Textiles Close Up — From Ancient to Avant-Garde: Textiles in Montreal

By Talia Connelly, a textile student from Seattle, WA who is currently completing a BFA at Rhode Island School of Design. In her work, she explores topics related to cultural origins, gender equality, and environmentalism.

Arriving to Musée des Beaux-Arts. Our group was comprised of curators, mill owners, fine artists, professors, and me, a RISD student.

Bonjour! Buenos días! Ni hao! From whichever corner of world you’re reading this blog post, greetings and welcome to Talia’s recap of “Ancient to Avant Garde,” a Textile Society of America Textiles Close Up (TCU) event in Montreal. For those of you who have attended previous Textile Close Up events, you know how densely packed each day is. I could write a book with the information I gained about pre-Columbian weavings, Issey Miyake pleating, kombucha-derived leather, and First Peoples’ porcupine quill knapsacks, but in the interest of time, these last few days must be condensed to a handful of paragraphs.

Erell discusses features of a unique “four corner” hat worn by high-ranking men of the central Andean area. This hat dates to around the first millennia and the pointed ear shapes at the top are believed to evoke the spiritual power of felines.


Never having visited Montreal before, I was amused to encounter the bonjour/hi bilingual greeting. Sherbrooke, the street where most of our activities took place, was lined with flags from nearly 200 countries, installed for the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding. With this diverse blend of cultures enriching Montreal’s art scene, it was no surprise that half of the TCU participants were bilingual. The day began at the entrance of Musée des Beaux-Arts, with all twelve TCU participants excitedly gathered at the entrance. After introductions, we were led to the storage rooms by Erell Huburt, curator of pre-Columbian art, to examine the ancient Andean textile collection. With over 4,600 pieces in the collection, I’ve included just a sampling of my favorites below.

This tunic featured a variety of feathers stitched at their stems to a plain weave ground. The slit in the center opened to allow the piece to fit comfortably over the wearer’s head.

This burial textile, made by the Paracas culture, was the pièce de résistance of the collection. At this point, some of the participants brought out their personal magnifying glasses to examine the piece in even finer detail. Comprised of a camelid plain weave background and cotton embroidered motifs, the textile spanned nearly a third of the wall. Though it was restored in 2012, the original colors were so well-preserved that it’s hard to believe it was created over 2,000 years ago.

Burial textile, made by the Paracas culture.

As a bonus, Erell then took us to the pre-Columbian ceramic gallery with funerary objects on display. Similar to the textile work we had seen, many of the ceramic masks and figurines were molded with anthropomorphic symbols. Each expression was so particular and vividly carved, you could almost feel the emotions emanating through the glass.

Pre-Columbian ceramic funerary object.

After feeling refreshed and restored from a soup and sandwich at the museum café, we headed to Concordia University for a complete change of gears: a tour of the Textiles and Materiality Research Cluster, a year-old interdisciplinary lab space at Concordia University. Located on the 10th floor of the university’s sleek Engineering and Visual Arts high-rise on Rue Sainte-Catherine, the lab space was comprised of three main facilities: a jacquard loom, a digital embroidery machine, and a biotextiles lab.

From ancient…

Greeting us at the entrance was Kelly Thompson, professor for Concordia’s Fiber and Material Practices program and a jacquard weaver extraordinaire. With an interest in digital mapping, Kelly uses weave structures to bring virtual technology to a physical form. Her most recent project, a multi-layered installation centered on climate change and a science professor’s whiteboard will be exhibited in March at the Faculty of Fine Arts Gallery.


…. to avant garde!

The next leg of the tour was a “Speculative Life BioLab” led by technician and researcher WhiteFeather Hunter. TSA President Vita Plume was WhiteFeather’s professor during the completion of her MFA at Concordia, so when the two met they exchanged laughs and hugs. Sporting a white lab coat with an arm patch that read “We are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn,” WhiteFeather explained she was in the midst of researching a type of bacteria known as Serratia that produced an array of bright colors when applied to fabric.

Translucent, ochre-colored dress with black, snowflake-like motifs.

These fabric experiments, coined “petri dish shibori,” were laid out along the center table for us to examine. In the center of the room was a translucent, ochre-colored dress with black, snowflake-like motifs that smelled strangely of sugar.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow—3D printed biomes.

