Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020
Photo: Laura Fiorio

Lee Mingwei

Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

“The point of inspiration for Fabric of Memory was my very first day of kindergarten. I didn’t want to go in, my mom told me to think of the jacket I was wearing as her embracing me throughout the day, and finally I agreed to go. She had spent six months learning how to sew in order to make my clothes for that day.” – Lee Mingwei

In autumn 2019, Lee Mingwei launched open calls for three projects in the exhibition 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals. For Fabric of Memory he asked people to search their homes for fabric items made for them by their loved ones or ancestors. From the submissions, he chose the selection of items, which are displayed in wooden boxes, along with accompanying anecdotes. Lee invites visitors to remove their shoes, to step onto the wooden platform and to unpack the boxes. These objects can now also be discovered online.

The first iteration of Fabric of Memory was in Liverpool in 2006, which once had a booming cotton industry. Berlin also has a historical connection to textile production. In the 19th century, the department stores in the nearby square Hausvogteiplatz invented the concept of ready-to-wear fashion. These Jewish-owned businesses were systematically destroyed during the Third Reich. Today a two-part monument at Hausvogteiplatz commemorates the history of this former centre of fashion.

Hat

Katja lived a few houses away. She was only a year younger than me and died many years ago. We used to meet up to play sports, on lazy Sunday afternoons we would watch TV with our siblings, during the holidays she was my closest friend: run over, play, very simple. Long after I no longer lived there, she fell ill with leukaemia. I was later told that she went through everything bravely and that it was an infection just before her last treatment that robbed her of her life force. I was living in Japan at the time, far away, all the messages reached me like an echo, delayed, and the repercussions were so strong, I didn’t know how to reply.

I don’t know how many years have passed since Katja died. Twenty? Already? I recently visited my mother. She had moved, cleaned out her cellar. There she found an old knitting sample that Katja’s mother had given her years ago: Katja had worked on it during her chemotherapy, there are birds, flowers the size of trees, lots of sky. What do you do with something handmade where every stitch is created with hope? My mother sewed a hat from it. I’ll wear it on walks this winter. There is something enormously positive about it, even if it often slides down over my eyes. Katja’s good wishes keep me warm.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Hat

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Moon Blanket

Moon Blanket

I am Kiran, born in the year of the rabbit. This is my “moon blanket”. It looks like a sky with moons made of rice and rain. My mom lived in Asia for a long time. Before my birth, she came to Berlin but could not sleep. She wrote a story for me about a little sleepless rabbit who is picked up by the moon each night to travel through the sky.

It is a long tale. Here I can only say, “The rabbit’s family lived in Ryukyu and got no sleep. Finally, they found a magic grass that holds the secret to sleep. A kind lady made a blanket from it and as they cuddled under it, they finally fell asleep. At night, little rabbit and the moon could see many upset children. He asked the lady to make more blankets. At night, he flies with the moon to bring it to the kids to help them feel calm”.

We went to an old museum in Bengal to look at beautiful cloths with a story. There, blankets are important. People give hand them down, the mom to the kid and so on. After this, my mami made my blanket bit by bit with different people in the mountains. She wanted to make me feel warm, calm and to hold memories of happiness in it. I can feel the soft moons in the dark with my fingers. I can wrap myself in it all my life or give it to my baby later.

Moon Blanket
A short reading by co-curator Clare Molloy

A blanket and a story about a little sleepless rabbit: As part of the digital activations of Lee Mingwei’s solo exhibition 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals, co-curator Clare Molloy reads the story of the moon blanket, which is on display at the Gropius Bau.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Leather Trousers

Leather Trousers

A sturdy pair of trousers that only need waxing every now and then, which my child can’t wear out when crawling on his knees, is what I always wished for. My father made this wish come true. He sewed many things for us: belts, bags, backpacks. My father had taught himself to sew by watching his mother, as she was a seamstress. For his 50th birthday, my siblings and I gave our father a leather sewing machine so he wouldn’t have to continue laboriously sewing by hand.

“I’ll sew trousers for your child, bring me a pattern!” They had to be designed to also fit over a nappy. He made a pattern and procured the leather. They had to be soft enough so that my child could move around in them easily, but sturdy enough for them to stay on. The waistband had to be wide enough so that they would be easy to pull on and take off, so these trousers definitely needed braces. The trousers practically grew with him, with the seams being let down. My child wore them for a very long time.

