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Marla's Textile History:    The Education of a Textile Fanatic

I have always loved textiles, and when I was young, weaving was an intriguing mystery.  When my high school art teacher, May Hohlen, offered to lend me a small four-harness loom over one summer, I was elated.  I commandeered our living room floor--loom and me in the middle, weaving books scattered about, tools and masses of yarns and warps everywhere.  At the end of that summer I proudly presented three small experimental weavings to Ms. Hohlen, who without telling me, sent them off to a state high school art exhibit.  When I received a big blue ribbon, I was hooked.  From that point on, over the years, I kept it going--totally self-taught as a weaver.  I learned by experimenting and making mistakes.  

It was an adventure.  I was thrilled to find a large old-fashioned counter-balance loom at a farm auction, and even more excited to discover the dusty back rooms at some of North Georgia's commercial carpet mills.  I began to fill my van with excellent but dirt-cheap left-over wool yarns from those factories.  I soon had an inexhaustible supply of good yarns to dye.  I was spending as much time weaving as possible, and slowly began to exhibit my fiber pieces.  I got acquainted with local architects and interior designers who liked using fiber works in their commercial interiors.  A few large commissions for hotel lobbies and other public buildings eventually came my way, though I preferred the freedom of experimental studio work.    

I had acquired fine arts degrees (BFA, magna cum laude, and MA) at the University of Iowa.  After that, however, I concentrated on weaving.  When I got teaching jobs, first at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and later at the Atlanta University colleges, I managed to finagle textile class assignments.  Left to choose my own approaches, I experimented with curricula.  Along with teaching the customary basic weaving techniques, I encouraged my students to "invent" primitive looms, with fascinating results.  One of my students came up with a brilliant treadle idea.  Another devised a system of double heddles that was very clever and useful.  At this time I was also involved in antique "Oriental Rug" collectors' groups, and was lecturing around the country,.  One odd result of these simultaneous activities:  my students, with their technical experiments, helped me disprove favorite crackpot theories of rug-making origins. 

Pile rugs occupied the attention of many, many American collectors, but my main interests were the ethnograhic flat weaves: tapestry-woven kilims, soumak saddlebags, and various covers made traditionally by Asian and North African nomads for their own use.  Unfortunately, very few of these items made it to the US.  Traditional rug dealers thought them "inappropriate for the American market."   .

I had been toying with the idea of opening a public folk art gallery, but instead decided to stick to just ethnographic textiles and arrange a gallery in my house--in my attic.  It would be an open-by-appointment deal, and focus on those interior designers who had been buying my own weavings.  I consulted with several of those folks to determine their interest, and received encouragement.  

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I obviously needed to travel to hunt for the pieces that I found so appealing.  My first foreign "buying trip" was to southern Morocco, partly because I knew so little about the weavings produced there.  I had seen a few photos of intriguing North African Berber weavings, but I had no idea whether or not there were still people weaving or if there might be interesting things available for sale.  But it was OK.  I could spend time exploring, since I had limited funds for purchases anyway.

What an exciting time!  I spent long hours looking everywhere--to learn about the garish but intriguing weavings on display, learn about their unfamiliar constructions, and learn about their history.  In each market I was lucky to find even one dealer with an interest in good older pieces.  At this point in my education, it made no sense to wander around the countryside looking for weavers.  With my limitations on that first trip I was fortunate to finally assemble a group of twenty handsome older Berber weavings that delighted both me and my Atlanta customers. On the following trips I expanded my collecting.  Now, many years later, i understand that it is nearly impossible to find good pieces.  .

Turkey was next!  This time I studied the language diligently.  I needed at least to be able to conduct my business in Turkish.  I had looked forward to this experience for so long, that every day in Turkey was a pleasure.  At first I methodically looked everywhere so I would understand the scope and character of the business.  A seemingly endless supply of garish new or recent synthetic-dye weavings were on display everywhere that tourists might wander. That was true for the highly touted Grand Bazaar in Istanbul as well as smaller markets and street-side shops everywhere.  Fancy large up-scale galleries catered primarily to Istanbul residents and offered only new floral carpets in the latest Persian styles.  On my first trip, I did stumble into a couple of unusual back alley shops that were noteworthy.  Only on subsequent trips, however, did I gradually make the connections so important for my business--meeting private dealers who were "pickers." These individuals slowly gathered good 19th century pieces that they normally kept for foreign dealers.  Although I made annual month-long trips over a 25-year period, learning the business was slow.  I gradually made more discerning judgements on the artistry in the pieces, their craftsmanship, and the quality of their natural dyes.  Everyone was always moaning that "Kilims are finished!"  and indeed each year there were fewer available.    .

One difficulty in dealing with old or antique nomad textiles was arranging for fine quality restoration work.  Museums normally preferred pieces in sometimes tattered, original condition, but private collectors usually wanted restored pieces. Thus after each of the first several trips I was bogged down with doing the essential work myself.  In much later years I finally located some talented restoration guys in Turkey to whom I could entrust my best purchases.  What a relief!

