This blog post is the first in a series that features the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Junior Fellows from the Library’s 2023 Junior Fellows program. These posts highlight each fellow and the projects they developed. CCDI funded six interns in this year’s virtual 10-week program. CCDI is part of the Library’s Mellon-funded Of the People: Widening the Path initiative.
This summer, CCDI’s Junior Fellows created guides that examine Library collections and demonstrate how to use those collections to develop creative projects such as zines, textiles, and collages. They explored topics that ranged from Black and Asian American activism, to the LGBTQ+ Latinx movement, to community-based collaborations, to art and expressive culture, including Asian textiles and African American hair history. As part of their work, they interviewed Library staff and other users to discuss their research topics and to learn more about the Library’s collections.
This guest post, written by Yeji Kim, a 2023 CCDI Junior Fellow, introduces her project, “Threads of Asia: A Guide to Historical Asian Textiles in the U.S.” Yeji is a student at Yale University double majoring in Political Science and East Asian Studies.
You can read her guide here.
In the intersection of culture and history, you will find pieces of art that show what it means to belong to a community, struggle and survive through turmoil, and learn from the past. This guide, titled “Threads of Asia,” is created for Asian American designers and those looking to further understand and draw inspiration from traditionally Asian fabrics and textiles that have made their way into the United States. I hope that this guide helps designers create garments with an enriched understanding of history and identity.
This research guide took several different forms before finally becoming “Threads of Asia.” I knew I wanted to create a guide that could be used both educationally and artistically, drawing upon Asian American identity.
Beyond my own personal interest in textiles and fashion design, I was drawn to the complex implications any given piece of textile holds–especially those from Asia. Fashion and textiles reflect society at any given time. Many traditional embroidered fabrics tell stories born from hardships. Fabrics like silk, widespread today from China’s Silk Road, can look different depending on lighting, draping, and context. Beyond the textiles themselves are the people who wear them. When you wear a piece of clothing or a certain textile that has taken a whole community to farm, a mother to sew, or centuries of geographic history to attribute its meaning to, clothing then holds power. Colors and patterns can tell stories about social status, different styles speak to a person’s political power, and trade routes can depict broad economic histories and relationships between countries.
“Threads of Asia” is split into sections detailing the histories of fabrics traditionally found in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, and how they made their way into the United States. These are the regions I decided to cover based on the Library materials available and how widespread immigration was to the United States. Another section discusses appropriation versus appreciation in using these traditional fabrics and patterns, in the context of modern designs. Both of these areas play into conversation with each other. As mentioned above, many traditional textile pieces were created during times of turmoil, and it is crucial to respect that. Who is benefiting from the piece you are creating? Is it the original community where the textile comes from? One of my main goals with this guide is to further help people understand, respect, and draw inspiration from cultural materials, not appropriate and copy without any attribution or understanding.
Another aspect to consider when working with historical fabrics is that many of these pieces are digitized, widely available in 2D images on the web, or displayed in museums, but sometimes difficult to physically access. Textiles and fashion employ all five senses. One of the challenges I was faced with in creating this guide was how to get a grasp on these textiles, what they feel like and smell like, when I am studying them through a computer screen. However, I found that there were numerous resources at the Library to help me through this process. First, connecting with the Asian Reading Room librarians through Ask a Librarian is a great way to get access to materials that may not be digitized yet through scanning on demand. Additionally, speaking with Library staff who have worked with some of the materials you may be interested in is a great way to get a new perspective and more physical descriptions of the materials.
My research process started with major regions and ideas. I then dove into the Library’s digital collections. This research process involved skimming through pages and pages of old British or American textile magazines and handbooks, and finding keyword mentions of “silk road” or “woven fabrics” here and there. In navigating through the Library’s research collections, I highly recommend going in with a general idea of what you are looking for, as the Library contains an immense number of sources that are difficult to sort through at first. Conducting interviews and connecting with Library staff, including Southeast Asia Reference Librarian Joshua Kueh and Innovator in Residence Jeffrey Yoo Warren, was one of the most helpful aspects of this entire project. These staff members answered my questions and more, recommended articles, and always provided new and helpful perspectives. I was able to create a more comprehensive guide because of these conversations. Culture and art are about community, and it is crucial to exchange thoughts and have conversations about the pieces you are creating. I hope that you are able to find inspiration within the Library’s collections in creating your own works.
For more information on historical Asian textiles, please visit the following resources:
- Hmong story cloths exhibition in the Geography and Map Reading Room at the Library of Congress
- “Threads and Words,” a comprehensive StoryMaps by Charlotte Giles on textiles at the Library and how they are used to tell stories
- “Asia, Texts, and Textiles at the Library of Congress, Part II: Hmong Story Cloths” by Joshua Kueh, Southeast Asia reference librarian at the Library
Check out Yeji’s guide here!
CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.