by Camille Myers Breeze
Sometimes a textile can be so intriguing that it haunts you until you find the answer of its mysterious origin and use.
Nearly ten years ago, I taught two workshops in Mystic, Connecticut. At those workshops, volunteers from two different Southern Connecticut historical societies brought identical shawls, the origin of which no one present could identify. When I came across the same kind of shawl for sale at a flea market in Southern New Hampshire, I had the foresight to purchase it for the MTS study collection.
After a bit of research I learned that these lovely textiles originate in Asuit, Egypt. Machine-made net was first introduced into the town of Asiut in the 19th century where it was transformed by the addition of folded metal strips. Their primary introduction into the US came from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where they were sold in quantity as souvenirs.
What makes our shawl so interesting is its provenance. I purchased it from a Michigan antique dealer Tom Gordon, who acquired it at the 2003 estate sale of Anne Louise Lungerhausen, born Anne Louise Earle. Anne inherited the shawl from her grandmother, who is believed to have acquired it during a visit to Europe and the Middle East in the late 19th century.
Anne's grandmother was Emma Earle, born Emma Meyers, who married George Washington Earle in 1888. The couple met on an 1886 trip to Europe, which may be the same voyage during which the veil was purchased.
Other items belonging to the family, including one of the deck chairs from a cruise to Europe, are now housed in the IXL Museum in Hermansville, MI. The museum is housed in the former offices of the Wisconsin Land & Lumber Co, founded by Emma's father, the German-born cabinetmaker Charles J. L. Meyers.
Asuit shawls experienced a second surge of popularity around the globe after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankamen in 1922. The geometric motifs suited the Art Deco sensibility, and the veils can be seen in Hollywood movies such as Cleopatra and Samson and Delilah. Asuit shawls could be found for decades in the wardrobes of international performing artists.
Remarkably, I caught a glimpse of an Asuit shawl belonging to Cuban music star Rita Montaner in a presentation by conservator Alina Vazquez de Arazoza at the AIC meeting in Albuquerque in May, 2012. With no information about the origin of the shawl, Alina was grateful to learn of its Egyptian origins. I was excited to see that my Cuban colleagues had used Scanning Electron Microscope analysis to confirm that the metal on the shawl is silver with a high copper content.
A summary that I wrote of Alina Vazquez de Arazoza's AIC presentation can be found on Conservators Converse, the blog of the American Institute for Conservation.
Although the mysterious origin of the metallic shawls has been solved, I would still like to know whether the shawl in the MTS study collection is from a 19th-century voyage to Egypt, or purchased in the Midwest after the Chicago World's Fair. As with all of our study collections items, this Asuit shawl still has much to teach us.