantage. Instead of acquiring one object, you can consider assembling a whole collection for the cost of one painting. Putting together a collection is an adventure full of learning and discovery. Then there is the thrill of finding the ultimate textile treasure!

By Mary Hunt Kahlenberg former curator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; author of Walk in Beauty, The Navajo and Their Blankets and Textile Traditions of Indonesia; co-owner of TAI Gallery/Textile Arts, Santa Fe.

Photos: Details of textiles courtesy of TAI Gallery remote of Santa Fe.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 3

Related Pages

Batik As Art article
Collecting Contemporary Navajo Weavings article
Indian Trade Blankets article
The History of an Ancient Symbol article
The Thread of New Mexico article
Vallero Star Blankets article

A Virtual Community for the Fiber Arts remote

A good resource for collectors wishing to understand more about their textiles
Material Insight:
Navajo Textile Certification and Analysis

Collector’s Resources


Sumner & Dene | 505-842-1400
Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

Santa Fe

Bellas Artes | 505.983.2745
Chimayo Trading & Mercantile | 505-351-4566
Folk Arts of Poland | 505.984.9882
The Johnsons of Madrid Galleries of Fine & Fiber Art | 505-471-1054
James Koehler rem By appointment in Santa Fe | 466-3924
Laura Center Navajo Rug Restoration PO Box 8455 | 505-982-5663
LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Marigold Arts | 505-982-4142
Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
Peyton Wright Gallery | 505-989-9888
Tansey Contemporary rem 652 Canyon Road | 505-995-8513
Seppanen & Daughters Fine Textiles, Inc | 505.424.7470
Sherwoods Spirit of America | 505-988-1776
William Siegal Gallery | 505-820-3300


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