Past Exhibitions and Events

Woven Gardens of Hope: Afghan Women’s Carpets 2014
Photo credit: Thomas Lee

Photo credit: Thomas Lee

Contemporary views of Afghanistan are dominated by images of strife and social breakdown. In contrast, this exhibition celebrated the area’s rich textile traditions that have contributed to world culture for centuries. This artisanal tradition was presented by carpets woven by Afghan women participating in ARZU Hope Studio. Through their weaving, the women achieve entrepreneurial success and community sustainability. In addition to the ARZU Carpets, textiles from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection and objects from the historical collection of Minasian Rug Company (Evanston, IL), specialists in traditional Oriental carpets and tribal rugs, were displayed.

Exploring the Alternatives: Early Experiments in Fiber Art


February 8-March 28, 2016
Fiber art is a term applied to textiles that emphasize aesthetics instead of functionality.  Artists have been experimenting with the potential of fiber since the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, but the roots of fiber art as we understand it today can be traced back to the 1930s.  Until her death in 1968, Helen Louise Allen collected numerous examples of these early experiments with fiber.  Her interest in this burgeoning art form means that, today, the collection contains significant works by fiber art pioneers such as Mariska Karasz and Dominic Di Mare.  Examples of their art are on display in this exhibition, which also includes works by Virginia Tiffany, Joan Paque, and Peter Collingwood.

There are Worlds in a Opal

From the moment of creation to the day they enter the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, every object goes on a journey.  Between the crafters who created them, merchants who sold them, and the owners who cherished them, objects accrue storied histories that gain meaning with each turn of hand.  There are worlds in these objects, waiting to be revealed.  This exhibition reveals the diversity of the world’s costume accessories.  On display here are 42 examples of costume accessories from around the globe.  Highlights include French and American beaded purses, Turkish metal work, and embroidered hats from all over Africa.  There Are Worlds in an Opal will be on display in the Mecklenburg Reading Room in Nancy Nicholas Hall through the summer.  The reading room, which physically connects the Ruth Ketterer Harris Library, HLATC staff offices and classroom, features a wall of drawers which visitors can open to view the items on display.









By Women, About Women 2010-2011

Poster for Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "By Women, About Women: Stories in Fabric." Poster features printed novelty handkercheif on dressing different figures. HLATC 1992.05.438“By Women, About Women” is a celebration of our identity, creativity, grace, and style. There are only a few creations in history that fulfill every human necessity and our need and love for fabric is so ubiquitous that we don’t even realize that it is our greatest human invention. Textiles are as omnipresent as our stories; they are intrinsic to every society around the world, giving form to what we feel, do, and how we understand life.

“By Women, About Women” is an exhibition of textiles and textile-inspired artists’ books that showcase the patterns of women’s lives. Whether it is an example of women’s fashion, a crazy quilt, a story about housework, or how women have put their “best figure forward,” “By women, About Women” evokes the nuances of women’s lives, rumors, gossip, and old wives tales.

Selected from the extensive holdings of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection and the Kohler Art Library by its curator, Isadora Gabrielle Leidenfrost (Ph.D. candidate in Design Studies) this exhibition coincides with a commemoration of Women’s History Month and celebrates the 2010-2011 Year of the Arts at UW-Madison.

Clothing and Culture in South Asia

Poster for Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "Clothing and Culture in South Asia." Poster features a red and white tunic, pants, and vest ensemble heavily embellished with gold embroidery. HLATC 1999.08.006a-cClothing and culture are inextricably intertwined in South Asia. Dress reflects gender, ethnicity, religion, occupation, social status, and wealth in addition to individual taste. Because of the subcontinent’s size and the artistic richness of its cultures, what people wear is tremendously varied, visually engaging, and meaningful.

The Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is especially strong in ethnographic material from South Asia. This exhibition showcases some of the HLATC’s best and most unusual examples of textile art for the body from India and Pakistan. While it is by no means a comprehensive survey—an impossible undertaking—it does attempt to convey something of the extraordinary masala (spice mixture) of South Asian clothing as an expression of the lives of the people who make it and wear it.

There has always been a fertile exchange of reciprocal influences between Hindu and Muslim dress in both technique and style. The most obvious example of this is that many Muslim women wear saris and many Hindu women wear salwar kameez (pants and tunic). Parallel cross-pollinations occur between mainstream South Asian dress and tribal apparel, as well as between urban chic and rural folkwear. Alongside these dynamic networks of exchange, however, there remain distinctive and vibrant traditions that preserve cultural identity relatively intact in more isolated parts of the subcontinent. “Clothing and Culture in South Asia” celebrates this complexity and the artistry of those who created these body-coverings.

