Roanne Sainte Claire says textiles tell stories. For the past six years she’s been traveling to India and Nepal, combing shops and markets for unusual clothes that “speak” to her, pieces with a sense of time and careful workmanship. Sainte Claire says she buys what she likes, selling her finds at her two stores, Sainte Claire and Heaven, located next door to each other on Milwaukee Avenue.

She’s also built up a personal collection dating back to a 1970 trek through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. On a recent trip back to Nepal she bought a Tibetan yak hair blanket that was woven before the Chinese invasion. Because she doesn’t speak Tibetan, Sainte Claire had to become a detective to discover its origins. The pattern was created with a resist or covering method, but she didn’t know how it was done until she found a book that described the painstaking process. “They took strips of cloth and poked them through holes in the bottom of a bowl-shaped vessel,” she says. “Then they floated the bowl on a dye bath so that just that tiny bit was exposed. For each motif they have to pull that bit out and dry it, then poke another piece through. If there are 50 to 100 motifs, each one has to be done individually.”

Washing the blanket revealed that it was dyed with a natural indigo. “You can’t fix natural indigo without immersing it,” Sainte Claire explains. “In other words, you can’t print it and have it be colorfast. So I knew it was dyed and not printed.” She saw other traces of the dyeing process when it was wet. “You could see the fold lines because wool has a memory that it springs back to when dampened. Because there was so much pressure involved in pushing it through the resist vessel, it remembered it.”

She also brought back a Tibetan coat from the same period. It too is woven from yak hair, which she describes as “a really fine lustrous wool that was spun so fine that it almost feels like silk. When you use a fine hair like that and natural dyes, the colors glow.” The coat is made up of panels, since Tibetan fabric is woven in strips on very narrow looms. Alternating solid and striped bands are framed by a border of Chinese silk. Sainte Claire says this type of fine Tibetan clothing is a thing of the past, though she’s seen some coarse versions of the blankets being made by the Chinese for tourists.

Saint Claire will be showing pieces from her collection–including tiny purses from Afghanistan and an embroidered linen shirt from the Swat Valley in Pakistan, as well as some kitsch and vintage American items–when she gives a talk next Thursday, February 2, at 6:30 PM at the store Sainte Claire, 1034 N. Milwaukee. It’s part of the monthly Textile Salon Series sponsored by the Textile Arts Centre. Admission is $30, which includes refreshments. For more information or a schedule of future offerings, call the Textile Arts Centre at 929-5655.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.