Scenes from a Festival: Textile Traditions

Signage in Folk Craft & Foodways area

Entrance to folk craft area in Lucy Larcom Park

Kudos to all the textile artists who made the Folk Craft area of this year’s Lowell Folk Festival so vibrant! Here are some images from the two-day event.

Kathy Blake-Parker (far right) of the Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild
Kathy Blake-Parker (far right) of the Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild
Fatima Vejzovic of Hartford demonstrating Bosnian rug weaving
Fatima Vejzovic of Hartford demonstrating Bosnian rug weaving
Jonas Stundzia holding a frame with Lithuanian pick-up weaving
Jonas Stundzia holding a frame with Lithuanian pick-up weaving
Jonas Stundzia (right) with friend Irene Malasaukas, who demonstrated Lithuanian pickle making in the Foodways tent
Jonas Stundzia (right) with friend Irene Malasaukas, who demonstrated Lithuanian pickle making in the Foodways tent
Entrance to Foodways demonstration tent
Entrance to Foodways demonstration tent
David Blackburn serving pickes at the foodways demonstration tent
David Blackburn serving pickles at the foodways demonstration tent
Samples of torchon bobbin lace by Linda Lane
Samples of torchon bobbin lace by Linda Lane
Sisters 'n Stitches quilting guild members
Sisters ‘n Stitches quilting guild members enjoying the crowd
Melissa Dawson of Chelmsford Quilters' Guild
Melissa Dawson of Chelmsford Quilters’ Guild
Elizabeth James Perry discussing Wampanoag weaving traditions
Elizabeth James Perry discussing Wampanoag weaving traditions
LFF2015_Patrisiya Kayobera with festival goer
Patrisiya Kayobera holding one of her Rwandan coiled baskets
Rwandan coiled basket by Patrisiya Kayobera
Rwandan coiled basket by Patrisiya Kayobera
Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with examples of her Islamic hijab and abaya
Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with examples of her Islamic hijab and abaya
Rosaline Accam Awadjie (on right) with two festival goers that she has dressed in African headwraps and dress
Rosaline Accam Awadjie (on left, standing) with two festival goers that she has dressed in African headwraps and dress
Jaya Aiyer and Lakshmi Narayan displaying South Asian saris
Jaya Aiyer and Lakshmi Narayan displaying South Asian saris
LFF2015_attendance at unstitched garment tent copy
Visitors checking out the “unstitched garments” in the folk craft area

We are just weeks away from the 2015 Lowell Folk Festival

banner of folk craft artists' work

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 . . .

Rug hooking detail. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

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.

Pickles. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

“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



Hand Crafting Textiles in the 21st Century

folk craft banner

It’s that time of year when we are busy selecting craft demonstrators for the Lowell Folk Festival. Our theme is textile traditions and for the past several months I’ve been traveling to meet with people who are passionate about hand crafting textiles out of wool, cotton, and linen.

In Colonial New England, prior to the availability of manufactured goods, women were primarily responsible for the production of household textiles. Cloth was woven out of homespun cotton, wool, and flax; quilts were pieced together from worn out clothing and feed sacks. Women sewed the family’s clothing, hooked rugs, and knitted sweaters and mittens.

Mile of Mills by Sally Palmer Field

Of course, the late 19th century Industrial Revolution changed all this. As pictured above in Sally Palmer Field’s Mile of Mills wall hanging, Lowell is the birthplace of the American textile industry. Once fabrics were manufactured locally, they became more affordable. Today, the majority of textiles we use are commercially manufactured halfway round the world. Buying hand-crafted textiles has become something of a luxury. What began as basic survival skills — weaving, knitting, quilting,  and rug making — has evolved largely into expressions of creative artistry. The craft artisan’s purpose/market has changed too – from domestic necessity to supplying craft fairs and galleries, and engaging tourists at living history museums.

Linda Lane working on bobbin lace

This is especially true when it comes to the time-consuming, exacting production of bobbin lace. As Linda Lane, a master lace maker points out, “It can’t really be done on a commercial basis because one square inch of lace takes approximately an hour. Due to its complexity and the fineness of the lace, that can be days. So immediately, you price yourself out of a demand market.”

