Trans-Pacific collaboration lands CSU prof’s dress in Chinese museum

A cocktail dress created by a Colorado State University faculty member and a colleague in Hong Kong has been selected for permanent display in the China National Silk Museum.

Sparks, right, with Jiang
Sparks, right, with Jiang

Professor Diane Sparks of CSU’s Department of Design and Merchandising began working with Associate Professor Kinor Jiang of the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University when she was a visiting professor there in 2006-07. Since then, their jointly created work has been exhibited all over the world, including the Philippines, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Canada, and the United States.

“This was all due to teaching abroad,” Sparks says. “I’ve got a lifelong collaborative partner as a result.”

The origins

Jiang visited CSU in fall 2011 for a joint exhibit of their work at the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising. Among the pieces on display were two wall hangings that Jiang created using a centuries-old Japanese dyeing technique called “Shibori.” For one, Jiang folded aluminum-treated fabric into a square, dipped opposite corners in simmering soda ash to boil off the metal, twisted and tied portions of the fabric, then soaked parts of it in a turquoise dye bath and had it pleated. The result was a pattern of circles and zigzags marking where the fabric had been folded, knotted and dyed.

The original wall hanging
The original wall hanging

When he returned to Hong Kong, Jiang left Sparks that textile piece and a blonde one created using a similar process, and she transformed them into two dresses, “Raindrops and Waterfalls” and “Sunshine.” After hand-stitching the dresses using a monofilament resembling fishing line, Sparks added a falling water element to the former: She covered two quarter-inch wooden dowels with silk, then inserted them into stitched channels in the back lining of the strapless dress, creating a system to support the weight of the “waterfall.”

“There’s a lot of science in this,” she says. “Kinor’s work involves metallurgy, as he infuses textiles with silver, gold and/or copper. I had to use the physics of weight distribution to balance the waterfall without compromising the strapless dress.”

"Raindrops and Waterfalls"
“Raindrops and Waterfalls”

The second creation

For the blonde dress, “Sunshine,” Sparks wound extra fabric into a flower shape on the side. Both pieces were featured in “Resist Dye on the Silk Road,” the 9th International Shibori Symposium held in Hangzhou, China, in 2014. And “Raindrops and Waterfalls” is now housed in the preeminent silk museum in China.

“I couldn’t believe it when he told me the Raindrops and Waterfalls design had been acquired for the permanent collection,” Sparks recalls. “I was just amazed. It’s very rare to have a piece acquired by a national museum.”

Museum officials have told her that she can borrow the dress any time, and Sparks is hoping to bring it — and Jiang — to CSU this fall for an exhibit and joint lecture at the Gustafson Gallery or the newly renovated and expanded Avenir Museum.

Next up

In the meantime, the two are collaborating on a new project: Jiang has given Sparks a new piece of fabric to work with, and she plans to use a digital textile printer for the new creations.

Sparks and Jiang with "Sunshine"
Sparks and Jiang with “Sunshine”

Digital printing is more sustainable than traditional methods because it uses dye more efficiently — the dye is steamed into the fabric and doesn’t wash off during the rinsing process, which represents a sustainable approach to the fabric dyeing process that avoids the likelihood of polluting the water system.

“It’s a very big challenge and very exciting,” she says of the new project. “The whole world of digital textile printing is so thrilling.”

Sparks hopes to join Jiang in Oaxaca, Mexico, for the 10th International Shibori Symposium in November if their latest work is accepted.

The Department of Design and Merchandising is based in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Jiang works on a fabric with his design team.