When I look at the trousers I think of my father, who has since passed away, and I smell his typical smell, cigar and pipe meets leather and saddle conditioner. He would be 94 today, the pants are 25 years old.

Embroidered Cupboard Trim

"This which my dear mother once bestowed upon me, / will keep all in this cupboard orderly, / evenly and carefully arranged here, / as’ [sic] it once was kept tidy by my mother dear” – this embroidery adorned the shelves of a massive cupboard, the pride and joy of my North Frisian grandmother. My family is unsure who embroidered the trim (with its falsely placed apostrophe). We think it was part of my great-grandmother’s dowry. When she was old, my grandmother suffered from dementia and moved into a nursing home. The cupboard came with her.

At one point, my mother removed the yellowed trim, lovingly washed and starched it. She gave it to me to bring with me on a visit to the nursing home. My grandmother praised me profusely when I reattached the trim. The fact that her daughter-in-law deserved thanks did not get through to her understood, no matter how many times I repeated it. With every visit, there was praise for me again. Dementia is a merciless illness. Nevertheless, for my mother and I it has become a beloved anecdote.

Despite the inspiring cupboard trim, I have doubts that grandma was an enthusiastic housewife. She would have loved to be a teacher. During the war she worked as an assistant teacher. Then she became a farmer’s wife. But I think she would have been a fantastic elementary school teacher too. When grandma died I was allowed to keep the embroidery as a memento. Now it adorns the shelves in our Berlin apartment that is full of things that our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers have bestowed upon us.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Cupboard Trim

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Sailor dress

Little Sailor

When I was 11 years old, I enrolled in the theatre company of my school. We put on C'era due volte il Barone Lamberto by Gianni Rodari, the story of an old rich man who becomes a child again. I was chosen to play the Baron and in the last scene, I had to enter the stage dressed like a child. My grandmother sewed the “litte sailor” dress for me as it was fancy for rich children to dress like that at the time of her youth, the beginning of the 20th century. She made it quickly, in one night. She could never have known that, after that first theatrical attempt, I would walked out onto the stage so many more times. Moreover, at 11 years old, neither did I.

It was in my twenties that I applied to the Theatre Academy and I started to work as a professional actor. When I moved to Berlin in my thirties, I took the sailor dress with me. I remember I thought, “It would be so cool to wear it at Kit Kat Club”. I never did. The pretty, white sailor outfit stays well protected in my drawer, reminding me of the time that I was a chubby, shy kid, often bullied by older guys. It was my first time being chosen for a leading role. It reminds me how caring and practical my granny was. She did the dress without even taking measures of me, because she knew me so well. When my grandmother died two years ago, I felt that she took the chubby dreamy child with her, for good.

Little Sailor
A short reading by co-curator Clare Molloy

Handmade fabric items often tell personal stories and bring back very special memories. Here, co-curator Clare Molloy reads the story of the “litte sailor” dress, submitted for Lee Mingwei's work Fabric of Memory.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Kindergarten Apron

Kindergarten Apron

In Poland, a fartuszek is a type of small apron that children had to wear every day in socialist kindergartens during communist times. It had an embroidered name and a small pocket for carrying breaktime snacks or handkerchiefs. In most cases it was sewn at home by children’s mothers. My fartuszek was very special. At that time my mother was an art student with very little financial resources in Poznan, Poland, where I grew up until I was three. So she decided to sew my little smock out of the remnants of her wedding dress.

She had sewn this dress, which she wore when she was four months pregnant with me, from a discarded curtain that used to hang in the living room of her mother, my grandmother.

When we fled to West Germany in 1980 in a green Fiat Uno with me hidden in the trunk, my mother also brought along this little smock, which I never needed again because everyone in Berlin was allowed to wear the clothes they wanted to in kindergarten. To this day I cannot part with my fartuszek.