Linda pointing out a join

Linda Lane

An accomplished weaver and spinner, Linda Lane learned to make lace by watching another lace maker for a number of years. Then, with the aid of a few formal lessons and some very good instructional books, she taught herself. Decades later, Linda is a treasure trove of lace making history, patterns, and techniques. A retired nurse, Linda is currently the resident lace maker at the Hooper-Hathaway House in Salem, Massachusetts and a member of the New England Lace Group.

Hooper Hathaway House, Salem, MA

Linda working on bobbin lace

Linda weaves using 20 to 40 English bobbins, plaiting and working the lace-making fibers, which can go from 36 twos to 200 twos.  (Two is the ply – the higher the first figure, the finer the thread.) To make bobbin lace, one must have tremendous patience and keen eyesight. Just look at this example of lace in the making — its pattern comes from the edging found around a handkerchief once belonging to Christian the 4th, King of Denmark, circa 1644.

lace in the making

Notice the size of the metal pins in comparison to the lace to get a sense of scale. The pattern is called a pricking. “This is my sheet music . . . it tells me where to go, but not how to get there. The “how” to get there is up here,” Linda says, pointing to her head.  “In lace, there is a whole world of technique in just getting around a corner.”

Detail of a lace corner

Although lace, being woven, is technically a textile, it is more truly an embellishment. Indeed, lacere, the Latin root of the word lace, is to entice or delight. Bobbin lace, the type that Linda Lane excels at, dates back to the 1450s. “Throughout history,” Linda explains, “lace follows the dictates of  fashion very closely. It goes up and down. Only the well-to-do could afford it – royalty, the aristocracy, and the church.”

And what of lace, today, I ask. Linda responds,“It’s only purpose to exist is to be pure decadence, as it [was] in years past. It’s a socio-economic statement.”

Linda Lane will be demonstrating bobbin lace making at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival, July 25-26, 2015.


“Old-school” visitor comments arrive in the mail

A big box of photocopied comment cards arrived in the mail today. Visitors to Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts took the time to scribble down their reactions on printed comment cards. From time to time, we will share them with you here.

A 38-year-old woman from Belmont, MA writes: “I was so impressed by the intricate design and pattern of the baskets. It also reminds me of how ‘green’ cultures were that used these beautiful baskets in farming — reusing natural materials (no ugly plastic bags!)”

One of the cards asked: If you could learn from one of these keepers of tradtition, who would it be? Why? A 64-year-old man from Woodstock, CT answered: “Rob Napier, Newburyport. The man is good and I like the choice of the working boat. It’s the working men laboring unhseen that make the trade great.” And a 12-year-old girl from Canton, MA answered: “The art of tap dancing because it is a way of dancing and making music.”

A 47-year old woman from Shrewsbury wrote: “We enjoyed the entire exhibit, but my son especially enjoyed seeing the Cambodian crafts and dance, as he was adopted in Cambodia and is proud of his cultural heritage.”

And an unidentified person answered the question, Has this exhibition changed your idea of what folk art is? “Yes. I always thought it was boring, but it isn’t.”

Falling Between the Cracks

As folkorists, we are always questioning what constitutes “tradition,” “transmission,” and “context.”

Mary Hart attended the Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts exhibition twice during its run at the National Heritage Museum. Like many visitors, she filled out a comment card — in her case, the one where we asked people to tell us about a folk art tradition we should know about. Mary described her work in the German paper cutting tradition known as Scherenschnitte.

Scherensnitte is a tradition of making decorative documents that flourished within German American farm communities in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania from the 1750s to the 1890s. People used these cut papers for birth announcements, memorials, love letters, and baptismal certificates. Rather than put them on display, many families stored them between pages of the family Bible.

I was curious about Mary’s paper cutting, but well aware of how she didn’t fit our criteria of traditional artist. Not only did she learn her folk art from a book, she claims no German heritage, and she is what folklorists refer to as a “revivalist,” practicing her art outside of the cultural context in which it was created. After Mary and I exchanged a few emails, I picked up on her frustration of falling in between the worlds of fine craft and folk art, not fully appreciated by either.

Folklorists place great emphasis on the cultural context in which traditions are transmitted. Who one learned from is important. How someone’s work is valued within the community in which the traditional art originated and is practiced is relevant.

So what does a folklorist do with an artist who essentially learned folk art from a book, doesn’t claim any familial or ethnic connection to a tradition, and has a college degree in art? In this case, I drove out to meet with her.

