What do you do with more than 40,000 textile samples that reflect the specific interests and tastes of one woman– and that woman is your mother? If you are Caleb Sayan you decide that the best way to preserve Andrea Aranow‘s extraordinary collection is to digitize it. The result is the Textile Hive, a unique virtual and physical fabric archive. “We’re not a museum,” Sayan says. “The collection has always been dynamic, always meant to be used.”
The project traces its origins to the 1970s, when Aranow traveled to Peru. She spent the next 15 years abroad–in Peru as well as in Great Britain and Asia–collecting ethnographic textiles, clothing and costumes and selling her discoveries to museums, including the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s Costume Institute. Once she returned to the U.S., she began working with brands like Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren, Cowtan & Tout and Schumacher, which bought materials from her personal collection to serve as design inspiration.
Sayan wanted to make her collection more widely accessible, so, with Aranow’s blessing, he and the archive moved to Portland, where he went about creating the digital resource. “It was a steep learning curve,” Sayan reports, but after three years of work that required developing custom software, creating a prototype, digitizing every piece, and coming up with a 2,300-term hierarchy for cataloging the textiles, the archive is up and running. It’s available to users–individuals, businesses, institutions–via subscription. The terms let users search for styles, patterns and weaves, among other parameters. Because the textiles come from 50 countries and represent numerous traditional methods, Sayan hopes that a designer will find inspiration in a textile and build on it by “honoring the source without copying it.” With its broad scope, too, “The collection as a whole is great for cross-cultural comparisons of how different societies used and adapted similar techniques with their distinct aesthetics,” he notes.
Sayan knows that many more people will use the collection digitally than will ever touch the textiles themselves–but, he says, “physical access is at the very core of the collection. Hand, weight, pattern, style, scale, color–these are essential to understanding a textile. The visual is secondary to comprehending how something was made.”
To that end, and to further expand the archive’s reach, Sayan hosts tours, classes and seminars, and shows the work of designers he and Aranow admire in the studio. One of those is Los Angeles-based Last Chance Textiles, whose ethos, Sayan believes, matches his and Aranow’s aesthetic. “We wanted to create an amazing product with an amazing story,” Sayan says, and so together with Last Chance they’re introducing their first original textile: a blanket whose pattern is inspired by an item in the Textile Hive collection. Other collaborations should follow, both home goods and apparel. And, next up will be a Textile Hive fabric line created in-house, which, Sayan says, “will feature sharp, purposeful design, tell stories and have diverse themes, just like our physical collection.”