Marla's Textile History: The Education of a Textile Fanatic
I have always loved textiles, and when I was young, weaving was an intriguing mystery. When my high school art teacher offered to lend me a small four-harness loom over one summer I was elated. I commandered our living room floor: loom and me in the middle, with weaving books, tools and yarns all around. At the end of the summer I proudly presented three small experimental weavings to Ms. Hohlen, who without telling me sent them off to a state high school art exhibit. When I received a big blue ribbon, I was hooked. From that point on, over the years, I kept it going--totally self taught as a weaver. I learned by experimenting and making mistakes.
Years later, living in Georgia, I was thrilled to stumble across a large old-fashioned counter-balanced loom in a farm auction. In the next weeks I was even more thrilled to find that some of the commercial carpet-weaving businesses in north Georgia had back rooms where they disposed of left-over wool yarns at give-away prices. I loaded up my van with enough to keep the dye pots going continuously. I could try any sorts of large tapestries, hangings or rugs without worrying about using up expensive materials. I eventually put a few of my works in local exhibitions and started meeting interior designers who liked to use such things on their jobs.
I had acquired fine arts degrees (BFA and MA) at the University of Iowa, but what I really wanted to do was weave. Although I had expected to teach eventually eventually, I fell into teaching jobs immediately, first at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and then at the Atlanta University colleges where I managed to finagle a textile class assignment. Left to choose my own approaches, I experimented with design curricula. Along with introducing the customary basic tribal weaving techniques, I encouraged my students to "invent" primitive looms, with fascinating results. One of my students came up with a brilliant treadle idea. Another devised a clever system of double heddles. At this time I was also involved with antique "Oriental Rug" collectors' groups, and was lecturing around the country. One odd result of these simultaneous activities: my students, with their technical experiments, helped me challenge crackpot academic theories of rug-making origins.
I had been toying with the idea of opening a public folk art gallery in Atlanta, but instead decided to stick to just ethnographic textiles and to temporarily arrange a gallery in my house--in my attic. It would be an open-by-appointment deal, and focus on those interior designers who had been buying my own weavings. I consulted several of those folks to determine their interest, and received encouragement. Several were already visiting my basement weaving studio occasionally to see my personal work.
Antique Oriental pile rugs occupied the attention of many, many American collectors, but my main interests were the ethnograhic flat weaves: tapestry-woven kilims, soumak saddlebags, and various covers made traditionally by Asian and North African nomads for their own use. Unfortunately, very few of these items made it to the US. Traditional rug dealers thought them "inappropriate for the American market." .
I obviously needed to travel to hunt for the pieces that I found most appealing. My first foreign "buying trip" was to southern Morocco, partly because I knew so little about the weavings produced there. I had seen a few photos of intriguing North African Berber weavings, but I had no idea whether or not there were still people weaving or if there might be interesting things available for sale. But it was OK....I could spend time exploring, since I had limited funds for purchases anyway.
What an exciting time! I spent long hours looking everywhere--to learn about the garish but intriguing weavings on display, learn about their unfamiliar constructions, and learn about their history. Occsionally I found a dealer who had an interest in good older pieces.. At this point in my education, it made no sense to wander around the countryside looking for weavers. With my limitations on that first trip I was fortunate to finally assemble a group of about twenty handsome older Berber weavings that delighted both me and my Atlanta customers. On the following trips I expanded my collecting. Now, many years later, i understand that it is nearly impossible to find good pieces there.
Turkey was next! This time I studied the language diligently. I needed at least to be able to conduct my business in Turkish. I had looked forward to this experience for so long, that every day in Turkey was a pleasure. At first I methodically looked everywhere so I would understand the scope and character of the business. A seemingly endless number of garish new or recent synthetic-dye weavings were on display everywhere that tourists might wander. That was true for the highly touted Grand Bazaar in Istanbul as well as smaller markets and street-side shops everywhere. Fancy large up-scale galleries catered primarily to Istanbul residents and offered only new floral carpets in the latest Persian styles. On my first trip, I did stumble into a couple of unusual back alley shops that were noteworthy. Then on subsequent trips, I gradually made the connections so important for my business--meeting private dealers who were "pickers." These individuals slowly gathered good 19th century pieces that they normally kept for foreign dealers. Although I made annual month-long trips over a 25-year period, learning the business was slow. I gradually made more discerning judgements on the artistry in the pieces, their craftsmanship, and the quality of their natural dyes. Everyone was always moaning that "Kilims are finished!" and indeed each year there were fewer good pieces available.
I made time on most trips to visit nomad weavers. Sitting alongside those women at their looms I not only learned occasional new weaving tricks; I also came to understand their attitudes toward the work. They were lovely, hospitable women.
To sum up, I can say that my eventual kilim purchases were so well received in Atlanta and via the website, that I've been practically sold out--and unfortunately have few nomad weavings left for these current "retirement sale" web pages. .
One difficulty in dealing with old or antique nomad textiles was arranging for fine quality restoration work. Museums normally preferred pieces in sometimes tattered, original condition, mounted on muslin, but private collectors usually wanted restored pieces. Thus after each of the first several trips I was bogged down with doing the essential work myself. In much later years I finally located some talented restoration guys in Turkey to whom I could entrust my best purchases. What a relief!
