Dr Jenny Balfour – Textales: If Cloth Could Talk

By Shannan Sterne

When we switch on the television, we often see countries such as Palestine, Yemen and Egypt associated with violence. The pictures broadcast on the news often focus on men with guns, women screaming, babies crying. Lots of dust. Lots of blood.

But today’s Textales: If Cloth Could Talk event with Dr Jenny Balfour challenged you to consider other images too. Dr Balfour talked about how beautiful she found these countries now “shredded with war” when she encountered them 20-30 years ago.

“ISIS all started as babies,” said Dr Balfour. “It really tortures me how people become able to chop people’s heads off.” She reminded us that these countries have a rich and intricate culture in the form of textiles. 

She showed us scarlet silk-woven dresses with tapestry that would have taken days and weeks and months to master. When I looked closely at the tapestry I saw miniscule silken strands holding hands with each other in order to form a glossy intricate pattern into which you could stare at for hours.

Dense, rich materials formed wedding celebration gowns. Different gowns would be worn every day for seven days for wedding festivities. They had mother of pearl buttons – when you look into them you see a thousand different colours – and sheer, deep indigo colouring. “The colour of their life,” said Dr Balfour.

When Dr Balfour showed us her clothing collection, it was like when your grandmother lets you dress up like a grown up. I had a huge urge to try everything on all at once as she pulled out even more kinds of fabulous garments. A thick, ebony dress with bold red stitching caught my eye – its bold and statement look juxtaposed the more delicate design associated with some of the other dresses.

It reminded me of some current catwalk fashion which is influenced, Jenny said, by Arabic culture.

I was particularly taken by an Egyptian children’s gown enriched with Camels and trucks. A child’s dream! The children’s clothing seemed to be adorned with wonderful features including tadpoles, tiny fish and seaweed.

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