cool threads, dude cool threads, dude

On a back street near Dundas and University, tucked into an unassuming building, is the Textile Museum of Canada, one of Toronto’s hidden cultural gems. While small in comparison to its neighbouring AGO, the textile museum has in fact grown greatly from its 1975 humble beginning in a single room in Mirvish Village. This continuing growth in size of location and expanding collection is a testament to the immense cultural value of textiles.

The museum has a collection of traditional textiles from all corners of the world and produces new exhibits all through the year. Ancestry and Artistry, their newest exhibit, focuses on Maya textiles from Guatemala and also includes three photo series by a range of photographers.

The local and the global are manifested in both the musuem’s collections as well as other features of the museum, such as the small shop that reinvents itself per exhibit. The shop strives to stock locally and ethically sourced products. “Supporting local artists, that’s our niche” said curatorial director Sarah Quinton.

The museum also self-publishes 1 to 2 books per year, and boasts one of the largest selection of textile specific books in North America.

As I wandered the museum's first gallery, Shine, the lack of boundaries between the viewer and the textiles deeply resonated with me. It gives the gallery space a sense of intimacy, but also creates a sense of trust between the museum and its visitors, a valuable trade off which allows the viewer to study each piece up close while still respecting the fragility of textiles. This sense of closeness is invaluable when studying textiles because, as I learnt through my visit, it is the minute details of a textile that really matter.

After an introductory tour of the museum's mainspace I am taken upstairs to preview their newest exhibit, a multimedia showcase of Mayan traditional and contemporary culture.

Roxanne Shaughnessy, curator of Ancestry and Artistry, describes the collection as exploring “the communicative aspect of textiles.” The pieces illustrate what traditional dress mean as expressions of identities both past and present. The depth of time is apparent in pieces such as the back strap loom, technology that has been around for over 1500 years and is still used today.

Attention to detail is a must while touring this collection and I felt lucky to have Shaughnessy talk me through each piece, pointing out pattern work motifs that would have slipped by my untrained eye.

“Textiles are a window into sacred space” stated Shaughnessy as she showed me a photograph of a Mayan temple which has serpents carved into its stone. This same serpent motif was then brought to my attention on a Traje garment in front of me, appearing in the thread work running horizontally, up and down like a moving snake.

Looking at these textiles is like a tour through history as they illustrate life before and after Spanish conquest. In many ways, Catholic and indigenous motifs blended together, something that is apparent on the Traje which embroidered with a cross in the centre, surrounded by animals such as jaguars, a common Mayan motif.

The exhibit illustrates the effects of conquest on Mayan identity not only through the garments and other textiles on display, but through a photo exhibit by Guatemalan photographer Verónica Riedel that explores identity after conquest.

Mixing in other mediums, such as photography, alongside textiles is a common practice for the museum in all its exhibits. Sarah Quinton explained that fully exploring their chosen theme is of the utmost importance, and therefore curators often incorporate contemporary artwork and a range of artifacts.

As you come to the end of the exhibit the notion of Mayan identity is brought up to present day with pieces that explore pan-mayan identity, an expression of identity which goes beyond local communities. Traje has been adapted to include techniques and motifs from many different communities and stands as a symbol of the importance of tradition.

The exhibit is most impressive due to Shaughnessy’s careful selection of textiles and artwork which showcase the fluidity of culture and tradition instead of boxing it into static categories of past and present.

This under the radar museum is worth checking out, and its specificity to textile based artifacts is ideal for anyone interested in fashion, history, and culture. Exploring history and culture through a medium like cloth adds a layer of mystery, making unlocking the meaning and significance all the more intriguing.


Ancestry and Artistry runs until October 13th at the Textile Museum of Canada

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: Exploring culture and identity through textiles at the Textile Museum of Canada
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