Dress

My mother, Ethyl Gooch, made the nylon seersucker dressing gown for my wedding trousseau during 1956. For a year, she was sewing wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, summer dresses and skirts, as my sister's wedding was six months later in the year. Many yards of fabric and thread were cut; it was the 1950s. Unfortunately, mother died in 1983 but her answer would have been that clothes making for two daughters was a sheer pleasure and rewarding seeing them on their wedding days going down the aisle.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Dress

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Favourite Jacket

Favourite Jacket

This jacket and a few photos are the only items that have remained from my childhood. Since then they have accompanied me like fetishes on my path through the world as an artist. I was born in Siauliai, Lithuania in 1966, which was unwillingly part of the USSR then. Due to the economy of scarcity during my childhood and adolescence, a heavy grey dominates my memory. This jacket was my favourite jacket; there was no other. It had to last me from the age of two to five, preferably until I started school. That’s why my mother lengthened the sleeves over and over again.

When I moved to Germany as an artist after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I only had a few of my works of art in my luggage, as well as this jacket and a few photos to remind me where I’d come from. In the years that followed, from 1997 to 2010, this jacket accompanied me in my translocated and unsettled life as an artist, when I moved to Buenos Aires and Windhoek and back to Hamburg, before ending up in Berlin permanently in 2014. My art objects were sold or “disposed of” due to moving or were even burned in performances, but the jacket was always there as a fetishist fixed point in my life.

Wedding Blouse

We were married in Halle in May 1975, it was a small wedding, we were students and had little money, our son was only two months old. But the wedding ceremony was still supposed be something special. A white princess gown was out of the question for me, the selection in the shops was small and the few choices rather ugly. We finally decided on a long white skirt and were looking for the right blouse. We found a very thin, patterned silk fabric, a dream for a different type of princess. But what could we do with two meters of silk? It just looked best when unsown and simply wrapped around me, but that was definitely too unconventional.

We found a pattern and my husband sewed the blouse together the night before the wedding, amazingly he got permission to use my mother’s sewing machine, which I was never allowed to use. It looked good, but later I often asked myself why we didn’t have the courage to just wrap the fabric around my torso. We were just young and insecure. Later I often designed very experimental clothes, sometimes we sewed together, using my very own sewing machine.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Wedding Blouse

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Skirt

“Girls in Uniform” Skirt

When I was about 14, I was allowed to design a skirt pattern that my grandmother would sew for me. She was a dressmaker and was always focused on the highest quality. I wanted a skirt based on the costumes from the film Girls in Uniform (1958), a film that at the time I would have loved to have escaped into, to make it all the more real: Romy Schneider loves her teacher – officially in the movies! The special thing about the skirt is its pinafore at the front and the back. The striped uniform fabric was also important to me.

Choosing fabric with my grandmother at Fiedler, the Franconian fashion house, usually led to arguments since my ideas often did not meet her professional demands, which inevitably led to compromises regarding fabric choice and style. What was created was this skirt with raw silk pinafores. I still remember that even though it really did reminded me of the film, the waist was a bit too puffy and I unwittingly felt more awkward in it than I had hoped.

The skirt has not fit me for a long time. But I still don’t have the heart to give it away, because it’s not just my grandmother, who died 22 years ago who lives on through it, but also her tailoring and matriarchal authority, as well as my first inkling that other girls also fall in love with their female teachers.

Smock

I had a fascination with breasts. As a baby beginning to crawl and explore my surroundings, the story goes that one day while the rest of the family was taking a break from playing croquet out on the lawn, I crawled over and began to pick up the croquet balls and put them down the front of my small shirt. It did not take too long before the shirt was so full that I could not move, and so I remained immobilised by the weight of the balls.

Apparently my interest in having breasts persisted, and as a safer solution, my mother sewed me a small smock with two large pockets at chest height. She used a sturdy blue cotton and trimmed the pockets and sleeves with a red and white pin-striped pattern. The shirt buttoned up the back with shiny bright red buttons.

Once buttoned into my special smock, the round neckline fitting perfectly around my small neck, I would wander around the house, picking up lost socks or panties, stuffing them into the pockets of my smock until I had gathered enough material to form two lopsided forms at the top. I do not remember how often I wore the smock, but I remember the movement connected to wearing it; of wandering, searching, and collecting; and I can imagine a feeling of purpose, satisfaction, and above all, comfort. Nothing I have ever worn has ever made me feel so loved or so protected.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Smock

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Octopus Card Holder

Octopus Card Holder

When I moved to Hong Kong, I lost my Octopus Card – a contactless stored value card for the public transportation system – many times before a close friend made this cardholder for me that I could conveniently attach to my bag. While I lived in Hong Kong, I not only received unexpected gifts from strangers that became friends, I learnt to listen better and to tell stories jointly through exchanging words and small gestures of love. Now, I live far away from Hong Kong, a place that has become a piece in the puzzle of what I call home.

