I make textiles, not clothes, as my sewing skills are somewhat basic and I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the glamorous world of fashion. But I was drawn to this exhibition because Balenciaga was more than a designer – he was a sculptor, or engineer, of fabric.
As the exhibition explains, “Most designers start with a sketch and then seek out a material. Balenciaga began with the fabrics and designed around them. ‘It is the fabric that decides’, he said.”
So he collaborated with the Swiss company Abraham to create gazar silk, a lightweight but sturdy fabric that could stand away from the body while retaining his sculptural silhouettes. However, he didn’t rely on fabric alone: as the X-ray behind show, this apparently loose, unstructured tulip dress was supported by a stiff corset and bar tacks under the arms to ensure a secure fit!
This historically inspired silk taffeta evening dress was supported by hoops, and the fabric was “bagged out” so that it filled with air to create more volume as the wearer walked. Less glamorously, the hem was secured with ties just above the knee (seen at the end of the video).
Intriguingly, many of his sculptural shapes were created from a single piece of fabric, like this evening dress.
Not all his sculptural designs were practical – only two of his famous envelope dresses were sold, and one was returned because the buyer couldn’t go to the toilet when wearing it!
Neither were all of Balenciaga’s designs minimalist. He worked closely with companies such as Lesage, who made luxury embellishments and accessories, including the stunning embroidery on this evening coat, made up of white pearls, teardrop and pink feather-shaped sequins, and Swarovski crystals.
Upstairs, the second part of the exhibition features the work of designers who have been influenced by the master, from Huert de Givenchy to Oscar de la Renta.
I’ve visited this exhibition twice – there’s so much to see and take in that a single visit is simply not enough. With more than 200 handmade pieces, mostly from the V&A’s own collection, it’s a feast of colour and texture.
After a fabulous opening printed summer carpet of poppies dating from 1650, the exhibition starts with the raw materials – dyes and fibres. The main species of indigo native to India, Indigofera tinctoria, contains some of the strongest concentrations of the active compound indoxyl, so the Greeks named the plant Indikon, the same word they used for the Indian subcontinent.
But there are other blue dyes available in India, including Strobilanthes cusia, found in Assam, which gives lighter blues when grown in the sun and darker blues when grown in the shade.
Red was obtained from the lac insect (related to the cochineal beetle), Indian madder and chay root, yellow from pomegranate and turmeric.
Samples of dyed pieces included some impressive bandhani, ajrakh and block printing as well as these amazing lahariya turbans.
After a brief diversion to show a bhitiya hanging of appliqué elephants and figures from Gujarat, found on a New York pavement in 1994, the exhibition moves on to fibres. Fascinating videos cover the cultivation of cotton and indigenous “wild”(tasar) silk – I love the way they casually walk around carrying branches of huge caterpillars!
There’s another engrossing video of ari embroidery in the next section on techniques, which includes block printing and weaving. Ari is a kind of chain stitch produced using something that looks like a mini crochet hook. The embroiderer pushes the hook through the cloth and winds the thread around it underneath, so he can’t see what he’s doing, yet works at incredible speed.
There were several pieces in this section that I particularly liked. They included an early 20th-century kantha coverlet. (Interestingly, kantha is a more domestic pursuit done mostly by women, whereas professional embroiderers, such as the ari workers, were men.)
And this border from a woman’s dress embroidered with green beetle wing cases and silver wire.
And this Kashmir shawl embroidered with a map of Srinagar, from about 1870.
The next section on textiles and religion features an impressive temple cloth of printed and dyed cotton showing tales from the Katamaraju epic. Cloths such as these were used in portable shrines (we tried to find someone painting one of these when we were in Ahmedabad but failed).
There was also an intriguing talismanic shirt made of starched cotton minutely inscribed with text from the Koran, which would be worn under battle dress for protection. This one was certainly worn, as you can see the sweat marks in the armpits!
The undoubted highlight of the section on court textiles is Tipu Sultan’s tent, cotton block printed with stylised floral designs, now owned by Powis Castle in Wales.
I also loved the 17th-century Mughal riding coat, densely patterned with ari embroidery of wide-ranging flora and fauna, from lions, gazelles and cranes to daffodils, poppies and irises.
In Britain we are familiar with the popularity of Indian chintz and muslin in the 18th and 19th centuries, giving poorer people who could not afford woven silk the chance to wear colourful patterned fabrics. But Indian fabric fragments from the early centuries AD have been found in China and Egypt, showing that India’s export market was established much earlier.
What is interesting is how the designs were adapted for different markets. Examples in the exhibition include tiny intricate block prints for Thailand, patola (double ikat) for Indonesia and an extraordinary Portuguese 17th-century kantha coverlet embroidered with coats of arms, hunters on horseback and fleets of sailing ships. The photo does not do it justice – it has to be seen to appreciate the detail.
It seems that Britain took a leaf out of India’s book, for after protests by British textile workers in the early 18th century about Indian textile imports, industrialisation in Britain led to the export of cheap machine-made cotton fabric to India, undercutting Indian manufacturers. Fabric samples collected in India were held up as examples of good design, and British manufacturers were encouraged to copy these to sell back to the Indian market.
This led to hybrid products such as a traditional Indian garment, a choli (woman’s bodice), made from fabric printed in England using synthetic dyes in colours like mauve and violet, which are not exactly characteristic Indian colours.
Already unhappy with British rule, Indian mill owners and businesses started calling on people to buy local handmade products and boycott foreign goods. In the 1920s, Gandhi elevated khadi, fabric woven by hand from handspun yarn, into a symbol of defiance and freedom, spinning in public. Hence the spinning wheel on the Indian flag after independence.
