My Love Affair with Antique Canton Shawls

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 courtesy of our local radio station. I rode a bus with a load of screaming teenagers to Detroit where we saw them live at Olympia Stadium. Though I say I saw them, I am absolutely sure from our seats high up in the balcony - no one in our group could have possibly have heard them over the full house of screaming girls.

Still, that concert represented a turning point in all of our lives as we went from playing with Barbie dolls and riding bikes to falling in love with the Beatles.

While many of my peers at school wore knee 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 fabrics to design and sew my own clothes.

It was not long before the 60’s evolved from the Beatles into the music and street style of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, and Woodstock pop. As it did, my interest in fashion and jewelry design continued to grow. Much to my parent’s dismay I became a Hippie.

My wardrobe evolved from Levi 501’s to tapestry bellbottoms, granny boots, 1940’s suit jackets and long black velvet opera coats found at the thrift store. Those were the days when you could find the most amazing old things so easily. St. Vincent De Paul on Hamilton Street in Saginaw will forever hold the best Thrift Store memories I will ever have. Filled with clothing dating back to the early1900’s, you could buy a beaded Gatsby dress for a few dollars. It was there that I first laid eyes on a hand embroidered Canton Shawl.

At the end of a rack alongside belts and scarves I could see the beautiful textural black silk crepe with exotic embroidered pink peonies. 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 made me feel like Judy Collins. My Canton Shawl became my trademark.

With all of my travels, moves and life changes I still have that wonderful shawl and I love it just as much as I did then. My passion and interest in these nineteenth century treasures – the Canton “Trade” Shawl as well as Chinese hand embroidery as a whole has intensified and continued to develop throughout my life.

There is an important connection between the overall design found in these shawls, French chinoiserie and Art Nouveau patterns. All are beautifully exotic. If you study the paintings of artist Alphonse Mucha, you will see that floral elements flow in the same precise way that delicate Chinese hands patiently embroidered stitch upon stitch into the finest silk.

I envisioned my current collection of hand made clothing years ago in the 1970’s when I originally designed the pattern for my Isadora dress. Made from a very large ivory shawl with long fringe – bold pink peonies surrounded by lavender, green and aqua vines, this dress which never goes out of style continues to hang proudly in my studio. It still inspires and serves as a clear reminder of the original vision of beauty my heart was first compelled to create.

I truly love everything about old textiles.

The softly faded colors, hand embroidery and the feel of old silk or velvet can move me to tears. I imagine the dedication and hours of labor that have gone into creating these. Nothing was made by chance, but rather with a clear plan, meticulous craft and a contagious desire for perfection.

My career in design has provided me with opportunities to visit weaving mills where I have seen and touched the looms that make the finest silk floral ribbons, laces and embroideries. While recognizing my good fortune at the time, I never dreamed so many of these mills and their looms would no longer be running 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.