Today I’ve the very great pleasure of introducing you to Marina Moskowitz as part of our contemporary bluestocking series. Until very recently, Marina was based at the University of Glasgow. Over the years, I’ve often enjoyed her company, and as a highly creative, interdisciplinary historian (and fellow enthusiastic knitter) I’ve always found her hugely inspiring. Now chair of Textiles, Culture and Design at the University of Wisconsin, there are so many things I could say about Marina and her important work, but what’s always struck me about her is the sheer joy in everyday things that suffuses all she does. From Richard Scarry to the Folly Cove designers, that joy is very apparent in our conversation here, and I heartily encourage those of you who are able to visit the exhibition she’s currently curating, Politics at Home: Textiles as American History. How I wish that I could join you!
Hi Marina! Thanks for joining us today on the KDD blog!
Thank you, Kate—it’s such an honour to be here! I have been reading your blog for many years–in fact I remember that it took me a while to realise that the Kate whose knitting was so inspiring and the Kate who shared my academic interests in material culture were one and the same person. So it’s really fun to see all of our varied interests come together in your current Bluestocking project.
Thank you! This project is a real delight to work on – not least because it brings this opportunity to have a chat with you! Can you start by telling us a wee bit about your background, and what inspired your life-long love of textiles, material objects, and stuff more generally? Were there any makers in your family?
I’ve been mulling over this question, and while there are several answers I could give, one thing that strikes me is that some of my interest in “stuff” must have come from books. I remember the first time I taught a course in the History of Technology (from a material culture perspective) and I realized that my initial understanding of, for example, papermaking came from Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?
. . . .I actually showed the illustration from Scarry’s book in comparison to a nineteenth-century print of a Fourdrinier paper-making machine, and Scarry was absolutely accurate! I think those ideas of process and transformation from various materials to various things have always been fascinating for me. (In addition to knitting, I do have an interest in bookbinding, so maybe that’s where the paper fits in!)
As for textiles specifically, I do have strong memories of some particular books, at various stages of my ‘young reading’ that featured very vivid descriptions of textiles and clothing, starting from the classic How A Shirt Grew in the Field (a Russian folk tale adapted by Marguerita Rudolph—I had the edition with illustrations by Yaroslava) to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess to a book that had been my mother’s and that I always read and re-read when we visited my grandmother called The Middle Button, by Kathryn Worth. Speaking of my maternal grandmother, she was a wonderful seamstress and knitter, so yes, I do draw some inspiration there as well!
I’m always interested in how historians get to where they’re going intellectually – especially in how really wide-ranging graduate work begins to coalesce into the single “subject” of a PhD. What was the focus of your PhD and how did this work set the stage for the kind of historian you then became?
I entered graduate school having worked for a few years as a museum curator, and I was in an American Studies program that really valued interdisciplinarity. I knew I was going to work in some form of material culture studies, and we had a really strong community of students across American Studies and Art History that worked in material culture. I had a light bulb moment one day when I was reading a book about American silver production, and it spoke about US government regulations toward the end of the nineteenth century that set a standard for the number of pieces that was considered a “set” of household silverware. Two things about this struck me: first off, that number was huge—I can’t remember exactly, but 57 is the number in my head and I was just amazed that there were so many different types of implements for different types of food, so on the one hand there was such an emphasis on specialisation (because you wouldn’t want to be caught serving vegetables with your “berry spoon”!) But then on the other hand, there was a drive toward standardization—toward people in different places having the same stuff and how people’s shared ideas about “everyday” environments came out of all sorts of cultural drivers and industrial standards. This tension was really interesting to me, and over time and various research trails, my PhD (and book, The Standard of Living) emerged—a study of how people’s day to day experience of material culture contributed to the notion of the standard of living. I looked at four case studies at different scales of material culture at the turn of the twentieth century in the US: silverplate cutlery, bathroom fixtures, kit houses, and zoning codes for city planning. Though my work has gone in a lot of different directions from that project, I maintain my interest in “the everyday” and in thinking about—and sharing—the histories of things that we often take for granted in the world around us.
At Glasgow, you were involved in a number of really innovative interdisciplinary projects exploring the history of Scottish knitting and textiles. Not only did these projects deepen research into an often-neglected area, but they also strengthened local links between the world of scholarship and the much wider community — bringing in business, farming, fashion, and, of course, many knitters into the ambit of your work – even developing your very own University of Glasgow yarn from the fleeces of the university’s own sheep! Can you tell us about some of the highlights of the Glasgow projects of which you were a part?
