A Silk Voyage or How I Discovered Shibori

I have always had a love for fabrics and sewing. Before I knew how to sew, I would watch my mother sew my school clothes on her straight stitch Pfaff machine. Simple dresses in beautiful cotton prints that I would slip on, zip up the back, and voila! They were ready to pin the hemline in them while I stood in the mirror watching. It was the beginning of an artist’s journey. By the 1960’s I was designing and sewing and altering all kinds of clothes for my own pleasure.

Later, in the late 1970’s, after entering the Alianza Gallery and seeing a wonderful line of art quilts of Bob Marley and scenes of women with basketed heads in the fields of Jamaica, and another art quilt of a downtown Miami scene which depicted a free, wild haired, sunglassed woman’s exhilarating highway ride in her convertible, I was moved to design and sew pictorial style art quilts of my own in my newly created studio. I named my studio Willow Sap clothing and design. By 1980, I also started designing a line of pillows in applique style exclusively for Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY. It is still a successful line today.

Some 20 years ago, in the 1990’s, my two daughters were taking their dance classes at the Oregon Ballet Theatre. The dance instructor insisted that the parents of her students wait outside the room, so as not to distract them with our presence or movements. After a while, out of sheer boredom, I decided to wander the wide halls of the Oregon Ballet Theatre. It was a most beautiful building, afterall, with very ornate trim around the high ceilings. At one point, I happened upon a closed door; the signage read “library”. It was intriguing. I opened the door and peered into the empty library. Not a person was in there. Sure enough, there was a vast array of books on shelves that were so tall that I could not reach the top shelf without a stool. I decided to peruse the shelves and see if any of the books spoke to me. I reached for a book in the middle of a shelf, and it was entitled Fortuny. Mariano Fortuny: His Life and Work by Guillermo de Osma. As I thumbed slowly through the pages, a world of discovery opened up that I never knew existed. For lovers of early-20th-century avant-garde art like myself, this was a major find… I put the book back on the shelf after reading the first dozen or so pages, as the dance class ended and the girls were getting ready to go home. I was mesmerized by Fortuny’s life in Venice, Italy and his extensive silk work. I had been lifted outside myself, transformed, and immersed in another self. Only once in a blue moon does an event so profoundly influence a gradual and inevitable change in one’s life direction, and the life and work of this incredible man, the last renaissance man, was the catalyst for that change. As soon as I got a chance to, I found a copy of the Fortuny book at the library. At the time, I must admit, that I knew nothing about shibori. In about 1907, Fortuny developed a technique of making his own pigments into dyes, hand dyeing and hand pleating lengths of silk, and making them into a dress he called the Delphos. He even held patents on his methods. At the time of his death in 1949, he had not shared the secrets of his methods with anyone. It wasn’t until I kept researching everything I could about silk that I stumbled upon the term and techniques of shibori.

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