My Love Affair with Antique Canton Shawls

I was coming of age in Michigan in the 1960’s. At age 14, I won a ticket to see the Beatles on their first world tour, and courtesy of our local radio station took the bus with a load of screaming teenagers to Detroit where we saw them live at Olympia Stadium. I say that I saw them, but I am absolutely sure that no one could have possibly have heard them over the full house of screaming girls.

That concert was a turning point event in all of our lives as we went from playing with Barbie dolls to falling in love with the Beatles.

While my peers at school wore white socks, plaid kilts and penny loafers, I was wearing miniskirts, reading about Carnaby Street in London and ironing my hair. I wanted clothes that were not available in our small town, so I began to buy my own fabrics to design and sew my own clothes.

It was not long before the 60’s evolved from the Beatles, into the music and street style of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, and Woodstock pop. As it did, my interest in fashion continued to grow and much to my parent’s dismay I became a Hippie.

My wardrobe evolved from Levi 501’s to bellbottoms, granny boots, 1940’s suit jackets and long black velvet opera coats I found at the thrift store. Those really were the days. St. Vincent De Paul on Hamilton Street in Saginaw will forever hold the best Thrift Store memories I will ever have.  Filled with both men’s and women’s clothing dating back to the early 1900’s, you could buy a beaded “Flapper” dress for a few dollars. There is nothing like it today. It was there that I first laid eyes on a hand embroidered Canton Shawl.

At the end of a rack alongside belts and scarves, its beautiful textural black silk crepe with exotic embroidered pink peonies, buds and vines spoke to me. It was love at first sight.

I purchased it for $10.00 and wore it from that day forward with everything. Wrapped around my neck, with its long flowing fringe blowing in the wind I felt like Judy Collins. That Canton Shawl treasure became my trademark.

With all of my travels, moves and life changes I still have this wonderful shawl today. I love it just as much as I did then and still wear it proudly, and my passion for 19th Century Canton Trade Shawl’s and Chinese embroidery has continued throughout my life.

There is an important connection between these shawls and Art Nouveau design, which is beautifully exotic and wonderful. The delicately detailed ornament found throughout the illustrations of Alphonse Mucha elegantly flow in the same precise way that delicate Chinese hands patiently embroidered stitch upon stitch into the finest silk.

I continued to hunt for, and at times sacrifice necessities in order to collect these shawls throughout my life, and envisioned my beloved collection of hand made clothing many years ago. I designed the pattern for my Isadora dress in the 1970’s, and used a very large ivory shawl with pink, aqua and green embroidery to make it a few years later. This well-worn sample hangs in my studio to remind me each and every day of the original vision of beauty I was compelled to create.

I truly love everything about old textiles.

The softly faded colors, and the feel of old silk and velvet can move me to tears. You can so easily imagine the dedication and hours of labor that have gone into creating them. Nothing was made by chance, but rather with a clear plan, meticulous craft and an infectious desire for perfection.

My career in design has provided me with opportunities to visit weaving mills and the looms that make exquisite floral silk ribbons, laces and embroideries as well as hand embroideries. While recognizing my good fortune at the time - I had no idea so many of these mills and their looms would no longer be running today.

If you were to ask me, what I would do with a thousand dollars, I would tell you in an instant: I would buy another hand embroidered Canton Shawl. Any color, any size – I love them all.