by Joyce Hanson
How do you know if you have crossed paths with a remarkable woman? If her reputation proceeds her, then it is certain. But, what if you had no knowledge at the time, and it would be almost a half-century later before you came to that realization?
All you have is this memory of a hot day in late June. It was a required 3-credit course in textile design and one class thankfully was scheduled outside of class. Small groups of us rotated to visit the professor’s home. It was one of those idyllic campus houses. An English cottage style transported to American Midwest college town. The brick path, the ivy covered arbor and a traditional squeaking screen door.
Once inside, the corridor was dark but you could follow it all the way back to a sunlit window framing the backyard. It was not an ordinary corridor. It was a corridor of buttons. To walk through was to brush against almost the entire history of buttons.
We were directed to a side sitting room. There was an oversized stuffed chair filled with our short, somewhat plump, professor. She looked less like a professor here and more like your grandmother.
Wisps of hair in all directors, but pulled back in a bun as to be out of the way of getting involved with the more important fibers in the room.
She was surrounded with chaotic piles of different fabrics. She would reach here and there pulling one out, tell its story and then go on to the next. The stories came one-after another. “When I was in Istanbul …, when I was in Egypt …, when I was in Peru … .” It was like kindergarten show-and-tell, but it was the history of textiles passing through your hands.
At the time, the value of the experience passed as a nice respite from class but an unremarkable life event. Later there would be an alumni newsletter noting her passing and how entire collection had been bequeathed to the school and space was being allocated to house and display it.
From time to time the memory of the corridor of buttons would bleed through. I thought maybe it was triggered by reminiscent hot summer days. Prior to the Internet, you didn’t give much thought to things in your past. Getting older, however, somehow gives you that time and curiosity to Google search your past.
A search of the name Helen Louise Allen confirmed that I had crossed paths with a remarkable woman.
She was twenty-five when she joined the University of Wisconsin’s School of she taught courses in weaving, history of interiors, furniture, textiles, creative stitchery and embroidery until her unexpected death in 1968. She seems to have been born into this world. Her grandmother taught her knitting, crocheting and embroidering and her mother was a teacher of lacemaking. Around the age of 9 her family settled in Turkey for a while where she learned all about silk weaving from the locals.
Her collection started very early with an uncle sending her textiles from China. Later her summers throughout her life were exotic travels collecting what she called “cultural evidence.” For her they were the “social values and norms indicative of the person or group that produced them… .” It was a fortuitous insight that saw beyond the cultural label of “women’s work” that created a world-renowned collection that now includes over 13,000 pieces of textiles, objects and related implements.
While at the time, that hot summer day didn’t appear to be significant. However, it did so in many subtle ways across the years. As my attention turned towards the brain and how it processes information, I began to wonder about the intricacies of design and how the brain creates and holds all these different functional elements. It led to me asking why is it that women are so adept at this mentally, while men need to be more concrete?
Long, long before printed diagrams and instructions, women’s brains were the keepers of two and three-dimensional geometrical designs, the science of dyes, the production and integration of yarns and fiber, and the structural engineers of construction techniques. These are mental processes that have been conveyed systematically generation after generation. Often viewed as handiwork, but in reality it teaches us historically how the early female brain was able to process complex information.
In her time, Helen Louise Allen was described as eccentric. I think that might be a very good quality to emulate.
Joyce Hansen is the creator of the blog www.moneywomenandbrains.com where she produces a weekly curated newsletter and blogs about how women entrepreneurs can capitalize on business brain marketing. She is also a brain performance trainer and educator for the OLLI adult education program of the University of Arizona.
For a woman to be considered an eccentric back then? She would be considered creative beyond all means today as well as an intellectual. I love this brief but important and fascinating biography of a woman I never heard of but was happy to learn about. Plus she was at my husband’s alma mater, a university that I deeply respect. Wonderful piece.
Lois Alter Mark
I love textiles and so admire the women who turn them into beautiful items that make us feel safe and warm and loved.
I find weaving women to be so interesting! And yes, I have great tolerance and even love for eccentricity!
That sounds like a fascinating encounter. Glad you had a chance to learn from a Master.
How fortunate you were to be in the company of and be taught by such an interesting woman!
What an interesting thing to be doing. She was truly ahead of her time. I used to work in textiles ages ago and would have loved to met someone like her!
Carolann, Joyce’s story reminded me of my major prof!
Jilly Jesson Smyth
“…eccentric. I think that might be a very good quality to emulate.” This is my favorite sentence. Now it means smart and interesting, forward thinking and innovative. What a cool lady!