Weaving the past into the present

A recent inventory of 13,000+ artifacts inspired a fresh look at the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection

Written by Nicole Etter

If the story of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection (HLATC) was told through textile, what would it look like? What would it feel like in your hands?

Photo of a woman seated at a table holding a textile and turned to look towards the camera.
Photo of Helen Louise Allen in her home.

If only we could ask the late Helen Louis Allen (1902-68), a legendary University of Wisconsin–Madison Related Art professor who amassed a vast collection of textiles from all around the globe for her own teaching and research purposes. Housed in the School of Human Ecology’s Center for Design and Material Culture, the collection has since grown to include more than 13,000 artifacts from across centuries and continents.

“Helen was a maker, and she was teaching other makers, but she always was thinking about textiles as part of culture that can teach us something about other people, other parts of the world and other periods of history,” says Carolyn Jenkinson, collections manager.

The story starts with Professor Allen, but new scenes continue to unfurl in the collection that bears her name. And her legacy lives on as students, faculty and visiting scholars examine the textile treasures every week and contemplate questions such as: Where was this made? How was it made? And for what purpose?

Some answers are known, but mysteries still lay hidden in the folds of fabric, ripe for further study.

“I think some people think that when an object goes into a collection, it is frozen in time,” says Sophie Pitman, Pleasant Rowland Textile Specialist and research director for the Center for Design and Material Culture. “And that’s not how I think of it at all. I think that they’re just waiting for us to go and spend some time with them, and they continue to have a life when they’re in the collection. They continue to have meaning for people, whether it’s through an exhibition or a class visit or a research project or a conservation engagement.”

A unique academic resource

This collection differs from other university-based textile collections, which typically focus on a particular area, such as fashion history, or are parts of larger campus collections that include other works of art or archeology.

Dr. Sophie Pitman and PhD Student Maeve Hogan viewing an object in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection for the upcoming Remaking the Renaissance exhibition.

“The collection was sort of intended to be an encyclopedia of textiles,” Pitman says. “So many different cultures, techniques and functions of textiles, and also representing many different segments of society. Having a collection of this size and caliber — the quality not just in fineness, but in the stories that the artifacts can tell —is unique, especially in a research university.”

The collection also includes pieces that might not typically be deemed worth preserving by other collections and museums.

“We have objects that are unfinished or damaged,” Pitman notes. “We are not just collecting the best example that you could possibly imagine of a kind of embroidery, for example. We might collect an example that shows how the embroidery is made or how it’s being used and appreciated and loved by somebody in the past.”

Donors are often excited that their textiles will get actively used by students and scholars. Last year, the collection staff hosted more than 1,000 students through classroom visits. Others come for independent research or to visit rotating exhibits in the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery.

“I promise any faculty member on campus: Challenge me, and I will find a way to activate this collection through your perspective,” Pitman says.

Caring for the collection

Photo of several women standing around a white table in a well lit room discussing a colorful kimono laying on the table.
In the foreground (left to right) student Claire Lamoureux, volunteer Lynn Mecklenburg, student Tolulope Adelabu, Collections Manager Carolyn Jenkinson, and student Dean Koleva. Background behind Jenkinson from left to right are students Ava Schueller and Danitza Rodriguez Jimenez.

This past summer, the team conducted an inventory of every piece in the collection. It’s best practice to do an inventory every 10 years to ensure everything is in its proper place and to assess the artifacts’ condition, Jenkinson says.

Along the way, they took reference photographs of nearly 2,000 items that had not been previously photographed. “When items aren’t photographed, essentially they’re invisible to us,” Pitman says. “Getting those photographed is a game changer for my work, but also for many people who interact with the collection. It was important for us to make sure that our whole collection is as accessible as possible.”

It took a team of around 20 — including students, staff, faculty and alumni volunteers working full to part time — two months to complete the project. Pitman shared some of the behind-the-scenes work through her Instagram account (@textilehistorian).

“It’s an opportunity for us to share the skilled labor, time and investment of caring for a collection that maybe is unknown to people outside the profession,” Pitman says. “We are not just looking at objects and saying, ‘How beautiful, let’s put this on the wall.’ We’re also caring for them in a very strategic way, and we are really trying to lead the field in best practice and educate about what that means.”

Photo of two women in a white storage room, on seated at a table and the other standing on a ladder.
Viewing a drawer of rolled objects. Seated in the foreground is Sandra Winder, on the ladder is Ava Schueller.

Connecting across generations

The once-in-a-decade process was also a reunion of sorts. Many volunteers who helped move the collection into Nancy Nicholas Hall in 2013 returned to help.

Among them was Sandy Winder ’61, a long-time textile collection supporter and charter member of the Madison Area Embroiderers Guild. For the inventory, Winder often worked from 9-4, entering and verifying object-tracking information in a computer while student workers handled and photographed the artifacts.

“They were a great group of kids,” she says. “I really enjoyed working with them.”

