Guest Blog by Lakshmi Narayan, Auburndale, MA
When Maggie Holtzberg asked me if I would participate in the Lowell Folk Festival, I was excited to be able to share my fascination for the “unstitched garment” with visitors to this unique festival. It has been fifteen years since I moved to Massachusetts from India. While living in India, I had been deeply entrenched in working with hand woven, hand block printed, embroidered fabrics, for close to 15 years. I still continue to stay connected with craft communities in India and keep looking for ways to share my love of South Asian textiles with communities here in the US.
On the day before the festival I pulled out all my favorite saris from my wardrobe — Ikats, Jamdanis, Benaresi, Mysore silks and Kanchipurams. To this collection I added a suitcase full of incredible hand spun, hand woven contemporary saris from “Taan Baan” a label well respected and known for revivals, and all my books on saris including the one I contributed to, Saris: Tradition and Beyond.
I loaded my little Volkswagen beetle on the morning of the festival. On my way to Lowell, I stopped to pick up Jaiya Aiyer, a truly remarkable young girl who was introduced to me a few months earlier as a student of Indian dance. The plan was for us to demonstrate the folding and wrapping of the sari and discuss the ways the unstitched garment could be worn in myriad elegant ways.
Jaiya had worn the sari as a costume for her Bharatanatyam dance recitals in the past and was very familiar with the regular six yard wearing style.
When Jaiya got into the car I was thrilled to see her wearing a beautiful traditional “Narayanpet” from Andra Pradesh, which she had borrowed from her mom’s wardrobe.
As soon as we arrived at the Lowell festival we got busy hanging up the saris and stoles in our tent and putting up the posters I had made. In preparation for meeting festival goers, we continued to chat about saris — their structure and materials, the weavers and printers, the wearers and the community.
I dressed the mannequin, so kindly lent to us by Lowell National Historical Park, in a white cotton Kerala sari and our first visitors watched with amusement as I wrestled with the mannequin, to turn the skinny blond lady into a traditional South Indian “mohini attam” dancer.
It wasn’t long before we overheard friendly chatter coming from the other end of our tent. We soon learned that our tent neighbors were Liberian Rosaline Accam Awadjie who had arrived with brightly colored Dutch wax prints fabrics for African head wraps and Qamaria Amatal-Wadud, a young woman from western Massachusetts with her fine Islamic hijabs.
We spent two days sharing wonderful stories and experiences with visitors explaining the wearing style they would try on, the materials, the variable textures. The way the sari is worn conveys a wealth of cultural information about an Indian woman- her religious belief, marital status, wealth, or social standing. Visitors asked several questions on rituals, customs and culture.
These exchanges did not stop with just a greeting — something that I have experienced, having participated as a vendor of Indian hand crafts on several occasions. Here, people were interested in knowing more about the culture and story behind the cloth, the women who wore them, and the weaver who wove printed or painted them. We used the charts I had made to explain the process of hand spinning, weaving and printing.
At the end of day, Sunday, a woman who had visited the day before came back with a sari in her hand. She had gotten it as a gift years ago and wanted to know if I knew which part of India it might be woven. “I think Bengal,” I told her, looking at the fine cotton thread work and indeed there was an old label stamped with a shop’s name in Bengal!
Another enthusiast we dressed in a sari wanted photographs of herself after she been dressed with an African headwrap; by combining the two she made a unique fashion statement! Below you see Qamaria taking a photo of this woman walking past a patch of black-eyed Susans.
Both Jaiya and I enjoyed our two days of interactions and were happy to have shared the story of the unstitched garment, literally the “whole nine yards” with visitors to Lowell.
What a delight it was to be present for the 2015 NEA National Heritage Fellowship awards in Washington, DC last week. The stellar “class” of master traditional artists were recognized and feted in the nation’s capitol. The events culminated in a dazzling and moving concert most ably emceed by PRI The World’s Marco Werman.
