Written by Sandra K. Barnidge (Journalism ’09, MA’13)
Most fashion historians focus on documenting change over time in how styles are cut from fabric, like sculptures chiseled out of stone, and a sharp pair of fabric scissors is a standard tool in Western sewing kits.
Yet removing the cuts out of garment-making could have a big impact on the sustainability of clothing production, among other unexpected benefits, says weaving expert Addison Nace, a UW-Madison PhD candidate in Design Studies at the School of Human Ecology and research assistant at the Center for Design and Material Culture.
To demonstrate, Nace curated a unique exhibit of garments from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection at the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery titled “Uncut Attire: How Weaving Informs Wearables” that was on public display in fall 2022. Now, the Costume Society of America has awarded Nace one of its top honors, the Richard Martin Exhibition Award, which recognizes excellence and innovation in the interpretation and presentation of costumes.
“The Costume Society of America is an important scholarly organization, and it’s meaningful to be able to share this project and to have them get excited about it and recognize that weaving is an important part of fashion history,” says Associate Professor of Design Studies Sarah Anne Carter, who is the executive director of the Center for Design and Material Culture that houses the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery.
For the exhibit, Nace selected garments from cultures across five continents that were crafted using traditional weaving techniques. This included several huipiles, the loose-fitting tunics worn primarily by Indigenous women in Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere across Central America. Other garments on display included a vibrant red kimono from Japan, a multicolored spirit skirt from the Tai Daeng culture in Laos, and an intricately embroidered upper-body shawl called a quechquemitl from Mexico, among many others.
“Weaving is a very important aspect of design, particularly for cultures that wear a whole piece of cloth,” says Nace, who developed a special interest in Mayan textiles through her fieldwork with Indigenous women’s weaving collectives in Chiapas, Mexico and Sololá, Guatemala.
“[I was interested in] moving the primary focus away from the silhouette to the actual cloth. The uncut garments in this exhibit have so little waste because they’re woven to actually be in the shape that they’re supposed to be. It’s not like they’re making a pattern and throwing away these precious inches of fabric they’ve just made.” – Addison Nace
One of the weaving tools highlighted in the exhibit was the backstrap loom, which communities around the world have used for centuries. Made from rope and wooden sticks that are roughly the width of a human body, the loom is a deceptively simple way to produce bespoke garments with essentially zero waste. In association with the “Uncut Attire” exhibit, Nace hosted a backstrap loom workshop for the UW-Madison campus community, and the response was so enthusiastic that Nace was persuaded to hold a second one.
Hands-on exchanges of knowledge are a crucial part of understanding textile history. “[In textile research] there’s sometimes an overemphasis on designs having particular meanings or symbols that are culturally relevant, but I think the actual practice of making is also significant,” Nace says.
“[Nace] draws on her strong maker’s perspective in combination with all her other research skills, so she can help the viewer see and understand not only the construction of these woven garments from around the globe but also how making itself is a form of knowledge,” says Material Culture and Design Professor Marina Moskowitz, the Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg Chair in Textiles, Material Culture & Design. “Uncut Attire was a model of how we can use transnational—or transcultural—studies to understand some fundamental uses of and approaches to textiles, and really see the shared values that people place on these important pieces of material culture. Addison’s curatorial vision challenged us to think across place and time in terms of how people protect and adorn the body.”
Carter adds that Nace’s unique perspective as a scholar and maker is exactly the sort of work the Center for Design and Material Culture is designed to support. The free exhibition space, located in Nancy Nicholas Hall, opened to the public in 2019 and offers rotating exhibits from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, which includes more than 13,000 textile artifacts spanning 16 centuries and over 100 countries. The Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery is curated by staff and researchers at the Center for Design and Material Culture.
“[Nace’s] exhibit represents the kind of rigorous textile-focused work that we would love to do more of in the center,” says Carter. “It’s just so exciting to have our students be thought-leaders in the field in this way and to have the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery be used for this purpose.”
Beyond the “Uncut Attire” exhibit, Nace also researches labor, intellectual-property rights, and other economic justice issues related to Indigenous textile work. This summer she’ll return to Chiapas as a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation fellow to collaborate with the Cooperative Mujeres Sembrando la Vida, followed by a project with community partners in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.
“Mexico just released a law that grants Indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities rights over their intellectual property, and in Guatemala, there’s a weavers’ movement that’s currently struggling over that,” Nace says. “It’s been quite a hot topic there for the past five years or so, even though their struggle has been much longer.”
Nace’s personal passion for textiles traces back to her teenage years, when she worked at a fabric store in her hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Nace initially took the job because she was interested in sewing and fashion, but at the store she began to ask questions about how, exactly, all the fabrics surrounding her were created—and how different cultures approached the process of turning them into clothing and other objects.
That central curiosity about how to make fabrics and garments has helped her connect with fellow weavers around the world ever since. “Being a maker kind of allows you to communicate with people differently,” Nace says. “It can be a bridge for forming meaning or connection cross-culturally.”