Travel Notes: Panama’s Beautiful Traditional Textiles

June 22nd, 2016

We just spent a couple of days in Panama City en route back to Montevideo.  We’ve been there several times,  but this time was the first visit to the Ancon Hill, a 654-foot hill that overlooks the city of Panama. The area was used for the administration of the Panama Canal, and was under U.S.A. jurisdiction as part of the Panama Canal Zone until being returned to Panama in 1999.  Now a reserve, the hill is the highest point in Panama City with spectacular views over the city and over the canal zone.  I have no idea why we didn’t go up there before this …and part way up/down is a display of typical houses and clothes of the country’s interior set up as a rural farm village, Mi Pueblito.  It was interesting to wander around in a farm house

Ancon Hill - Mi pueblita farmhouse

and a school room which would have been contemporaneous with the spread of European civilisation in rural Outback Australia following the gold and wool booms of the mid-late C19.

Though the day was not excessively hot not humid, it was nice to step into an air conditioned display area where the traditional  textile crafts were on show.  What a delight.  Our driver told us that the traditional costumes on display are typical of what comes out for Carnaval each year,  and the costumes or La Pollera, feature an embroidered and/or appliqued skirt with matching blouse, an embroidered white underskirt, head ornaments called tembleques (worn in pairs, one each side of the head, so named because their floral and other organic forms are designed to ‘tremble’ or flutter) and gold jewellery described here with fabulous images that make what we saw look rather modest! How I’d love to be in Panama the few days before Lent when it all gets very competitive, apparently – according to our guide this year’s parades were the biggest ever with over 3500 competing for the honour of winning a golden crown ornament worn in with the tembleques.

Usually white and most often either very fine linen or cotton voile lawn or cambric, the skirts and matching blouse are wonderfully hand embroidered and appliqued with plant and animal shapes, in some of the very finest applique stitchery I have ever seen anywhere.  This white skirt and blouse are hand embroidered in black, possibly Assissi work, and cross stitch is common, with the underside of the skirt showing the back of the embroidery – very neat and beautifully finished.

La Pollera completo

The La Pollera outfits also feature bands of handmade bobbin lace called trencillas – there’s one on this skirt just where the lace frill was added.  You’ll find plenty 0f  YouTube videos of a lacemaker going full speed, either working from a paper chart pattern or freely reading directly from a pattern already worked – with bobbins flying over and under, such as this one ! I’ve seen it done but never tried it myself. On the right of my pic are some of the samples we saw in the museum.

Panama - textiles at La Pueblita ANCONA1

Our guide told me a nice complete outfit would set me back anything from US$20,000 to US$50,000 – hardly surprising given all the beautiful handwork involved in each one of the traditional pieces.  I read somewhere that most Panamanian women only ever have two of them – one as a young woman and another when married.  Clearly they’re as special as their making suggests, and are very carefully looked after. I think I’ll just be happy with any future encounters in museums and hoping to be in the country at the time just before Lent one year – a parade of women wearing these would be fabulous to see.


Travel Notes

June 17th, 2016

While I am visiting family in the US, some of my creative works are also travelling, but in different directions.

Below is #Fairy Bread”, one of three small works I have in the Petite Miniature Textile Art  Biennial Exhibition, showing until July 17th at the Wangaratta Art Gallery (Victoria, Australia) – gallery information at

FairyBread blog

My wall quilt, “Purnululu #7” is hanging in the Stratford Perth Museum, (Ontario, Canada) with a juried collection of contemporary art quilts entitled “My Corner of The World” .  This Studio Art Quilt Associates touring exhibition runs until September 5th 2016, .

Purnululu # 7_edited-1

If you´re near one of these venues over these dates I hope you’ll take time to visit one of  these collections of contemporary textile art.


Brought To A Screeching Halt

June 2nd, 2016

I recently spent about a week in Kansas City MO, a small but culturally lively modern city with a wild west frontier past.  In the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art there, a huge sculptural wall hanging by one of my favourite artists, Nigerian El Anatsui, loomed high above me, literally stopping me in my tracks.  Like much of Anatsui’s work this is all metal, but the way it is presented I always think of it as ‘fabric’ meaning I think of him as a textile artist, therefore.  I forgot to ask the title of this piece, which was not on any nearby placard – but in one way it doesn’t matter, as his work is highly distinctive, quite unmistakable.