My friends now leave their Octopus Cards at home as an act of resistance. They go on the streets to fight for their freedom, their love, their home. Being far away, I struggle for the right words and deeds of support. The stories are not mine to tell, we are spinning them together.

The cardholder reminds me that we are all relentlessly knotting and crocheting this world together, that distance and closeness are not always measured in linear temporalities and physical presence, and that friendships and beauty grow through small gestures. It brings me strength, and then I pass this strength on to others. I pass on the gift that my friend once gave me.

Housecoat

Forty-five years ago my grandmother sewed this housecoat, upon which time has left no trace for my mother. At that time she sewed two housecoats from the same fabric. A large one for my mother and a small one for me. I was five years old then. Unfortunately, mine was lost over the years. The duplicity of the two gowns, each in the appropriate size, perfectly represents my mother and I, as if they were our alter egos.

My grandmother had learned to sew with a dressmaker in a small Basque village. She could make all kinds of clothing. She would never have bought a mass produced garment. She was quite large and there were hardly any choices for her size. It was easier for her to make all the things according to her own taste.

I still have her sewing box. In her hands it was a fascinating treasure chest full of colours and a variety of small, precision tools. Her mechanical sewing machine with its large pedal also still brings me warm memories of a time full of games and freedom.

The large gown has survived all my moves and every spring clean, no matter how thorough, since the 1970s. Today it mostly just hangs in my closet, but has retained all its potential to evoke memories. Over the years, I’ve always worn it for a while and each time it has strengthened me in my identity.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Housecoat

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Blouse

Blouse

At the age of 20 my grandmother gave me this blouse as a gift. My mother had made it as part of her apprenticeship as a tailor. The label in the collar has a name on it that seems odd to me. My mother had embroidered her first name, with a “C” instead of a “K”, and used her maiden name. When I was the same age as my mother was back then, I wore the blouse with pride. It had something of the feeling of being able to lead one’s own life independently.

My grandmother wore the blouse, a present from her daughter, tucked in, with a long skirt and high heels. In the breast pocket, there was a scarf with a houndstooth pattern. Since I wear it as a jacket, I removed the four buttons my grandmother attached to the bottom hem – two in the front and two in the back. My grandmother explained their function to me: a pair of buttons were connected with an elastic band running between the legs, so that the tucked-in blouse retained its shape during all the activities of everyday life.

When I look at the jacket today and the label in particular, I have to think about how many past and future dreams it holds. After her tailoring apprenticeship, my mother studied fashion design but never worked in the profession. For me, the garment reveals an earlier identity and time in my mother’s life, in which she had different, personal and specific dreams. Her life ended up taking a different course.

Cardigan

My mother knitted this cardigan for me. I got it for Christmas about five years ago. My mother knitted a lot throughout her life – for my father, for my brother, for markets where she offered her knitwear for sale. I didn’t always like what she knitted for me. Sometimes the colours weren’t quite mine, sometimes the wool she used itched. But I liked this cardigan straight away: it fit perfectly, I thought the cable knitting was artful and done well, and it specifically had a metal zip instead of a plastic one.

I wear the jacket casually at home but also if I go out to a fancy restaurant. And I don’t really care that it’s lost a bit of its shape and looks old.

My mother died unexpectedly on 7 December 2019 after an illness. We, she and I, had hardly any contact for almost a year prior to this. I didn’t understand her way of life and she didn’t understand me during my personal crisis that I had just over a year ago. We no longer trusted one another. Feeling resentful, I had avoided touching anything she had knitted, let alone wearing it. Fortunately, we started talking to each other two weeks before her death. Since her death, I’ve started wearing this cardigan again – so my mama is with me in a small way.

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Cardigan

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Aran Sweater

Aran Sweater

This is my Aran sweater knitted by both my maternal grandmother and my mother in the early 1980s. My mother knitted the body and my grandmother the arms. Both always claimed that they could keep the same tension with the wool and so could share the tasks. When I was growing up, I remember them always having a project on the go be it knitting or dressmaking. They knitted many jumpers through my childhood that are now worn-out and lost; this is the last that has remained hidden in the back of a wardrobe.

