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Murphy, Thomas H. (ed.) / Wisconsin alumnus
Volume 84, Number 4 (May 1983)

Werner, Becky
The Helen Allen Textile Collection,   pp. 7-9


Page 7


By Becky Werner '83
n the 1600s, officials of the Manchu Dynasty or-
dered elaborately embroidered squares sewn to
their dark silk robes to indicate rank. Today,
some of those patches are displayed in glass cases
on the third floor of the Home Economics Build-
ing on the west campus, in the Helen L. Allen
Textile Collection. It's an assemblage that brims with classic
works of the past and present, keys to design, culture and his-
tory. There are 10,000 items in it, making it the second-largest
university collection in the country.
   Some elements earn the title masterpiece: there is a ten-foot-
long silk cummerbund woven in 1648 for the Shah Abbas of Bag-
dad; and the "opera quilt," silk strips embroidered with scenes
from six operas. Yet the thrust of the collection is not toward su-
perstars of needlework, but rather to prime examples of the bet-
ter traditions of the centuries. Intricately embroidered samplers
from Europe amaze with their minute stitches; gold coins dangle
on bright red dowry hats from Bethlehem; Iraqi veil- shimmer
with pounded metal and gold sequins. In the storage rooms,
shelves are piled with American hand-woven coverlets, patch-
work quilts, and contemporary textiles by Dorothy Liebes and
Jack Lenor Larsen. Closets are filled with Chinese dragon robes,
Japanese kimonos and lustrous silk saris from India. In drawers
there are William Morris prints beside ornate brocade chasubles.
   The embroidered works in the collection have a national rep-
utation; they merited an entire chapter in the recent book, The
Art of Embroidery, by Mary Gostelow.
   Among the oldest pieces are tapestry woven bands and roun-
dels from garments of the late Roman Empire, dating back to
600 A.D. Pre-Columbian Peruvian textiles discovered in tombs
include embroidery from the Paracas culture of about 200 B.C.
(They were preserved in dry climates; their colors and patterns
remain apparent.) At this end of the temporal spectrum are
works by pioneers in the fiber arts movement--Claire Zeisler,
Peter Collingwood and Walter Nottingham.
   The collection is largely the legacy of its "godmother," Helen
Louise Allen, who taught in the related art department for forty-
Becky Werner is a senior majoring in Agricultural Journalism.
one years.(WA, Aug., '68) Prof. Allen was fascinated by tech-
niques from different countries and the styles of particular artists,
and she was known nationally for her knowledge and teaching of
weaving. She viewed textiles as a significant record of man's de-
velopment and used them as a key to understanding people.
    As a child Miss Allen lived in Turkey, constantly exposed to
 the vibrant colors and innovative design of native works- She be-
 gan collecting there and never stopped bringing home treasures.
 At her death in 1968, the collection was bequeathed to the Uni-
 versity.
    In addition to Prof. Allen's pieces and those acquired by
 former curators Ruth Harris and Ruth Morrissey, the collection
 has been enriched by residents of the University "community"
 and of Madison. "This is partly due to the strength of our inter-
 national studies programs," said Blenda Femenias, who came
 here as curator last August from the Textile Museum in Wash-
 ington, D.C. "People who have traveled and lived abroad while
 aniicattd with the T Tni'versity often like the idea + tt-1 -o;
 they collected can find a home on campus."
   She is no exception to the commonality among curators, that
 of building the collection in the face of shifting trends and needs.
 "It's no longer financially feasible to purchase rare items-
 Renaissance velvets, maybe--on a grand scale despite our desire
 to own more of them. But we can still acquire such additions as
 ethnographic materials from Third World countries, for exam-
 ple, and we're doing so because these arts are on the verge of
 dying out." There is also that prospect for Latin American tex-
 tiles, which happen to hold particular interest for Ms. Femenias.
 She has brought a strong element of Guatemalan works to the
 collection, but feels it lacks sufficient representation from the
 Andean area. She has acquired, recently, Quechua Indian tex-
 tiles from Ecuador, and mantles and overskirts woven by the Ay-
 mara people in Bolivia.
   Of plans to add works by major contemporary fiber artists,
Ms. Femenias said, "Textiles and crafts used to be considered a
second-rate form of expression-functional objects made by
women at home in their spare time; 'art' was made by men in ate-
Photo above: A floral print by 19th-century British designer
William Morris.
MAY/JUNE 1983 ( 7


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