Modern tea towels on historical looms
Textile designer Mariëtte Wolbert has been in the business for thirty years. To celebrate this anniversary she contacted the Weaving Museum (Weverijmuseum) in the village of Geldrop, just outside Eindhoven. Housed in a former textile factory, the museum owns industrial weaving and spinning machines once used by the local textile industry. The project that Wolbert set up with the museum is all about artisanship, research and knowledge exchange. We had a peek behind the scenes.
Mariëtte Wolbert, a specialist in kitchen textiles, teamed up with the Weverijmuseum to develop an exhibition and an educational project for primary school pupils, based on her own work. With the support of a grant from the Design Grant Scheme, she examined the possibility of using the museum’s historical machines to produce a tea towel that meets contemporary criteria. Wolbert performed the research in collaboration with the museum’s volunteers and weavers.
History plays an important role in Wolbert’s research. She inventoried the technical features of the weaving products that were once produced in Geldrop and surroundings, and examined whether it would be possible to substitute the cotton originally used with half-linen, which is less supple and therefore harder to work with. The goal was also to help the Weverijmuseum expand its historical role with a more future-proof strategy, which is important for the museum with a view to its own continued existence and to preserving knowledge. If the machines are no longer used to produce products, then knowledge is no longer passed on and the machines will become obsolete and disappear.
An educational project like this puts a face on an anonymous product.
Working on old industrial weaving machines demands artisanal skills. The Weverijmuseum has these skills in-house, thanks to its volunteers who are often former textile workers from the local area. Working with the machines is strenuous, and it requires a lot of precision to correctly set up the loom. Each adjustment converts into different forces and tensions on the thread, which in turn affects the final result. Despite her thirty years of experience, Wolbert gained extensive technical knowledge from the volunteers. Conversely, the volunteers found it inspiring to be actively involved in the creation of a contemporary product. Wolbert was also supported in developing her product by another museum, the Bussemakershuis, dedicated to the textile industry in the province of Twente with a vast amount of knowledge about linen. Through a design competition held among primary school pupils, the project also introduced a young generation to the artisanal craft of textile design.
The research resulted in a half-linen tea towel for glasswork. With its pattern of red and blue stripes, Wolbert aims to convey a message of concern. In her view, an everyday product like a tea towel is very well suited for this purpose, as it serves as a daily reminder of the message. The red and blue stripes represent the ocean’s coral reefs and the colourful algae that inhabit them. The fading colour intensity of the stripes symbolises the bleaching of the coral reefs as a result of climate change.
Under the watchful eye of visitors to the museum, one hundred half-linen tea towels were woven in the Weverijmuseum during the period of the exhibition. With the tea towels, Wolbert created and sells jubilee sets named Koraal. The exhibition drew 3700 visitors over a six-week period, which is a record for the museum. The education project also had a wide reach, so that the museum and the discipline have hopefully enlisted a new group of ambassadors. Over 250 primary school pupils designed a tea towel, and the winning design has been taken into production by the Weverijmuseum. Wolbert is presenting her project during the Dutch Design Week 2023, and a derivative of the exhibition is on display at Atelier Houtwerff at Sectie-C in Eindhoven.
Video: Robbie van Zoggel