Although Hart has a studio — a small and bright room off the dining room of an open plan contemporary house — she does most of her paper cutting on the dining room table. Before my arrival, Mary had brought out samples of her work, as well as magazines, craft catalogues, and books about paper cutting. She showed me examples of Scherenschnitte, pointing out what attracted her to this German style of paper cutting: the symmetry, the simplicity of the cuttings, and the historical use of recycled papers. Back when paper was not readily available, people reused old letters — not unlike the recycling of cloth in the making of pieced quilts. She also likes the fact that you don’t need specialized equipment to do paper cutting.

Mary creates her own patterns, drawing in pencil. The paper is folded in half. Using an exacto knife, she cuts only the parts that won’t be different once the paper is unfolded. Unique elements are cut only once the paper is unfolded. Her work is traditional in that she uses borders and standard subject matter (farm imagery, trees, flowers, vines). Examples of how she has introduced innovations into the tradition are by adding fruit on the trees, or using a flock of birds.

Like any self respecting artist, Mary would like to be able to sell her work for a fair price and to be appreciated. She also wants to continue being able to teach – she keeps a busy adjunct teaching schedule. Teaching grammar school students is especially gratifying, “I see the visceral pleasure they take in making something with their own hands.”

Mary Hart’s work is beautifully rendered. Is she a folk artist? The folklorist in me must point out that Hart is working in a culturally specific tradition, yet completely outside of the cultural context in which this folk art was created and is practiced. But it is beautiful work, nonetheless.

When work “falls between the cracks” it brings us back to larger questions, such as: How are the traditional arts perpetuated outside of their cultural context? How is tradition reinvented in a transplanted community?

What do you think?

Contact Mary Hart at

Historic New England’s take on folk art

Folklorist Millie Rahn alerted us to two upcoming programs offered by Historic New England (formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) which focus on folk art, material culture and collecting. She writes, “Although the perspectives are different from how folklorists look at this material, the collections are superb and the settings ooze sense of place.” We couldn’t agree more.

The Folk Art Immersion Weekend takes participants on four days of tours and lectures featuring superb collections and top experts. Explore the origins of Folk Art, paintings, hooked rugs, painted furniture, redware, and the many other objects often referred to as “country arts.” This program runs from Thursday, May 14 – Sunday, May 17, 2009.

New England Studies is an intensive week long course running Monday, June 15 – Saturday, June 20, 2009. This annual course on New England architecture, decorative arts, and material culture is conducted by the leading experts in their respective fields. Three scholarships are available to graduate students and mid-career museum professionals.

Keepers of Tradition up and running . . .

Deborah Joseph, Trinidad & Tobago Social Club, Boston Caribbean Carnival 2003Detail of Hardanger cutwork table runnerAfter almost four years of work, Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage has opened at the National Heritage Museumin Lexington. The response has been heartening – especially from artists, who feel honored, as they should. Their work is often seen only by family members — like the cutwork embroidery of Aline Drivdahl or by the specific community in which it is displayed — like the costumes of local mas bands at Boston’s Caribbean Carnival.

The media coverage and reviews are starting to come in. WBUR’s Here and Now host Robin Young spoke with me recently about some of the artists featured in the exhibition. WGBH’s Greater Boston producer Jared Bowen paid a visit to the show.

Below are links to a sampling of reviews:

“. . . this exhibition is more than just an exhibition. It’s one part of a much bigger project, which includes Holtzberg’s excellent catalog essay (it explains the stories behind the various objects in some depth) and, beyond both the show an dthe catalog, a great deal of valuable documnetation which can only help in the attempt to keep these traditions alive . . .” Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe

Keepers of Tradition reflects the diversity of the state better than any art show you’re likely to see for a long time.” -Greg Cook, The Boston Phoenix

“An engaging, informative exhibit . . .Think of this fascinating show as a tour through the markets and bazaars of the world with no haggling.” – Chris Bergeron, Metrowest Daily News

“. . . head to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington for the enthralling exhibit “Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts.” This is not your mom’s folk art show: check out the stone fence, the sheet-metal “tin men,” and the boat making, as well as the scrimshaw, quilts, and redware pottery. – Stephanie Schorow, Sidekick, Boston Globe

Visit for more on the exhibition.