Esther Fitzgerald is a rare textile dealer and a lover of textiles. I wanted to have a conversation with Esther after visiting her home for an ‘open house’ day, where I saw all her treasured textiles and artifacts on display throughout her home. I immediately sensed Esther was a woman who had a knowledge of textiles from an historic and socio/cultural perspective, but she was neither an academic, a designer or maker. She was this other type of textile ‘actor’, the rare textile dealer, who has developed a deep knowledge of the subject through a ‘grassroots’ training – touching, repairing, ironing and looking at textiles, rummaging in archives, and trading them for monetary and aesthetic value.
Esther has also researched, wrote and self-published two books on modernist textiles and the links between textiles, modernism and esoteric ideas – subjects that she felt have been ignored by art historians. She also introduced me to the silk patchwork done by Tibetan monks who hand-stitched old silk robes, meditating as they went, which inspired the term ‘Sutra Stitching’ for the workshops I run on meditation and hand-stitching.
CV: Tell me about what you do and how you got started
EF: I sell rare textiles, but I also collect them myself. Mostly I am buying them or trying to find a place for them to fit in museums, institutions, and private collections. Like you I love research, so finding an area that is under-explored is very exciting to me.
I came into textiles by accident. In my mid 20’s, I lived with an artist and we went through financial crisis on a regular basis. I had been buying antique clothes at flea markets since I was a teenager, and one day I found a lovely old piece of English lace. I bought this textile, it was £10. I tootled off, and did some research on it and realised it was a very rare piece. So I took it to the V & A and they agreed with what I said. I approached a Lace Museum in Honiton in Devon and sold it to them for £1000. So I started going regularly to the textile sales at Christies. I would buy what I loved, and then I would research it and try to find a place or a collector that needed it.
I also spent a lot of time in the archives of museums in New York and London, talking to curators and handling textiles. And that is how I started – handling, researching and ironing. Ironing was actually the way you got to know a textile, ironing and repairing them. When you are object-led, you discover a whole lot more than history would ever tell you. You have to go into the object and follow it – looking at what dyes it was made with, who the culture were trading with, and so on.
Image: Chair upholstered in English block print fabric from Barron & Larcher, 1930’s
CV: It sounds like it was a very intuitive process for you, knowing whether a piece was going to be worth the gamble of buying it and then spending all that time researching it and trying to find a buyer
EF: Yes, it was a very intuitive thing. I have always bought in my heart and not in my head. It always pays off. If I buy from my head I make a mistake. I don’t know that I ever knew very much, but intuitively I knew what I was doing. Very few people have the opportunity to learn to do that. Not that many people are in the position of finding fortunes in the street. I was there at the right time, and I was able to continue to trust my judgment because it had paid me back the first time I did it.
CV: How was your love of textiles influenced by your childhood? Was your mother into home sewing or crafts?
EF: My mother couldn’t sew a button on, she was pretty useless. I was a fiercely independent child, and was the youngest girl in a family full of boys. I think she wanted to dress me in pink, but I was very willful and wasn’t going to wear pink. I started getting into old, vintage clothes when I was 16.
CV: That is how a lot of us get into textiles, through buying second-hand clothes as teenagers, trying to form an identity through these clothes ‘with history’
EF: Yes, I remember the first frock I bought, from the flea markets in Cambridge. It was a wonderful crepe, and it really felt good, it hung well, and was a lovely combination of colours. It was actually an old dressing gown that I cut up and made into a coat. I was regularly doing that, going into Oxfam shops. My mother was horrified.
I didn’t go to university, I wanted to be a social worker. However after a few years, I realised it was better to be an art dealer with a social conscience than be a social worker who has no money to buy beautiful objects! Then in the early 1970’s, I worked for Mary Quant, which was a huge learning curve, seeing how the rag trade worked and how ugly it was. Mary was an extraordinary person, and a real innovator who wanted to connect people to their clothes.
CV: What is your definition of modern?
EF: When I was doing the book Seed and Spirit of Modernism, I searched around for a definition. Eventually I chose a definition from the philosopher Clive Bell, who was part of the Bloomsbury group. He said if something had personal meaning or relevance, it was modern.
Some of the traditional textiles I own and trade, look so modern. One of the Pre-Columbian textiles I have is a chequer board pattern that was very common in their culture. The Inca chief wanted to stand out in a crowd, so the pattern was a way of being very visible, with the strong, contrasted colours. The weaver would weave a tunic for the chief , that would be in his after-life ‘package’ to go to the next world. And in Indonesia, they wove out of love and tribute too, using woven cloth for burial rituals. At the end of your life, all the textile gifts you have been given through your life are wrapped around your body, so the bigger the esteem the bigger the bundle. You get wrapped in layers of gifts of love, so the ‘warmer’ you are as a person, the warmer you will be in your after life! By your actions you are known. I think this is quite wonderful, this respect at the end of your life.
