UW textile collection celebrates 50 years

January 20, 2019

Helen Louise Allen was a lively soul, jaunting around Wisconsin in the mid-20th century in her eye-popping red car and a coat made of yarn spun from shed dog fur.

And when she traveled farther, to points around the world, she brought back pieces of it to Madison.

Allen taught weaving, embroidery and the history of textiles for more than 40 years at UW-Madison, starting in 1927. In her global travels she collected 4,000 textiles that were bequeathed to the university in 1969, following her death the previous year.

Those fascinating works are the basis of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, which itself is the foundation for “Applique to Zardozi: A Celebration Sampler,” an upcoming exhibition at the university’s Ruth Davis Design Gallery, located in the School of Human Ecology building at 1300 Linden Drive.

On display from Jan. 27 to April 14, “Applique to Zardozi” will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the collection named for Allen — which in the past half-century has grown to some 13,000 objects.

‘One of a kind’

A companion show, titled “One of A Kind, Ahead of Her Time: The Legacy of Helen Louise Allen,” about the woman herself, will run from Jan. 27-April 18 steps away from the Design Gallery in the new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery.

The “One of A Kind” show is “broken down into separate sections: The traveler, the weaver, the collector — talking about her as a maker, (focusing) on her as a weaving professor, but also how she oriented herself and her students to the making process,” said Carolyn Jenkinson, curator of collections for the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.

Formerly a reading room for students, the new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery is named for a supporter and avid hands-on volunteer at the university’s Center for Design and Material Culture. It was financed with support from Susan and Harry Engstrom, Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg, Kathleen Orea Sweeney, Jane and David Villa, and Sandra and Jack Winder.

The reading room was converted into a permanent exhibition space to display items directly drawn from the textile collection.

Although the pieces in that collection — from ancient Peruvian works to 21st-century textiles — have long been available to researchers, students or just the curious visitor, they always had to be pulled from storage for viewing.

The public gallery, on the other hand, “will give us another space to engage with the public and encourage people to access the collection,” Jenkinson said. And students who help put together shows for the new space will gain valuable curatorial experience.

Alphabet of textiles

In the larger Design Gallery, the show “Applique to Zardozi” will be composed of pieces from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection that illustrate techniques from around the world, arranged in alphabetical order — from “applique,” the art of applying smaller pieces of fabric to background pieces using needlework, to “zardozi,” a form of metal embroidery.

“We wanted this show to be some of our showstopper gems, really phenomenal pieces that show these techniques. But those pieces get brought out a lot,” Jenkinson said.

“So it was a fun challenge to find pieces that are both showstopper and either haven’t been seen for a while or haven’t been seen at all on display.”

“It was fun to play with techniques, too, to challenge people’s assumptions about these techniques,” she said.

Like with velvet, for example.

“We have some traditional velvets, which people have seen. But then we have some Kasai velvets, which are a play on velvet. They are embroidered textiles made to look like velvet — palm-fiber textiles, which is a really cool and nontraditional velvet.”

The Design Gallery will continue the celebration of Allen’s legacy with another show this fall, featuring new artworks by some 20 regional and national artists placed alongside the pieces from the textile collection that inspired them. “Points of Departure: Inspirations from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection,” will be on display Sept. 18-Nov. 24.

A collie coat

Born in 1902, Allen was intrigued by textiles from an early age. Her uncle would send her pieces from China, and when she was still young her family moved to Turkey, exposing her to other cultures.

In her later years as a UW-Madison professor, she drove a red Mercedes and wore a knitted coat made from the hair of collies that she collected from dog breeders and groomers, according to one of her graduate students, Timothy Arand-McIlrath.

“She would say, ‘I wanna go and look at …’ (some textile) and we would go” in that bright red car, said Arand-McIlrath, who shared his memories of Allen in an article posted on the school website at sohe.wisc.edu.

Today, Allen is viewed as a pioneer in the field of material culture, which views “the study of objects from our past and across the globe ... as a pathway to innovation and cultural understanding,” said Linda Zwicker, senior assistant dean at SOHE.

Allen expected her students to master processes and techniques — and then figure out later what to do with them creatively, recalled Arand-McIlrath, who went on to be an art and design professor at Iowa State University for 33 years.

She “wanted you to be a discoverer,” he said. “She didn’t want you to ask 50,000 questions. She wanted you to get your hands dirty and start doing it.”

“She was gracious, humble, incredibly curious, very low-key, and after you got to know her very, very, driven.”

Allen traveled the world during summer and semester breaks. According to a School of Human Ecology history, she visited countries such as Poland, India, Guatemala and Nigeria, traveling with just one or two dresses for herself to leave room in her luggage for samples to bring home.

Though fascinated by the historical and anthropological side of textiles, the “idiosyncratic” Allen did not collect simply to collect. She collected to share what she’d found with her students. The 4,000 pieces she bequeathed to UW-Madison were the same pieces she would use as tools in the classroom.

Around the world

Today, the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection includes apparel pieces, finished household textiles, flat and yardage, lace, wall hangings, quilts, tools, rugs, bed covers, coverlets, samplers, fiber art and other items. Some are unfinished, offering a chance to see how the maker was constructing them.

Pieces in the collection come from across the globe, including North America, Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. More than 1,000 are of unknown origin.

And each can be examined in interesting ways, Jenkinson said.

Literature classes, for example, visit the collection to see how people clothed themselves in a different time or place. So do classes studying different cultures or languages.

A veterinary class visited to see examples of how animals and human material cultures have intersected over time, Jenkinson said.

The students examined textiles made from animals; textiles made for animals, such as saddle blankets; and textiles depicting animals, such as spiritual cloths that represent relationships between humans and animals.

“That’s not a lens through which we look at textiles often,” she said of the vet class, “so it was kind of neat to activate them in a completely different field.”