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A City’s History and a Family’s History Woven Together in Poland

By Mirka Knaster

Mirka Knaster, Ph.D., creates contemporary textile art in a studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean in northern California. Growing up cross-culturally and living and/or traveling across the world’s continents, she has long been fascinated by the wide range of ethnic traditions, including those related to textiles. Holding graduate degrees in Latin American Studies and Asian and Comparative Studies, she has authored non-fiction books as well as articles, essays, and reviews, and has been blogging about what piques her curiosity in art in Exploring the HeART of It since January 2014. In collaboration with others, she is presently organizing a traveling exhibit of Korean textile art for the U.S. as well as a textile tour in South Korea. Her work can be seen at mirkaart.com and mirkaknaster.com/.

             photo-1_piotrkowska Piotrkowska Street,  Łódź, Poland   

City histories and family histories can weave together in unexpected ways. It never occurred to me that textiles would literally be the link for me until I revisited the city where my father was born, Łódź.

 

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15th International Triennale of Tapestry, Łódź, 2016

The opening of the 15th International Triennale of Tapestry (note: In Poland, the word “tapestry” covers a broad range of textile art techniques and materials) on May 9th was one reason I returned to Poland in 2016. The event has been taking place in Łódź every three years since 1972. Though I had been there in the late 1990s, at that time I knew nothing about such exhibits, for I had not yet gotten immersed in creating textile art. I also have to admit that I knew nothing of the city’s history, only what my father described about his life there. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it was the center of a thriving textile industry in the 19th century. Called the Polish “Manchester,” Łódź supplied goods for the vast Russian Empire, which spanned from East-Central Europe all the way to Alaska. In 1900, the empire covered nearly 23 million square kilometers, only a quarter of which was in Europe, with the rest in Asia.

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Map of Russian Empire (Source: http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/brunell/eeroskinpart1.html/)

This wouldn’t mean anything to me except that my father once told me something about his father, who played a small role in that huge enterprise. My grandfather could look at a piece of cloth through a loupe and discern how to create its pattern, that is, how to set up the looms to weave it. That bit of family history remained in my memory bank for ages until, one day, a fact struck me: Although I had never learned how to weave (my mother taught me knitting, embroidery, crocheting, and darning, but she wasn’t a weaver), there I was, working with textiles from around the world. I felt a need to go back to Łódź and see for myself where all this had started, crashed, and eventually developed into a major showcase for contemporary fiber art.
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Old Mill Pond, Lodz, Poland (Source: Pinterest)

First, a bit of background. Łódź began as a small settlement on a trade route. It first appears in written records in 1332. Chartered within a century, it nevertheless remained an insubstantial community. At the end of the 1700s, when Poland was partitioned, Łódź was put under Prussian rule, but later joined the Russian-controlled Polish Kingdom in 1815.

During this long period, textiles were produced at home for domestic consumption. In the 19th century, the government promoted the building of factories, especially for linen and woolens. With capital and knowhow from Germany and France, soon mills sprang up and intense industrial development began. Workers from all over Europe poured into Łódź, doubling its population every 10 years. By the early 20th century, it had grown into one of the most densely populated and polluted industrial cities in the world.

 

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Steam Boiler House, inner courtyard of The White Factory. (Source: http://www.muzeumwlokiennictwa.pl/adaptacja-kotlowni/)

Weaving took place in both dark, dismal hovels and the huge steam-powered factories that turned some families into dynasties on a par with, if not wealthier than, the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Novels based on this history illustrate the extreme poverty and execrable conditions of the weavers and their families, who often lived where they worked all day and long into the night by the light of candles.

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Poznański textile factory, built in 1892, Łódź (Source: http://www.homedit.com/modern-lodz-hotel-once-an-abandoned-old-factory/)

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Textile factory equipment, Centralne Muzeum Włókiennictwa (Source: http://www.poland.travel/en/lodz/industrial-lodz/]

Eventually, the boom went bust due to a series of catastrophes: The Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and the Civil War in Russia (1918-1922) ended the lucrative trade with the East; The Great Depression (1930s) and the Customs war with Germany closed western markets to Polish textiles. After decades of labor exploitation, workers’ protests and riots erupted.

Today, the factories and mansions are museums and galleries, with parks and gardens. For example, what was once the family residence of textile magnate Izrael Poznański now houses the Museum of the City of Łódź. Several rooms on an upper level are dedicated to a hometown boy, the renowned classical pianist Artur Rubinstein (1877-1982). The lower level is a gallery, where I viewed an exhibit of paintings and lithographs by local abstract artist and professor Andrzej Gieraga.

The city is known for its universities, film school, and art festivals, including the International Triennale of Tapestry, considered the oldest, largest, and most prestigious exhibition of fiber art. I visited the Museum of Art, located in another Poznański palace, and a cultural center (near the train station where I’d arrived), which has shows ancillary to the Triennale. There are more than 90 such related exhibitions and events that take place across Poland as well as its borders from May 9 to October 30 in 2016. They include the 13th National Exhibition of Polish Tapestry, 11th National Exhibition of Polish Miniature Textiles, and the 2nd International Young Textile Art Trienniale.

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The White Factory (Biała Fabryka), (Source: http://www.checkoutpoland.com/pictures/lodz/lodz_4.jpg/)

But the most extensive exhibit is the one for which I had traveled so far, the Triennale itself. It is held in the Central Museum of Textiles, the site of the former “White Factory” (Biała Fabryka), established by Ludwig Geyer between 1835 and 1837 as the first mechanical spinning and weaving factory in Poland. A complex of classical buildings, the museum includes different sections that deal with history, technology, and production, along with collections of fashion items and folk textiles. Its research division addresses all aspects of textile production.

With the work of 136 invited artists from 46 countries displayed on 3 floors, there’s no way I can include everything from the exhibition here. Instead, what follows is a mere sampling of the wide variety of fiber art I witnessed, which has come a long way from the cotton and woolen textiles once woven for an entire empire. The definition of fiber art stretches to incorporate pieces that do not even consist of fiber, but may entail a relevant interlacing technique, such as the rusted metal in “Modulator” by Leonora Vekić of Croatia.

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“Modulator” by Leonora Vekić of Croatia.

While I took pictures of the entire show, it is hard to capture the feeling of being in the presence of particular pieces. Photographic images just don’t have the same impact as standing in front of or walking around textural and three-dimensional work, so I’ve included some close-ups and a side view for greater detail.

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“Abandoned Mines and the Aftermath” by Grietje van der Veen of Switzerland

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Detail of “Abandoned Mines and the Aftermath” by Grietje van der Veen of Switzerland

The title cards at the Triennale do not contain information about materials and methods, but in many cases I could guess. For example, I know that Judith Content’s work is hand-dyed, pieced, and quilted silk.

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“Labyrinth” by Judith Content of U.S.A.

 

The slightest breath of air set Alina Bloch’s multi-layered “Genesis” in motion, so it never looked the same from moment to moment.

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“Genesis” by Alina Bloch of Poland

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Side view of “Genesis” by Alina Bloch of Poland

 

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“Rhythms” by Alexandar Kulekov of Bulgaria

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Detail of “Rhythms” by Alexandar Kulekov of Bulgaria

I left the Triennale and other exhibits that I’d visited in Łódź feeling both inspired and delighted. I was moved by a deep connection to my grandfather, whom I never knew. And I was gratified to realize the great distance fiber has traveled since the first textile factory was constructed in the Manchester of Poland. Instead of only being considered the means for manufacturing products to clothe and keep warm a huge population, fiber has become yet another medium recognized for its endless potential in creating art.