I’m only guessing that laid out flat this piece might be approximately 5m square – but it was hard to tell because of the draped and folded nature of the installation which looked like magnificent shimmery heavy tapestry or furniture fabric.  It is undoubtedly quite heavy, being made as it is of flattened metal bottle tops and and labelsconnected with wire.  Anatsui’s sculptural art includes often gigantic wall hangings but includes free standing 3D works, too, always up-cycling thousands of units of durable discarded waste materials.  Many of his wall hangings can only be described as ‘vast’ and some have been presented covering whole building facades, so judging by some of the images here , the piece I saw in Kansas City is quite modest.

El Anatsui hanging at kansas city art museum

There are many online links and articles about his work, but this one caught my attention showing a lot of his process carried out by studio hands, flattening out and joining said labels, caps and tops into units he calls ‘blocks’ which he then moves around. (Note the many large heavy duty bags around his studio containing his major raw material the bottle tops and metal bands from the recycling centre)  He takes digital photos to keep track of the changes in the composition until he is pleased with their arrangement, and then all the blocks are fastened together – and here, so powerful is the effect of his work on my fabric focused mind, that I almost wrote ‘sewn together’.   This is absolutely akin to the process of designing a contemporary or traditional quilt from fabric units, so if you know quilts, I think you’ll find the handing and assembling of these units quite wonderful.

A few years back I was critical of curled edges on art quilts hung in an exhibition in Santa Fe NM.  Regular readers might wonder if at last I am going soft on this standard of art quilts hanging flat against the wall.  I’m not, but at issue is a matter of intent.  Those I commented on were clearly meant to be flat but weren’t, but they may have once been blocked to flatness and became curled in the humidity that day. There’s a common misconception that blocking a quilt is useful for straightening and flattening.   I’ve found myself considering what ropes and pulleys, or smoke and mirrors I’d need to use to bring about a draped, carelessly folded or wrinkled look to the mosaic stuff I’m exploring, and whether that would be interesting or even relevant …

Ideas Before Sunrise

May 26th, 2016

mylar textures

I woke before sunup this morning, and a couple of ideas came to mind. I have no time today to do anything more with them, so even before my first cup of  tea I dashed to the sewing room to do this little sample piece to capture their essence.  Samples are like diary jottings – a message to me.   This silver mylar coated stuff is great – I could a have those 8m x 1.5m used up in no time!

What’s In a Name?

May 21st, 2016

William Shakespeare’s character Juliet Capulet asked “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

This morning on Pinterest I found mixed media abstract art by US artist Jeanne Myers   There were several lovely images of her abstract art on that page, and looking closer to see if they involved stitch, and wanting to know more, I went to her website.  I was immediately struck by her current work titles, seemingly plucked out of thin air, like these examples –  ” Sparkling Cider”, Frayed Edges”, “Mr. Dodd Said”, Collapsible Landscape” and “Dressing For Dinner”.  I love the works, and I love the titles. There is a cohesiveness about her vision – but the titles don’t coalesce into any meaningful ‘story’, at all, or do they by their unrelated strangeness?  And does this matter? No- but it’s highly relevant when you know how she thinks, as they do tie in with Jeanne’s vision+process outline in her artist statement.  It begins “Alchemy – a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious way”  This driving concept underlies a description of her process she likens to archeological excavation, of digging through layers, peeling layers away to reveal something which is mysterious, not known or understood.  (It does not involve stitch, by the way)   She knows that when the painting has finally been revealed – the collapsible landscape has emerged – and that excavation is complete.   I wonder how she chooses a title.  Does she open a book and just choose a phrase from that page?  Does she choose a favourite word and put another with it – like ‘Collapsible Landscape’ for instance?   Perhaps she shuts her eyes while reading the newspaper and takes a pencil stab at some text? The possibilities are infinite.

I recently wrote of Richard McVetis who gave the collective title Units of Time to a group of 3D cream wool covered 6cm cubes embellished with fine stitchery, and each one had the subtitle, if you like, of something like “20:45” – this being his record or estimate of how many hours and minutes it had taken him to make that one.  I thought that was clever.  You could use the same rationale with completion date, perhaps.  Either approach offers unlimited possibilities, but what happens when you make two or more works that each took 43:15?  Do you then go to 43:15 #1 and 43:15 #2, …. ?

One of my series of art quilts I call “Colour Memories”  some of which are here,

Ora Banda copy blog

“Ora Banda” 1992.    127cm x 150cm. Collection Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, Golden CO.

Most are named after a particular place that I’ve lived in or visited that I associate with that group of colours.  It was reasonable at the time, but as my focus, chosen techniques and colour palette changed, it seems no longer applicable.  With later series I’ve gone with for example ‘Tracks’ and then added the sequential number.  A bit boring maybe.   I really feel its time for a new approach to the challenge of finding or devising titles for new work.




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