Silk aspirations take a long and winding road

VANCOUVER— Special to The Globe and Mail

In the crowded storefront off South Granville, Joanna Staniszkis is surrounded by her art – racks of it.

Diaphanous coats, shawls, jackets and scarves of colourful silk. But this is more than a new collection from a talented designer. This is the work of one of the country’s top textile artists, a woman with nearly 40 years of experience as a designer and academic, whose earlier works – huge contemporary weavings and tapestries – hang in public buildings across the country and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.

The former University of British Columbia professor has travelled the world to study the history of many fibres and fabrics, and this new haute couture is the culmination of her exploration of silk, each piece of wearable art arising from a unique length of cloth, printed, dyed, cut and sculpted by the renowned Canadian textile artist herself.

“I’m a maker of things, a compulsive creator,” she says, pulling another irresistible study in colour and texture from the rack in her tiny Silk Project shop.

From elegant scarves to coats and wraps, the garments – sold here and in exclusive boutiques such as Ann Ahn in New York and Timbavati in Santa Fe – are one of a kind. Ethereal and glimmering, with high collars and flowing hems, each piece evolves from Ms. Staniszkis’s textile art, the fabric dictating the kind of free-form garment it will become.

Ms. Staniszkis started her study of silk at the source. Like the protagonist in Alessandro Baricco’s romantic novel, Silk – now a feature film – she travelled the famous Silk Road, from the historic silk-making villages of southern France to the back streets of northern India, where weavers still use the silk from wild moths to create this ancient fabric by hand.

In her studio, Ms. Staniszkis turns these lengths of blank silk into art, dying and silk-screening the yardage with images of cocoons and mulberry trees, key to the creation of this natural fabric.

In a world where manufactured polyester microfibres, nylon and other synthetics dominate the market, each thread of silk is still completely natural, excreted by a silk caterpillar and unwound from its dense, white cocoon, before being spun into soft, luxurious cloth. China was the original source of silk about 5,000 years ago, and while silk is ubiquitous today – China is expected to export more than $31-billion (U.S.) worth of silk by 2010 for everything from scarves to bed linens – there is no other fabric with such provenance.

Ms. Staniszkis experienced her own silk epiphany almost by chance.

“I went to India to study silk, and I brought home some large cocoons that I had sitting on my coffee table,” she says. “When I realized that moths were emerging and laying their eggs, I began to see silk as more than just a fabric, but as a metaphor for change.”

Since that lucky accident in her living room, Ms. Staniszkis has immersed herself in the natural cycle of silkworms. In an abandoned greenhouse on the UBC campus, she has learned how to raise her own caterpillars, planting dozens of mulberry trees around Vancouver to feed them, then watched them spin their cocoons, emerge as moths for a mating frenzy, lay eggs and die. Ten days later, a new generation of silkworms is born and the cycle repeats.

“There is a natural miracle inherent in the production of silk,” she says, “and I like to use materials as metaphors for greater issues.”

Those cocoons – and their cycle of birth, life and death – have inspired her latest artistic exploration, including both her clothing and her visual art that filled a gallery in Vancouver’s seedy east end, an area which Ms. Staniszkis was surprised to learn was also part of the historic silk trade.

Canada’s transcontinental railway once formed the first western link to the eastern silk markets, she says, and as early as 1887, bales of valuable raw silk fabric arrived in Vancouver to be shipped to eastern markets on well-guarded, non-stop trains.

“The silk came from Japan to the foot of Burrard Street, where it was quickly unloaded onto trains called ‘silkies,’ ” Ms. Staniszkis explains. “A hundred years ago, silk trains passed through this horrific, drug-infested area [of Vancouver], rushing across the continent to the silk exchanges in Montreal and New York.

Like the young merchant in Silk, Ms. Staniszkis continues to travel the historic silk roads in search of the finest fabrics. She makes regular pilgrimages to the artisan silk weaving co-ops in northern Indian villages, to visit the weavers in the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges, who still create elegant organzas and diaphanous silk fabrics from wild silk, using hand looms.

“I go straight to the weavers in the back streets, mostly Muslim men, and we sit down and design the fabrics,” she says of the “overspun” silks that spontaneously pleat and wrinkle to give her garments their unique textures and structure. “The fabrics are woven to my specifications, and they come to me white so that I can do my own dying and printing.”

Recently, her travels have also taken her to Mr. Baricco’s silk-producing villages in Provence, where she has purchased a historic silk house and will spend her winters creating textiles.

Wrapping yourself in one of her dramatic silk jackets evokes the back story of the material and the artist herself – confident, richly imagined and strong, yet soft, thoughtful and elegant. It’s silk with a provenance and life that’s almost antithetical to China’s massive modern silk industry, yet still connected by its sentient source.

“Every little garment I produce is unique, a different size and shape,” she says, “and once someone puts it on, it becomes alive again.”

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