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The Mother of Taiwan’s Textiles—Fu Jen’s Sister Maryta

The Mother of Taiwan’s Textiles (photo by Kent Chuang)

The Mother of Taiwan’s Textiles (photo by Kent Chuang)
 

Sister Maryta Laumann came to Taiwan as a missionary from Germany when she was 28 years old. Now known as the “mother of textiles and clothing” on the island, she has dedicated more than half a century to scholarship at Fu Jen Catholic University. There she founded both the Department of Textiles and Clothing, the first of its kind in Taiwan, and the Chinese Textiles and Clothing Culture Center, which collects, exhibits and promotes traditional garments. With boundless ingenuity and creativity, drawing from many disciplines, she has created traditional textiles that cater to all tastes, spotlighting Chinese culture internationally and producing commercial value. Some of her splendid designs grace the reception halls of the Presidential Office Building.

 

Weaving clouds of imagination

More than half a century ago, in a village in northwestern Germany’s Lower Saxony, a girl with golden-­brown pigtails named Maryta Laumann would often appear lost in thought as she gazed at the sky and its ever-­changing clouds. Growing up in a completely Roman Catholic village, she couldn’t help but be inspired by the Lord. “I often thought about how the universe was limitless but human lives were limited.” When she was 12, demonstrating a maturity belying her tender age, she would often think deeply about the meaning of life.

Laumann’s family lived on a 25-hectare farm. They planted wheat, tobacco and other crops, and raised livestock. “I had the full experience of farming and housekeeping,” says Sister Maryta, who has warm memories of childhood. When snow fell on winter days, the whole family would gather around the woodstove, quietly spinning wool into yarn, from which they would knit their clothes. All the while, the strong connection between homemaking and textiles was leaving its mark in her mind.

A long journey of faith

She joined the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters on March 13, 1959, when she had just turned 22. She has never forgetten that special day. Two years later, Sister Maryta began her life of service overseas, despite “feeling that I hadn’t prepared well enough.” Still young, facing challenges far from home in a country she knew nothing about, Sister Maryta sometimes felt that the burden was too much for her to bear.

“It was all the Lord’s doing,” says a grateful Sister Maryta today as she reflects on the wonderful experiences she has had in her half century in Taiwan.

“The congregation first arranged for me to attend university in the Philippines.” After three years, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics and education, strengthening the skills she would draw on in Taiwan as an educator at Fu Jen Catholic University. Fu Jen had established a department of home economics in 1939, when it was based in Beijing. After the university was reestablished in Taiwan in 1963, Sister Urbania Thues­haus, who had founded and chaired the department in China, launched a department of ecotrophology (a field that encompasses nutrition and home economics) on the new campus and brought in Sister Maryta to lay the foundations of a department of textiles and clothing.
 

Fu Jen Catholic University’s Department of Textiles and Clothing designed a series of textiles for the Sunshine and Green halls of the Presidential Office Building around themes connected to Taiwan. The splendid textiles suit the magnificence of the setting. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Fu Jen Catholic University’s Department of Textiles and Clothing designed a series of textiles for the Sunshine and Green halls of the Presidential Office Building around themes connected to Taiwan. The splendid textiles suit the magnificence of the setting. (photo by Kent Chuang)
 

The right place and the right people

Back then light industry was Taiwan’s main economic engine. By leading students on field trips to factories, Sister Maryta established countless beneficial ties with industry. She points to a wall covered with faded photos and says, “Those are all great benefactors of the Department of Textiles and Clothing.” From the department’s founding to the construction of the building that houses it, the program has relied on the long-term financial support of Sung Cheng-hsu, former chairman of the Taiwan Textile Testing Center (now the Taiwan Textile Research Institute); Bao Chaoyun and his wife Zhou Yinxi of Chung Shing Textile; and GTM chairman Gu Xingzhong and his wife Chen Xiuhui, among others.

