A few weeks ago, I read about an exhibition at the University of Wisconsin’s Ruth Davis Design Gallery, Whirling Return of the Ancestors. The exhibition presents the Egúngún masquerades inspired by a tradition of the Yorùbá peoples of West Africa that honors and celebrates the power and presence of ancestors. Egúngún is a unique cultural tradition that calls the spirits to bless and protect their earthly relatives. Participants wear traditional costumes made of layers upon layers of fabric. Profuse lappets whirl as the dancers turn, creating an energy that helps the dancer connect with the spirits of the ancestors. What stuck with me was this description: “Gallery visitors will encounter two dazzling Egúngún ensembles that create a ‘breeze of blessing’ when they whirl in performance.” Such an evocative phrase, “breeze of blessing.”
It set me to thinking about textiles as blessings.
Earlier this week, my mail carrier delivered a box from a dear friend (and talented weaver) in Oregon. Out of the blue, she’d sent me two gorgeous handwoven scarves. “Why?” I asked. “It’s not my birthday or anything.” “Just wanted to send you hugs,” she said. I love her practice of salving the wounds of a hurting world by sending gifts of lovingly made cloth. I whirled one of the scarves around my neck and thought, “This, is a breeze of blessing.”
And those blessings, they’re out there, everywhere.
I remember the whirl and swish of textile artisans from around the world gathered in Cusco, Peru for Tinkuy. They marched and danced and sashayed down the Avenida del Sol, insisting the world join this celebration of their culture’s cloth. A breeze of blessing.
I think of the Lao healing cloths Josh and Maren write about in Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos. The Phaa sabai textiles are worn as shawls in healing ceremonies that seek to balance the spirits of the community. These cloths provide a pathway to get bad spirits out and good spirits in. A breeze of blessing.
In fact, many of the books that Thrums has published include some account of the healing properties of textiles, their role in spiritual practices, or their powerful connection to the ancestors. Maybe because of the way the yarn is spun or because of a particular weaving technique; maybe because of the motifs used, the colors, or the stories they represent.
One of my favorites is from Chip Morris’s Maya Threads: “When a Maya woman puts on her huipil, she emerges, symbolically, in the axis of the world. The designs of the universe radiate around her head, extending over the sleeves and bodice of the huipil to form an open cross with the woman in the middle. Here the supernatural and the ordinary meet. Here, in the very center of a world woven from dreams and myths, she stands between heaven and the Underworld.” For a Maya woman, the huipil is both a mirror of the universe and a personal declaration. Chip continues, “She is one woman, alone, who has prayed and cried and learned all by herself how to move the world.”
The power of cloth, this blessing.