Backstage at San Francisco Opera > May 2013 > Weaving History
Weaving History
Constance Hoffman is a Costume Designer who tells stories, “My medium just happens to be costume.”

Constance and I set out to source the Mary Magdalene textiles, armed with a stack of research books: The Jewish Wardrobe, published by The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, The History of Jewish Costume by Alfred Rubens, Roman Clothing and Fashion by Alexandra Croom; The World of Roman Costume by Judith Lynn Sebesta and, my personal favorite, Facing West-Oriental Jews of Central Asia and the Caucasus (a catalog from a joint exhibit of The Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg and The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam).

The challenge was to find fabrics that would naturally fit in the world of the first century, a world of hand woven textiles with meticulous hand embroidery and detailing.

Constance suggested we explore the beautiful and ancient technique of the Hmong, in areas like Laos and Vietnam. Known for vibrant contrasting colors and intricate hand embroidery, as well as the beautiful deep indigo dyes and batiks, the Hmong create Paj Ntaub, literally translated to “flower cloth” or "story cloth," using figures and designs to illustrate stories of Hmong history and folklore in a narrative form, essentially telling a story through cloth.

The next challenge was to source these fabrics from The USA, but luckily we were aided in this task by a wonderful couple in Eugene, Oregon.

The Lao Loum natural dyer and designer of this stunning traditional 
healing cloth from NE Laos wears the finished product, which is filled 
with traditional mythological creatures and diamonds of flowers.
Photos by Above the Fray

For the past thirty years, Josh Hirschstein and his wife, Maren Beck have traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia studying textile and tribal arts of the region for their company, Above the Fray.  Often accompanied by their two teenage sons, Ari and Zall, the family has made lifelong friends with many of the artists in both Laos and Vietnam.  Their passion lies in the exploration of this region, visiting with the Clans and understanding and sharing their beautiful and intricate art, steeped in generations of history. When we first started to source these textiles, we were lucky that Maren happened to be in Laos.

A young Hmong woman in Northeast Laos proudly displays her handwoven, 
wax-resist batiked, indigo dyed roll of hemp fabric while her son shyly holds on.
Photo by Above the Fray

Working via email and many phone calls to Josh in Oregon, we were able to give her a “shopping list” of items we wanted.  These items included hand woven vegetable dyed hemp and cotton, hand embroidered antique blankets, sashes, indigo dyed batik, ornate hand embroidered aprons, hand woven shaman cloths and prayer shawls and even several antique fabric strips from turbans. Josh and Maren were instrumental in helping us create this first century world with the textiles they obtained for us. In addition to these amazing Hmong textiles, the first century world of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was created with hand printed Indian cottons, hand loomed ikats from Uzbekistan, antique shawls from Burma, vintage French linens, silks from Thailand and even a Moroccan wool blanket.

A Black Hmong woman in NW Vietnam takes a break from her day to 
continue embroidering a new belt panel for her outfit for the new year.
Photos by Above the Fray

We are thrilled that Josh and Maren will be celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary by attending the Mary Magdalene performance on July 5, 2013.  Having them see how we have used the textiles is very exciting, as they will travel back to the Hill Tribes and share their experience and photographs of the costumes with the fabulous artisans that created these stunning works of art.

Thank You to Maren and Josh for helping Constance find some of the tools to illustrate this story.

Please visit their website for more details, photographs and heart-warming stories of their adventures,

The Kin Mun Lantien, or Black Yao, people in NW Laos are known for 
their tightly-woven, village raised, hand spun, plain or indigo dyed 
cotton fabric which they use for making their daily-wear clothing in a 
traditional design that has not varied in centuries.  Notice her 
indigo vat carved from a log sitting on the ground on the left side of 
the photo.
Photo by Above the Fray

A Laos weaver proudly displays her naturally dyed, handspun, handwoven 
silk fabric, still attached to the loom in NE Laos.
Photo by Above the Fray

A young Black Hmong women dressed in traditional handwoven, indigo
dyed hemp and cotton jacket and vest with hand-embroidered sleeves and
collar shows off her family's indigo dye vat in Northwest Vietnam.
 Photo by Above the Fray


Posted: 5/29/2013 1:40:52 PM by Christopher Verdosci
Filed under: 2012-13Season, costumes, new-works, TheGospelOfMaryMagdalene


Backstage at San Francisco Opera is a fascinating, fast-moving, mysterious and sacred space for the Company’s singers, musicians, dancers, technicians and production crews. Musical and staging rehearsals are on-going, scenery is loaded in and taken out, lighting cues are set, costumes and wigs are moved around and everything is made ready to receive the audience. From the principal singers, chorus and orchestra musicians to the creative teams for each opera, in addition to the many talented folks who don’t take a bow on stage, this blog offers unique insight, both thought-provoking and light-hearted, into the life backstage at San Francisco Opera.


Blog postsRSS