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      The “Case study 2” – Universal Pattern  
      Yvonne Dröge Wendel interviewed by Maaike Gottschal  


Maaike Gottschal (MG): Where does your interest in Brabants Bont 1 come from?

Yvonne Dröge Wendel (YDW): In 1992, I was travelling in India when I came across Brabants Bont at a market in Mysore. The stall-holder claimed that the material was made in India, while I was sure it had been imported from Europe. This triggered a discussion. Back in Holland, I decided to question other people about the source of this red and white checked pattern. It seemed everyone had a different idea about it.

Which ideas exist regarding its origin?

The Germans say that the material hails from Bavaria, while Italians think it originated in northern Italy. The Dutch cite Brabant, and the English refer to Gingham 2. The pattern can be found nearly all over the world. It's remarkable that people are very precise in naming its place of origin.

What is the significance and use of the pattern in these different countries?

In Europe many people appear to associate the pattern with authenticity, for example with rural cuisine and picnics. In Japan, the material has a spiritual significance. Buddha statues are wrapped in the cloth and placed on graves to signify that a child has died. In Indonesia, the checked material is associated with the symbolisation of good and evil; the colours represent the competing powers. Where one colour overlaps the other, the two are reconciled. The male gods are depicted in a black and white variant, the female in red and white. English colonists introduced the material to South Africa where it is used for children's school uniforms. The material is still associated with the English colonization. The Masaii, a people from Africa, attribute another meaning to it. They claim that the pattern has belonged to them for thousands of years. Their herdsmen used to wear it and gradually it became part of their national costume. They wear it to cover their upper body. A neighbouring tribe, the Samburu, is completely clad in checked Boerenbont. The same is true of members of the Dagara family, who live principally in the province Bafoedji, close to the border of Burkina Faso and Ghana in West Africa.

How, in a certain culture does appropriation of this material come about?

In Sweden, for example, there was a seventeenth century political movement that opposed the luxury of the French court 3. Out of political awareness, people opted for red and white upholstery instead of brocade and gold.

Revolutionary Brabants Bont?

Yes, over time in Scandinavia this resulted in the pattern often being associated with progressive ideas. This differs from the European interpretation with its common, traditional associations.

What, according to books on textile history, is the official story of its roots?

Textile history has no unequivocal version either. If you were to ask an Italian textile historian, he would tell you a different story than his English counterpart. Both link the investigation to a different period. A common story in England is that the origin of the pattern lies in the village of Gingham. From England, it was subsequently exported to India to be woven and then spread throughout the world. Another frequently mentioned place of origin is France, where the material is known as Vichy after the city that manufactures it. To me it sounds highly improbable that the English or French first produced this characteristic pattern. During the period that complex patterns were being woven for some time in India, people in England and France were still wearing bearskins. I believe more in the idea of 'roots are routes' 4.

You began your research with the intention of discovering the origin of this pattern. What's your opinion on origin or cultural ownership as a result of the different theories you were confronted with?

I once studied textile history with the belief that it's possible to trace the distribution of fabrics back to their source. I was convinced that linear connections could be made. The research into this cloth pattern makes it clear that this is a naďve assumption. Everyone links ideas about origin and use to their own frame of reference. Cultural meaning is often derived from a small part, or time fragment of history. If an appropriated product is sufficiently promoted within a certain culture, most people take for granted that its origins lie there too.

Like Dutch tulips. Could you argue that the cultural identity of a product has more to do with local and contextual appropriation and promotion than with origin?

There's a certain sentiment to cultural symbolism. People are often emotionally involved with these national symbols. They become furious if you dare question the authenticity of their 'cultural ownership'. Discussions about cultural ownership and origin are often too emotionally charged. The simplicity of this 'universal pattern' however, makes it possible to discuss these complex themes. The project makes it especially clear that due to the many different stories about the roots of this red and white checked pattern, it's impossible to stick to one single version. The project shows that our way of thinking is largely based on forgery and always linked to human emotions and interpretations. The investigation into the fabric's origins can be seen as a sort of mathematical formula on how ideas about authenticity actually originate. This pattern is also a formal symbol, as it were, of its own history: Where the two colours overlap, the red and white checked pattern manifests itself as part of the cultural identity. Nobody regards Brabants Bont as a major issue, but I see this project as a good pretext to stimulate thinking on issues like cultural ownership and authenticity for example. How does the desire to be unique function; how correct is history? How important are objects and symbols in the construction of a cultural identity?

Running right through the story of cultural ownership are the fashion or political crazes instigated by Boerenbont, like its popular adoption by the London gay movement or the mania triggered by Brigitte Bardot 5 with her checked wedding dress.

