Threads of the Past

Vlada Blinova finds joy in preserving and telling history through textiles and clothing

If you’re one of the millions of people who have watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix, you may have been inspired to purge your space of things which no longer “spark joy.” But, in an effort towards sustainability, Vlada Blinova thinks we should start thinking about joy when we buy, by adopting a more thoughtful shopping process, and then by showing more respect and care for our clothing.

“People have started to understand that if we continue producing and consuming at the same rate, it’s not going to end well,” Blinova says. “It’s not like sustainability is a new concept. You can find so many of examples of people being sustainable, as we’d call it today, in the past because things were not produced in big numbers like they are today, things were not available so easily, and people had to use what they had and make things last as long as possible. When it comes to textiles and clothing, I can say that they were made better in the past, they were made to last.”

Blinova started her career teaching fashion design but, since moving to Edmonton in 2000, she’s worn many hats (literally and figuratively) in the University of Alberta’s Department of Human Ecology. Most notably, Blinova is the Collections Manager of the University’s Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection. She oversees the collection, preservation and cataloging of over 23,000 clothing and textile-related artifacts from around the world, spanning over three centuries. It’s an impressive resource unmatched by any other university collection in Canada, and has University of Alberta alumna Anne Lambert to thank; she started building and advocating for the collection in 1972. Public tours of the collection are available by appointment, and it’s where Edmontonians have an opportunity to learn about local and international cultural histories through clothing.

“There are so many pieces in the collection that can be used not just for [design] inspiration but for [historical] understanding,” Blinova says. “When people come here, they often say, “that’s like Downton Abbey!” And then we’ll talk about influences in fashion, how and why designers come up with fashion styles, and what was happening at the time to prompt a design decision. I also learn a lot from my visitors. They talk about their family history and their own experiences with fashion. It’s a very exciting place to work.

“There’s so much you can learn from a piece of cloth or a piece of clothing. I think many people look down on clothing as frivolous, but it’s a different type of material culture that humans create. People won’t question why we need to preserve art or music or anything created by humans, and this is the same thing. There’s so much you can learn from people through the clothing they wear. You can learn about people’s ingenuity. You can also learn about what was available locally, you can trace trade routes. It’s like detective work, and for people who know what to look for, it’s a very exciting process. For me, clothing is a way to educate people, to explain why it’s important. When it comes to cultural textiles, you can talk about cultural identity, political preferences, religious inclinations, there’s so much you can learn from a piece of clothing, it’s mind-blowing, really.”

For her own designs, Blinova often looks for high-quality materials at second-hand stores, including clothing that she can re-purpose. “I have the skills to determine the quality and condition and fibre content of textiles,” Blinova says. She works to pass on these skills to her students and hopes that others will take an interest in educating themselves. Recently, she introduced a project where her students had to design and create pieces of clothing for themselves using a minimum 40 per cent repurposed materials.

“I though it might be an ambitious task, but my students supported me and surprised me — most of them ended up making outfits that were made with 100 per cent repurposed materials.” Beyond the curriculum, Blinova sees her students becoming more conscious of what they buy, and says they prefer to shop second-hand for the higher-quality materials that make up clothing made in in the ’90s and earlier — before the rise of fast, disposable fashion.

Still, it’s important to Blinova to balance an interest in sustainability with her love of fashion and appreciation for designers. “I do want to buy new things!” she laughs. “But I try to be a little more conscious of what I’m buying. I think, do I really need it? Will this last? How often can I wear it? I rarely throw things away. Anything I need to get rid of, I’ll donate.”

Blinova says that if she were a student today, she would study textile science because she thinks that’s where the most potential for innovation is for both designers and consumers. “Some [current] designs are not really functional; your lifestyle, climate and work environment don’t always allow you to wear things that are trendy,” Blinova says. She’d like to see a return to manufacturing accessible, higher quality, durable materials that can be used in ready-to-wear fashion.

“Our work [in the department] is very important to give students the knowledge to enhance people’s lives through clothing,” Blinova says. “We take clothing and textiles really seriously here. They’re exciting, they’re also very important. In the end it’s all going to help people to have beautiful, comfortable and reliable clothing.”

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