About my research stay in Munich (A blog post from a visiting Ph.D. student)
During December and January, I am studying in Munich as a part of my Ph.D. project titled “Soft Images: Textiles as Image Media”, a project which I am carrying out in the art history department at Aarhus University in Denmark. I began my project back in 2016 and was soon told about the work of a textile researcher in Munich, a Dr. Ellen Harlizius-Klück. Since I could really use the perspective of an expert in this field, I therefore asked her if she would like to be a co-supervisor on my project and luckily, she agreed. I, however, first had an opportunity to visit Munich and the Penelope Lab last September when I participated in the conference Homo Textor, but soon thereafter we made arrangements for me to come and stay longer in Munich so that I could really benefit from the work done here. In this post, I will tell a bit about my stay and my studies here.
One of my reasons for coming to Munich was that I wanted to practice some historical textile techniques in the Penelope Lab, since I prefer to study the techniques that are relevant to my project in theory as well as practice. During my first year of studying textiles in Aarhus – still being rather new to the field – I discovered that books could only get me so far. If I was to understand the material and medial complexities of textile, I would have to take the matter into my own hands, so to speak. I first came to this conclusion when I started studying historical spinning, particularly spinning with a drop-spindle, because even though I read extensively on the subject and found diagrams, images, and even videos showing the tools and the technique, I was not able to fully grasp it. So, I finally bought a drop-spindle and tried it out for myself which not only helped me understand how it worked but also gave me a new and unexpected perspective on the potentials of this technology, just like it made me discover aspects of the textiles that I was studying that had until then escaped my attention. Conducting practical studies then became an integral part of my approach to the subject and I have since explored a range of techniques.
Since I am going to be writing my dissertation about textiles from late medieval convents, I have been particularly occupied with understanding the textile technologies involved in creating these specific textiles. I am very interested in the circumstances under which textiles were produced in convents and the way in which nuns combined textile production and devotion. For these reasons, I really want to know the different technologies that were practiced within late medieval convents, which – in addition to spinning – were weaving, tapestry weaving, tablet weaving, (many different kinds of) embroidery, dyeing, just to name the ones that we have most proof of. Before my coming here, I had only tried out some of these, so one of the main purposes of my stay is to test more of the technologies in the Penelope Lab. In December, I tried tablet weaving for the very first time, and although I soon had the feeling that it must take a lifetime to become a skilled tablet weaver, I did get some important new insights through practicing the technique, and once again I had the experience that I suddenly noticed things that I did not before. For example, I visited the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg in December and saw a medieval tapestry there with a fringe border that I could identify as a result of tablet weaving.
And that brings me to yet another reason for my staying here in Munich, namely that I want to visit different German collections of medieval textiles to do close-up studies of textiles made in convents. I have, so far, visited museums and convents in both Braunschweig, Helmstedt, Bamberg, and Nürnberg and this week I am visiting Bayerisches Nationalmuseum here in Munich and revisiting the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg. I have also seen different textile collections on previous occasion during my project but on those excursions, I mainly studied embroidered textiles. On my recent trips to Southern German collections, on the other hand, I have really had the opportunity to study woven textiles, or tapestries, since there are so many examples of well-kept tapestries from convents in this part of the country.
My studies of the medieval tapestries have made me very curious to also understand the principles of this technique so once again I have begun studying it through practice. This I am currently doing in the Penelope Lab where I am working on reconstructing a textile panel like the one that was once painted on the Peplos Kore (ca. 530 BC), and which is one of the objects of Ellen Halizius-Klück’s studies. So far, the work has been progressing slowly – especially since I have had to undo it several times – but still, I have already gained some important knowledge on technical aspects of tapestry weaving that were unknown to me before. It has been important for me also to try and recreate some of the techniques that I have seen on the medieval tapestries, to get a sense of how these might have been executed but also why. For example, I was drawn to the small gaps between the covered warp threads that occur on several of the medieval tapestries that I went to see, and one of the things that made me curious was that I could not immediately detect whether the gaps were made to create an effect in the tapestry and bring out certain details of the images, or whether they were simply a result of the particular kind of tapestry weaving that was applied. I am still not completely certain what the answer is, but I believe that my practical in the Penelope Lab work will bring me closer to a conclusion.
My short stay will be over in a couple of weeks, and so I will soon again be heading for Denmark. However, I am very grateful for the insights that I have acquired through the stay, and also for the way in which this visit has brought me a lot closer to the subject I am studying. Not only have I been within inches of the historical textiles that I am writing my dissertation about but also, I have come a lot closer to understanding how they were once created.