Five Minutes, Four Textiles: One Chance to Introduce the Collection

By Dr. Sophie Pitman, Pleasant Rowland Textile Specialist and Research Director

With just five minutes to introduce the Collection to UW-Madison’s new Chancellor, Pleasant Rowland Textile Specialist and Research Director Sophie Pitman selects four objects that showcase the breadth and possibilities of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection

If you had just five minutes to introduce someone to a 13,000-strong collection of textiles from across the globe, which span 16 centuries and almost all traditions, which objects would you select? The question is not a hypothetical one, but rather a very real challenge that we faced just weeks ago as we prepared to welcome the new Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jennifer Mnookin, to the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.

photograph of three women in an all white room looking at a yellow textile on the table
Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin first visit to the School of Human Ecology (Photo © Andy Manis) cigar ribbon quilt (yellow), Accession Number: 2003.03.001, Adopted by Debra J. Alder and Jeffery G. Scherer

A newcomer myself, I have only just seen the tip of the iceberg of our rich collections, and yet it was already a difficult (though exciting) challenge for me to make the selection. During visits with UW classes and working alongside our fantastic student collections assistants, I have been charmed by Nordic knitted mittens, had my breath taken away by fine Indian handspun cotton, and spent time poring over literally hundreds of Brenda Starr paper doll fashions. Each artifact in our stores could speak to the artistry, human connection, cultural resonances, and research potential of the Collection – a truly unique asset for a university campus.

So what did we choose to introduce the Collection? In the end, we pulled out four objects to display in our classroom space: an eighteenth-century waistcoat, a cigar ‘quilt’, an Indonesian hanging, and a Gee’s Bend quilt. These pieces not only show the riches of the Collection, but also represent the vibrant activities going on at the Center for Design and Material Culture.

photograph of a quilt with blue, yellow, red, white, and black stripes on a black background
Sharon Williams, Flag Quilt, North America, 2021, cotton on cotton, 53 x 52 in., 2021.01.001, Purchased with HLATC funds

This quilt, made by Sharon Williams of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a recent HLATC acquisition. A reassembled stars and stripes, enhanced with bright yellows, tawny browns and vivid blues, this ‘flag quilt’ encapsulates the power, beauty and challenging histories of textiles.  Descended from enslaved people on the Pettway Plantation, and a laborer in the cotton fields herself, Williams has unpicked and re-stitched a cotton American flag to create her own design. This piece, featured in the Politics at Home exhibition co-curated by Dr. Marina Moskowitz and PhD candidate Natalie Wright as well as an episode of the CDMC’s ‘Refrangible podcast’, prompts conversations about politics, identity, and aesthetics.

photograph of a white wastecoat with floral embroidery on a black background
Man’s Waistcoat, United States or Europe, 1770–1790. Silk on cotton or linen, silk. Gift from the Estate of Kathleen “Katie” Orea Sweeney, Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. 2017.06.020

This eighteenth-century waistcoat is currently on display in our current exhibition, Questioning Things, which celebrates 25 years of material culture studies here at UW-Madison, and the contributions of and retirement of Stanley and Polly Stone (Chipstone) Professor Emerita of American Decorative Arts and Material Culture, Ann Smart Martin. Many of the objects in the Collection have much to tell us about the people who made, owned, used and collected clothing and textiles. In this case, the embroidery is particularly revealing. Floriography – the language of flowers – was popular in the eighteenth-century, and so the embroidered rosebuds might suggest hope for future love, while the daisy chains edging the pocket borders could protect their wearer from pickpockets. The placement of the embroidery is also notable, because it does not quite reach the shoulders or side seams of the waistcoat, suggesting that the decoration was premade, and that the wearer’s body exceeded sizes available on the ready-made market. Perhaps the wearer was making a statement about taste, status, and wealth through this fine silk garment – what might be called conspicuous consumption. But we can see that the waistcoat was altered as his body changed, making his own consumption conspicuous. Objects like this tell us much about markets and the economy, as well as hinting at the bodily and emotional connections between people and their possessions. This piece also makes clear how important it is for researchers, visitors and students to have up-close access to objects. It is only when seeing the waistcoat carefully dressed on a custom-made mount that you can truly imagine the person who once wore it, and appreciate the negotiations made by fine embroiderers and tailors to make textiles to clothe a body.

