Language, Textiles, A Flash of the Human Spirit

At Tinkuy Gathering of the Textile Arts  in Cusco, Peru last fall, anthropologist Wade Davis, gave a remarkable keynote speech, “Geographies of Hope.” His talk was a celebration of the world’s indigenous cultures, but also he warned about the rapid disappearance of these cultures and the impact this has on the cultural web of life, what he calls “humanity’s great legacy.” Davis spoke about the loss of language as one way to illustrate this tragic loss of culture. “A language, he said “is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world.”

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Tomoko Torimaru’s book One Needle, One Thread about Miao embroidery and piecework from Guizhou, China. Torimaru writes, “With no written script, the Miao have long used textile making as their method of language to record their history and beliefs. Their techniques are an instrument of vocabulary.” Reading that took me directly back to Davis’ talk at Tinkuy, and as I looked at the gorgeous and intricate Miao designs stitched on garments for centuries, I understood that they were indeed, “a flash of the human spirit.”

An exquisite embroidered Miao jacket. Photo by Joe Coca.

And that human spirit is surely alive in the young embroidery artist from Kandahar Treasure in Afghanistan who told author Rangina Hamidi, “Just as you have that pen in your hand, each stitch that I take is my expression, as are your words.”

flash of the human spirit
A young embroidery artist from Kandahar Treasure. Photo by Paula Lerner from Embroidering within Boundaries: Afghan Women Creating a Future.

Wade Davis’s talk was called “Geographies of Hope,” and it’s hope that I’m holding. Hope that we will not only revere all cultures but that we will nurture them and find beauty in their myriad expressions. Let our stitches be the hope, the language, the legacy.


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5 thoughts on “Language, Textiles, A Flash of the Human Spirit

  1. Susan Schaefer Davis says:

    I totally share your hope, Karen, “Hope that we will not only revere all cultures but that we will nurture them and find beauty in their myriad expressions.” And Thrums Books is not only hoping, but actively revering and nurturing cultures with their publications about artisans and their creations, and sharing their beauty with the world. I feel really fortunate to be a part of that.

  2. Connie says:

    Lovely post. I remember at Tinkuy that we all sat quietly while a woman from a remote Hill Tribe in Laos spoke in a language with only 5000 remaining speakers, one we would probably never hear again. Wade called each of these languages “an old-growth forest of the mind.”
    Some people spoke, some wove, some embroidered and some sang their thanks. None of us has only one language.

  3. Deborah Chandler says:

    Thank you, Karen. I heard Wade Davis’ talk and also was mightily inspired as well as educated. That a woman’s needle is so parallel to and as important as a pen is to another woman (or man) makes total sense to me. Another good Saturday morning greeting.

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