Fashion 101

The Fabric of History

Dr. Karl Aspelund traces the cultural and historical influences of textiles

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“Think about how much of your identity is involved in your textile choices,” states Dr. Karl Aspelund. We are surrounded by textiles, not just the clothes we are wearing, but carpets, couches, car seats, bandages, curtains, etc. “It’s touching your life always, everywhere,” says Dr. Aspelund. “It’s tens of thousands of years of culture with a constant presence in your life.”

The newest full-time member of the TMD department, Dr. Aspelund recently shifted from part-time teacher to faculty assistant professor after completing his Ph.D. in Anthropology and Material Culture. A native of Iceland, his current research focuses on the creation of national identity in a culture through dress. “It’s branched out into some pretty large cultural and political research I’m still working on with other professors in Iceland. We’re looking at how national identity is actually created, at what the effects of the design profession are on society. What does design do to us as a society, as a specific group? How do artists, poets, writers and clothing designers not only affect national culture, but actually create it?”

Dr. Aspelund is able to allow his students to ask these questions as well. They can participate in his cultural investigations via the classroom, and their discussions often help illuminate the idea or question in his research. “My teaching and research really dovetail,” he says. “You always hope that what you’re doing in research is something you can bring into the classroom.” Dr. Aspelund is continually thinking of ways to involve his students in real-life experiences. Last year, students in one of his classes created ideas for jackets for the Women’s Rowing Team for the Henley Regatta in England. The chosen jacket style was actually put into production and worn by the team during their competition.

The interest in textiles traces back up his family tree. “My grandfather was a tailor and my grandmother was a seamstress,” says Dr. Aspelund with a laugh. “It goes way back.” He got into the design field via an interest in theatre. He earned an undergraduate degree in 3-D design for theatre in London, with his credits including over 40 theatrical productions, four films, two works of public art, and numerous commissions for sets and costumes, couture, exhibitions, graphic design, murals, lighting, installations, art direction and production design.

He began teaching part-time at URI while working as a studio designer for Providence artist Brower Hatcher at Mid-Ocean Studio. “I was like an extension of his creativity,” Dr. Aspelund explains. He created models and computerized animations for Hatcher’s artwork for eight years.

Dr. Aspelund acknowledges the uniqueness of his background and points to this as the strength of URI’s TMD department. “We have such a wide spectrum of talent and so many different fields that we address. A student can come here and study with faculty who are anthropologists, historians, textile scientists, designers – all on one floor.”

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