Tactile Treasures

July 14, 2013

At a time when gray, white and beige dominate so many interiors, decorating with textiles offers a way to add a wide swath of color, pattern and texture — and often at an affordable price. Many also reveal a personal story about the maker or a message they want to share.

The concept is hardly new, and the myriad textile choices available from around the globe reflect a long tradition of utilitarian craftsmanship with an aesthetic edge. Samplers were a way for girls to learn to sew, as well as master the alphabet, spelling and numbers, while juxtaposing colorful, decorative designs. Similarly, bed quilts were assembled from three layers sewn together to fashion a warm sandwich for protection, but with appliqued or pieced scraps on their tops they became the equivalent of artistic canvases. And kuba cloths, made from the leaves of raffia trees that were dyed and woven into varied patterns for clothing and often conveyed symbolic meanings, dazzled as much as some abstract paintings.

Because of the enormous variety of choices in material, size and color, there are innumerable ways to decorate a home using textiles. Price, rarity and fragility all can serve as guides regarding how they are used — if mounted as art or turned into practical upholstery, curtains, bedspreads or pillows.

The good news is that because of the interest textiles have piqued — whether new or vintage — there’s a wealth of information available through books, museums, historical societies, art galleries, auction houses and online resources to advise collectors about quality, price and how to care for them.

After American quilts were shown on the walls of the Whitney Museum in New York City in a landmark exhibit, “Abstract Design in American Quilts,” in 1971, their repetitive pictorial quality and dramatic color combinations made them appeal to many for their decorative rather than just functional nature, for example. But showing them — and any textile — as art on a wall presents do’s and don’ts, says Carolyn Ducey, curator of collections at The International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Neb. Leaving them up too long can fade colors. It’s better, Ducey says, to take the textiles down periodically, vacuum gently, fold them in acid-free tissue, and store in a safe place — not a hot attic or wet basement. When they’re brought out and later put away again, folds should be made differently to avoid permanent creases. The same goes if folded over a sofa back. Care should also include using delicate soap for wet cleaning, so colors don’t run, but sentimental or significant textiles should be brought to a conservator, found by visiting the American Institute for Conservation’s site. More tips, including whether to frame a textile, can be found on the site of The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

New textiles made in traditional printing processes offer a nod toward historic traditions and the mark of a hand and well-honed eye rather than a machine, but they can be used in multiple practical ways and cleaned with less fear. Many also offer good value for their workmanship, texture and color sensibility. Some homeowners become so smitten with a particular designer’s work that they purchase different fabrics to build a collection they can mix and match, says John Robshaw, whose prime inspiration for his New York-based John Robshaw Textiles line comes from his travels abroad to countries with different traditions — ikats from Indonesia, abaca fibers from the Philippines, sequined work from India. Yet he recycles them into fresh variations. Los Angeles designer Kathryn Ireland, founder of Kathryn M. Ireland Textiles & Design, has used paisleys of her native England and also France as a jumping-off point for her contemporary interpretations that reveal a different scale and palette than the originals. Patrick McBride represents the fourth generation to produce textiles for his family’s firm, Tillett Textiles & T4 in Massachusetts’ Berkshires. While the mechanics of printing the fabric may have changed slightly and colors may follow fashion favorites, the textiles are still hand screened and keep alive company archived patterns.

Whether your textiles are old or new — cotton, velvet, wool, silk or lace — the best advice for display is to do what appeals in the way you showcase art. “You may want to let one quilt dominate or may prefer to put a modern one next to a traditional design,” says Ducey. Robshaw agrees, “I encourage not being afraid to layer styles and try combinations.” McBride says he now sees his fabrics mixed, similar to how people are bolder about dressing. “Someone will take a serious wingback chair and use one of our oversized florals in a vivid orange on the inside and a more tailored pinstripe in orange on the outside. The result is exuberant.”

The key is to use and enjoy them. “They’re the first thing you touch in the morning, and the last thing you touch at night. That’s something we should never lose,” says Sumru Krody, senior curator for Eastern Hemisphere Collections at The Textile Museum.

This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on June 27, 2013.

About The Author

Read All Stories By Chicago Tribune