Every time volunteers and workers spotted something interesting, they’d gather around the table to discuss it. Along the way, Winder got to see a couple of old friends: textiles she has “adopted” as a supporter. That included an African print with animals and a beaded Chinese textile featuring a lion head. It reminded Winder of why she loves the fiber arts.

“We can see how other people live around the world,” Winder says. “Many times, textiles will show what the lifestyle of a place is like. They tell stories and show different ways that people produce things and make a living. And back in past times, people didn’t always have written language, but they could tell their stories through their artifacts.”

Photo of two women lifting a brightly colored textile on white tissue paper out of a long flat drawer.
Inventorying drawers. Left to right: Students Ava Schueller and Danitza Rodriguez Jimenez.

That global and historical perspective also fascinates student Danitza Rodriguez Jimenez, who works in the Center for Design and Material Cultures as a collections assistant.

“I’m already in awe of the collection because it’s a lot of textiles from different locations and regions that I just would not see otherwise,” says Rodriguez Jimenez, a senior majoring in International Studies and Chican@ and Latin@ Studies.

During the inventory, she learned how to handle delicate objects, the ideal conditions for preservation and what could be learned from each textile. She found herself especially drawn to the oldest artifacts.

“I think history is really important to preserve,” she says. “It was just so fascinating to see those artifacts and to talk about the era that they were from and what could have been going on during that time.”

When the inventory team wasn’t talking textiles, students and alumni sometimes swapped recipes and shared stories of UW across the decades.

“Just seeing this intergenerational relationship-building around the collection, and to see alumni connect with current students and for students to see how connections to textiles can be sustained over a long career or a lifetime, was lovely,” Jenkinson says.

Rediscovering intriguing artifacts

The inventory turned up many conversation starters. One of Jenkinson’s favorites was a bit of turn-of-the-century lace still attached to an old architectural rendering that was used to stabilize the lace during the making process — something that the maker normally would have taken off when they completed the lace.

Detail of the back paper of a white lace textile, the pack paper has architectural drawings in black ink.
Lace piece with architectural rendering backing. Object credit: Unfinished lace pattern; Maker not recorded; Europe or North America; 1900-1909; Linen; Gift from the Estate of Professor Helen Louise Allen; L.B.US.1435

“It teaches you about not just how something might be used when it’s finished, but the process of making it,” Jenkinson says. “We haven’t had time to research this yet, but we could find out about the building, the architectural firm, where is this from and what might it tell us about the lace, too. If we just focused on collecting completed pieces, we would have lost this additional context. But the object as it is now, with all of these elements still intact, can tell a completely different story.”

Another favorite was a circa-1960 waistcoat embroidered by a woman for her husband after his retirement from a successful career in advertising. The embroidery depicts the man engaged in various daily activities, from working to golfing to reading in bed.

“If you look him up, you can find these rather formal reports about his professional achievements,” Pitman says. “But this shows a more human, more personal side. And clothes often do that, especially clothes that have been personalized by another family member.”

Another favorite of the students: a circa-1940s print of women in all sorts of “socially unacceptable” poses for that and earlier periods: ankles showing, bloomers falling down or skirts flying up in the wind. “It’s such a fantastic snapshot of gender stereotypes at the time,” Jenkinson says. “And I think the students really liked it so much because those were rebellious acts then, and the students completely identified with it in a different way today. It was a piece of commercialized fabric, so who would even have been buying this in the 1940s? It’s a perfect research project to think about expectations around societal gender expectations and performing gender roles in different time periods. It was also a piece Helen collected, and I’d like to think that she was also interested in it for similar reasons.”

Detail photo of a printed textile with several women in dresses in varying stances.
P.D.US.0033 detail image. Object credit: Apparel fabric; Maker not recorded; United States; 1944; Cotton; Gift from the Estate of Professor Helen Louise Allen; P.D.US.0033

Students also got to handle artifacts from the Renaissance, some of which will be in an upcoming exhibit, Remaking the Renaissance. Many of those textiles were in especially delicate condition.

“The exhibit at its heart is looking at these kinds of compromised objects, things that are damaged, faded, tarnished or just lost completely, and saying, how can we overcome that and how can we learn more about this period?” Pitman says.

Other pieces that frequently draw attention are the collection’s 19th century hair wreaths. “Those objects are always popular because I think they’re surprising,” Jenkinson says. “But actually, to work with human hair was quite a popular medium in America and Europe and in other parts of the world, too.”

Now that staff have a bird’s eye view of the entire collection, they are ready to help utilize it for even more students and faculty.

Says Pitman, “It was just wonderful for us to spend more time with these objects and start thinking about new possibilities for them.”

If you visit

The Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery is open Wednesdays through Sundays when exhibitions are on view. Admission is free. Learn more, including who is Lynn Mecklenburg and gallery location.

Remaking the Renaissance runs from Feb. 7-May 19, 2024.

Tours and research visits to Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection are available upon request. Learn more and explore the online collection.

Donating to the collection
The collection continues to grow thanks to generous donors. While the team is unable to accept every textile, the acquisitions committee seeks out pieces that bring something new to the collection or that meet campus needs.

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