To sum up, I can say that my eventual kilim purchases were so well received in Atlanta and via the website, that I'm now practically sold out--and unfortunately have few nomad weavings left for these current "retirement sale" web pages. .

I made time on most trips to visit nomad weavers.  Sitting alongside those women at their looms I not only learned occasional new weaving tridks;  I also came to understand their attitudes toward the work.  They were lovely, hospitable women.

Over my years of immersion in the field of Middle Eastern tribal weavings, I grappled with one major question:  How in the world did such a wide range of designing develop?  Especially in Turkish, Kurdish, and Caucasian village pile rugs?  After years of studying the weavings, I began to make sense of it all.  I spent so much time working through these issues I finally gave a series of design development lectures at International Carpet and Textile Conferences in Vienna, Hamburg, and Milan as well as in the US. These lectures on structure-based designing provoked enough interest that I began to write on the basic weaves...Then it became a book:  WOVEN STRUCTURES..

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Actually, the internet came along at the perfect time for me.  Starting a website in 1989, I usually kept an inventory of between 400 and 450 textiles posted.  What a delight to hear from textile enthusiasts around the world.  I could never have imagined contacts with folks living above the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia or all-the-way-down-under in Tasmania--and then sending textiles to those places.  

As Turkey's kilim market became more difficult and expensive, I thought seriously about other places I needed to investigate.  I had been selling a few Egyptian folk art tapestries, and decided that I must go there myself--particularly to visit the well-known Wissa Wassef studio and to select tapestries myself.  I met and became friends with several weavers in the village of Harrania--especially some of the women my age who had been part of Ramses Wissa Wassef's first group of child weavers in his famous 1950's Creativity  Experiment. Those folks are now master artisans who have been working indepedently for years.  They are admired throughout Egypt and beyond.  Garia Mahmoud and  Rowhia Ali Salem became good friends of mine, and they produced my favorite tapestry purchases.  

Next, partly as a result of correspondence with customers in Singapore, I developed an interest in Laotian silk brocades and other weavings.  I thought too that it would be interesting to try navigating a culture quite different from Middle Eastern Islam.  It was indeed delightful to visit Thailand and Laos.  Some of the weavings are absolutely astonishing and I'll be studying them for a good while.  I met a few of the weavers selling their products in a Laos street market, and was able to check out their large, unique brocade looms. 

Although I've been talking mainly about the kilims that dominated my life and business, over the years I've handled many other kinds of ethnographic textiles.  When I have encountered someone with an unusual textile specialty, I've been eager to learn from them.  When their pieces have been for sale, I've been eager to select choice items for my gallery collection.

First I encountered a man who had collected Cuna Indian mola panels in the San Blas Islands of Panama.  I thoroughly enjoyed those colorful reverse applique panels that formed women's blouses.  Everybody loved molas.  Then a woman appeared who had Indonesian ikat hingi from Sumba.  They were good ones.  A friend of mine was spending lots of time in China, collecting Chinese Minority costume items, and I couldn't resist going through her purchases the minute she returned from trips.  She displayed them proudly, but undoubtedly was disappointed if I chose her favorites.  A man originally from Guinea who was importing dramatic raffia waist wraps and other textiles that he collected in the Congo eagerly showed me his treasures after each trip,.  The conversations often turned to tales of life in his village, growing up.  Another delightful friend, from Afghanistan, let me rummage through his storeroom and choose from his superb groups of embroidered costume items-- examples from both his home country and Pakistan.  Finally, I became friends with an Atlantan who had spent lots of his military time in Japan and developed an unquenchable love for kimonos during those years and on subsequent trips.  He shared his knowledge, his purchases, and his enthusiasm so freely that it was infectious, as well as informative.  I haven't yet mentioned the lavish Ottoman Turkish embroidered objects and costume items that I bought from a specialist in Istanbul when I could actually tear myself away from the kilim hunt.  That gentleman was full of information.  Then a collection of Coptic textiles popped up!   Each encounter with a new group of textiles sent me off frantically searching for books on the subject.  When a stash of fine handmade laces appeared and I didn't know a thing about them, I was driven to teach myself how to make Torchon bobbin lace.  What a challenging set of puzzles that was!  Anyway, my gallery/business kept me fully occupied and I've always enjoyed a mix of extgravagant ethnographc textiles:  a bold Kuba applique next to a refined silk brocade or gold embroidery...complemented by perky little embroidered kids' hats or elegant chaders from Kohistan women.  

I haven't yet mentioned the rest of the crew here. My husband Chris, William Christopher, is an indispensable aid, and kept the business going when I was travelling. My son David Mallett is an archaeologist whose interests often coincide with mine so we enjoy sharing each other's experiences.  He chose the title for this bio--suggesting that I choose between "Textile Fanatic" and "Textile Nut" since both were accurate.    

1690 Johnson Road NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30306   USA

Phone:  404-872-3356

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