Under the microscope

Before recently leaving Temple, Heather Veneziano visited Muriel and me in the Lab to look at a few artifacts made of fiber under a USB 200x microscope.

Heather spent nearly 5 years as the Technical Assistant in the Tyler Fiber Lab where her work was invaluable.  She has since moved to New Orleans where she is helping build sustainable housing.  She is also an artist specializing in fibers, with a background both in crafts and in fine arts.   Heather received a MFA in Tapestry from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.  She works with historical textiles and is presenting a paper with Temple graduate student Mara Katkins at a symposium of the Textile Society of America this week in Washington, DC.  (Congratulations Heather and Mara!)

With Heather’s expertise we were able to learn more about two bags from the Friedlaender Collection.  Both bags are similar in size, were collected in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, and incorporate animal hair into their textile design.  Heather examined and explained, in fascinating detail, how the animal hair and other commercially made materials were used.

JF2-15, Bilum with cuscus hair, 17″x22″, Eastern Highlands, New Guinea, 1998, Friedlaender Collection.

Microscopic detail of the cuscus fur wrapped around black commercial strand.

In the first bag (bilum), shown above, the cuscus hair is woven on the inside in order to produce the “tufted” effect on the outside.  The inside of the shoulder strap, however, has a flattened surface where the hair was spun around black commercial fiber.  Heather noted that this was a deliberate design choice, likely done because the inside strap is visible and the maker wanted to conceal the fiber underneath.  In the picture below, the spun hair covers the fibers except in an area that has been worn with use.

Microscopic detail of spun cuscus hair wrapping black commercial fiber; note wear on surface.

The second bilum, below, features a striped chevron design in which the maker alternated colors, including gray bands of spun cuscus hair (again wrapped around a commercial strand).  Both bags are netted, not woven.  This provides strength and flexibility and allows the bilum to expand for everyday use.

JF2-16, Bilum with cuscus hair band, polychrome, 20″x20″, Eastern Highlands, New Guinea, 1998, Friedlaender Collection.

A closer look at the workmanship shows the hair wrapped over the purple strands.

Microscopic detail of the spun cuscus hair wrapping commercial material. The even color and composition of the purple strands indicate that they are machine made and chemically dyed.

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