Friday, 28 May 2010

Swatch books of the heart and soul

This is a picture of my cousin, Shayleen, and I in Johannesburg circa 1978. I am wearing a fantastic minstrel's outfit that she has made me out of paper. Although we grew up on different continents and still live at least a continent away from each other, my life is full of her beautiful creations - patchwork quilts, beaded cushions, sparkly lurex ball gowns, bright African print skirts, felted slippers and a soft, green velvet bag that has travelled the world with me.
Shayleen is now in Sydney en route for Bulungula, Transki, South Africa, where she is sewing shwe shwe designs with local women and helping them to earn a living. My memories of her have got me thinking how textile memories are like an immense swatch book of the heart and soul.

Above the picture of Shayleen is a picture of a nineteenth century swatch book. Swatch books developed as a way for textile manufacturers to market their fabrics by collecting samples together and mailing them to subscribers. I've also included a picture of fabrics from my personal swatch book, these include childhood furnishing fabrics, pyjamas I had wonderful sex in, summer dresses I loved and a pair of capri pants which I lived an unforgettable spring.

But most of the fabrics that really matter to me have disappeared and exist only in my mind - a thin cool blue cotton nightie that I ripped on a nail running around the back of our house and which another cousin mended with iron-on red hearts...the smooth pale cream flannel of my mothers’ dress...the smell of my father's cordorouy jacket ... the refuge of an ancient picnic blanket that held the warmth of the sun long after it had faded.... fabrics hold smells and touch in a way that only music can rival for the power and sensuality of the memories they evoke.

And I want my imaginary swatch book to keep on growing and extend way back in time to capture the fabric lives of people far away – like my South African grandmother sewing her wedding trousseau, along with the other office girls, rattling into town on the tram from the seaside bluff where she lived, and my London grandmother spraying fox furs silver in Oxford Street. I am busy imaging the textile lives of their mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles - and building them into a swatch book without end.

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