Woman’s Jacket (Suondi, China), cotton, 1991. This type of jacket is typically worn over a long sleeved shirt and a pleated skirt. This piece was made by a mother for her daughter’s wedding. Image credit: Burke Museum.
Woman’s Jacket (Suondi, China), cotton, 1991. This type of jacket is typically worn over a long sleeved shirt and a pleated skirt. This piece was made by a mother for her daughter’s wedding. Image credit: Burke Museum.

Many of us dress to express our identity, but who are we kidding when that shirt from the mall, and thousands like it were designed in Italy and sewn in the Philippines from fabric woven in India? This season’s athletic shoes, engineered in the U.S. and assembled in China, are sold in stores throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. To see clothes that truly embody identity, visit the exhibition “Weaving Heritage: Textile Masterpieces” from the Burke Collection. The 130 garments on display are the cream of the Burke Museum’s permanent collection of over 2,000 ethnographic textiles. These works of woven art hold clues to the original owners, their families, countries, and centuries of history.

Before the rise of industrial production and global trade, fabric was woven by hand by the wearer or a member of their family or community, from natural fibers and dyes that grew nearby. Colors, patterns, fibers, and garment styles developed in these tight cultural circles, some worn by a single family or social class. A wearer’s age, marital status, ancestry, wealth, and power could be read from their dress. Specific garments were given or worn to mark important events. The pieces in this show are grouped by country and culture of origin, representing thirteen regions in Asia and the Americas, from Bolivia to Canada, Japan to Indonesia. Each a work of art in its own right, they are presented in a larger geographic and historical context. Each section of the exhibition includes a brief history and an assessment of the vitality of traditional textile practices of the featured region. In Japan, master textile artists are designated as living treasures. Native American and Canadian First Nations weavings are prized by art collectors. The Japanese, Hopi, Navajo, and Northwest Coast textiles, some a century old, are in pristine condition, evidence of their status as cultural treasures. Indigenous weaving traditions have come to symbolize national or ethnic pride in some countries. Where they have popular support, as in Indonesia and the Philippines, those traditions are sustained. In Guatemala, where indigenous tribes are in conflict with the government, people are afraid to practice their traditions. In nearly every region, the spread of modern dress and cheap mass-produced fabrics threatens traditional textile production.

At the center of the China section are two blue coats. One is a Qing Dynasty dragon robe in silk, embroidered with colorful dragons and celestial symbols; a luxury garment worn only by an emperor, today found only in a museum or art collection. Next to it is a coat from the Dong minority tribe, cotton dyed with indigo, a plant-based dye using the batik technique in which the pattern is drawn on the fabric in wax before dyeing. This design also incorporates dragons and celestial symbols, but in abstract form. Similar fabric is still produced by hand in Dong villages in Hunan and Guangxi provinces where the Chinese government promotes traditional textile production as a cultural tourism initiative.

The ten Indonesian textiles in the exhibition come from eight different islands; their wide variety of colors, patterns, and techniques highlight this diversity. A midnight blue and white fabric from the island of Sumatra is a ritual cloth given to a pregnant woman by her parents. The finely patterned cloth is actually made up of five pieces, each employing different weaving and dyeing techniques. Nearby is a banded cloth in shades of brown from Lembata island, a bridewealth cloth, the traditional gift from a bride’s family to her husband. Its complex geometric pattern is not printed; it is ikat, a technique in which the threads are tie-dyed before weaving.

Built over the past century, the Burke’s textile collection embodies Seattle’s connections to the Pacific Rim. Many pieces are gifts from Northwest Native Americans or Asian immigrants. Others were collected by local residents who lived, had business connections, or travelled in Asia and the Americas. The exhibition includes three types of looms and a hands-on area where children (and adults) can weave and touch fabrics and fibers. Weaving demonstrations are scheduled throughout the run of the exhibition. The Burke Museum’s website includes a schedule of demonstrations and a photographic catalog of the exhibition.

“Weaving Heritage” shows through February 27, 2011 at the Burke Museum. Visit www.burkemuseum.org/weaving or call (206) 543-7907.

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