When I was very young, I tried to get them to teach me to knit. I was going to make a long scarf like Tom Baker in Dr Who; in the end I gave up having only produced a six line and three inch long knitted patch that became a “tie” for my teddy bear.

I remember teasing my grandmother who would stick out her tongue when she knitted. I would complain that my mother would click the needles too loudly and distract me from the telly. My grandmother has passed and my mother now no longer knits. I guess that we never encouraged her preferring the latest shop bought goods by the time that we went to college. She now says that it makes no sense to knit when buying the wool alone costs more than buying the finished article in the shops. Fortunately, traveling has introduced her to the quilting traditions of other countries and she now creates these fabrics for the newer family generations to treasure.

Thai School Shirt

This is the shirt from the school uniform that I wore as an exchange student in 1994–95 at the Sri Boonyanon School in Nonthaburi, Thailand. My host parents there bought it for me. The numbers 026 are embroidered on the chest because I was the 26th international student at the school. The money my parents paid to the exchange organisation was used by it to facilitate an exchange year for needy students. So my stay there was covered by my host family and was a great gift.

Of course, I have many memories of this intense year! Since Thailand is quite warm and I played sports during breaks and after school, my shirts were filthy and sweaty every day. I had to prewash them myself, especially the collars, while my host mother took care of washing them. My host father first introduced me to the fine art of ironing. This shirt in particular reminds me of how I had to wash the collar myself and how my host father taught me to iron it. Once I learned how, I also tried ironing my host siblings’ uniforms and my host parents' shirts and blouses. I’ve kept this shirt all these years as a memento of a very beautiful, stimulating and informative time! The only thing left for me to say at this point is a thank you to my host parents and my parents!

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / School Shirt

Thai School Shirt
A short reading by curator Stephanie Rosenthal

Memories of a year as an exchange student in Thailand in 1994/95, preserved in a school uniform: As part of the digital activations of Lee Mingwei’s solo exhibition 禮 Li, Gifts and Rituals, curator Stephanie Rosenthal reads the story of the Thai School Shirt, submitted for Fabric of Memory.

Blue Jumpsuit

This jumpsuit is the only childhood clothing of mine that I still own. I have been accompanied by this blue jumpsuit through the years of moving from one city to another city, even from one country to another. I was suddenly interested to know how this jumpsuit managed to stay in my life for such a long time. There are plenty of photos in our family album in which I wore this jumpsuit. I was between one and two years old in these photos. Now after 41 years, when I look at those photos, the first thing I feel is safety. Afterwards I found out that the jumpsuit was a birthday present from my uncle for my first birthday. A very special gift from overseas, which was quite uncommon in those days.

My uncle lost his sight when he was just six because of a misdiagnosis. Due to a lack of opportunities, he left Iran at age of 20 and came to Germany for further education.

I believe that my childhood jumpsuit tells a lot about the relationship between my mum and her older brother as well. He was the only member of our family who left Iran in the 1960s. Although we used to live in the south in the country at that time, where the temperature is always between 28 and 45 degrees Celsius, she took photos of me with the blue jumpsuit on. Some years ago, she gave it to my wife. The blue jumpsuit still keeps us company!

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Blue Jumpsuit

Lee Mingwei: Fabric of Memory (2006/2020)

Lee Mingwei, Fabric of Memory, 2020 / Sweater

Hand-crocheted Sweater

This sweater in its current form has a transformational history: My mother knitted a sweater with the burgundy yarn for my father shortly after they married prior to my birth in New Jersey, in 1961. It was passed on to me when I was a teenager in the 1980s and was one of my favourite pieces of clothing for years, travelling with me wherever I went. I then passed it on to a close friend who had fallen in love with it and subsequently moved to California.

That is where I found it again years later, when visiting her in the 2000s. Since my friend had stopped wearing the sweater, she returned it to me, unfortunately in a somewhat moth-eaten state. I then brought it home with me to Berlin, the current centre of my life, where I unravelled the yarn and used it along with the newly purchased black yarn to make this spider-web-patterned sweater, which I crocheted in circles from the centre to the edges.