Sewn Stories

Stefania Pitscheider Soraperra / 2020


 – – – After the building on Rhana Plaza in Shabhar near Dhaka, the capital of Bangla- desh, collapsed in 2013, the clothing industry was confronted with criticism from all over the world. The eight-storey building housing several textile companies buried some 1100 people fatally and injured around 2400 oth- ers. The workers were instructed to continue working despite all the warnings of its potential collapse. The tragedy was jolting and made many problematic aspects of textile production visible: globalization and fast fashion go hand in hand, with the steps in production scattered around the world at places with the lowest costs. This facilitates low prices for consumers. But environmental and social standards are frequently disre- garded as a result, often with catastrophic consequences. Many people at our latitude only wear clothes for a short time, to then quickly sort them out again. Clothing has be- come a replaceable, disposable commodity. The Swiss artist Nesa Gschwend adds a new, final step to the “textile chain,” thus the aggregate of all the production and commercial steps that a textile goes through. The sorting out of what is no longer needed, discarded, or outmoded is reintegrated in the produc- tion process, is charged with new meaning and a new value. Gschwend initiates thought processes by creating large-format tapes- tries from sewn and processed pieces of fab- ric that she coats with a layer of wax.


The starting point for her tapestries is an attempt to understand. The artist invites groups of people to sewing events. In India, Georgia, Austria, or Switzerland. People bring scraps of fabric and items of clothing from home along with them and find fabric and clothes at the event. Nesa Gschwend gives the participants free rein, makes no recom- mendations. They meet and start working: cutting, tacking, assembling, mending, sew- ing, hemming, joining together, combining, composing samples, and sewing on zips or shirt collars. They occasionally embroider their initials on the pieces of fabric, or—as in the case of a woman who fled Abkhazia for Georgia —simply the word ‘Аҧсны’, representatively for a lost home. On parts of a traditional Bregenzerwald women’s dress, it is possible to find the name of an Ida Feuerstein. A participant brought the piece of clothing to the sewing workshop. She considered integrating it into an artwork to be a suitable destiny for an old, damaged, and now only partial Juppe. If one knows the significance with which the traditional Bregenzerwald dress is charged, it also becomes clear that transforming it into an artwork was understood as an upgrading of it, not as destruction.

 On another tapestry, we discover the remnants of a blue-patterned apron, no longer needed baby overalls, or an Indian polyester sari. Indian fabrics in particular are very colourful, while the colours of fabric created in Switzerland are more muted: ‘The poorer people are, the more colours they use,’ says Nesa Gschwend.


The pieces of textiles that are sewn and processed at the workshops become the raw material for Nesa Gschwend’s artworks. The artist’s task is to give them a framing and structure, to embed and translate them into a coherent result. In her studio, Nesa Gschwend processes the pieces further, puts them in relation to one another, lets herself be guided by their form, intermixes worlds in the process, assembles them to create a tapestry, before a layer of wax unifies and seals all the parts. This process transforms the individual pieces of textile into a work of art.


At the beginning of her magnificent family saga The Eighth Life1, Nino Haratischvili, an author from Georgia, describes a scene in which the elderly Stasia tells her grand- daughter Niza about a carpet:

One rainy morning—I was in the second or third year at school—when I’d stayed at home at the Green House because I’d caught a cold, I came across Stasia in the attic, the conversion of which had never been finished. Thee was an open balcony—wide as a terrace, but with- out a railing—where we children were always forbidden to set foot, but which was nonetheless our favourite place to spend time, as we often did in secret. Now Stasia was standing on this bal- cony beating out a moth-eaten carpet, beautifully patterned in various shades of pomegranate red. I’d never seen the carpet before.

 – – ‘Stay there. Don’t come any closer!’ she commanded when she saw me. 

 ‘What are you doing?’‘ I’ve decided to have this carpet restored. ’‘What does restored mean?’ I asked.

