Conde Contemporary

Thread and Fibers as Oath, Ornament and Oppressor

Thread and Fibers as Oath, Ornament and Oppressor


As part of the "Talking to Hear Our Threads Rattle" exhibition, CCPS was fortunate to host Kara Accettola of Little Sages Books.  Ms. Accettola gave a talk entitled, "Presence of / Absence of : Thread and Fibers as Oath, Ornament and Oppressor".  Below is the the text, which lives up to the brilliance of the title.

A talk given on July 21, 2016 at Conde Contemporary Project Space, powered by Conde Contemporary, for the exhibition of fiber based work, "Talking to Hear Our Threads Rattle".

"'Historically a language belonging to women, embroidering is also a personal language inherited, a generational gift handed down from mother to daughter, through which I create my own dialogue, a map or topography for navigation through an emotional self education.' - Griselle Gaudnik

If I might ask us to consider for a moment the Moirae, the goddesses of fate and destiny that are said to control the mother thread of life of every mortal, from birth to death. In my favorite work hanging in the Ringling on the other coast, the painter Sir William Ernest Reynolds-Stephens gives us the eldest of the Fates, Atropos, in the painting "Roman Courtship".

"Roman Courtship" Sir William Ernest Reynolds-Stephens

"Roman Courtship"
Sir William Ernest Reynolds-Stephens

She holds both the cords of life and the scissors of destiny high above two rose adorned lovers, relaxing and leaning into a love drunk pose against a chorus of Victorian imagery. Pictured in a brilliant green, draped gown, Atropos, known as the "inflexible" or "inevitable", is choosing the mechanism of death, thus ending the life of mortals by cutting their thread with her "abhorred shears."

A cherub, floating above our lovers’ heads, grips the cords nearest to them, and imbues them with a rosy hue, sending the force of blooms and life as far as possible, staving off the grey, inevitable tide that turns. While only the shearer is pictured, all three Fates, always the plural Moirae, inextricable as the Trinity, are at work.

Atropos works alongside her two sisters, Clotho, who spins the thread , and Lachesis, who measures the length. In this eternal scene: Clotho spins the thread onto her Spindle. Indeed we’ve seen women and their spindles before and we know that magic is afoot. Lachesis (drawer of lots) measures the thread of life allotted to each person. With her sister Clotho creating, Lachesis is the decider, the judge and jury of all. Now to our Atropos, literally "unturning”, the cutter of that thread of life. The beautiful guillotine. Morta.

Oath : a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one's future action or behavior We don’t choose what we are born in, but we can sometimes choose what we are laid to rest in. I remember my grandmother talking about what her mother, in her nineties, had chosen for her burial. A jolly woman, it was not with sadness that they spoke of the pretty blue dress with this trim, that sleeve, all likely sewn by one of the familial hands that the women of the family flicked with instinctive and learned technique.

Spread across a daughter’s bed is the pink and varied quilt that was her great grandmother’s daily cover. I fear it’s unravellings, but it’s use gives life, as a shroud for the living, able to warm, soothe, embrace.

In my closet, the dearest items, folded lovingly, are the small outfits and swaddling cloths of infancy, mine and those I saw too as a mother. Fabric holds memory, even shape, testimony and promise.

1843 French Christening Gown Museum of Fine Arts Boston

1843 French Christening Gown Museum of Fine Arts Boston

A Hope Chest is traditionally used to collect items such as clothing and household linen, by unmarried young women in anticipation of married life. Dowry items such as clothing (especially a special dress), table linens, towels, bed linens, quilts, often using her own needlework skills to construct a trousseau and stock her glory box 'was for the working girl the equivalent of planning and saving for marriage on the part of the provident and ambitious young man.'

Baby booties. Wedding veils. Cherished blankets. Either through intention or act of stitching itself, these fabric crests become symbols of legacy, signifiers of tribe. Fabric says: I keep you. I care for you. I cover you. The one who stitches is creating, procuring, authoring a covering for the body a sacrament for the present and a commitment to continue keeping, caring, covering.

I would ask us to consider how the absence of a fiber, fabric Oath might appear and feel? The visual language is stark. A Dickensian lack. An orphaned button, tattered hem, ‘unkempt’ line.

Oppressor : unjustly inflicting hardship and constraint, especially on a minority or other subordinate group. Synonym: harsh, cruel, tyrannical, despotic. weighing heavily on the mind or spirits, causing depression or discomfort, overwhelming, burdensome, unbearable.

There is hardship and danger in the very creation, as we move into industrialized ages, when cramped women toiled beneath belts, pulleys, devilishly fast needles driven to the maximum, vapors, heat and textile dust hazing around them, at best. At worst, moments of tragedy like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, or more recent incidents of stunning, avoidable loss.

Individually, or en masse, this ‘women’s work” is largely unnoticed. From sweatshop conditions to the finest atelier, the burden is no lighter. The wearing and donning of the output equally oppressive. From flammable fabrics to poisonous green dyes, to corseted mythos and the binding of feet, the state of beauty and thereby status, a forked road toward unadorned comfort or well mannered suffering was put upon us by others but laced and buttoned with our own hands, locking us in.

Even the circumstances of our lives were signaled and denoted by dress. The financial, emotional, and legal state of SELF was announced loudly and discerned permanently to the world around us. Travel with me for a moment to the phenomenon of mourning clothes, so brilliantly highlighted in New York recently by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, ‘Death Becomes Her’.

Mourning Garments from The Met Exhibition : Death Becomes Her

Mourning Garments from The Met Exhibition : Death Becomes Her

From Puritanical, matte simplicity and stoicism lightening into subtle sheen and allowable trims, cresting to plums and subtle pattern before the shroud was released, the Victorian woman was held captive in a language of drape and dye, her state, emotionally and literally, evidenced for all. Here, the ornament or lack of spoke clearly.

Ornament : a thing used to make something look more attractive but usually having no practical purpose, especially a small object such as a figurine. Verb make (something) look more attractive by adding decorative items. Decorate, adorn, embellish, trim.

Weddings, burials, seasonal celebrations, births: all rites involve fabric, color first, then shape and ornamentation, a reflection of private ritual, tribal symbols or mirrors of the collective/ individual interior world. In the past, we took the time to gather, formulate and create color, weave icons and forms into flecks of beauty/shapes of thought. Today, we establish a quiet caste system based on this, our tribal lines and micro tribe boundaries drawn on visual cues and textile translation. Judged on dress, in every forum and function, we immediately compartmentalize based on hue (garish? drab?),texture (utility? luxury?) and perceived or overtly translated expense.

If we imagine a space free from this ornament, as in the minimalism that we might see in Japanese, Scandinavian, progressive contemporary design and fashion work, we arrive at some concept of modernism. The throwing off of the oppressive, ornamental promises once deemed arcane and restrictive, moves us to, in theory, a freedom from class, status or even gender.

If this reexamination and progressive translation of the past, toward a new way affords ruthless simplicity approaching the sublime, I must note that the redemptive absence is still a space bought by privilege. The complexities of our relationship to the thread persist. To Ourselves, the Thread.

'Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.' - Chief Seattle"