Book Review: Cowboy Textiles

When I was a little kid I had a particular affection for Roy Rogers movies. My favourite was Don’t Fence Me In, a matinee frivolity from the ’40s that involved a jaded East Coast reporter, played by Dale Evans, getting sent on a story out in the wilds of the frontier, to investigate some rural legend. She inevitably falls for Roy Rogers and his merry band of musical ranch hands and it all ends in a song. Roy Rodgers, Dale Evans and Trigger (“the smartest horse in the movies”) were a happy-go-lucky embodiment of the freedom and charisma of the “Wild West.” For those of you who have never seen a Roy Rogers movie or even dabbled in the Western genre, a good aesthetic gateway would be Thomas Kiley’s pictorial love letter to western style in Cowboy Textiles.

The energy of those Rogers westerns has run amuck in Cowboy Textiles. With nary a written word, Kiley’s book is 144 pages worth of photographs that present his collection of antique textiles (25 years worth). The closest thing I can liken this book to is getting lost in a vintage store. Each page presents crisply photographed mid 20th century wares, running the gamut from quilts and pillowcases to tablecloths and handkerchiefs, as well as items such as chenille rugs and feed bags. The work depicts the iconic western motifs one expects: bucking broncos, cacti, cowboys and girls, wagon trains, and square dancing.

Although Kiley provides little written information on the textiles themselves, he does give the reader photographs of the maker’s labels. These include the likes of Fieldcrest, Cannon Mills and Bates Bedspreads, which were all founded in the late 1800s. Bates Bedspreads is still in operation out of Lewiston, Maine while Fieldcrest and Cannon Mills filed for bankruptcy in 2003 after an unsuccessful merger.

Quite a few of the items are souvenirs, as is the case in the “Pillows, Rugs and Tapestrys” chapter. There are two (nearly) identical pillow cases — one says Arizona, the other says New Mexico — with the iconic image of a cowboy waving his hat atop a bucking bronco surrounded by illustrations of different rodeo events: steer riding, calf roping and barrel racing. What gets me is the poem that’s on them, “Where the West Begins”: “Out where the hand claps/a little stronger/Out where a smile dwells/a little longer/That where the West begins/Where there is more of singing/and less of sighing/Where there is more of laughing/and less of crying/That’s where the West begins.” These pillows are a succinct depiction of an earnest, slightly cartoonish, fantasy of the west. The American frontier lives in the American psyche as an idealized place where good can prevail over evil.

Yet, as much as Cowboy Textiles is a testament to a bygone textile tradition, I wanted more. I don’t think it was Kiley’s intent to answer analytical questions about the ins and outs of the history of gingham tablecloths and rodeo themed feedbags. We are to accept them as they are, like a Roy Rogers movie: if you look too hard you’ll start to question the paper-thin plot, but if you sit back and relax, it’s a laugh.

Cowboy Textiles: Thomas Kiley, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2010.
photography by Samantha Walton
review by Cayley James

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Cowboy Textiles

  1. Great review, Cayley (and nice boots, too). I like your comment on the idealization of the American frontier and the Wild West. And why not, right? I mean who wouldn’t want to associate their history with brave, tough and independent trail blazers? Reading this made me think of my favourite piece of fabric in the world, which is printed with pictures of Davey Crockett and phrases like: “He killed a b’ar when he was only three.”

    The more I get to know about fabric and textiles the more I realize there’s a niche market for pretty much EVERYTHING. I feel like we should burst into spontaneous quilt-making just to showcase it all.

    Also, I need to find my own merry band of musical ranch hands.

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