 I stopped in front of her, fascinated. ‘I’m going to make the old carpet new again and hang it on the wall. The carpet belonged to our grand- mother, and Christine inherited it. She never liked it, so she gave it to me, but I never appreciated it ei- ther, not until I was old. It’s a very ancient, very valuable tapestry.’ ‘You can’t do that, can you, make something old new?’

 ‘Of course you can. The old thing will become new, so it’ll be different, never quite what it used tobe, but that’s not the point of the exercise. It’s better and more inter- esting when something transforms itself. We’ll make it new, hang it up, and see what happens.’

 ‘But what for?’ I wanted to know.‘A carpet is a story. And hidden within it are countless other sto- ries. Come here; be careful, take my hand, yes, that’s it. Now look: do you see the pattern?’

 I stared at the colourful ornamentation on the red background.– – ‘Those are all individual threads. And each individual thread is an individual story. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

 if this one has spent years packed away somewhere for moths to feast on, it must now come to life again and tell us its stories. I’m sure we’re woven in there, too, even if we never suspected it.’

And Stasia beat away at the heavy carpet with all her might.It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.2


Like Stasia’s carpet, Nesa Gschwend’s ‘Living Fabrics’ also tell stories behind the stories. These stories are sewn, woven, and knotted. And, significantly, many of them come from Georgia, a complicated country with a zest for life. But groups of people have also come together in other places in order to work on Nesa Gschwend’s participatory artworks. It basically plays no role whether the work- shops take place in Paris, Tiflis, or Hittisau. ‘Openness is a prerequisite for success. You can find fascinating things anywhere. It’s not the country that is decisive; it’s the attitude,’ says Nesa Gschwend. A network is thus cre- ated beyond personal, social, national, and cultural boundaries. The end product itself does not play a role at the sewing events. During the collective work, which requires many hours and hands, not only fabrics, but I nodded, spellbound, although I wasn’t sure that I did understand. ‘You’re a thread, I’m a thread; together we make a little ornamen- tation, and together with lots of other threads we make a pattern. The threads are all different, differ- ently thick or thin, dyed different colours. The patterns are hard to make out if you look at just one individual thread, but if you look at them together you see all sorts of amazing things. Look here, for example. Isn’t that gorgeous? This ornamentation—absolutely marvellous! Then there’s the density and number of knots, the different colour structures—all that creates the texture. I think it’s a very good metaphor. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Carpets are woven from stories. So we have to preserve and take care of them. Even also manual skills and stories are passed on. Participants are subsequently in touch on social networks, and most of them are delighted by the communal experience had and by the on-going process. Some participants withdraw, but that is not important to the artist. The spectrum is open. No one has to remain, but all are welcome. Globalization is generally regarded as a ho- mogenizing and merging force. From a cultural perspective, cultural differences have to be absorbed and rejected and cultural difference thus subverted. ‘Fabrics are more mobile than people; they have no borders, and there are thus only borders for people who have nothing. The people I work with are often excluded from travel, but an intermixing nonetheless occurs through the fabrics and stories,’ according to Nesa Gschwend.


She does not look for difference, but instead for what connects, the collective, and the playful.How people are involved in Nesa Gschwend’s artworks varies between individual and systemic participation. The individuals involved are physically present and the space for so- cial exchange is open. This participation also keeps the system of art in mind, meaning that the author has clear notions about the work and the role of recipients, despite the involvement of many people. Her partici- patory process leads to a merging of pro- cess-oriented art with a product-oriented overlapping of public space and the intima- cy of the artist’s studio. Her interventions are quiet in nature and nonetheless have a socio-political and cultural significance because they bring people together beyond any formalisms; they are interesting hybrids with one foot in the art world and one in the world of collective work. Textiles span the world and time. And wherever people come together, they do one thing above all: they tell stories. ‘The focus of my work is on developing community.’ And, as is generally known, community creates space for what is related, for the stories connected with the textiles.


