Nearly 150 textile scholars, students, practitioners, artists and enthusiasts gathered in Toronto, Ontario November 9-11, 2017 for conference Cloth Cultures: Legacies of Dorothy K. Burnham.

Dorothy K. Burnham and Paula Zoubek setting up the exhibition the Canadian centennial exhibition in 1967

On Day 1 a set of workshops focused on artifacts from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum provided subscribers with insights into the Canadian hand-weaving collections, Dorothy Burnham’s engagement with fabrics and her pioneering research and publications, as well as the work of textile conservators focused on the analysis of 18th century dyes and conservation and mounting of an array of Egyptian textiles. The day concluded with formal opening of the conference and a keynote address by Dr. Timo Rissanen of Parsons School of Design, whose address, Fashioning Things with Burnham: An Exploration, explored her break-through research on the relationship between traditional garments made from cloth and the loom technology available to those makers and his own work in the rapidly developing study of sustainability in fashion. Burnham’s work revealed the value of time, energy and resources that went into cloth production resulting in garment constructions that eschewed waste and used every square centimeter of fabric. Rissamen, an author of two books on fashion and sustainability, seeks new paradigms of fashion production that eliminates unsustainability practices of 21st century fashion.

Created from his grandmother’s worn out bed sheets stored in the family’s summer cottage, Rissanen set himself a zero wastage challenge to make these pajamas in 2011. Since 2010 he has been teaching Zero Waste at Parsons the New School for Design, where he is Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability.

Over the next two days 37 presenters organized into eight sessions discussed the material culture of textiles through the work and legacies of Dorothy K. Burnham (1911-2004). Starting as a second assistant draftsman in the Registrar’s Department at the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology (as it was known at the time) Dorothy joined the museum staff in 1929. Ten years later she was appointed the first curator of newly formed department of Textiles and Costume. Details of her career as a curator, weaver and scholar were addressed in a keynote by Dr. Adrienne Hood, History Department of the University of Toronto. Dr. Ruth Phillips of Carleton University, Ottawa, used her keynote on day two to discuss Dorothy Burnham’s monumental post-retirement 1981 exhibition The Comfortable Arts: Traditional Spinning and Weaving in Canada . She discussed the lasting effect Dorothy’s re-positioning of the work of indigenous artists with museums and the canon of Canadian art.

Excerpts from Dorothy Burnham’s 1971 installation journal for the exhibition Keep Me Warm One Night.

The papers ranged from explicit developments stemming from Dorothy K. Burnham’s research to a variety of graduate student projects dealing with various textile traditions. Nonetheless, all presentation focused on aspects of material culture, from 19th century tobagganing suits appropriating indigenous attire, to the reconstruction of the Anishinaabe strap dress and the ongoing dialogue within contemporary indigenous dress practices, to the collaborative re-imagining of “constructions” from garment components from unpicked clothes by an artist and individuals who engage with her project.

Some of the results of the collaboration of artist Marie O’Connor and visitors to her interactive engagement with pieces from unpicked pieces of clothing.

The event, part of Canada’s Sesquicentennial celebrations at the Royal Ontario Museum was supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), a Canada 150 Conference Grant and the Veronika Gervers Research Fund. The schedule was tightly packed, leaving little time for interactions with colleagues at 15 minute coffee breaks and half hour lunches. The program included abstracts of all the talks and brief biographies of the speakers, there was no announced plan for publication or circulation of the papers.