Click here to see a virtual tour of the exhibit.

Native Silks of South Asia

Image advertising Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "Native Silks of South Asia." Silk cocoons and raw silk fiber in creams and browns were on loan from UW-Madison anthropology Professor Mark Kenoyer.Silk is a fiber that can be obtained from the cocoons of various types of moths found throughout the world. In antiquity it is quite likely that people throughout the world who had access to such cocoons made threads or cordage out of these fibers.

The earliest evidence for the use of silk fiber for cordage in South Asia comes from the sites of the Indus Civilization dating to between 2450-2200 BC. The silk moth species being utilized in the past are now commonly known as Muga, Tussar and Eri. So far there is no evidence that silk was being woven into fabrics during the Indus civilization, but this discovery suggests the that origins of the silk tradition South Asia represents an indigenous process, and was not borrowed from China as previously thought. Wild silk (Bombyx mandarina) was also being used at about the same time in China to make cordage at the site of Liangzhou (circa 2750 BC), but the weaving of silk from the domesticated silk moth Bombyx mori in China does not begin until the Shang period, around 1600-1045 BC.

Two examples of silk at Harappa have been found inside copper ornaments, where the copper corrosion preserved the ancient silk fiber. A hollow copper or copper-allot bangle fragment (H1999/8863-2) had fibers that are identical to those produced by a wild moth called Antheraea assamensis, also know as Muga silk. Fiber found preserved inside a coiled wire ornament made of native copper or of a copper-alloy similar to Antheraea mylitta, as it has a distinctive striated fiber. This species is commonly referred to as Tussar or Kosa (in Sanskrit).

For more information visit

To read J. M. Kenoye’s full article click here.


Knit Picks

Poster for Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "Knit Picks." Poster features sample of knit-related objects, including yardage printed to look like knit structure, Peruvian gauntlets, and Norwegian mittens.Knitting developed as a clever way of looping fibers around needles to create a strong, stretchable fabric. We have been knitting for a long, long time and in many different places. Knitted textiles have been found in early Egyptian and Peruvian burials, documenting that the technique has been widely distributed for at least two millennia.

Among the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection’s knitted pieces are boldly patterned accessories that reflect the technique’s cultural breadth. Some of these are “folk” pieces that are surprisingly complex technically as well as artistically.


Political Textiles

Example object from Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "Political Textiles." Star-shaped handkerchief printed with concentric borders of red and white around a blue center with small white stas scattered in area. HLATC 1992.05.509The first examples of political textiles with American subject matter date to the late eighteenth century and were printed in England and France. These early examples commemorated battles and leaders of the American Revolution.  Maps of the colonies were also screened onto cloth in this time. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries textiles were used for election campaign propaganda, political and union party signage, as well as banners for political lobbying. Political textiles were often painted or printed but could also be quilted, appliquéd, or embroidered. The types of objects that have been adorned with political themes are extensive and include handkerchiefs, bandanas, yardage, quilts, pillow covers, pennants, and flags. While in contemporary culture some types of political textiles have been replaced by plastic and vinyl alternatives (especially in the cases of pennants, flags, and banners), political textiles are still used today. The most common examples being produced for the 2008 campaigns include T-shirts, totes, and hats.

Handkerchiefs with political themes were especially popular in the 1950s. In addition to their utilitarian function and common everyday use (which continued throughout the decade despite the introduction of disposable facial tissues in 1924), handkerchiefs were widely sought after for sentimental and even educational reasons. Handkerchiefs were inexpensive souvenirs of places and events. They were often given as promotions by companies and during WWII were given as incentives to buy war bonds. Handkerchiefs were common gifts to children, especially examples that expressed values or patriotic information or slogans.


