Artisans wove a long history of handcrafted goods, made out of necessity

Designers and Artisans features handcrafted apparel from the late 18th century to today | Photo by Rūta Smith

Pulling the thread

Designers and Artisans: Made in the Lowcountry
Oct. 24 2020 – Apr. 26 2021
Mon.-Sat.: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sun.: 12-5 p.m.
Charleston Museum

Charleston Museum’s newest exhibit hopes to hook visitors who appreciate the art of handcrafted everyday goods, even in a world of fast fashion.

Virginia Theerman, curator of historic textiles at the museum, will showcase some of that centuries-old, painstaking work in a new exhibit, Designer s and Artisans: Made in the Lowcountry.

“People have this idea of art, design and fashion as being international these days and kind of distant from us,” Theerman said. “It’s not something that people think of as an everyday activity, but it wasn’t always that way — and it still isn’t. There are plenty of people who are making and designing in the Lowcountry. It’s important to understand your region and the traditions that are very specific to it.”

Photo by Rūta Smith

With pieces dating back to the late 1700s through 2019, the exhibit illuminates the ways in which local artists often gravitate towards handcrafts, particularly today.

“People are continually drawn back to making things,” Theerman explained. “Especially in this time of the pandemic, there’s been a real uptick in the number of people going back to handcraft as a way to spend their time or do something physically grounded when they can’t take up their normal hobbies.” 

The exhibition draws from the Charleston Museum’s massive collection of 18th and 19th century costumes, including 1890s gowns and a wool coat handcrafted in 1914 that would still make waves in today’s fashion scene. But, costumes aren’t all the exhibit has to offer. Many examples of handcrafted fans, hats and quilts, most of which possess a unique history, grace the space as well.

Modern-day designers also decorate the halls, including a dress by Daniel Velasco, which was created for a 2019 event at the Charleston Museum.

Theerman will highlight work from men and women through the examination of work created by both hobbyists and professionals.

 “One of the questions I’m kind of playing with is often this idea of ‘women’s work,’” she said. “Women are often designated as hobbyists or amateurs whereas men are given the credentials of being professionals. So, there’s a mix of male and female hobbyists/crafters and professional designers and makers within the show to demonstrate how arbitrary that boundary is.”

With so many pieces spanning across media, Designers and Artisans provides visitors with a way to view our region’s history and the human desire to create. Regardless of the major technological shifts humans have experienced over the last century, we’re still drawn to work with our hands and express ourselves artistically. Theerman believes witnessing this progression of these craftspeople at amateur and professional levels over centuries recalls the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” 

“There are a lot of contemporary pieces in the exhibit that pair with historical pieces, causing us to look at the way that a lot of handcraft traditions have evolved over time in content or subject matter but the actual crafting traditions themselves have lived on,” she said. Through a curated lens, we can glance back and recognize the reflection of ourselves in our past. 

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