Last week I joined the Textile Society visit to Kew Gardens to see the Economic Botany Collection and also some of Jenny Balfour-Paul’s collection of indigo textiles housed at Kew. The group was an interesting mix of historians, conservators, practitioners and enthusiasts.
Dr Mark Nesbitt, Curator and Research Leader of the Economic Botany Collection, explained that when the collection was set up in 1847, “economic” meant “useful”. As well as encouraging people to engage with plants and their purposes, the collection acted as a hub between countries of the empire and consumers in Britain, able to advise on which plants grew best under different conditions. It collected not only raw materials (plants) but also the end products – baskets, clothing and the like.
In the 1980s the collection was moved to a new purpose-built building and became a research collection no longer open to the public. It lends over 100 items a year to museums around the world, and museum conservation students work on important pieces as part of their studies.
The collection is organised by plant type – for example, monocotyledons like grasses and palms are stored together. This is because plants in the same families tend to produce similar types of fibre, allowing comparisons to be made.
We started by looking at a few examples of plants and fibres produced from them, including New Zealand flax, ramie, stinging nettles and mulberry. The fashion in Victorian times was to show the “illustrative process”, with examples of the plant at every stage, from the original plant stems to the extracted fibres and final fabric, and Kew has a good collection of these.
Mark explained that historical attempts at commercialisation had affected the range of plants used. Processing plants by hand to extract fibre is very labour intensive, but expensive machines imported from London to New Zealand or the Caribbean, where the plants prospered, often broke down. Where industrialisation of the process succeeded, that plant was favoured at the expense of others. Maori weavers originally used around 20 plants, but New Zealand flax is the only one that survived. However, today there is renewed interest in historic materials and methods, so a collection like this at Kew can help in the repatriation of that knowledge.
Closer to home, there have been several attempts to commercially produce nettle fibre, especially during the two world wars. Recently De Montfort University in Leicester has had another go at industrialising the process and produced some furnishing fabrics. We were all very impressed with these – until Mark told us that they were actually 75% wool!
We then moved on to some of the finished products. A stunning Maori cloak dating from 1856 is the only such garment in any museum collection worldwide. It is made from mountain daisy, also known as the “leather plant” because of the suede-like texture of its leaves. The main cloak was woven from rolled up leaves (a tricky operation), and then the surface was covered with long strips of leaves, which helped the rain to run off.
From around the same period (1853) a loin cloth, or tanga, from the north-west Amazon was made from mulberry bark cloth. The inner bark, or phloem, is separated out and pounded to make cloth (paper makers also use it to make pulp). The cloth was made by Uaupe Indians, who crimped it between their teeth and decorated with red dye.
Also made from bark cloth but in a very different fashion was a jacket from the Nicobar Islands. Made from the inner bark of a wild fig tree, this double breasted reefer jacket edged with Manchester cotton is a prime example of a fusion garment – Victorian fashion made from local materials. It was donated to Kew in 1858 by anthropologist Edward Man, and inkstains and traces of wear suggest that it was his personal garment.
Two more fascinating items rounded off the tour. A cotton Peruvian shroud, dating from around 1400, was shaped like a large bag. Apparently the body was tied into a foetal position before being wrapped in the shroud.
And finally we saw a bonnet made from Jamaican lace bark (Lagetta lagetto), which used to be widespread in the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries but is now quite rare due to overharvesting. The bark was soaked to separate the inner phloem layer, which was pulled apart into layers of white netting.
Jenny Balfour Paul’s indigo collection
We then moved on to see a selection of indigo garments donated by Jenny Balfour-Paul to the Kew collection. Jenny herself gave an introduction to the collection, explaining how she became enraptured by indigo when she was working in Yemen in 1983. Encouraged by fabric dyer and printer Susan Bosence to apply for a grant to research indigo dyeing in the country, she was then commissioned by the British Museum to write a comparative book on indigo worldwide, and never looked back.
Her donations are eclectic, ranging from the shiny indigo embroidered Yemeni dress that started her fascination to a wooden mallet used to beat the fabric to get the shine and a collection of home-made bamboo and copper batik tools from south-west China.
Highlights of the international collection include samples of labour-intensive Indian ajrakh printing, a lovely piece of Nigerian adire painted with a chicken feather and cassava paste, and beautifully textured Mali cotton patterned with stitch resist. There was also mud cloth from Mali, where the cloth was painted with tannic acid before applying mud. The mud reacts with the tannin, leaving a pattern when it is washed off.
Moving east, Jenny showed us a piece of batik that she rescued from use as a duster(!) as well as Indonesian ikat. China was represented by a jacket from Guizhou that combined indigo batik with weaving, as well as an extraordinary lustrous jacket that was dyed with indigo and then coated with persimmon juice, egg white and ox blood to make it waterproof.
To round off, there were a couple of contemporary pieces – a gorgeous piece of ombre dyed hemp by Japanese master Hiroyuki Shindo and a more exuberant piece from Bhutan that was produced with all natural dyes (except for the pink), including turmeric, symplocos, indigo and two types of madder.
All in all, a fascinating visit, after which we were free to visit the main gardens, including the Hive.