‘In spite of cultural differences, dealing with textiles is a universal language. Like it or not, stories are woven into the textiles. When you wear something, your story is woven into it, and the story remains interwoven when you pass it along. All people cover themselves with fabrics—textiles are thus a basis of human existence. We need them to survive, just as we need to eat and drink. It is first through executing textile techniques that we can take particular cultural steps.’ Carpets are nomadic objects, warming protection, spatial dividers, a symbol and place for rituals and traditions, connecting elements between spaces and people. For Nesa Gschwend, car- pets by all means have an important role as an original form of habitation and as image of a garden. She therefore retains basic ele- ments of the figurative language of oriental carpets: the symmetry, border, and supple- mentation of patterns.




Gottfried Semper3 (1803–1879) already spoke of the importance of textiles, and liked to introduce his lectures with: ‘At the beginning there was textile art.’ The archi- tect and art theorist was one of the most important authorities on textile architecture, and intensively examined tents, yurts, and circus structures. His theoretical work and his ‘principle of dressing’ were discussed in the big architecture debates of his time. Semper’s theory of dressing, which started from the premise that primitive huts were clothed with textiles, occupied theorists and architects until into the twentieth century. There is no doubt that textiles stood at the beginning of cultural history, because textile techniques were what first made it possible to produce the bags, tents, covers, and items of clothing necessary for migration and thus for cultural exchange—a topic that occupied him intensively—despite the heated debates of the architects of early modernism.


While Nesa Gschwend’s large tapestries cre- ated through participation deal with external relations to a certain extent, her cycle of works ‘Relations’ concentrates on the origins of her own family. The artist processes bed- clothes, dishcloths, curtains, tablecloths, or children’s clothing from the house where she was born and also incorporates these textiles into her artistic work. The fabrics were headed for the second-hand shop. But Nesa Gschwend ‘saved’ them because stories are interwoven in them and they are a warehouse for family emotions and stations: ‘My parents were created and my grandparents died in these textiles. We were also created in them. These textiles map the cycle of life.’ In the artworks, we recognize the threads of an old, red curtain, which meander over the pictures like umbilical cords. Parts of a black cloth that was used when laying out the family’s dead can also be seen. We dis- cover the initials of Nesa’s mother, the dress and pillow with hemstitch with which all the children of the family were taken to be chris- tened, a small, hand-knit angora cap, and ribbons, trimmings, and lace. The textiles here are documents and memory storage of the history of a family, which, like all family histories, contain complicated, painful, lov- ing, sad, and joyful aspects. Nesa Gschwend does not discard anything. Everything has to be processed and transformed, in a meta- phorical sense as well.


For years, the artist has been collecting her own hair and that of members of her fami- ly. And, like the textiles, it is integrated into her artworks, laid between layers of paper, sealed with lacquer, or processed to create objects. Hair is not simply a strand of kera- tin; it is highly charged storage medium. Like textiles, hair is also a warehouse of memo- ries. Nesa Gschwend takes up the hair works of the nineteenth century, which reflected close interpersonal relationships as mourn- ing jewellery or objects of commemoration. Sacrificial cults, occult rites, and votive customs have ascribed special significance to human hair for centuries. With the hair of cherished or beloved individuals, people wanted to carry an imperishable part of an individual with them or have it constantly in sight. In the form of a ‘relic secularized’4—as Walter Benjamin stated—people wanted to express remembrance of special events such as baptisms, weddings, or the death of a be- loved individual. And Nesa Gschwend takes up this tradition.


Nesa Gschwend’s series of works ‘Human’ reflects human life in a totally different way. Layer by layer, the artist overlays threads and hair fixed with lacquer between two layers of fleece. At the end of the artistic process, she turns the works over. All the layers shimmer through, are related to and in dialogue with one another.‘I leave the question of whether the layers have to do with an individual person or a community of individuals open,’ the artist says. The individuals portrayed cannot be recognized; they are ambiguous pictures of vulnerable and multi-layered human existence.


Roland Scotti, curator of the Heinrich Gebert Kulturstiftung, puts it in a nutshell: ‘If we had sufficient means, we would have to purchase the portrait room and present it as a permanent installation, because all things human are woven into it.’ – – –