Cross-Culture Apparel Design is Like Riding a Motorcycle Without a Helmet

When she is not teaching her students, she is researching cross-cultural apparel design and design as wearable art, and experimenting with different cross-cultural design techniques. For the last decade, she has been competing in the International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) annual design competition, winning various awards for her use of pleating techniques and draping in her entry garments. This spring, she is headed to Hong Kong to work with her colleague to experiment with different fabrics and techniques to make something on the cutting edge of incorporating traditional techniques with modern technology.

In an interactive interview, I sat down with Dr. Sparks and talked about cross-cultural apparel design, and I got to see first-hand the result of a little inspiration and a lot of experimentation.

“As a professor, cross-cultural apparel design gives me the opportunity to look at textiles in a variety of cultures, and what meanings might be associated with the type of textiles, and to bring that awareness to students to broaden their perspective and hopefully their appreciation for different cultures,” Sparks said when asked what cross-culture means to her.

ACP: I know you pull a lot of inspiration from Asian cultures. Why did you choose Asian culture to work with?

Sparks: I’m not really sure where the inspiration came from, but when I was a child, I used to be really fascinated with Chinese and Japanese characters. We had a very old Encyclopedia Britannica, and I used to look up how to say English words using Asian characters. As a young adult, a significant person brought me a book on the traditional Japanese house. About the same time, another friend saw an exhibit at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] in New York City about the 14th century Japanese kimono and gave me the catalog. Those two books were important influences on my inclination to study Japanese design in general, and various forms of Japanese textile design.

ACP: How did you then begin to incorporate such techniques into Western design?

Sparks: I wanted to make a skirt out of silk, and I wanted the skirt not to wrinkle, which doesn’t happen with silk. So I started exploring how I could make pleats in this skirt. My research led me to the Italian designer, Fortuny. He was inspired by Greek textiles and he was known for his pleated dresses. I started to experiment with a Japanese technique called Arashi Shibori. This variation of Shibori requires you to secure the fabric around a pole (pole wrapping) then scrunch it up the pole and tie it in place. You then wet down the fabric and wait for it to dry, and when you unravel it, you have densely pleated fabric.

The finished product of Sparks’ first pleated dress (Photo courtesy of Dr. Sparks).

ACP: Did you find much success with this process?

Sparks: Yes (She shows me two different dresses with this technique, both also with digitally printed fabric). This dress was done with a colleague in Hong Kong and it was exhibited at an international shibori symposium this fall and acquired by the China National Silk Museum for their permanent collection.

ACP: How did you begin to incorporate digital technology into your designs?

Sparks:  Part of the reason why I wanted to use digital printing is that I found it an interesting thing to combine technology with processes (such as shibori) that are 100-400 years old. It superimposes current technology onto traditional manual processes, which is the ultimate goal in my design work – to look at the relationships between manual and digital approaches to textile surface design.

(Shows me photos of various designs using various shibori and textural techniques)

Another densely pleated design (Photo courtesy of Dr. Sparks).

ACP: All of your designs are very experimental. How do you know the risk is going to pay off?

Sparks: I don’t. That’s the hook. Design is an iterative process which means that one works without knowing exactly how the work will evolve. I’m experimenting, and when you’re in the zone where you’re doing something that you don’t know how to do and there’s no information on how to do it, it’s like riding a motorcycle with no helmet.

(She shows me a garment that she and her colleague from Hong Kong, Kinor, worked on together)

One of Sparks’ garments that combines both shibori and digital printing techniques (Photo courtesy of Dr. Sparks).

ACP: How did you meet him [Kinor]?

Sparks: I was invited to teach as a visiting professor for a year at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. On the first day, I was taken on a tour of a textile library filled with indigo-dyed shibori textiles that he had designed, and the next thing I knew, he was in my office and we began a dialogue.

ACP: Do you think that your collaboration with Kinor helped with the exchange of design perspectives?

Sparks: I have been invested in the Eastern design perspective for many years, and it has been absolutely wonderful to work with Kinor because he is Chinese and has thousands of years of that gene pool, which have formed his design preferences and how he works. I work with a set of aesthetics and intentions that are different than his, but what has been successful, is that he gives me fabrics and I work with them to design garments that are from a different perspective. The collaboration of techniques is rich, on the cutting edge of discovery.

ACP: What other work are you doing that combining modern and manual techniques?

I am working with graduate students who are, in their own way, doing work that is an examination of tradition techniques and digital techniques to arrive at their own creative scholarship. I have a student from Saudi Arabia working with traditional embroideries. She has taken examples of the embroideries and developed CAD repeat pattern designs, and has created clothing using these printed textiles, using real embroideries on top of the prints for professors in Saudi Arabia. Her thesis research question is: to what extent will these textiles be acceptable for professional wear, as second or third generation iterations of the original stitched embroideries?

ACP: Would people in Saudi Arabia feel offended by the translation of the traditional embroidery into something more modern?

Sparks: What you are alluding to falls under cultural appropriation, and it’s a difficult situation to define or clarify. I was recently reading an article by Susan Scafidi at Fordham University who is a lawyer and specializes in the topic of cultural appropriation. According to her, the rule is that you have to have permission from the culture to use their designs, and if you don’t, it’s wrong.

ACP: How do you have to be aware of this as a professor?

In teaching textile design I encourage students to explore cultures different from their own, read about that design aesthetic and what it symbolizes, look at how the designs use color and shape, and then assign the students to design textiles from that perspective. I have done it for years as a way to give students positive exposure to other approaches to design. While I am using this as a way to broaden cultural awareness and appreciation, the intention does not matter. What does matter is that I work with the students to separate the secular from the sacred, and to make them aware of cultural appropriation.

ACP: Any final thoughts?

Sparks: I am gratified to be deeply invested in multicultural design as a designer, and also as a professor.

This was originally published on Culturs

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