Written in Silk: Dr. Marjon Ornstein Preserves Unique Turkish Textile

Through the Adopt-a-Textile program of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, Dr. Ornstein has supported a deeper, multi-faceted understanding of a unique, century-plus-year-old silk wall hanging from Turkey.

By Serena Larkin, Public Relations Manager, School of Human Ecology

Gold and green Turkish wall hanging
A Turkish silk panel features a stylized Sufi mosque flanked by a pair of minarets. The scene is framed within borders comprising an arabesque and a line of Arabic calligraphy. At the center of the panel hangs a large alms bowl. The beggar’s bowl, or kaskhul, occupies a place of honor within mosques affiliated with the Sufi ascetic sect known in the West for its whirling dervish mystics. Another recurring motif is the elaborate calligraphic monogram, tughra, that probably refers to an important Sufi teacher or saint. 1997.06.012.

“The whole imagery of this textile is so lovely… the alms basket, the tree of Allah, the floating clouds, moons, stars and flowers. The spirituality of the piece really appealed to me,”  says Dr. Marjon Ornstein, reflecting on the ornate silk wall hanging she recently adopted within the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. The piece, from Turkey and over 100 years old, encompasses complex design elements that students and visitors to the collection will now be able to study and learn from. Moreover, it will enjoy the careful preservation attentions of collection staff, since the piece suffers from a condition known as “shattered silk,” wherein the metallic salts once used in dyes to give the fabric weight and drape slowly break down the fibers, making them prone to disintegrate into powder with handling.

Marjon Ornstein in red standing next to the Turkish wall hanging she adopted
Dr. Marjon Ornstein standing next to the Turkish wall hanging she adopted through the Adopt-a-Textile program. 1997.06.012.

Dr. Ornstein has long been interested in Middle Eastern textiles, beginning with her father’s collection of Persian rugs when she was a child. As a young adult, having just completed her PhD in French and Italian at UW–Madison, she rewarded herself with a trip to the region as part of a three-week international seminar led by Professor Robert H. Schact. The group visited Egypt, Lebanon, and finally Turkey, where she found herself drawn to iznik, a type of pottery known for its vivid underglaze decoration in shades of cobalt blues, sage greens, and reds. Three years later in 1973, Dr. Ornstein moved to Iran to teach French at the Tehran International School. During her four-year tenure, she grew more deeply interested in the arts and culture of Persia as well as neighboring Turkey. A favorite form were the printed and painted textiles called kalamkari, after the Farsi word for “pen,” qalam.

It is no wonder, then, that after returning to the U.S. and enjoying a long career teaching university-level French, including at UW–Platteville, she connected with the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, and with this piece specifically. Later, having so enjoyed the experience of adopting the silk panel, she adopted a second Turkish textile that preserves design elements of the now more globally popular Turkish towels.

“Starting with the arresting beauty of this hanging, we were encouraged by Dr. Ornstein’s interest to look further into the materials and techniques used to make it, as well as the cultural clues in its elegant design,” says Dr. Marina Moskowitz, SoHE’s Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg Chair in Textiles, Material Culture and Design.

As the collection’s faculty director within the Center for Design and Material Culture, Dr. Moskowitz facilitates a broad range of student opportunities to engage with the center’s textiles and draw out the multiple narratives she sees across its pieces. She explains how any one item, examined with a variety of lenses, could lead scholars to connections with other objects in the textile collection; or prompt new ideas for future exhibitions or programs; or group with items of similar form, technique, or geographic location to suggests themes such as the depiction of architectural motifs, the use of text within textiles, and the ways in which textiles mediate between different cultural and religious traditions.

“A fresh look at one object can lead to new perspectives on the collection as a whole, and Dr. Ornstein’s generous adoption of this Turkish silk panel is a wonderful example of how a donor’s passion can augment our collective understanding and ability to interpret artifacts in our collection.”

Marina MoskowitzDr. Marina Moskowitz, SoHE’s Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg Chair in Textiles, Material Culture and Design


Professor Helen Louise Allen traveled the world to bring textiles and the stories they tell to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. You, too, can be a part of her legacy. Invest in the preservation, conservation, and curatorial activities of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection to ensure its continued preeminence as one of the most outstanding and comprehensive collections of its kind in the United States. 

To learn more about the Adopt-a-Textile program with the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, contact Claire Mezick, Director of Development with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, at 608-572-3310 or claire.mezick@supportuw.org.