Along with the new exhibition Continue This Thread, journalist Edo Dijksterhuis made the following interview with curator Roberto Luis Martins and guest curators Karim Adduchi and Tess van Zalinge for the Amsterdam Museum.
Much more than just textiles and technique
Bearer of personal messages and collective identity, therapeutic tool, guide to a more sustainable fashion industry, and a haven of comfort. According to Karim Adduchi and Tess van Zalinge, handicraft can be all these things. As guest curators at the Amsterdam Museum, these two fashion designers illustrate all of this in the exhibition Continue This Thread.
It wasn't the party dresses or other top pieces that they fell for at the outset. When they first went to the Amsterdam Museum Collection Centre, Karim Adduchi and Tess van Zalinge began by pulling an accordion file down off the shelf. This 19th century object might not look particularly exciting, but it contains 97 samples of different handicraft techniques. The portfolio is proof of great dedication and represents many hours of intensive work, but nothing whatsoever is known about its maker. Only her name has survived: Bregje Vreugdenhil.
“Nowadays, this sort of handiwork is perceived as luxury, but at the time Bregje made these sample pieces, it was still part of everyday life”, says Adduchi. To which van Zalinge adds: “That may explain her anonymity, but the lack of a background story got us thinking and provided a direction to our work as guest curators. When it comes to handicraft, we want to go beyond technique alone and unearth the meaning behind it: the stories of individual makers and where they come from. We wanted to breathe new life into the intimacy of the work.”
Adduchi and Van Zalinge are often described as fashion designers, or even couturiers, but they see themselves above all as artists. And more than that, as storytellers. This is why Roberto Luis Martins asked the pair to join him in putting Continue This Thread together. “This exhibition belongs within the tradition of the Amsterdam Museum”, recounts Luis Martins, who has been curator of Fashion and Popular Culture since 2021. “The fashion and textile collection comprises more than ten thousand objects. The 1980 exhibition of samplers was one of the most visited exhibitions ever put on by the Amsterdam Museum. Since then, we have regularly turned our attention to fashion. For example, the museum put on the Puck & Hans exhibition in 2017 and Fashion Statements two years later. In 2021, we organised the comprehensive overview Maison Amsterdam. Karim and Tess were part of that, and we bought their work from the exhibition for our collection.”
Adduchi and Van Zalinge each have their own style, quite distinct from the other, but they have one thing in common: a love of handicraft and craftsmanship. He employs embroideries and Moroccan sfifa appliqué work; she is addicted to patchwork. Although the seed for a career in fashion was planted early on for both, they each contemplated taking other paths in life.
“My parents are tailors”, says Adduchi. “I grew up surrounded by fabric and sewing machines. According to Amazigh (‘Berber’) custom, there were always family members sitting in the courtyard doing embroidery in which green thread played a main role as a symbol of fertility, prosperity and health. I didn't actually want to follow in my parents' footsteps. I wanted to become an artist. But when I ended up in Amsterdam via Spain to study at the Rietveld Academy, went back to the handicraft of my youth as a way of getting a handle on my identity. Far away from my family, I started to look at it differently.”
That gave rise to his graduate collection She Knows Why the Caged Bird Sings. Because Adduchi wasn't able to find what he needed in Amsterdam, he went back to his home village of Imzouren, where his grandparents helped him select handmade, loosely woven fabrics. These also formed the basis of the collection She Lives Behind the Curtains, with which he opened Amsterdam Fashion Week a year later, making his international breakthrough. “It was a journey back to my youth, back to basics”, is how Adduchi characterises this work. “It dealt with the question of how you can modernise yourself, and craft and cultural heritage alongside.”