After independence, there was a move towards industrialisation and modernisation of the handloom. The exhibition finishes with examples of how modern designers have adapted and developed traditional techniques and materials, using the skills of local artisans.
For the past two years the Victoria and Albert Museum has been packing up its European and Asian study collections and moving them to the new Clothworkers’ Centre for Textiles and Fashion Study and Conservation at Blythe House in Kensington Olympia. This will bring together in one place collections currently stored in 10 different areas. Today I went on a behind-the-scenes tour to see what exactly this entails.
The scale of the operation immediately becomes apparent, as Sue Prichard of the V&A explains that the textiles and fashion collections contain around 85,000 objects, while the Asian collection has around 40,000 items. Around half of the collections have already been moved, with half still to go.
As the items vary, from pins to carpets, the removals team have had to carry out pilot studies to determine the best way to move delicate pieces to prevent them from being crushed and creased during the process. This may involve padding conservation-grade boxes with “sausages” or “doughnuts” of acid-free tissue paper (apparently there is quite an art to constructing these properly!) or constructing Tyvek bags to protect hanging items.
Carpets, more than 200 of which are currently stored on huge metal arms, are carefully vacuumed, rolled onto acid-free rollers and then treated to ensure they are pest-free before being moved.
Ah yes – pests. Anyone who has discovered moth holes in their prized cashmere sweater will know the anguish they felt – and the V&A is not immune. Suzanne Smith, who works on preventive conservation, says that the wooden lockers used to store the 20th-century menswear collection has been infested by woolly bear larvae of the carpet beetle twice in the past 10 years. Hence the large chest freezers in the department, where they leave items for 72 hours at -30ºC to kill the larvae.
The museum also uses moth lures impregnated with pheromones from female clothes moths to attract male moths (apparently if you see moths flying around they are usually male; female moths tend to “hop” along the ground).
Suzanne’s top tips for avoiding/spotting pests:
Place sheets of white tissue paper on the floor of your wardrobe. If you have a moth attack, you’ll see a line of moth droppings on the tissue paper, the same colour as the item they have been eating – so you know which clothes to remove and treat.
Domestic freezers operate at higher temperatures, so you’ll need to leave items in the freezer for longer than 72 hours. Put them inside a bag, suck the air out and stick it in the freezer for two weeks. Most sweaters are fine to be treated this way, but be cautious with anything that has metal thread, gelatin sequins or heavy embroidery.
Moths and larvae can also live under the floorboards – Suzanne described how they had to take up the floorboards of two rooms to get rid of moths after discovering damage to hangings on the Great Bed of Ware. You can get narrow strips of plastic that you can insert between floorboards by pushing them into place with a credit card, to prevent debris falling through the cracks.
At Blythe House the collections will have custom-made storage, with special rooms for shoes, hats and fur and feather – all items will have been specially treated or quarantined to ensure they are not infested. Improved accessibility, both physically and in terms of documentation (each item has been audited before packing to record its type, date and technique), should make it easier to retrieve items for viewing, and more items have been photographed for the records.
This is not another cry of support urging on our Olympic athletes, though Thomas Heatherwick’s breathtaking Olympic cauldron certainly helped set the tone for British achievements at London 2012 (and you can see one of the copper petals close-up at the exhibition).
What I found so stimulating about the exhibition is the Heatherwick approach of starting from the bottom up: experimenting with materials and engineering techniques to see how far they can be pushed, and then finding ways of scaling them up or recreating their forms, often in other materials.
So the Paternoster ventilation ducts were inspired by folding a sheet of A4 paper into isosceles triangles – and then scaling this up to 11 metres of steel (there’s a video of Heatherwick folding the paper in the exhibition).
And a Shingon-hu Buddhist temple in Japan was based on the folds and creases of a rubberised material, while the facade of the Sheung Wan Hotel in Hong Kong resembles a pile of boxes stacked on top of each other.
The extraordinary Bleigiessen sculpture in the Wellcome Trust involved recreating the shape of a molten metal fragment cooled in water, using 150,000 individual glass beads suspended on nearly a million metres of stainless steel wire.
Expansion is another theme, from Longchamp’s zip bags, which can be unzipped to grow to twice their size, to furniture that is constructed using a similar pivot mechanism to a garden trellis. And of course there’s the famous Rolling Bridge in Paddington Basin, which curls up into a wheel when boats need to get past.
In short, this is an exhibition fizzing with inventive ideas, pushed by curiosity about “What if?”.
And don’t miss the chance to have a go in a Spun chair before leaving!
Every year the Victoria & Albert Museum holds an art competition, called “Inspired by” for people on part-time courses. Entrants have to create a piece inspired by work in the collections of the V&A or the Museum of Childhood. Selected works are displayed in the relevant museum in October.
I’m planning to enter some of the indigo felted vessels I’ve made. The pieces that have inspired me are a stoneware sake set by Yamada Hikaru made around 1979, and a 17th-century blue and white porcelain sake bottle, maker unknown.
I love the organic simplicity of the forms of the vessels in the sake set, and I thought I would use indigo dye and shibori, both traditional Japanese techniques, to add the blue and white element.
You’ve already seen some of these, but here’s a photo of the final set. The two larger felt vessels are ombre dyed with indigo, while the five smaller ones are nuno felted with a different yarn or fabric, also dyed with indigo.
Just have to fill in the entry form now – probably the hardest part! 😉