Well, let me say at the outset that all of the projects on knitting with which I was, and remain, involved at Glasgow were part of a wonderful collaboration with my partner-in-crime, Lynn Abrams, as well as many other colleagues and students! And also, a lot of these projects were possible because of great support we received, from the University of Glasgow, from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and currently from the Arts and Humanities Research Council—and how wonderful I think it is that these different entities recognized the import and interest that research on Scottish knitting would have. I will point to three highlights: past, present, and future. One of my favorite projects was organizing a big crew of volunteers to knit all the flags of the Commonwealth countries that we strung at various places around Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games in 2014—it seemed like the perfect welcome! The present is an ongoing project you’ve already mentioned, of creating Cochno Farms Yarn as a collaboration with the University’s Veterinary School farm and The Natural Fiber Company in Cornwall.
. . . and the future is a fun project we are still working on, inspired by our previous “Knitter in Residence,” Susan McComb, who did some wonderful knitting patterns inspired by the University’s architecture. Inspired by her work, we invited other Scottish, or Scotland-based, designers to do the same and we will soon be able to launch this collection: watch this space!
I know you enjoy many different crafts—including knitting. What do you most like to make?
Oh, you give me too much credit here! My craft skills are actually pretty limited, but I do really love knitting (though anyone who has seen my house (and office!) will know my main passion is yarn collecting!) Like so many of us, I learned to knit when I was pretty young (don’t remember exactly, but I’m guessing the upper end of single digits) and dabbled but mainly put it aside for years. When my nephew (now 21!) was born, and more of my friends and colleagues started having babies, I was inspired to pick it up again to be able to make gifts for them, and I’ve never looked back. I still love the instant gratification (and forgiving fit!) of making baby gifts, but recently have been enjoying making shawls, and all the Zoom knitting of the pandemic even led me to make a highly enjoyable dress! (And because people will ask, it was Cecily Glowik MacDonald’s Zauber Dress.)
I’m fascinated in the relationships that can exist between one’s area of scholarly or professional expertise and different activities of craft or making. For some, craft offers a welcome retreat from scholarship, while others find intriguing points of consonance between their intellectual and practical activities. With you that relationship seems particularly interesting and acute—you work on material culture and you are, yourself, a maker. I wonder if you can talk about how making stuff has influenced your approach to researching stuff. . . and vice versa?
This is such an important question that many people in the material culture, and specifically textile, worlds are discussing, and debating, at the moment. As a person interested in stuff, and also space, I’ve long felt as though being in a place, or seeing a thing, gives me inspiration in my research, but I haven’t always been able to articulate how or why. Just in the past few years, some scholars have referred to ‘the making turn’ to think about the way in which the embodied knowledge of replicating historical crafts practice might serve as a research tool. (If anyone wants to do some reading here, I think a lot of the inspiration comes from Prof. Tim Ingold’s Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture and there was a recent special issue of Fashion Theory on ‘The Making Turn’ (Volume 23, Number 3, 2019) with some interesting articles about what we can learn from making historical dress and textiles). For me, it all comes back to ideas about process. On the one hand, I’m still not sure how comfortable I feel equating my experiences of, say, knitting a jumper, with someone doing so 100 years ago, or whenever, because of course the circumstances in which I do those things are just so different. But on the other hand, I do think that there are issues about, for example, scale, and pace, and discipline of production that I just have a better ‘feel’ for than I might have done without carrying out some sort of craft processes myself. And I do think that introducing some basic craft skills into my teaching of history has been a really important pedagogical tool—for one thing it just gets students to slow down a little, and focus on one task, and think about the relationship between their brains and the rest of their bodies. Those of us in material culture are often taught to “read” an object, and I think by making objects we do understand how they can convey the stories that wend their ways into historical narratives. That said, I also often wonder about the way in which that metaphor of reading gives primacy to the written word: what if instead of “reading” an object we think about how texts or even ideas are “made”?
You currently co-edit the wonderful Textile History journal, bringing the stories of historic textiles to the world. Can you tell us something about the range of intriguing or perhaps surprising textile-related stories that editing this journal has introduced you to?
Thanks! I do think that editing Textile History has made me truly appreciate the ubiquity of textiles and their importance to history, because I see such an incredible range of histories cross my desk every day. I often say that I find textiles fascinating because they are at once so intimate—we make them with and wear them on our bodies, we wrap babies in them, we sleep under them, etc—and also so integral to systems of global exchange, whether financial, political, or cultural. And it is exactly this range of research approaches that strikes me with every issue of the journal. I work with an amazing co-editor, Vivienne Richmond, and we often talk about how on the one hand textile history might seem like a ‘niche’ field, but in fact, it is so broad-ranging that we feel as though our job as editors is to make sure that everyone in the field speaks to one another effectively. We work with authors so that a scholar of Greek linguistics, who looks at the different meanings of words associated with the colour purple and the ways in which textiles were dyed that colour; an economic historian of the early modern period, who shows how tapestries were affected by the northern European financial sector; an anthropologist looking at the processes by which textiles are deemed ‘sacred’; and a fashion historian looking at intellectual—and actual!– property infringement in the late twentieth century not only all share their individual research but do so in a way that helps everyone learn more about textiles. I learn something new every day!
