The Anatolian mountains of Armenia are vast repositories for alum, a resource that is valuable as a binding agent, or mordant, holding colors fast to fabric. Plant dyers, such as Jane’s Porter’s maternal ancestors, understand its properties well, as do weavers, such as those in her father’s line who produced woven brocades in their silk mill, located in what is now central Turkey. “Textiles are in my DNA,” Jane says.
Her grandmother initiated her education in textiles by taking her to fabric shops in New York City, where the 4-year-old Jane experienced a brilliant world of textures and colors that instilled in her an appreciation of well-made fabrics and clothing, and over time, helped her to develop an eye for beautifully crafted pieces. “Together,” she says of she and her grandmother, “we designed and sewed all of my dance and prom dresses.”
In what seems a natural progression, her inaugural line of dresses made their debut in the boutiques of Philadelphia in 1968. Jane credits the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers for contributing to her mastery of weaving, spinning, and dyeing. Inspired by this knowledge, she opened a fiber arts school in Chadds Ford. When she added screen-printing to her cache of abilities in textiles, using natural dyes, of course, the result was a clothing line with nationwide distribution—hand-screened and made with custom-woven wool, cotton, and silk—designed for professional urban women.
As Jane furthered her education in the business of textiles with her various clothing lines, through showing her work to buyers in New York, and even by developing programs for industry to improve productivity and make production more efficient, she began to miss taking the time to develop her ideas. She likens cloth to a blank canvas, one where she has the freedom to express herself creatively. The excitement of making something new, at her own pace and for herself, was missing in the high-pressure environment of the New York textile industry.
Jane considers herself lucky to have had so many positive achievements. But for her, the greatest successes are not in accolades or a high-profile career. “How does one define success?” she says. “For me, it is succeeding at the learning process. It is making an excellent product that people love and use to expand their wardrobe. It is getting the right color in the dyebath.” For those reasons, she enjoys exhibiting her work at craft fairs, where a scarf in just the right color, one that matches skin and hair tones, brings a smile to customers’ faces and is, to her, a truer measure of success.
Today, her focus is on her one-of-a-kind, handmade scarves, which are meant, she says, “for the woman who wants to look great with minimal effort.” Perhaps their stunning appearance is due partly to what could best be described as an artist’s eye, with her attention to textures that absorb dyes in a way that lends depth and brightness with striking interplays of light and shadow. Jane looks for fabrics with notable or unusual textures, and designs scarves to “provide comfort, coolness, or warmth. Sheer or lightweight multi-layer weave structures,” she explains, “can be used in so many ways.” Perhaps it is partly that versatility and depth that lend them such a unique and striking, yet utterly practical, look and feel.
To shape a lifetime around work in textiles denotes great passion and ability. Jane attributes her love of fabrics to their versatility, “the unlimited ways that you can use and decorate a flat piece of fabric to express your tribe, make shelter, tell current history, explore your personality and ideas. The poetry of cloth tells your life story.”
Text Cynthia Reeser Constantino
Photography courtesy of Jane Porter