The power of regional dress
Van Zalinge learned how to crochet and knit from her grandmother, who designed patterns for the women's magazine Libelle for extra income. “At secondary school I definitely wasn't a fashionista, but I already knew that I wanted to do something with my hands. The Amsterdam Fashion Institute seemed to fit my interests, but when I was given an assignment to research Dutch regional dress in my second year, I really didn't find it cool at all. However, when I actually got to spend a day with a woman from Spakenburg who still wore the dress every day, I learned how much emotion, meaning and communication can be found in a partlet, for example. Since then, I have embraced traditional regional dress and I work with it as a way of designing more meaningfully.”
Van Zalinge particularly appreciates the sustainability of traditional regional dress. Most items of clothing are made by hand, with local material. It is looked after carefully; holes are darned and tears are mended, so that the skirts, aprons and bodices last for decades. They are preferably passed on from generation to generation. “The contrast with the modern-day fashion industry is huge. The latter is fast and superficial, and also produces an unbelievable amount of waste. When I was a student from 2008 to 2012, sustainability in fashion wasn't a subject that anyone thought about. But I want to help the fashion industry find a new balance.”
She did this after graduating, by mending old wedding dresses for Laura Dols as a freelancer, among other things. But for Van Zalinge that didn't go far enough, and, in the weekends, she occupied herself with sketches, samples and prints. This got noticed by Iris Ruisch, the creative director of Amsterdam Fashion Week, who offered her a spot on the catwalk two months before the start of the event. “I bought myself a sewing machine at Lidl and set to work immediately. This resulted in the Geschapen Land collection. Things moved fast after that.”
Mostly recently, she presented her Natuurlijk collection. It was made entirely from ‘deadstock’, the unsold fabric from upscale brands that normally gets destroyed. “I was able to get hold of 350 kilos of textiles from Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel, and I took all those men's suits apart and remade them into a complete couture collection.”
Platform for handicraft
Van Zalinge loves handling fabric and experimenting with handicraft. “But before you start doing that, you need to understand your fabric. Only then can you make something contemporary”, she says. “Since 2020, I've been working with Studio PMS in the digital fashion field, but even though you can do everything with the computer, you miss the tactile element.”
“Physical contact with material is the core of our work”, Adduchi concurs. “Unfortunately, you get to do less of that when you build a brand and get increasingly busy. But the urge to get behind the sewing machine stays with you.”
In his view, the people who now do the handiwork for him deserve the fullest recognition. “The designer is always the one who gets the credit, but without pattern cutters, embroiderers and tailors there would be nothing at all. This is why I include the names of the makers on some of the pieces, as a tribute. They are always listed in the catalogues too.”
Adduchi sees himself as the link between the different disciplines in his atelier. As far as he's concerned, co- creation is a given. For the Freedom Dress he let a Muslim, a Christians and a Jew make a dress out a Islamic prayer rug, a Catholic chasuble and a black Jewish coat. Larger scale interaction was at Social [Distancing] Fabric, a project he set up during the corona pandemic with the World Makers Foundation he co-founded. To break the monotony of the lockdown period, two hundred people were sent a needle and thread and an Adduchi design. “Without knowing one another, these people formed a community”, says the designer. “I hadn't realised it before, but fashion has a loud voice. You can use that to connect people and give them visibility.”
“My label is also a platform for handicraft and craftspeople”, says Van Zalinge, who looks to milliners, jewellery designers and shoemakers for inspiration. “I don't necessarily need to be able to do it myself, but I do want to understand what they do. My role in the collaboration is to push the boundaries. That creates a fruitful tension between tradition and progress.”
Visible learning process
The guest curators went to the Amsterdam Museum storehouse to look for new stories that they could connect to their own work. They came away with banners, children's dresses and samplers. Van Zalinge: “We mostly chose objects that usually aren't all that readily exhibited. Quite possibly this is the first and only time that they've left the storehouse.”
Two liberation skirts, one child- and one adult-sized are among her favourites. "They were made at a time when everything was in short supply. But with minimal materials and crude stitching something festive was put together. And it looks accessible: you could have made this yourself.”
