Textile archives: Inspiring the makers of tomorrow
Andrea Aranow has had a lifelong passion for textiles.
In the 1970s and 80s she travelled to Peru, China, and Japan, collecting garments and swatches and selling her collections to world-renown museums.
In 1987 Aranow came to New York and set up a small studio, Andrea Aranow Textile Documents, selling fabric swatches to major fashion houses for design inspiration. The client list included Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, and Marni, among many others.
Fashion houses would visit the archive with a concept for their next season’s collection and Aranow would pull swatches to show them. They were granted exclusive rights to whatever they purchased and could recolour or rescale the patterns as needed.
“Everything comes from somewhere,” says Aranow. “It’s just given a modern interpretation.” She ran the business for 22 years, continually adding to the collection until it included over 40,000 pieces.
Textile Hive: Visually rich and highly functional
In 2009 it was time to close the business’s doors, but Aranow’s son, Caleb Sayan, who had been working with her for a number of years, had a new vision for his mother’s incredible archive of textiles.
“When my mother was in business people would come and buy pieces from the collection to reinterpret for the products they were developing. The designs would literally leave the archive. That swatch would be gone.”
Sayan’s idea was to photograph and tag every piece in order to create a digital textile archive that would not only ensure the collection’s longevity, but also increase access to the richness of its contents.
He relocated the collection nearer to his home in Portland, Oregon, and began a multiyear intensive process of scanning each piece and tagging it with visual information including period, colour, pattern, spacing, luminescence, and layout, as well as its historical context.
It was paramount for Sayan that the digital archive be visually appealing, highly functional, and run on a browser. Unable to find an out-of-box software solution he hired developers to build a custom application. The result is Textile Hive, a comprehensive digital archive that corresponds one-to-one with Aranow’s physical collection.
Creating a formative experience
Sayan discovered that a digital version of the archive presents new and exciting opportunities. The search and discovery process can produce surprising results, for example.
“You could search for unicorns and those fabrics could be in 50 different sections. Textile Hive allows you to better use the physical collection.”
Digitization also opens up access to a wider audience, a prospect Sayan is particularly excited about. “Now everyone can see and search the entire collection,” he notes.
For a membership fee, a university can make the archive available to its entire student body. “We have universities with enrollments of 10,000. Technically they could all use the archive simultaneously, while 10 people using the physical archive at once would be chaotic,” he explains.
“I’ve talked to a lot of designers and they didn’t have access to this kind of collection in school. It was only available to professionals. Imagine what, in the formative years, could happen if they were exposed to the diversity of this sort of collection.”
The Design Library: Order and harmony
Textile Hive isn’t the only fabric archive reinventing itself for the digital age. The Design Library, located in New York’s Hudson Valley, is one of the largest textile archives in the world and is home to 7 million designs.
Owner and director Peter Koepke and his team have brought a portion of the Design Library online through a membership site they’ve named Kosmos. “In ancient Greek the word means order and harmony and the right placement of things,” Koepke notes. “It seemed fitting.”
Like Textile Hive, Kosmos operates in a browser and has a powerful search algorithm based on verbal and visual tags. When a user clicks on a design the screen repopulates with dozens of related prints. “It’s so much faster than searching in person,” he notes. Kosmos now has nearly 20,000 designs and is being added to each month.
Making the digital transition
As textile archives make this digital transition, one thing remains vital to their commercial success: exclusivity. When a design is licensed from a digital textile archive, it comes out of the collection for the period of the license (typically 1-3 years). Fashion houses expect that exclusivity, whether they’re using a physical or digital swatch.
Some textile devotees resist the idea of digital archives. “In our industry a lot of people rail against digitizing,” Koepke notes. “It’s textiles. People want to touch them.”
Yet, it’s undeniable that digital archives allow users to get creative with print and pattern in ways that aren’t possible with just physical samples. Members can build collections and save them from login to login, and their teams can access the archives from anywhere.
Digital archivists can invite guest artists and educators to curate and contextualize the collections, sparking interest in how the designs might be used.
When the magic happens
Still, the physical samples remain at the heart of any textile archive.
For Sayan the real magic happens when the two ways of accessing the collection are coupled together.
“What makes our collection really unique is, if I like this piece using dragon artwork I can pull out the physical swatch or vice versa. There are tons of images of fabric available online, but there isn’t this corresponding information about what they are. We house all the pieces.”
Sayan’s next task is to find the archive a new home. He’s hoping a university or museum that appreciates both the physical and digital versions will embrace the collection and make it more widely available. “Combining the extraordinary physical design archive with its innovative digital counterpart,” he says, “we strive to inspire the makers of tomorrow.”
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