I never intended to start a textile collection.
When I was teaching in Indonesia in the early 1970s, students would sometimes offer me textiles from their home islands (Flores, Timor, Sumba) to raise money to cover their expenses. I became interested in the range of textile traditions in Asia, and started to educate myself and to acquire examples that interested me when opportunities arose.
My collection currently includes some 200 items from Asia and South America. What attracts me to textiles, particularly traditional textiles, is their sumptuousness and the diversity of effects that makers can achieve using techniques that have a long history and tradition.
Unlike Chinese robes, traditional Korean robes seem to be quite rare. There were literally thousands of robes made for the Chinese court and for Chinese officials, so there are a good many in private and public collections as well as available for sale through dealers. However one does not see old Korean robes very often, even in Korea, except in museums, and there appear to be few significant public collections.
So I was intrigued on a visit to Seoul some years ago when an antique dealer showed me a beautiful robe he had for sale. This dealer is not a textile specialist and he was unable to give me much information about the robe except that it was old and came from a family collection.
Since then the same dealer has located all of the Korean robes in my collection. Most of my younger Korean friends tell me they have never seen robes like these. I find them fascinating because of their use of color, for their designs, and for the quality of the embroidery. They show some influence of Chinese robes yet are different in many ways, and are particularly ‘Korean’ in their style and in their choice of colors.
Chinese robes are probably familiar to many people since major museums often have good examples and they are often seen in Chinese period dramas in movies or on television. However I did not encounter my first Chinese robe until 1979, when I first lived in Hong Kong. The Hilton Hotel at that time had several robes displayed in plexiglass cases throughout the hotel, and I was fascinated by their rich and exotic designs. A few years later I purchased my first robe at an exhibition on Hong Kong island.
Today good quality Chinese robes are hard to find. I have had to be content with what dealers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand were able to offer me, and I have tried to build up a collection that, although modest, shows the extraordinary range and quality of Chinese textile makers.
The term “batik” refers to cloth which has been decorated by a wax resist technique. A pattern is applied in hot wax onto a piece of undyed cloth, usually cotton. When the cloth is later dyed, those parts which have been treated with wax will not take up the dye, and when the wax is removed a pattern of white lines will be left. This process can be repeated with a number of subsequent waxings and dyebaths, leaving a complex pattern of motifs in various colors. My collection of batik fabrics includes many examples I collected in Indonesia in the 1970s, and also includes many spectacular examples of Pekalongan pieces from the 1920s and 1930s, the latter curated by Mr. Sam Lim of Asiatic Fine Arts, Singapore.
Ibans make up nearly one third of the population of the East Malaysia state of Sarawak. Traditionally in Iban society, men distinguished themselves through acts of bravery, women through weaving. For Iban women, the art of weaving ikat fabrics was, and remains, the foremost way of acquiring status. Ikat is an Austronesian term meaning “to tie”. In the production of Iban ikats fabrics, warp threads are tied with strips of fiber to protect them from the dye and to create the patterns that will emerge after weaving. After dying the strips are removed. Motifs depicted in Iban weaving draw their inspiration from the immediate environment and serve as a visual record of tribal beliefs and values. My collection of Iban ikats consists of items made in the 1920s and 1930s and was curated by Mr. Sam Lim of Asiatic Fine Arts, Singapore.
Korean Bojagi Wrapping Cloths
Bojagi wrapping cloths are composed of pieces of fabric, traditionally scraps of material available in the household. The technique used in making the cloths has been handed down through the generations, by women who often had little education and often lived lonely lives rarely leaving their homes. Frugally they saved tiny scraps of silk and crafted beautiful wrapping cloths during moments of free time, both for practical purposes and for the joy of making them. They never realized that their handwork would ever leave their homes, or become precious heirlooms passed down through several generations. They would be amazed to know that their work now inspires artists not only in Korea, but also abroad. The cloth wrappers were made to protect as well as decorate their contents, and used to cover items such as beds, tables and food items. They have been in general use in Korea by royalty and commoner alike since the late 14th century. Making Bojagi is a folk art practiced by women from all social classes, and the most treasured cloths are often preserved as family heirlooms. My collection of wrapping cloths includes both old and contemporary examples.
A selection of Dr. Richards’ Guatemalan textiles have been shown at the Tairawhiti Museum in Gisborne.