A couple of years ago you were appointed to the Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg Chair in Textiles, Material Culture, and Design at the University of Wisconsin. To any material culture obsessive, this is a dream job, with the amazing Helen Louise Allen Textile collection quite literally on your doorstep. I know its a really wide-ranging and extensive collection of textiles from all over the world—can you tell us more about it?
Thanks, yes, this has been an amazing opportunity! The Textile Collection started with the bequest of its namesake Helen Louise Allen, who donated about 4000 textiles. Allen was a professor of textiles, primarily weaving but other subjects as well, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from the 1920s until her death in 1968. She was an amazing woman—an artist, a great teacher, and a world traveller who clearly had strong ethnographic, as well as technical, interests in textiles from a young age. She had amassed this amazing collection that she used in teaching, and I presume for her own inspiration, and wanted it to be used that way in perpetuity.
Over the 50+ years since then, the collection has grown to over 13,000 items, and really is global in its reach. The chronology dates from some examples of Coptic textiles all the way through to the 21rst century—we recently acquired a lovely quilt by Sharon Williams, one of the daughters of the original group of quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama; Sharon and many of her peers are continuing this strong regional tradition. In addition to the textiles themselves, which are amazing, there is also a strong and really interesting lineage of donations to the Collection that also tells a lot about the role that textiles play in both daily life and global affairs!
We are also very lucky in that, thanks to a great group of donors, recently we were able to open a new gallery in our building, specifically dedicated to showcasing the Textile Collection, so having more potential for exhibitions is also helping us think about the collection in new ways, in terms of all the different narratives it can support. Though we always are working to improve our online records, and especially our digital photography, I encourage everyone to take a peek at our Collection Finder and come visit when that feels possible!
One of the brilliant things about the Helen Louise Allen collection is that its purpose is for teaching—widening engagement with made things and their cultural and human significance. I wondered if you could say something about the special role textiles can play in enhancing the public understanding of history—and perhaps American history in particular?
Thanks for this timely question because I am just finishing an exhibition project that I have been working on with a few graduate students (Samantha Comerford, Nora Renick-Rinehart, and Natalie Wright) that is about textiles and American Politics, with all the objects drawn from our collection.
We started this project pre-pandemic, with an eye to having the exhibit up for the 2020 election season, but in fact the various delays, and changes that have happened in the world, mean that we are now viewing these same textiles through a very different lens, which I think has been liberating to think about bigger questions than one specific election. The exhibit is called Politics at Home: Textiles as American History, and our aim is pretty much exactly what you asked in the question—to encourage our audiences to look more closely at the world around them and think about the meanings of the history and politics that are suffused in the choices of what to make, and display, in the home.
So on the one hand, we do have a variety of campaign objects (such as a rare handkerchief from William Henry Harrison’s 1840 presidential campaign—one of the first with widespread use of political ephemera) but we are also displaying historical revival furnishing fabrics from the 1970s, to ask what it means to evoke particular “histories” in home decorating and what politics are embedded in those choices.
As we’ve worked on this project, we’ve also been aware of the stories that are missing, and that is helping us shape our collecting policies for the future! The exhibit opens on 1 September and we will follow with an online version for broader audiences, so again: watch this space!
Can you tell us about any projects and future plans for your work with the Helen Louise Allen collection?
Yes, I’d love to share two projects! Shortly after I arrived in Madison, we embarked on a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Textile Collection; I was invited to speak as a way of kicking off this programming but I was still (and am still, it’s going to take a while!) getting familiar with the collection, so just searched for one small ‘way in’. I decided to speak about a set of block printed textiles by the Folly Cove Designers, who were based in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the mid-twentieth century; I was really intrigued by the aesthetic and technical aspects of this group, whose practice revolved around annual design classes given by Virginia Lee Burton, an artist and illustrator (many American readers will know her for her children’s books such as Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, or The Little House).
…But this also seemed a really interesting way to think about what this one small sector of the original Helen Allen bequest could tell us about her priorities as a textile collector. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Folly Cove archive at the Cape Ann Museum, but am eager to do more research on this topic, and perhaps block printed textiles in general, as research travel opens up. I am also starting a new collection-based project this fall on furnishing fabrics, which are a real strength of the textile collection, and I think an under-studied topic in the world of textile history.
And last but not least—what’s currently on your needles?
Well, in truth, many, many things. I am more of a process than product knitter and I seem to enjoy casting on more than casting off… But my current holiday knitting is the brilliant Cecilia Campochiaro’s Colortunes scarf. As many of your readers will know, Campochiaro has followed up her intriguing work on sequence knitting with a new project on marls, and Colortunes combines both techniques. It’s really simple—and meditative—and very rewarding to see all the different color combinations emerge. I am knitting it in shades of green (treated myself to a kit from Nature’s Luxury) and it’s very calming!
Really looking forward to your work on block printing and furnishing fabrics, Marina. Thanks so much for this inspiring and thought-provoking chat. Scotland misses you!