It turns out the snowflakes were actually 3D printed biomes (duh!) which were then encased in layers of kombucha cellulose. The kombucha was grown onsite in a plastic kiddie pool near the window.

WhiteFeather, explaining her use of Serratia bacteria in textile dyeing.

To conclude, Genevieve Moisan, a recent Fibers MFA grad and current equipment specialist for the Tajima Digital Laying Machine, presented her work. Though my university in the US owns a Tajima machine, I was impressed by the innovative incorporation of conductive thread into Genevieve’s garments. Many of the pieces are still in progress so I’m not at liberty to share too many photos, but a plethora of high-resolution images of the team’s past projects can be found here:


Interactive white keyboard dress. A tablet was wirelessly synced to the embroidered keyboard.

My favorite piece was the interactive white keyboard dress. A tablet was wirelessly synced to the embroidered keyboard which, when played, illuminated the corresponding keys on the dress. The dress was at the studio when we visited so we had a bit of fun playing around with it.

Though the research cluster has been an official platform at Concordia for only a year and a half, Kelly’s warm demeanor and enthusiasm for every collaborator’s projects makes me eager to see how the cluster will continue to evolve under her leadership. Perhaps an MFA at Concordia is the next step after graduation?

Oh, art students.

The day ended with a lovely sushi dinner on Rue Saint Dennis with two other TCU participants. One was a former TSA president and professor at Skidmore and the other was a fine artist who recently completed a residency in Peru. I was touched to learn that they met in graduate school for textiles in the 70s and have since remained close friends. There is so much to learn from other artists, and it’s heartening to see examples of friendships that last beyond university.

Native Beating by Mike Patten, 2011 – “By sewing the map of Canada into what reads as a blood spatter pattern with red and white glass seed beads around a baseball bat, Patten tensely draws attention to the historic, ongoing and residual colonial violence suffered by indigenous people across Canada.”

The next day we met at the McCord Museum and toured an exhibition of Canada’s First Peoples dress titled Wearing Our Identity. Alongside traditional items like moccasins, hunting equipment, and ceremonial outfits, were a series of sculptures and photographs by artist Mike Patten who is of Cree and European descent. His work, subverting stereotypes of indigenous culture, provided unexpected contemporary commentary within the exhibition.

A photo from a series documenting the assimilation of indigenous peoples into mainstream Canadian life and values. After the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to re-schooling programs where they were given new names and forbidden to express their culture and traditions.

We then met with the curator of the exhibition, Guislaine Lemay, who took us down to the museum basement to view additional First Nations textiles in the archives. Photos were not allowed, but a two-thumbed mitten (if one side got wet while rowing your canoe, you could flip the mitten over and use the other side) and moose-hair/porcupine embroideries were the most interesting to observe. Guislaine informed us that high society Victorian ladies would order Western-style purses, fans, and shoes with indigenous-style embroidery on top. There were even a few accessories in the archives made by Victorian women who attempted to replicate indigenous embroidery techniques.

Our final stop of the program was at Musée de la Mode located in the oldest section of the city by the waterfront. Circled around a table in a softly lit foyer, we viewed a series of garments donated to the museum by Montreal fashion collector Beatrice Pearson, with none other than Beatrice herself narrating each item’s history.

“This piece I wore once to a party…Don’t be silly, I always wear a dress underneath.”

The garments we viewed were chosen for their unique textile surfaces and ranged from English corsets to Japanese kimonos to a fringed top from a recent Balenciaga collection. Beatrice’s eclectic style and passion for supporting time-honored textiles was celebrated last year with a special exhibition: Parcours d’une Élégante. The most exciting piece from that exhibition was a black and gold embroidered jacket that Beatrice’s husband spotted in a second-hand shop in Hong Kong. According to Beatrice, the threads were in tatters when her husband purchased it. After many inquiries, she was able to find a woman in the area who knew how to replicate the embroidery style. And so the jacket was restored!

The embroidered jacket with a peacock motif on the back.

And thus, another successful TCU event concludes. A warm thanks to TSA for the care and effort that went into planning this program as well as the scholarship committee who graciously supported my participation. I’m excited to bring this knowledge back to RISD and look forward to connecting with many more fiber fanatics at future TSA events.

It’s all about the details.