Image: Uzbek silk ikat mounted, resting on chequerboard rug
CV: Looking back at how textile were used in ancient cultures reveals how important textiles have been in our lives for thousands of years
EF: Yes, that is why the Indonesians in the mid 19th century wouldn’t accept the shiploads of Dutch mass-produced imitation of batiks – which resulted in the same shiploads being taken to West Africa. The same textiles that contemporary artist Yinka Shonibari uses to identify his ‘Africanness’. The people of the Indonesian archipelago were working many other things into their clothes than just fibre – they were weaving thoughts, ideas and myth. Also, these Tibetan patchworks I have. They would collect the old robes from Lamas and make them into these beautiful patchworks. Sutra means ‘stitch’, so it’s the intention that you stitch with. By using the robes of deceased lamas, they were capturing the energy of that individual.
CV: Do you think it came out of a resourcefulness and wanting to re-use fabric?
EF: I think it was that, but it was also a religious ritual. It was a meditation with the stitching. Making patchwork is a meditation anyway. If your intention is in the stitch, I’m convinced that it is an electrical positive charge. Your good thoughts can carry you forward, whereas your negative thoughts take you backwards.
CV: You don’t hear people talk about these spiritual, energetic ideas very often
EF: That’s right, but there is an awful lot of data now coming from neuroscience, that tells us that when you do something altruistically you light up neurons in your brain, and when you do something selfishly, you kill them. Religion and philosophy have been telling us this for thousands of years, but now we just have proof. It’s our positive thoughts that can create anything, it is all energy.
CV: How has the rare textile business changed since you started?
EF: Before the internet, designers and artists would come to me to buy textiles to be used as inspiration. Now the web has changed all that and people just download the images off my website. When I used to sell to people just like you, they used to pay me £20 a month over two years, to buy one piece. That real joy, when you are actually giving something up or saving money for a special purchase – that’s food money, that’s life money. That is a huge commitment to something beautiful, that doesn’t happen so much anymore.
Under the bridge at Portobello Market on a Friday, you see all the fashion designers buying up vintage pieces. They buy on old frock, and send it off to China, and by the end of the week it has been mass produced in several different colour ways. The designer hasn’t needed to commit anything to that design. They haven’t sat with the piece, handled it, researched it. It’s all so fast these days.
CV: What is it about textiles? Why do they captivate us so much?
EF: I suppose that they were there. A painting tells you of somebody’s idea of a moment, whereas with a textile, they were a part of someone’s life. They have a resonance of something honest. That Tibetan tiger rug I have, from the late 19th century, was sat on by a lama in Tibet. It resonates a wonderful magic.
CV: I got the sense that you published your book out of a frustration that mainstream art history had ignored the intuitive, esoteric aspects of the Modernists
EF: Yes absolutely. Many of the people working creatively in this era were very engaged with these esoteric ideas. When I asked someone who had done research on Ben Nicholson why he hadn’t mentioned that Nicholson was a Christian Scientist, he said because it was boring. If you are a mathematician and you don’t understand something you leave it as an ‘x’, but if you are an art historian and you don’t understand something, you ignore it and leave it out of the history! Whatever one says, spiritual ideas were a huge part of Nicholson’s life and work. His relationship to Mondrian was based on these ideas and on abstraction, but the recent exhibition at The Courtauld in London, didn’t cover this. Roger Fry was totally into these ideas, as well as Herbert Read but it seems to have taken almost 100 years to pick up on these ideas. The rationalists definitely ran the 20th century!
CV: From my research, there appears to be no room in the art/design literature in academia for a discussion on these spiritual ideas either
EF: I think we (artists, observers, philosophers, researchers) have a tendency to look at how things are connected together. From a neurological and quantum physics point of view, those connections make the whole world one. The smallest and the largest work together, and the patterns and rhythms are the same. The complexity comes in our experience of this as humans, because we all experience the world differently. The more I research these ideas and think about them, the more I realise that life is affirming and that there is more that pulls us together, than separates us.
CV: Your journey of research is a lovely metaphor for a map of connections. It starts through an object, and it follows through you as a human being, all your instincts and your impulses. Your linking the past and these people from history, together with yourself and your own history, is all done through these textile objects. Wonderful, thank you so much for sharing your journey and insights.