The Traveling Collector

by Susan Dawson
Originally Published Autumn 2000

I recently shared part of my personal embroidery collection with my new Embroiderers’ Guild of America chapter and the classic question came up. “Where do you find things like this?” I was assured stores here do not have embroideries. Yet, the speaker in our December program was a gallery owner. She did such a dynamic job; I immediately dragged my husband out to see her gallery. There were three racks of wonderful Japanese textiles there!

I find wonderful embroideries every where I go, but I am gradually becoming aware that its something a person has to become attuned to. Textiles are so ubiquitous that even those of us who love them, don’t see them. Often they are not displayed in prominent positions and it is not unusual to find them in a heap; still, they crop up in the most surprising places.

My mother found a collection of kalagas for sale in the back of a hardware store. (A kalagas is a Thai/Siamese embroidered panel displaying culturally significant people and animals. It is mostly densely couched gold with abundant bead, sequin, glass, and stone attachments. Kalagas are typically worked on a black or black/blue ground. They were used to decorate aristocratic homes and state buildings.) My two fine kalagas were in a card shop. I have a drawer full of finely embroidered pillowcases from the 40’s and 50’s. Most of them came from baskets in the corner of tourist or antique shops. The baskets generally resemble my ragbag and never look promising, but I faithfully go through every such basket I see and almost always find a fine specimen of embroidery.

Some of my best photographs of embroidery have come from lectures and demonstrations that I used to do for Woman’s Clubs. Afterwards, people often will tell you about what they have. I make it a habit to ask if I can see and photograph their pieces. I have always figured that it is worth the gamble of a few dollars in film and a few hours. So far, I have never felt it is a waste of either. I have seen some incredible pieces of work!

One of the most beautiful Chinese pieces that I have photographed was acquired through a penny trader (giveaway advertising flyers). The owner had traded it for an old sled.

I ask about embroidery everywhere I go and while I try to listen with respect, I also depend on independent research. In a dress shop I was shown a piece of “African” embroidery, which I bought, as it was the best Voodoo banner I had ever seen outside of books. Of course, the work is Haitian/Caribbean. The more you read the better prepared you are to see and recognize what it is, when you do see it.

Respect and courtesy are important, as is not going over-board with bargaining. My mother acquired many of my Chinese pieces in China. When lecturing about them, I have been told numerous times that other people never saw such things for sale there. My mother’s approach works in many settings where language is a problem. She asks repeatedly for embroidery. When someone finally figures out what she wants and produces something she buys it. Then she looks expectantly and asks if there is any more. This usually results in a choice from some hidden stock. Again she buys, modestly, and asks again. By then the merchant has figured out what is wanted and begins to produce quality items.

Connie Lynn Borserine has acquired much of her collection of Guatemalan textiles by using a similar but more long, term approach with importers. As a regular customer, she now regularly gets to preview the merchandise. There is nothing like informed interest and repeat business to curry the favor of merchants.

My newest source is the auctions on the Internet. While I have not yet purchased anything, every time I have looked, there is embroidery for sale. When I am ready, I will start modestly and do my homework. But I am certain there are treasures to be found there as long as I resist the temptation to spend more than I can afford to loose.

If you have any treasures to share please enter them in The Exemplary using the “Collections On Loan” category of the entry form. Be sure to include the story of how you found it in the “Artists Statement.”