Fairyland of Fabrics: The Victorian Crazy Quilt

Poster for Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "A Fairyland of Fabrics." Poster features a detail of a quilt square. Crazy quilt square features silks and velvets pieced with decorative embroidery. Prominent central yellow fabric piece features photographic image of woman's face. HLATC Q.S.US.0036A fascination with fairyland permeated American art, literature, and theater in the late nineteenth century. Overlaid in the popular imagination with the exotic Orient, fairyland was seen as an aesthetically charged, otherworldly place: dream-like, fluid, and sensuous. Crazy-quilt makers cultivated fairyland as an aesthetic experience, and stepped into its dream-like quality as a way of intensifying and enriching their lives. Their quilts were visually dazzling, with bright, kaleidoscopic colors and rich fabrics sparkling with beguiling images and fine embroidery. Like the fairy spectacles on contemporary stages, they offered spectacular effects, shimmering light, and a bright array of fairy-identified motifs like butterflies, dragonflies, woodland flowers, owls, and crescent moons.

Curated by Professor Beverly Gordon of the Department of Design Studies, the exhibition presented these themes through a selection of quilts from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection and the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, accompanied by large-scale detail photographs of fairyland fabrics and motifs found on the quilts and in other period sources.

Read a review of the exhibition in the Wisconsin State Journal’s article: ‘Textile’ messaging: Exhibit shows how late-19th-century women expressed their fun


Crafting Kimono

Poster for Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "Crafting Kimono." Postcard features blue silk kimono with irises, water, leaf, and crest motifs painted, printed, and paste resisted. HLATC P.R.J.1638 So much of dress is tied to identity. Even in today’s “global market” the simple (or not) decision about which outfit to wear says a great deal about you. The Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection has many garments that reflect the identity of the wearer and the maker.

Kimono, the national dress of Japan, offers clear clues as to the wearer and more subtle ones from the maker. It would be easy to assume that a kimono is a kimono, with its straightforward construction, simple t-shape and one size-fits-all nature. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Although adult kimono are uniform in size—made from one bolt of fabric, approximately 14 inches wide and a little over 12 yards long—the elegant t-shape of the garment is altered and patterned to reflect social and personal issues.

A man’s kimono is fairly straightforward: short sleeves with a square edge, often in somber hues. Colorful kimono are usually hidden under these more somber outer kimono. Women; however, have many choices when they select a kimono. A woman must take into account her marital status, the season, the occasion, and her age. The sleeve length and design of a woman’s kimono signal her age and marital status. The weave and design on the kimono can identify whether the garment is to be worn in the winter or summer, and the placement of the design is different for domestic wear, formal visits, or ceremonial occasions.
Crafting Kimono will reveal these subtle nuances and explore the materials and techniques that go into creating a kimono. Examples of kimono (wedding, formal and everyday) featuring Ro (gauze weave), Chirim (silk crepe), Shibori (tied and dyed), Kasuri (bound resist or Ikat), and Yuzen (paste resist) will be on display. Selected from the extensive holdings of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection by its former curator, Rebecca Kasemeyer, this exhibition is part of a series of biennial exhibitions showcasing the HLATC collections in the Design Gallery.


Stories to Tell

Poster for Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "Stories To Tell." Poster features a korak, a pieced textile from Uzbekistan. Pieced together rectangular curtain made from woven (pile, ikat, standard) and printed fabrics in various materials including silk, wool and cotton. One side has a 5' ikat and stripe border. Stripes, triangles, and diamonds of many different fabrics are arranged inside the ikat border. The backside is more randomly pieced together of printed fabrics. HLATC 1992.08.168 Approximately 35 costumes and textiles selected for the exhibition Stories to Tell: Recent Acquisitions from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection will be on view September 27 through November 27, 1996 in the Gallery of Design. A Uzbekistani yurt curtain pieced in geometric patterns, a striking Amish “sunshine and shadows” quilt from Pennsylvania, a dynamic 1970s silk stenciled wedding kimono embellished with fine embroidery, and a 15th century chasuble made from Italian voided velvet with an elaborately embroidered Flemish or Spanish orphrey highlight this exhibition.

The stories behind these textiles are the focus of the exhibition. Some stories feature the collecting of particular donors while other stories focus on the cultural significance they possess within their traditional cultures. Pears are the central motif in a silk-screened yardage printed at the 1954 Wisconsin State Fair by artist Ruth Grottenrath and donated by Professor Mathilda Schwalbach. An elegant silk scarf combines the hand-batiking skills of Indonesian artisans and the contemporary designs of Mary Jaeger, a New York fashion designer from Madison. A young girl’s kimono, obi, and sandals worn by a turn of the century Madison child were presented to her father in Japan in 1909 by Baroness Goto, the Administrator of Education. Two elaborate women’s headdresses collected in northern Thailand represent distinctions between headdresses worn by married and unmarried women of the Akha people. Through sound collection policy decisions and serendipity these pieces are now part of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. They were selected from approximately 250 pieces received into the collection during the five years preceding this 1996 exhibition.