Hence the project's title, Universal Pattern. The occurrence and diverse use of the red and white checked pattern is so enormous that I think there's more to it. That's why I also confronted scientists with these facts. Instead of fixing your attention solely on its locality, you can think from the perspective of other disciplines, like biology for instance, where our genes or brain structure fabricates an image of purity. Brabants Bont as a sort of binary code, a software structure aimed at pure organization. On the website, one contribution suggests that the universal is to be found in the red and white connection as it refers to our blood and bones. Last summer I had a long conversation with Rupert Sheldrake 6. He developed the theory of amorphous fields, which alleges that something that develops on one side of the world, automatically also originates on the other side. According to him, this weaving pattern is something that lies fixed in our universal memory. After the technique of weaving was discovered, the checked pattern followed of its own accord. There was a possibility that after some time people would start to use five white and five red threads and the pattern could originate in various places, independently from each other. Sheldrake proposed carrying out another 'universal pattern'-experiment, in which people with no knowledge of weaving would be put to work in different locations. The question is then - how long before the red and white pattern emerges?

Yvonne Dröge Wendel is an artist living in Amsterdam. She has been working on the Universal Pattern-project since 1993.






1 Brabants Bont
After the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company) introduced the material in the seventeenth century, a textile industry also sprung up in Holland that produced various
variegated fabrics. Of these, the red and white checked Brabants Bont was the most successful.    back
2 Gingham
In the English Webster's 1913 Dictionary, 'Gingham' is described as follows: "A kind of cotton or linen cloth, usually in stripes or checks, the yarn of which is dyed before it is woven; distinguished from printed cotton or prints."
In another dictionary, the Fairchild Dictionary of Textiles, 'Gingham' is specified as having a national designation, either 'Madras', or French or Scottish Gingham. This dictionary states that the origin of 'Gingham' is to be found in Guingamp, a city in Brittany where the pattern was mass-produced. The Oxford Dictionary declares that the word 'Gingham' has Malay (archipelago in South East Asia) origins, where it means 'striped'. (see: website Universal Pattern)    back
3 Classical Swedish
In his description of the long tradition of the red and white checked pattern in Sweden, art historian and restorer Mikael Traung refers to the Gustavian style, a Swedish appropriation of the rococo style ('rococo with a blonde touch'). The red and white fabric was used by the nobility in the eighteenth century as covering for their richly ornamented furniture, when they left for their summer residences in the country. It served to protect the furniture against fading by sunlight. When the upper class lost much of its power and wealth due to changes in nineteenth century society, the red and white, or blue and white material that originally served only as covering, was henceforth used as furniture upholstery. It was a lot cheaper than the expensively embroidered and very fragile silk textiles that it replaced. IKEA took the ultimate step in making the pattern widely known and popularised its use. Traung explains: "One could say that IKEA, as global Swedish company, took the checked pattern from its peripheral role to make it a prominent decorative motif of the 'classic national' style. This was thanks to IKEA's special 'classic Swedish' design line, consisting mainly of modern versions of furniture and textiles in the Gustavian style, naturally with red and white checks. The red and white check was called 'Medevi-square' after a holiday resort, frequented by King Gustav III, which opened in the seventeenth century. Nowadays it's not uncommon for the 'Medevi-square' to play a prominent visual role in the presentation and promotion of Sweden abroad."    back
4 Roots and Routes
Alexander van Dongen, curator at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, writes, "Roots are in fact routes, because I don't believe things have a single origin. The phenomenon of appropriation is an important factor because, after a period of familiarizing, people are inclined to appropriate things that come from elsewhere. It has to do with identity, desire and semiotics, and a range of sociological processes. Official history is inclined to 'forget' the ongoing, century-old traditions of cultural contacts and exchange. It's much more interested to trace transcultural paths and the historical reception of culture. If, for example, you look at fairy tales, you see they are always coloured by international usage. Take a certain fairy tale and situate it, just like a material object, within the context of its own production, reception and recycling, and it turns out to be a trustworthy way of understanding the role of objects in the construction of cultural identities. If you deconstruct a fairy tale into its component parts and examine the different narrative motives and elements, it will clearly show itself to be a complex pattern of traditional as well as newly introduced story lines. I always look at material objects this way. Do you know the Chinese version of Cinderella?"    back
5 BB-square
Brigitte Bardot was married in 1959 to Jacques Charrier in a pink and white checked linen Vichy dress designed by Jack Esterel. In the years that followed the pattern won in popularity and even now, many people still call it the BB-square.    back
6 Rupert Sheldrake
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist. With his book A New Science of Life (1981), he embarked on a series of theoretical texts that have implications both within and beyond the biological research field.    back


      by Mikael Traung, art historian and restaurator from Stockholm/Sweden  
...Eventually one can say that it was IKEA, the truly global Swedish enterprise, that confirmed the squared patterns path from a peripheral role to a major decorative part of a “classical national” style.
This was done through IKEAs special design-line “classical Swedish” consisting mainly of updated versions of Gustavian style furniture and textile, of course with
the red-white squares... read all