What Clothes Remember

In Julia's studio are plastic bags stuffed with garments; garments caked with dirt, blood, insects after 20 years of neglect; garments worn by the victims of genocide in Rwanda at the time of their death.

On an ordinary day, Julia Brennan is repairing antique needlework for a museum, or the greatcoat of Abraham Lincoln or a workout robe of Mohammed Ali or the treasures of Queen Sirikit in Thailand - this is the never-ordinary work of a sought-after textile conservator.

But then there comes a haunting call about a church where thousands of Rwandans were massacred and left their lives in piles of cloth. Another call from Cambodia's Khmer Rouge prison, now a genocide museum, where clothing has been found in the basement.

Zoey Poll beautifully captures Julia's new work in a
New York Times profile; it brought me to my knees. The quiet attention Julia gives to each machete-ripped blouse is an act of remembering, an act of respect, and a brave truth-telling. Through her skilled hands, the word genocide grows specific and human and real.

It reminds me that clothes often stand in for a person. Clothes are intimate, personal, particular.  A young man once showed me a quilt at the end of his bed stitched from his grandfather's ties. When I wear my mother's shawls, I am wrapped in her fragrance, memory; her presence.  When Julia speaks of a child's "creamsicle-colored dress" with Peter pan collar amidst the Khmer Rouge uniforms, my imagination unravels. It is shockingly real.

I first met Julia in Indonesia, traveling together to learn more about the textiles there, where she was born.  I saw her years later in Bangkok conserving the Queen's couture garments for her museum and through years of emails and sightings have become sisters of the cloth. But it is this work she has now undertaken that says everything about her heart; also about how cloth speaks, how what we wear tells a distinct story, even after we're gone.  It's never been just the textile we love . . .  it's the story alive in their very fibers that we both long to know. 

Julia is reminding us: even the brutal stories want to be heard.  If we have a heart, then let us listen. 

with quiet admiration,
Susan Hull Walker