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canton shawls

My Love Affair with Antique Canton Shawls

By Jill Garber

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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 at Olympia Stadium. I say that we saw them, because my guess is that just like me, no one could really hear them over the screaming.  Still, this was a huge event in all of our lives. The British Invasion was pivotal and influenced our view of everything forever.

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, design and sew for myself.

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

My wardrobe evolved from Levi 501’s to bell bottoms, 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 men’s and women’s clothing dating back to 1920’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.

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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. My Canton Shawl was my clothing treasure and became trademark look. With all of my travels, moves and life changes I still have this precious shawl today. I love it just as much as I did then and still wear it proudly.

My passion for 19th Century Canton Trade Shawl’s and Chinese embroidery has continued throughout my life. There is an important connection between these and Art Nouveau, which is so 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 dream 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 old textiles. I love everything about them. The softly faded colors, and the feel of old silk and velvet can move me to tears. I can imagine the love and hours of labor that have gone into creating them.  Nothing created by chance, but rather by struggle, craft and a desire for perfection.

My career in design has provided me with opportunities to visit weaving mills where I have seen the looms that make exquisite floral silk ribbons, laces and embroideries. Such good fortune, for how would we have known so many of these mills and looms would no longer exist 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.

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