Over my years of immersion in the field of Middle Eastern tribal weavings, I grappled with one major question: How in the world did such a wide range of designing develop? Especially in Turkish, Kurdish, and Caucasian village pile rugs? After years of studying the weavings, I began to make sense of it all. I spent so much time working through these issues I finally gave a series of design development lectures at International Carpet and Textile Conferences in Vienna, Hamburg, and Milan as well as in the US. These lectures on structure-based designing provoked enough interest that I began to write short pieces on the basic weaves...Then they became a book: WOVEN STRUCTURES..
Actually, the internet came along at the perfect time for me. Starting a website in 1989, I usually kept an inventory of over 400 assorted textiles posted. What a delight to hear from textile enthusiasts around the world. I could never have imagined contacts with folks living above the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia or all-the-way-down-under in Tasmania--and then sending textiles to those places.
As Turkey's kilim market became more difficult and expensive, I thought seriously about other places I needed to investigate. I had been selling a few Egyptian folk art tapestries, and decided that I must go there myself--particularly to visit the well-known Wissa Wassef studio and to select tapestries myself. I met and became friends with several weavers in the village of Harrania--especially some of the older women my age who had been part of Ramses Wissa Wassef's first group of child weavers in his famous 1950's Creativity Experiment. Those folks are now master artisans who have been working indepedently for years. They are admired throughout Egypt and beyond. Garia Mahmoud and Rowhia Ali Salem became good friends of mine, and they produced my favorite tapestry purchases.
Next, partly as a result of correspondence with customers in Singapore, I developed an interest in Laotian silk brocades and other weavings. I thought too that it would be interesting to try navigating a culture quite different from Middle Eastern Islam. It was indeed delightful to visit Thailand and Laos. Some of the weavings are absolutely astonishing and I'll be studying them for a good while. As I met Lao weavers I was able to check out their astonishing large, unique brocade loom setups.
Although I've been talking mainly about the tribal kilims that dominated my life and business, over the years I've handled many other kinds of ethnographic textiles. Whenever I have encountered someone with an unusual textile specialty, I've been eager to learn from them. When their pieces have been for sale, I've been delighted to select choice items for my gallery collection.
First I encountered a man who had collected Cuna Indian mola panels in the San Blas Islands of Panama. I thoroughly enjoyed those colorful reverse applique panels that formed women's blouses. Everybody loved molas. Then a woman appeared who had Indonesian ikat hingis from Sumba. They were good ones. A friend of mine was spending lots of time in China, collecting Chinese Minority costume items, and I couldn't resist going through her purchases the minute she returned from a trip. She displayed them proudly, but undoubtedly was disappointed if I chose her favorites. A man originally from Guinea who was importing dramatic raffia waist wraps and other textiles that he collected in the Congo eagerly showed me his treasures after each trip. The conversations often turned to tales of life in his village, growing up. Another delightful friend, from Afghanistan, let me rummage through his storeroom and choose from his superb groups of embroidered costume items-- examples from both his home country and Pakistan. Finally, I became friends with an Atlantan who had spent lots of his military time in Japan and developed an unquenchable love for kimonos during those years and on subsequent trips. He shared his knowledge, his purchases, and his enthusiasm so freely that it was infectious, as well as informative. I haven't yet mentioned the lavish Ottoman Turkish embroidered objects and costume items that I bought from specialists in Turkey when I could actually tear myself away from the kilim hunt. One Istanbul gentleman was full of information. Then a collection of Coptic textiles popped up! Each encounter with a new group of textiles sent me off frantically searching for books on the subject. When a stash of fine old handmade laces appeared and I didn't know a thing about them, I was driven to teach myself how to make Torchon bobbin lace. What a challenging set of puzzles that was! Anyway, my gallery business kept me fully occupied and I've always enjoyed a mix of extravagant ethnographic textiles: a bold Kuba applique next to a refined silk brocade or gold embroidery...complemented by perky little embroidered kids' hats or elegant chaders from Kohistan women.
I haven't yet mentioned the rest of the crew here. My husband Chris, William Christopher, is an indispensable aid, and kept the business going when I was travelling. My son David Mallett is an archaeologist whose interests often coincide with mine so we enjoy sharing each other's experiences. He came up with the title for this bio--suggesting that I choose between "Textile Fanatic" and "Textile Nut" since both describe me accurately.
AN ACADEMIC NOTE
Purely academic work in textile and rug history have been a major part of my life, which I will spare you. One solid contribution to the rug and textile community, of which I am proud, however, consisted of exposing major archaeological fraud perpetrated by British archaeologist, James Mellaart in connection with the Neolithic Turkish site, Catal Huyuk
in central Anatolia. It is an important site, and the materials that Mellaart presented in 1989 were a bombshell in both the textile and archaeological communities. He published new fake drawings supposedly from wall murals in that settlement in an attempt to establish an 8000-year-old goddess cult history in kilim weaving. My expose of this fraud was posted in two Oriental Rug Review articles.