Adduchi’s was enchanted by the samplers that he discovered. “You can see small mistakes and the learning process of the maker trying out their stitches. You can recognise an individual style. And they mostly include dates, names and even sentences. They become totally personal.”
The expressiveness of personal visual language is revealed by the objects that the guest curators took from the storehouse. Examples from the Dutch Association for Women's Suffrage or the 1794 embroidered panel protesting against slavery, lend an activist charge to handiwork. And that's not a thing of the past. A patched dress worn during an Extinction Rebellion (Fashion Action) protest action and the Pussyhats worn to protest against macho autocrats like Putin and Trump are their modern-day successors.
Happiness hormone dopamine
The guest curators wanted to share their experience in the storehouse – “like kids in a sweet shop” – with the visitors too. “They are invited to open drawers, look at clothing under a magnifying glass, and to get to work themselves, in a totally different way to a typically hands-off museum setting”, says Adduchi. “All the senses are activated”, according to Van Zalinge. “And that applies to handiwork too. It's much more than occupational therapy.”
This is one of the things that the pair learned from the medical literature they consulted during their research. “The rhythmic character of knitting and crochet has a meditative effect and makes you produce the happiness hormone dopamine”, says Van Zalinge. “It helps regulate your breathing and heart rate. Your stress levels go down and your mood improves. That there are so many ASMR videos with handiwork as their subject is not without good cause.”
The potentially healing effect of handiwork is the subject of Frekti Singi's sound installation, Interwoven Song in Sranantongo, by the artist OTION. “We asked him to explore and interpret the sounds of handiwork”, says Amsterdam Museum curator Luis Martins. “OTION weaves different sounds together, with passages in Sranantongo recalling the Surinamese songs his grandmother hummed while doing her handiwork.”
But the healing aspect of handiwork isn't limited to making. The products of handicraft can also provide comfort and insight. For example, Luis Martins shows us the bedspread that his mother crocheted after his father passed away. There's another bedspread that Adduchi’s mother made shortly after he was born, to command her child's future happiness. Van Zalinge: “After all these relatively heavy subjects, we included a moment at the end of the exhibition for visitors to process and reflect upon their impressions and the information they have received. Because that's a craft too: bringing everything back down to a calmer level, taking time.”
Still in evolution
In the spirit of the exhibition's title, the curators hope to inspire visitors to pick up a needle and thread themselves. “During the pandemic there was revival of interest in handicrafts”, says Adduchi. “Gen Z picked it up from TikTok”, continues Van Zalinge. “In addition to which you also have the urban knitting movement and a designer like Jason Swinehammer who crochets jockstraps thus giving handicraft a kinky twist.”
“Handicraft has been taken for granted for too long”, Adduchi believes. “No one paid it any attention and it was seen as being of little importance. But if we don't watch out, a lot of knowledge and skills will be lost. Many people don't share our connection to it.”
Partly for this reason, the last room of the exhibition, the Modemuze Lab, houses a digital mirror for trying on the sometimes fragile creations from the museum's collection. 360-degree photography allows visitors to delve into the fibres of a design and experience handicraft techniques from the inside out, as it were. “You can't ignore the rise of digital technology”, says Van Zalinge. “It's influencing traditional handicrafts anyway. But by showing them side by side, you get a playful glimpse at the possible future of handicrafts. That also keeps things open and dynamic. Artisan handicraft continues to evolve. It's still moving forward.”
Amsterdam Museum aan de Amstel
Amstel 51, Amsterdam
Open daily from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m.
How to get there
The museum is easily accessible by public transport: Tram 4 (stop Rembrandtplein) and 14 (stop Waterlooplein) Metro 51, 53 and 54 (stop Waterlooplein, exit Nieuwe Herengracht).
Nearest parking garages are: Nationale Opera & Ballet, Waterlooplein, The Bank and Markenhoven. For more information, please visit amsterdam.nl/parkeren.