A Bit of Central Asia in Nebraska
Volume XII, Issue Three | September 2017 Two years ago in Istanbul, Mehmet, the proprietor of The Columns, a shop near the Arasta Bazaar, introduced my daughter Dana and me to another American woman, Chris Martens. Because the store stocked pillows and wall hangings and fabric, Chris and I began talking about textiles. Sooner or later, of course, the talk turned to quilts, and we discovered a mutual love for them. I told her I sometimes wrote about quilts, and Chris revealed she was working on a show of Central Asian quilts for the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska.
She invited Dana and me to have tea with her the next day in the Grand Bazaar. First she took us into a shop to show us antique Asian quilts and clothing and decorative cloth objects; I remember a quilted silk robe that was for sale for several thousand dollars. Then she led us to a little-known rooftop garden surrounded by antiques shop. There, under a grape arbor, the three of us drank tea, while Chris showed us the quilt she was repairing.
Little surprise that after such an interesting afternoon (one of our favorite memories of the trip), I felt compelled to drive 500 miles to Lincoln to see the Quilt Study Center show when it opened last June.
All I can say is, “Wow!” In fact, that’s what Bob (who is not into textiles) said when we walked into the gallery and saw the bright red tent hanging with its border of patchwork squares on the wall in front of us. Bright pillows and quilts and a felted rug were arranged on the floor in front of it. I felt as if I had stumbled into a shop in ancient Asia.
The show, “Sacred Scraps: Quilt and Patchwork Traditions of Central Asia,” will be open through Dec. 16, and I hope if you’re anywhere near Lincoln, you’ll see it. In fact, if you’re not near Lincoln, you’ll find it worth the trip. At least view it on the Museum’s website, www.quiltstudycenter.org.
Chris spent eight years collecting textiles for the show, which is a rich mix of cultures and influences. The items represent upper class traditions as well as the daily life of indigenous peoples. Many of the textiles are old, but some are relatively new. In fact, when I told my nephew’s wife, Repsina, about the show, she said she remembered the bright quilts used by her family when she was growing up in Turkmenistan.
In her talk, which was informative, not erudite, Chris said that red is the favorite color used in the quilts. The people of Central Asia believe in the power of scraps of fabric to protect babies from evil spirits. Traditionally, 40 days after a child’s birth, a mother gathers bits of fabric from 40 neighbors and friends to make a talismanic shirt. Or she collects the scraps from seven neighbors who are wealthy or have healthy children. These scraps are cut into shapes and pieced together, then attached to a dress or bib as amulets. Before dressing the baby in the new clothing, the mother bathes the child in water containing salt, sugar, earth, meat, juniper wood, and gold to make sure all the baby’s needs will be met. She also foregoes hemming the bottoms of dresses and shirts for fear of stunting the child’s growth.