“Both traditional Chinese clothing and the clothing of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are very special.” Their rich colors and intricate patterns delight Sister Maryta. When she realized that these traditional garments were in danger of being lost in the tides of time, she began looking for support to establish the Chinese Textiles and Clothing Culture Center. Currently, collections include nearly 10,000 items from the Han Chinese, from Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, and from ethnic minor­ities in southwestern China.

“I’m an advocate of consumers’ clothing rights.” Sister Maryta played an active role in developing and promoting various government policies, from the Commodity Labeling Act and apparel labeling benchmarks, to stipulating standard garment sizes and drawing up standard laundry contracts. Her Illustrated Fashion Dictionary (1985) helped to standardize the field’s vocabulary. The book Chinese Decorative Design won a Golden Tripod Award for editing in 1991, and became a valuable source of local inspiration for designers. The Textiles and Clothing Digital Museum, founded in 2005, offers precious resources to the entire world through its collections, publications and research.

Culture raises Taiwan’s profile

Fu Jen is the first educational institution in Taiwan to obtain recognition from the International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institutes. Sister Maryta hopes that students will seamlessly connect with international fashion trends. She has a strong aesthetic sensibility and believes that textiles are a form of nonverbal symbolic language that expresses one’s individuality.

“All design needs a cultural background,” she says, noting that her department has cultivated countless talented designers who have gone on to earn inter­national recognition. Justin Chou is showing at New York Fashion Week for the sixth time this year with his “Just in XX” label. Combining vibrant contemporary colors with classic cuts, his collection reinterprets the classic “square-­centimeter stamp” paintings of Tsong Pu, conveying the beauty of Taiwan to the international community in an eco-friendly manner. Johan Ku has amazed audiences and consumers from Tokyo to London with his sculptural knitwear. With Apu Jan, Kao Yuan-lung and others, he highlights a sense of power amid contradictions and conflict, leading a new wave of eco-friendly clothing.

Although teaching high fashion, Sister Maryta emphasizes an environmental ethos and warns students and consumers against destroying natural resources through blind pursuit of fashion.

“We’ve adopted a vertically integrated model of edu­cation,” says Ho Zhao-hua, chair of the Department of Textiles and Clothing, who has long been Sister ­Maryta’s “right-hand woman.” Ho first got an undergraduate degree in Chinese at Fu Jen and then became one of the first people to obtain a postgraduate degree from the Department of Textiles and Clothing there. “To learn about textiles, students start from yarns and weaving.” Ample resources related to weaving, knitting, dyeing, printing and metalworking are available to students in the department’s programs. From textile design to clothing design and marketing, Sister Maryta hopes to cultivate personnel with expertise in every related area, enabling them to get quickly on track with their careers after graduating.

“In fact, the field of textiles offers an enormous range of career opportunities.” From 1996 to 1998, Sister Maryta worked with industry to complete designs for the textiles used in the guest rooms at the Grand Hotel Taipei, and in 2000 she won an award for outstanding research and development collaboration between industry and academia.

“We designed the textiles in the Sunshine Hall and the Green Hall of the Presidential Office Building.” In 2003, Sister Maryta was invited to design a “Land of 100 Blessings” carpet for the Green Hall around the themes of Taiwanese butterflies, windowsill orchids, lilies, Taiwan toad lilies, and Swinhoe’s pheasants. Two years later she designed the textiles for the Sunshine Hall, themed on the blue seas surrounding the island of Taiwan, a theme magnificently represented in the room’s carpet, curtains, and sofas.

Naturalized Taiwanese

From graduating in 1964 in the first class at Fu Jen’s Center of Chinese Language and Culture to taking part in her department’s first graduation ceremony as a faculty member, Sister Maryta, now 83, has grown up along with the university. “I now have an ROC identity card!” she exclaims. Taiwan has long since become her home, the place where she belongs.

Sister Maryta often reflects on something that Albert Schweitzer once said: “Everything happens for a reason.” “The first character in my Chinese name—mai (cereal grain)—suggests that I am a little seed fallen to earth.” The character conveys not only her gratitude for and remembrance of her farmer parents, but also her hopes for the fertile soil of Taiwan and its never-ending bounty.