Anahid Kazazian inspecting Armenian Marash embroidery
Violin bowmaker David Hawthorne chiseling mortise
origami rose by Richard Alexander
Linda Lane making bobbin lace
Fisherman Marco Randazzo holding one of his rope sculptures
Ruben Arroco carving fruit
Dottie Flanagan cooking pierogi
Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan carving clay
Alma Boghosian making Armenian needle lace
Karol Lindquist making a Nantucket lightship basket
Chent Chow holding Chinese chop
Hands of Sicilian strega Lori Bruno
Entrance to folk craft area in Lucy Larcom Park
The Lowell Folk Festival is coming right up on July 24-26th. In addition to checking out music and dance performances and sampling some of the best ethnic food served at a festival, consider spending some time in the Folk Craft area located in Lucy Larcom Park. This year we are featuring 13 different textile traditions. From noon until 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, artisans will demonstrate traditional techniques used in the making of textiles: twining, coiling, weaving, quilting, hooking, and lace making. Others will explore how textiles are used in what is called the “unstitched garment,” i.e., wrapping Indian saris, African headwraps, and Islamic headscarves.
You will discover how the pattern of a textile’s weave, its thread count, and the way it is worn can convey religious belief, marital status, wealth, or social standing. Come compare quilting traditions from African American and Anglo American quilting guilds. Watch how embellishments such as bobbin lace are created. See how you look in an African head wrap. Try your hand at hooking a rug . . .
If you get hungry and tired and want to sit down, the Foodways demonstration area is close by. My colleague and friend Millie Rahn has put together a tasty program on pickling traditions.
“Pickling is a method of preserving food that is found in many cultures and usually involves brine, vinegar, spices, and fermentation. Vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, and nuts are often pickled alone or mixed together in various ways to keep food for out-of-season eating. Traditionally, pickling was a way of ensuring food sources for those working far from the comforts of home on land and sea, no matter the climate. Today, many home cooks in the region use the bounty of their gardens and local markets to pass on favorite recipes and preserve their foodways throughout the year.”
The schedule is below. As in past years, you will have a chance to ask questions and to taste samples once each demonstration is over.
12pm: Refrigerator Pickles Mill City Grows/UTEC; Lydia Sisson
1pm: Jamaican Pickled Pepper Sauce, Nicola Williams
2pm: Northern Indian Cholay, Yogesh Kumar
3pm: Lithuanian Pickles, Irena Malasaukas
4pm: New England Bread Butter Pickles, Jackie Oak with Tricia & Gerard Marchese
We are thrilled to announce that Yary Livan, a Cambodian ceramicist living in Lowell, Massachusetts, has just been named a National Heritage Fellow. Given by the National Endowment for the Arts, these fellowships are the nation’s highest award in the folk and traditional arts.
Yary Livan is one of the only known Cambodian master ceramists to survive the Khmer Genocide and still actively creating Cambodian ceramics and temple ornamentation. Yary’s training in the classical art of Cambodian ceramics at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh was disrupted when the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia in the early 1970s. After three years of unspeakable hardship, Yary was granted the status of political refugee; he left Cambodia on July 13, 2001, for Lowell.
Yary is currently teaching school residencies in Lowell, infusing traditional arts into curricula for elementary, high school, and community college students. He continues to make artistic contributions to community celebrations like Cambodian New Year and the Southeast Asian Water Festival.
Material culture has been a life line, connecting Yary to vital resources and linking him to students to whom he is passing on the ancient and endangered tradition of Khmer decorative art. He recently fulfilled a decade-long dream of building and firing in a wood burning kiln.
The hope (and beauty of it) is that the kiln, and the ware fired inside of it, will help insure the tradition of Khmer ceramics continues and thrives, along with one of its finest practitioners.
2015 has been a banner year for Yary Livan. He gave his first public talk at a NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts] conference. He returned to his homeland for the first time since emigrating in 2001. On October 1 and 2, 2015, the 2015 fellows will be feted in an awards ceremony and concert in Washington, DC, on October 1 and 2, 2015. I smile just thinking about Yary being recognized and honored as one of our nation’s national heritage fellows.
