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'Second Lives: The Age-Old Art of Recycling Textiles' at the Textile Museum

The Textile Museum goes green with an exhibit of 18 pieces that offer a glimpse into cultures that valued their fabrics so highly that they would continuously repurpose them until the cloth became too threadbare to use.

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By Stephanie Merry
Friday, February 11, 2011

With the advent of hybrid cars and green-building certifications, eco-friendly living seems increasingly widespread. Yet when it comes to textiles - clothes, curtains, bedspreads - being fashionable means frequent closet purges and trips to the mall.

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The Textile Museum puts disposable clothing into perspective with "Second Lives: The Age-Old Art of Recycling Textiles," offering a look at cultures that valued their fabrics so highly that they would repurpose them until the cloth became too threadbare to use.

Part of a series examining the link between textiles and the environment, the exhibit includes nearly 20 pieces from China, Iran and the Pacific Northwest, among other locales. And while most people could probably stand to learn a thing or two about recycling fabrics, each piece also offers a mini-lesson on various cultures.

Among the most beguiling works is a pair of 19th-century Indian tapestries known as kanthas, used as wall hangings, prayer blankets or floor cloths for important guests. The large white rectangles explode with colorful embroidery, meticulously executed. A lotus flower in the center of each gives way to a menagerie of elephants, peacocks and fish, which in turn is surrounded by a paisley border.

Amazingly, the vibrant thread had been recycled, painstakingly pulled from the embroidery of old saris. The white background was most likely made from simple cotton shirts. Usually given as gifts for big events - a wedding or a birth, for example - the tapestries are filled with auspicious imagery.

Many of the items on display have a religious context, including an 18th-century kesa - or Buddhist clergyman's robe - from Japan. Although Buddhism involves an ascetic lifestyle, the temples in Japan were warehouses for lush, costly textiles donated by followers. Cutting the pieces into fragments was supposed to negate the value of the fabric, allowing the priests to create patchwork robes. And for the kesa on display, the recycling didn't stop there: The fabric is lined with the gilt pages from a guide to attaining enlightenment, a practice thought to bring luck to the wearer.

In China, valuable textiles were similarly donated to religious institutions as a way to improve one's karma. In the case of a cover of a religious book known as a sutra, part of the patchwork was made from a statement-making garment: a silk-and-gold badge emblazoned with a lion. Such symbols, generally worn on the front and back of one's clothing, signified the wearer's ranking in society based on the animal they wore. The lion was at the top of the heap, so that badge probably belonged to a high-ranking military officer.

And while most utilitarian pieces would have been destined for some final incarnation as paper, a dishcloth or a diaper, it's lucky that some things escaped the recycling process to show the stunning potential of salvaged materials.

stephanie.merry@wpost.com SECOND LIFE: THE AGE-OLD ART OF RECYCLING TEXTILES Through Jan. 8 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-667-0441. www.textilemuseum.org. Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m. Admission: $8 suggested donation.


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