Textile Art

Textile Art

Folk Clothing of Twelve Countries

This exhibit is a collection of fabric art panels that depict traditions in dress and dance of some twelve national groups.  They were selected from among the more than 50 ethnic groups represented in Lowell.

County Kerry, Ireland (1800)

Hooded woolen shawls, known as Kerry cloaks or "brats" were worn by both men and women.  In the 16th century the coarse woolen cloth from which the cloak was made was called "frieze."   The wool was dyed red, black, blue, or grey and worn by rich and poor in the 17th century.   Over the years the cloak became shortened into a shawl.  The couple pictured here is dancing the traditional Irish jig. 


The appliqués were researched, designed and hand-sewn by Flora Ormsby Smith in 1987.  Ms. Smith is currently the creative director of her own business, Dracut Design & Graphics.  Prior to moving to the Greater Lowell area, she was the art director for Wilson, Epstein & Freedman in Boston.  She has also worked as an art director for Purity Supreme, Stop & Shop, and Alfred Buyer Recruitment Advertisers in Needham.  Ms. Smith attended Massachusetts School of Art, Butera  School of Art and has studied with George Arons at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Lowell's rich and diverse cultural heritage inspired Ms. Smith to apply her expertise in design and needlework in a way that would help preserve the historic folk costumes and cultural traditions of twelve of the nationalities who immigrated to Lowell.

The appliqués are colorful figures and landscapes created in bold simplicity and decorated with beads, ribbons, even feathers, when appropriate.

"I can tell you where every scrap of material on every picture came from," Ms. Smith explains, citing the example of fur on the cap of the Lithuanian male figure which was cut from a mink stole she discovered at an estate sale. After a year of researching cultures and the history of clothing, the designer reshaped her information and images into series of hand-stitched textile panels.

The technique involved countless decisions about fabrics, shapes, patterns, colors, and found objects.  Her method imitates the ways in which clothing styles develop as people use materials at hand, combining traditional with novel materials.

The clothing in each hanging represents a particular section or province of each country.  The year mentioned indicates the period of time in which the clothing was worn on a daily basis in that particular region.

Skane, Sweden (1842)

The contact of the seafaring people of Southern Sweden or Gotaland, with distant countries influenced their clothing styles. Climate was likely the reason for their choice of layered clothing. The well-dressed woman wore as many as six skirts over her woolen petticoat, each layer shorter than the next. Men often wore several pairs of trousers and as many as three jackets at once.

Peloponnessos, Greece (1830)

Albanian warriors introduced the foustanella into the Peloponnese region.   Created by special tailors, this garment measured up to 40 yards around and was made of white linen panels which were covered with fat for waterproofing.   A short, richly decorated jacket worn over a full-sleeved white shirt, embroidered leggings or white stockings, a sash and fez completed the outfit. 

The women wears a misofori or muslin petticoat, and a kalpaki on her head, with a fancy tassle.   A silk gown over a fine chemise with an embroidered front showed a low neckline.   Over this was worn a short, fitted velvet jacket embroidered with gold braid.

We communicate who we are and what we do through our clothing. Climate, function, wealth, custom, peer influence, religious belief, ceremony or special occasion, law and personal choice all determine how we dress.  The clothing depicted in Flora Ormsby Smith's appliqués reflects the geography, history, and social conditions of the people in the cultures represented.

Of the twelve works, the Kampuchean (Cambodian) and Lithuanian pieces illustrate religious dress, while the other ten panels show how people dressed daily during a particular historical period.

These fabric appliqués only begin to suggest the variety of clothing styles in these countries through the ages. Greece has more than 35 national costumes and the Soviet Union many more. Certain articles of clothing are repeated in various nations such aprons, sashes, pouches, and embroidery. In several works the figures are shown dancing. The temple dancer of Kampuchea is posed mid-step and mid-gesture; the Irish couple demonstrates a traditional jig; the man and woman from Malapolska are dancing the Krakowiak; and the Swedish panel illustrates a circle dance known as the Varsovienne, in which many couples dance in a double circle with women on the outside and men on the inside.

Other forces helped shape traditions in dress.  Beginning in the 14th century, many European countries enacted laws to regulate the dress of rural people.  Known as sumptuary laws and first enacted in Rome in the 1st century AD such regulations were intended to emphasize the special privileges of the upper classes, prevent extravagance among the rural population, suppress certain political and religious activities and encourage the use of homespun textiles.  During one period, for example, Irish traditional dress based on Gaelic-Frankish and Norse costumes was forbidden by England in an attempt to force the Irish to conform to English ways. 

Whether it is the deerskin moccasins of the Native American or the woven cotton of the Lowell mills girl's bonnet, the materials demonstrated in this exhibit are natural material: flax and wool from Ireland; black dye from Canadian hemlock trees; cotton and silk of Greece; gray and brown colors dyed from lichen found in Sweden; angora hair from rabbits in Armenia.

Today, these costumes are seldom seen except at festivals, religious ceremonies or other special cultural occasions. These unique works serve to remind us of how diverse a world family we truly are.

Azores, Portugal (1900)

Throughout Portugal, men's clothing was usually comprised of black pants, jacket, vest, and hat, all worn with a white shirt. Women in the Azores wore full skirts bordered with colored bands over petticoats, with white stockings and embroidered slip-on shoes. Printed cotton scarves or chita were tied around the head.   This couple is dancing the Fado Blanquita, one of the more popular dances. Azore dancing and singing were usually saudade, meaning "in a melancholy way".