As mentioned in two recent posts, this year’s Folk Craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival will feature textile traditions. You will have the opportunity to watch artisans demonstrate techniques such as lap and loom weaving, quilting, lace making, basket making, and rug hooking. In addition, there will be a tent dedicated to the textiles and techniques used in creating what is known as the “unstitched garment,” e.g., South Asian saris, African headwraps and fashion, and Islamic hijab and abaya.
South Asian saris
Lakshmi Narayan, Auburndale, MA
For over 1,000 years, women throughout the Indian subcontinent have worn the sari. Conceived on the loom as a 3-dimensional garment, the sari is made from a single piece of unstitched fabric 5 to 12 yards in length, that is wrapped and pleated, pulled and tucked around the body.
Lakshmi Narayan knows the sari both as cultural insider and researcher. Born in South India, she immigrated to Massachusetts with her family in 2000. When possible, she travels to India to work with people involved with Indian handicrafts and handlooms.
Lakshmi notes that there are over 100 different traditional styles of wearing the sari in India. “You could tell from the way the lady drapes her sari, which community she belongs to.” Once common for everyday wear, the sari now survives as special occasion wear, especially here in the United States. “Women now go to the tailor to have pleats stitched and pinned up. We are losing the ability to wrap the sari, something that was traditionally passed on.”
How comfortable do you feel in a sari? Lakshmi is often asked this. “I can bike miles in one, my aunt played tennis in a white sari with the British memsabs, and today it is worn with pride in corporate India to board meetings.”
African textiles, headwraps, & fashion
Roseline Accam Adwadjie, Worcester, MA
In many cultures around the world, clothing and head adornment are made by wrapping textiles around the body. Roseline Accam Adwadjie, who grew up in Liberia, says, “Africans, we wrap, but not all of our clothes are wraps. African women love dressing, they love colors. They are very elaborate in dressing.”
Roseline runs Chic D’Afrique, a store in Worcester specializing in imported African textiles. “Fabrics come in different grades,” she explains. “The highest quality of waxed cotton has a supple sheen – almost like fine leather.” She also carries plain brocades and Dutch wax prints known as Hollandaise. The latter are stiff from sizing, a combination of wax and starch. “In Africa,” Roseline explains, “after dying the cloth, they put sizing on it and beat it with sticks. They sing as they beat the sizing into the cloth – both as a way of keeping rhythm and avoiding boredom.”
African headwraps can be truly sculptural in form. Their voluminous style enhances the face, like a crown worn by a queen. Roselines more fanciful headwraps are wrapped, pinned, and sewn, thereby holding their shape. A single headwrap provides multiple looks, depending on how it is positioned. The variety is a form of improvisation, a concept fundamental to African and African American performance.
Islamic headwear & fashion:
Qamaria Amatul-Wadud, Springfield, MA
Qamaria Amatul-Wadud designs and sews clothing for Islamic women who choose to dress modestly. She is skilled in making both the hijab (headwear) and the abaya (outfit). Her creations are primarily for herself, but also for friends and family. In her Muslim community there are many women who sew for themselves, because modest, fashionable clothing is often hard to find commercially.
The Islamic hijab can be square or rectangular, and fastened with a safety pin under the chin and worn with a decorative hijab pin or headband on top. Qamaria adds her own twist to a traditional craft. She considers her style comfortable, yet elegant and modest, pointing out that her designs adhere to religious customs.
Qamaria grew up the youngest girl in a family of 10 children. She started sewing her own clothes when she was 14, following in the footsteps of her mother and older sisters. She makes outfits for every-day, party, and wedding wear, including headscarves, tops, and pants. She never makes an outfit the same way twice, preferring to “switch it up a little.” Now she is passing on the tradition of handmade clothing by teaching her young niece to sew.