Pixels and Textiles

Poster for Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection exhibition "Pixels and Textiles." Poster features gold embellished silk Indian wedding vest and close-up imagery of gold embroidery. HLATC 1999.08.006b Take a closer look with us, as we share with you digital images that highlight specific construction and embellishment techniques that would be difficult to decipher with just the naked eye.

As textile researchers and enthusiasts, there are many things we learn about a textile through close examination.When a textile comes into the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, we research, catalog, and photograph the piece to make both the textile and the documentation available to faculty, students, and researchers.

The Collection has been working to develop a new digital imaging database throughout this last year. In the process, we have investigated avenues for capturing and archiving digital images. We have already begun utilizing digital images in email correspondence, in assisting researchers and for this exhibition in the Gallery of Design.

While exploring digital photography, we were amazed at what the digital camera could do for us. In researching textiles, we use magnifying glasses and microscopes to analyze the cloth structures, surface design treatments, and fiber content of our textiles. We found that we could do the same with a digital camera, focusing on the very minute details of textiles that would normally be impossible to see with the naked eye. This exhibition allows us to take a magnified look at an incredible scope of intricate textile structures and embellishments.

We are very excited about the opportunity to exhibit such a diverse group of textiles. The research we undertook for each object followed a path as individual as the textile itself. We know the pieces are incredible both from a distance and minutely and now we can share that understanding with you. As you view the textiles in the Gallery, the text will reveal the significance of the digital close-ups. We encourage you to take a closer look, not only at the digital pictures, but also at the textiles themselves.

Previous Ruth Ketterer Harris Lectures

2015. “Global Color: Textiles, Dyes, and Colors in the Interwoven Globe, 16th-18th centuries.” Elena Phipps, Ph.D.

2014. “Seven Fibers that Changed the World.” Patrice George, Assistant Professor, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City

2013. “Weaving and Innovation: Digital Fibers Converse with Neural Networks.” Lia Cook, Artist.

2012. “Marrying Tradition and Innovation: Collaborations between Oaxacan Artisans and 21st-century Designers.” Ana Paula Fuentes Quintana.

2011.”The Hyperbolic Crocheted Reef Project: Art/Math/Ecology” by Margaret Wertheim.

2010. “Felt: The Most Ancient Modern Material” by Susan Brown.

2009. “The Sun and the Moon: Protective Motifs in Central and South Asian Embroideries” by Victoria Rivers.

2008. “The Embroidered Landscape of the Andes: Creating Textiles as a Way of Life” by Blenda Femenias.

2007. “Uzbek Steppe Embroidery: How Women Preserve Identity” by Kate Fitz Gibbon.

2006. “Contemporary Knitting: The Intersection of Fashion, Craft, Art, and Technolo” by Sandy Black.

2005. “Fashioning Architecture: Fabric, Form, and Textile Technology” by Bradley Quinn.

2004. “The Search Continues: Where are the 1933 Sears Quilt Contest Quilts?” by Merikay Waldvogel.

2003. “Imperial Ottoman Tents: Mobiles Palaces” by Nurhan Atasoy.

2002. “What do Textiles Say to Each Lying in the Dark? What are collections for, anyway?” by Max Allen.

2001. “Industry and Historic Preservation as Partners: Scalamandre` and Villa Louis”. Robert Bitter, co-president of the New York textile firm, Scalamandre` and Michael Douglass, site director of the Villa Louis Wisconsin State Historical Site.

2000. “The Shinning Cloth: Materials and Meaning” by Victoria Rivers.

1999. “Tana Bana: The Woven Soul of Pakistan” by Noorjehan Bildrami.

1998. “Shared Boundaries” by Gerhardt Knodel.

1997 “A New Look at Old Textiles” by Linda Baumgarten.

1996. “Cooperating for Change: the Ixoq aj Kemmol Women’s Weaving Cooperative in Tactic, Guatemala” by Rosalia Asig Cho`and Amy Giesemann.

1995 “World’s Oldest Textils” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

1993. “The Fashion’s in the Bag: Recycling Feed, Flour, and Sugar sacks during the Middle Decades of the 20th Century” by Rita J. Adrosko.

1990. “The Intuitive Response: Understanding and Collecting Traditional Textiles” by Douglas Dawson.