A 19th-century suzani from Uzbekistan was the starting point for Sheila Fruman's colorful life in antique textiles. She shows Ari Kellerman around her Brooklyn apartment, and shares an extract from her new book, The Pull of the Thread. 


Sheila Fruman's apartment in Brooklyn © Ari Kellerman 


In 1969 I was a naïve 20-year-old hippie, fresh out of university. I had wanted to go to Afghanistan since Grade 10, although I didn’t know why, or even where it was. It made no sense considering I’m a nice Jewish girl from a middle-class family who grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, the middle of nowhere on the Canadian prairies. My parents emigrated from Russia in the 1920s when they were very young and that was the last time anyone in the family travelled anywhere. Travelling was done to escape, not to explore. I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life except travel.

I was following a deep inner voice that was plugged into the era’s zeitgeist of whimsical adventure and unbridled curiosity. Turn on, tune in, drop out, was a rallying cry for much of the post-WWII generation that grew up in a period of economic prosperity. It coincided with open borders and a global political trend that welcomed travel by Westerners to Middle Eastern and Asian countries. By the 1960s, the stars had lined up to inspire a modern-day pilgrimage from Turkey to India, never before so readily available, to a generation of young people intent on seeking adventure.


Silk Road Treasures in Sheila Fruman's Brooklyn apartment © Ari Kellerman.



I worked at the university’s psychiatric hospital to earn money before setting off for the other side of the world. I had no map, no plan and no idea how to get there. My friend Julie, who had a no-strings-attached Canada Council grant for artists, joined me. We hitch hiked our way from Amsterdam, through the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, to Athens where I had lined up a job teaching English. After the first day, I threw in the towel and we took off for Crete. A big house we rented in Heraklion, the capital, soon became a gathering place for other wayward travellers.

By December we had finally decided to go to Afghanistan. We arrived by train in Istanbul, enticed by the kilims, carpets and textiles to be found there; but my main preoccupation was finding a way to get to Afghanistan. One night at the Pudding Shop in Sultanahmet– a notorious hang-out for Western hippies impetuously schlepping across unsuspecting foreign lands seeking the exotic unknown – we met two American guys. They were driving through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan.

We drove through the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan into the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, arriving at the town of Mingora in the district of Swat. A former princely state, Swat is famous for its natural beauty and exceptional embroidered textiles. The men were toting Kalashnikovs slung casually over their shoulders, and wearing striped black-and-white scarves wrapped turban-style around their heads. 


Sheila Fruman's apartment in Brooklyn © Ari Kellerman 



We also presented a dramatic image. The Land Rover was painted with psychedelic suns and towering flames in bright, Day-Glo hues.We were an itinerant caravan of blaring sound and blinding colour swerving our way along the perilous mud roads and through the swirling dust in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains.

We met in a teahouse with seven or eight burly, armed, ethnic Pashtuns. They were swathed in beautiful pure-wool blankets thrown over their shalwar kameez in subdued neutral shades of camel, taupe and bone, to fend off the bitter cold. Instead of a turban some wore the traditional Afghan pakol – a soft, flat-topped woollen hat – in earthy hues of brown and a unique red obtained from walnut dye.

During the meal, I admired a magnificent rich-brown, pure camel- wool coat worn by a rather tall, dark and handsome guest. No sooner did I utter the compliment than he removed it and presented it to me as a gift. Despite my protests, he refused to take it back, and I became the owner of a large, luxurious garment suitable for someone twice my size. I was thereafter careful to watch what I said, fearing my admiration would lead to more such acts of generosity from these exceptionally hospitable hosts.

By now I was becoming aware of my attraction to the magnificent range of textiles I had seen along the way and among the people of the Swat Valley – embroidered silk dresses, mirrored shawls, the finest woven wool hats and coats – but I did not imagine them in my future. I was searching for something which didn’t yet include textiles.

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This article is an extract from Sheila Fruman's sumptuous new book, The Pull of the Thread: Textile Travels of a Generation, available from the Cabana Bookshop.

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Assorted treasures in Sheila's apartment © Ari Kellerman

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The Pull of the Thread: Textile Travels of a Generation, by Sheila Fruman, is now available from the Cabana Bookshop.

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