Thursday, April 22, 2010

Autumn and the art of the scarf

There is a different blue in the sky. The shadows are longer and the piled-up leaves rustle restlessly from one side of the road to the other. The suburban streets and gardens are full of last-minute autumn glory, but the nights sink in colder. It is changing from rain-sodden summer into winter. Time to start thinking about dressing warmer, eating differently and coming to terms with the cold, dark, soul-searching months ahead.

In short, it's time to start wearing ... a scarf. Most of the "autumnal" poets (Keats, Blake, Elizabeth Barret Browning, John Donne, Shelley) have been inspired by this season's beauty and elegiac quality, and some must have at some stage addressed the humble scarf's literary merit. Emily Dickinson certainly did...

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry's cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I'll put a trinket on.

Emily Dickinson
Nature XXVII, Autumn.

A scarf can certainly be considered a trinket, and its lure wholly belongs to autumn and winter culture. Women and men in Europe have a lifelong romance with The Scarf, particularly the French and Italians (little French girls learn the art of the scarf at their mother's knee). They wear them with such flair, such style and such know-how - even with a plain white shirt. They sling long skinny scarves round their necks, wrap bandanas, knot short necktie scarves, slither on silk scarves from Hermes or Chanel (which come with booklets on how to tie them), double-wrap head scarves, twist neckwarming woolly scarves over coats, tie cravats and toss on pashminas. It's all in the imagination and today's scarves are a far cry from the mufflers that your granny used to knit to keep your chest warm! They are now the ultimate fashion statement - bang up there in the style firmament with shoes and bags.

The universe has finally smiled upon me and allowed me to find the perfect scarf-maker, right here in Johannesburg. Her name is Sanny Nijkamp and she is a Dutch artist who paints on silk. Just perfect for poetic autumn style!

Sanny, whose real name is Sara (her father visited South Africa and liked "Sanny") loves the art of the Japanese kimono, as well as traditional French silk painting, and it comes through in her love of bright colours. She has a signature style in her scarves: lots of geometric shapes, the use of dots, squiggly quill writing and lots of different coloured squares. It's literally art on a scarf.

Sanny's home is like one of her scarves. An eggshell blue ceramic stove dominates her living room and a steel flue leads into the ceiling. The house is full of light, colour and artistry. Three funky white recycled light fittings from lighting designer Heath Nash form a vertical line leading the eye down to the stripped wooden dining room table, and the walls are covered with local art.

She has been working in silk for 26 years and she sold to three shops in Holland before she moved to South Africa. Now I find her Sarasilk scarves in second-hand shop Rags and Lace where stylish saleslady Matilda Montanari wears them with her usual panache, giving tips on scarf-wearing to the uninitiated ("this is the hangman's noose ...").

Sanny's work is painstaking as she hand paints every detail on the white silk which she imports from China. After planning the design beforehand she stretches a silk rectangle on a homemade wooden frame in her studio and use silk paints made in France. "I love silk,"she says. "The colours are so beautiful and the paint flows. You can't make anything ugly." Luckily she has a supplier who gives her wholesale prices.

"Sirti" glue is one way of separating layers of colours from one another. It can be painted onto areas which need to be paler, which then stand out. After the hand painting process she fixes the colour by steaming the scarves. "I make a big roll in a white cotton cloth and put it in a steamer."

But the most incredible thing of all are the prices: R160 for a handpainted scarf? That's about sixteen euros!

Sanny's piercing blue eyes are testament to her Dutch genes, and she says that in Holland they love bright colours, particularly blues (to match the eyes). Everything around her, including her art and pictures, is an inspiration. I fall in love with the soft blue silk swatches from cocoons which she has arranged on a table, prior to it being made glued into paper and made into packaging for jeweller Marcel van Tonder's upcoming exhibitions.

Sanny has been experimenting with new techniques and I am captivated by a delicious medley of gold, sky blue, and violet squares and rectangles on a light-red silky background: it's ornamented with doodles, sunbursts and stars on the ends. I imagine it with a plain black dress and red cowboy boots ... and, even though I already have three other scarves by Sanny, I melt and buy my fourth.

Now I have an autumn scarf for my scarlet gown. Emily would have approved ...


Kittie Howard said...

I totally love how you wrap Emily Dickinson and style into a shawl. I am meow envious of French and Italian women and how they so creatively dress up or casually play down an outfit with a scarf.

They sling long skinny scarves round their necks, wrap bandanas, knot short necktie scarves, slither on silk scarves from Hermes or Chanel....

When we do this in the States, we look like we're freezing! Or are hiding wrinkles on skinny necks. Again, meow!

I loved how you 'painted' your artistic friend. And I'm delighted your purchased a fourth scarf. Once again, a beautiful post!!

sarah cangley said...

thanks Kittie, you are my greatest fan! I think these other eedjits only like it when I write about them!! And sometimes the occasion makes me write about a mood or a feeling. I had just seen Sophie's Choice again (for the millionth time) and was inspired by the poetry. And it was the perfect way to work an interview into the blog. Watch out next week for a great trip to the African bush, one of my all time favourite things to do, and a very rare sightings of four leopards in one day. Thats my task for the weekend.

I am sure you are worried about the oil slick approaching the Louisiana coastline, it has been in the news daily. Let me know what happens...

Once again thanks to my fan Kittie!