Uncovering historic works of fiber art — and a glimpse of resistance

By

Mary Beth Faller

Maureen Goggin is spending her Fulbright year in Austria, researching a little-known source of needlework done by women.

Goggin, a professor of English at Arizona State University, researches material culture and needlework as a form of communication. She is an expert on samplers, pieces of cloth that are embroidered, typically by women.

She was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant for teaching and research on historical needlework practices in Austria and the Czech Republic. She’s working at Karl Franzens University of Graz in Austria.

Goggin has two projects. The larger one is researching needlework at a museum in Graz and writing a book in German and English about the treasure trove of pieces found there.

The other project is studying one piece of needlework — a sampler created in 1942 by a woman who was imprisoned in Terezin Small Fortress, part of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The woman, accused of aiding in the assassination of a Nazi leader, was executed in 1943.

“It offers an interesting insight into Prague resistance during World War II,” she said. “Again, it is a piece that has been ignored.”

Goggin answered some questions about her research and her Fulbright project:

Question: Please describe your Fulbright project in Austria.

Answer: Both research projects deal with “Women and the Material Culture of Writing with Pens of Steel and Inks of Thread.”

For the proposed larger research project, I want to study and record the samplers housed in Volkskundemuseum (Folklore Museum) in Graz, which has a substantial number of needlework samplers dating back to the 18th century. However, only some of these have been published in a selected catalog list without images titled "Stickerei" in 1983. As an advisory board member of the American Sampler Consortium, I recognize acutely how important it is to create a record of samplers so that they are available to other scholars, fiber artists and students. Currently, the American Sampler Consortium is digitizing as many American samplers as it can with the eventual goal of having a record of every sampler now held in museums across the U.S.

My project would culminate in conference presentations, one or more articles, and, most importantly, a bilingual German-English book on the samplers now stored at Volkskundemuseum. This book would bring attention to Volkskundemeum and in turn would make textile scholars, historians and artists aware of this rich resource at that museum.

The second, much briefer, research project is the study of a sampler stitched in the Terezin Small Fortress by Františka Albrechtová, a woman who was executed with her husband on Jan. 26, 1943, for aiding the assassins of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. This sampler is housed at Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius Church in Prague. It is one of a number of prison artifacts (samplers, pictures, quilts, etc.) that are now coming forward. I have published on several such samplers in the past. However, Albrechtová’s sampler has not been written about.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue this project?

A: The feminist turn in material cultural studies has significantly drawn attention to the need for studying a broader range of female rhetorical and material spaces, practices and artifacts than previously treated.

While most research in cultural studies, rhetoric and literary studies has focused on written texts, this concentrated textual study renders many women and their contributions invisible, as few had access to contributing to written or print publications and of those who did, many have been erased or ignored.

Moreover, while some material culture studies scholars have turned attention to women, nearly all have constructed them within the narrow confines of consumption of material artifacts rather than rigorous production of them.

My research and publications on women and material culture open new ground, particularly within feminist methodologies, visual rhetoric and material cultural studies by shifting attention away from the visual artifacts as interpreted text toward the women and the material practices that construct and circulate these. More specifically, in this line of inquiry I examine needlework as a form of meaningful mark-making — a polysemous system of writing that incorporates both semasiographic systems (sign symbols) and glottographic systems (verbal utterance symbols), to use linguist Geoffrey Sampson’s terms.

Q: How will your project in Austria relate to your work at ASU?

A: My projects in Austria build on my research trajectory in women and material culture and as such calls attention to ASU as one of its scholars opening up new ground. My work here will also contribute to my teaching at ASU as I am teaching two courses and am learning about how those in Austria study and teach.

As I have stressed to my students, a global perspective is necessary in this post-industrial age and one only gains such a perspective by leaving one’s country and traveling elsewhere for a period of time.

Q: What’s been the best part of your experience there?

A: The best part is living every day as if I were an Austrian — shopping for new foods, hearing German spoken all around me, walking everywhere instead of driving, meeting new people, learning how to do new things and so on.

Q: Have there been any challenges?

A: Perhaps the language because I speak a little German but I need to learn a lot more before I can sustain a conversation. Where it was especially clear was in learning a new learning platform, with every technical term in German. But I also like this challenge.

Q: What advice would you give to a fellow a faculty member who is contemplating applying for a Fulbright?

A: Find a Fulbright position for which you are qualified and for which you are interested in the university and the country. You need to research the place you want to go; learn as much as you can about the country and the city in which the university is situated. Learn as much as you can about the university and the teaching and research options available. Make sure you have something to offer in teaching that will complement but not compete with what is already available in the department. Match your research interests to both the Fulbright position and the affordances of the country. You need to speak from an informed position about why you want to teach and study in the place and position for which you are applying. So again, research, research, research is, to my mind, the key.