When the Gibbes Museum opened in 1905, the nation celebrated what Charleston has always understood: the power of art – to inspire our imagination, heal our hurt, and nourish our souls.

The Secret Language of Cloth, an Interview with Susan Hull Walker


Susan Hull Walker, who founded ibu in 2013, studied World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and served for eighteen years as a minister in Maine, San Francisco, and Charleston, SC. When she returned to school to study Fiber Arts, she learned to weave and speak in the language of cloth. It opened her eyes to the very thing she had been looking for in her previous work – a woman’s way of recording her mind and soul. What she didn’t find in parchment and page, she found in textiles. A woman’s text. Walker is the featured speaker at the Gibbes October Art With a Twist event entitled, The Secret Language of Cloth and graciously agreed to share some of the meanings of cloth with us here.

Susan Hull Walker in her studio
Susan Hull Walker, ibu Founder

Amy: Susan, your upcoming talk is titled, “The Secret Language of Cloth.” Are you saying there is more to fabrics and cloth than meets the eye? Can you explain what that means?

Susan: Of course. In the middle ages, stripes were uncommon and disturbing to the eye – a striped garment moved in uncertain ways rather than waiting politely like a smooth, solid color. Which is how stripes came to be called The Devil’s Cloth and relegated to the edges of their society: worn by jesters, prostitutes, serfs, the condemned. Even in recent years, prisoners suit up in wide horizontal stripes against the vertical bars of their cell and form a visual grid, a cage, in which they live. The history of striped clothing is one fascinating skip through the western sartorial canon, all the way up to sailors, referees, and Picasso – all on the edge of their game.

In Eastern Europe, red embroidery long protected the vulnerable openings of neck and wrists where evil spirits might slip through, and is shaped into a beautiful armor of threads over the chest. A Pazyryk linen shift dating back to the 4th century, BC, has been found bound in red – embroidered with amulets, tokens of sacred power, to ward off the unworthy. Red thread, almost universally, denotes the vital flow of blood, life, passion and fertility, fierce against the dark powers that would diminish it.

IBU fabric
ibu fabric

On the Indonesian island of Sumba, only women of a certain mature age may go near the indigo dye bath, so potent is its power. Women over 50 have known the losses of this world and can bear the deep mysteries of the dye – a ‘blue art’ not suitable for women of a child-bearing age. Men are forbidden to go near it altogether. Indigo has its own secret society of the wise elders, strong and initiated.

Cloth is a trove of story and symbol. The creation of cloth consumed the vast majority of a woman’s time before the industrial revolution – cultivating flax, tending sheep, spinning yarn, dyeing, weaving, stitching, embellishing, piecing and repairing. And so it is saturated with the imagination of women in every step. Needle and thread form a kind of writing. Cloth reveals a secret language that opens to a curious mind.

It’s been my fascination to dive into these stories and try to decipher some of the most common motifs we see but no longer understand.

Why is the woven diamond pattern so universal and ancient – from Laos to Morocco to Guatemala?

Why the ubiquitous Tree of Life, the many shapes of sun, the fertile pomegranate?

Where do brides wear black? And why does a priest wear ‘a little house’? which is, after all, what a chasuble means . . .

Let’s explore more of these mysteries together. I look forward to translating with you the secret language of cloth.

Amy: Thanks so much Susan! We are looking forward to this event.

Susan Hull Walker founded the ibu movement, an enterprise aiding women artisans around the world by offering their hand-crafted textile wares for sale at a showroom on King Street and online. ibu, which means, a woman of respect in the Malay language, aims to continue the world’s great cultural languages in cloth and to empower the women who still carry these rich languages in their hands.

Art with a Twist: The Secret Language of Cloth with Susan Hull Walker 
Wednesday, October 21, 6pm
$20 Members, $30 Non Members
Location: Ibu, 183 King Street

Published September 23, 2015

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