photograph of a woven textile with geometric shapes and a figure towards the bottom on a black background
Hanging, Indonesia, cotton, 25 x 78 in., 2022.02.008, Gift of John Jackson

This object is such a new arrival that it does not even have an entry in our online collection yet! A donation from the collector John Jackson, a generous HLATC supporter, this Indonesian hanging is an exceptional example of ikat dye technique. The pattern is created by wrapping sections of unwoven threads and submerging into dye vats so that only the unwrapped sections take on dyes, a complex process that is only fully revealed as the weft is inserted on the loom. This piece speaks to the mastery of the dyers and weavers of Indonesia, as well as to their cultural and visual traditions. Many Design Students in the School of Human Ecology learn the ikat process first hand, and so seeing objects like this in the Collection inspires admiration and creativity.

photograph of a yellow textile woven with cigar bands with acorns tied to the ends on a black background
Cigar Quilt, United States of America, silk, 42 x 41 in., 2003.03.001. Purchased via reimbursement with HLATC funds. Adopted by Debra J. Alder and Jeffery G. Scherer

Chancellor Mnookin immediately gravitated towards this piece, a cigar quilt shown here, and began asking questions. That’s no wonder, as it is a relatively rare and surprising piece that demonstrates that textiles can reach into all aspects of human history, culture and life. Covered in the names of cigar brands, towns and colleges, this tablecloth (colloquially called a cigar ‘quilt’) is made of the small silk ribbons that once wrapped cigars for sale, and is fringed with acorns – an even more unusual addition. It was probably made to decorate the home of a bachelor in the Boston area (given the locations mentioned on the cigar ribbons), and entered our collection in 2003 where it was adopted by Debra J. Alder and Jeffery G. Scherer. The piece is literally legible – we can read names of long-closed factories as well as recognisable locations – but like all of our pieces, can also be ‘read’ by experts of many disciplines. It might tell us about notions of masculinity, sociability, consumption, and appropriate interior decoration as well as access and value to materials.

A legal scholar, Chancellor Mnookin is an expert in evidence and forensic science, and so she immediately understood that all of these objects are evidence too. Each visitor to the Collection brings a new lens through which to consider a textile: a maker has the eye to see the creativity and skill of the people who crafted these objects, a scientist the ability to test the materials to discover the age and geographical origin of these pieces. Where historians, linguists and other humanists can explore the social and cultural meanings embodied within textiles, economists might read them as evidence of exchange or stores of wealth. Mathematicians or computer scientists could uncover order in threaded patterns, while medics, biologists or agriculture experts might tell us about the interactions of human and animal bodies with plant and mineral matter. All objects may be evidence, if we have keen eyes, imagination, and curiosity.

As the incoming Pleasant Rowland Textile Specialist and Research Director of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, I am honored and excited to bring UW-Madison faculty, staff, and students as well as visitors from across the state, country and world into our stores. Whether you are an experienced researcher or maker or someone who has not had the chance to think about their interests through textiles yet, I encourage you to spend at least five minutes more getting to know our collection.

If you have a research project in mind, please contact Sophie Pitman at

Bio: Sophie Pitman is the new Pleasant Rowland Textile Specialist and Research Director of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. A 2021 recipient of the Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (UCL), Pitman gained a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge and was a postdoctoral researcher on the Making and Knowing Project (Columbia University, New York) and the Refashioning the Renaissance Project (Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland). Her recent publications include a study of visual and literary depictions of shopping in the early modern age, and an article about the collection and material transmission of knowledge through early fashion dolls.