The Swan Towel.

posted in: Day In The Life, Work 16
Swan/sentinel, whatever. Photo: Me.
Towel swan as sentinel. Photo: Me.


Greetings from Mattoon, Illinois, where the cornfields are wide, the quilters are smart, and the towel swans are thick and absorbent!

While we’re on the subject of towel swans, I’d like to talk about them. I’d like to talk about towel art in general. It’s a thing. I don’t think about towel art much because it’s not something a person comes across too often — even a person who travels as much as I do, which is worth pointing out — but there was a towel swan waiting for me on my bed when I arrived in Mattoon yesterday, so towel art is very much on my mind; that thing scared the crap outta me.

Have you seen this towel art? Do you know what I’m talking about? For the uninitiated, towel art is exactly what it sounds like: It’s… Well, all right, maybe it’s not exactly what it sounds like. The “towel” in “towel art” is accurate — towel art is made from bath and/or hand towels — but I’m not sure about the word “art.” It’s tricky business to go around saying what is art and what isn’t, but I’m more comfortable calling the swans, hearts, ducks, dogs, and various other creatures that get the towel treatment “towel sculpture.” These terrycloth figures are definitely sculpted. But are they art? As in, move-me-to-tears, someone-put-that-swan-in-a-climate-controlled-gallery-and-plan-a-gala kind of art? I have not yet encountered a towel piece that qualifies in this way.

But who cares, right? Who cares if it’s art or if it’s just fun? And can’t art be fun? Verily, I say: Art can be fun.

But here’s the thing: I think towel art — or sculpture, whatever — is weird. I don’t like the idea of someone putting their paws all over my towel to make it into a nubby, dubiously charming inanimate object without eyes and then positioning it in the place where I will eventually sleep. And I don’t care who it is who might be doing all that, by the way: If a loved one of mine was all up in my towels, twisting and folding and molesting them this way and that, I would tell them to knock it off.

And yet.

The towel swan in my room also caused me to experience something called mono no aware. This is a Japanese term that is untranslatable in English. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera”, is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.

Beautiful, right? The impermanence of a towel swan. The beauty of being in this old, single-level hotel that, judging by the way the place wraps around the pool, was a swinging joint in its heyday but surely will never be like that again. The fact that the first time I ever saw a towel sculpture, I was with my mom on a cruise ship. I was in my early 20’s and I hadn’t even met my ex-husband at that point. I didn’t know I’d get sick, I didn’t know I’d get divorced, I had made exactly two quilts.

Mono no aware is not sadness. Or maybe it is, but it’s a sweet sadness, which is to say that mono no aware is life itself. And if a towel swan in a hotel room in Mattoon, Illinois on a Friday night makes me feel mono no aware, then doesn’t it follow that a towel swan in Mattoon, Illinois is life itself?

I shouldn’t be okay with that. But remarkably, all of a sudden, I am.

16 Responses

  1. Judy Forkner
    | Reply

    I never think about all the things that other people are squeamish about, until I find out that some people are squeamish about some things!
    Now, if I run across some towel art, I’ll think about someone else’s hands being all over the towel, & I will probably opt to NOT use that towel!

  2. Susan
    | Reply

    Briilaint piece of writing! thanx for sharing

  3. Susan
    | Reply

    Hahaha…sorry, i wrote that comment without my glasses….apologies re spelling…x

  4. Ivy
    | Reply

    Oh me, oh my, that thing would startle me, too!

  5. Carol-the pencil lady
    | Reply

    WOW…that is VERY deep meaning for towel art.
    Funny you should be on this topic today as when i attended your partial seams
    workshop in October at the Magarbo store in Va- i stayed in a little motel in
    Front Royal VA and i was created by 4 towel swans on the beds…that was my
    first towel swan sighting. After your story it seems i should give it a little more
    thought —-> towels, swans, art, permanence, bathing, linen….

  6. Cara
    | Reply

    Mary… Is your tea nearby? I have something to tell you. Ready? Any time you are using a hotel towel someone’s paws have been all up in it. From pulling it out of the dryer, straightening it and folding it to add to the stack. Taking that stack and pushing it in to the linen closet, then pulling it back out to add to the housekeeping cart. And eventually unfolding it to hang on the towel rod…Or shape in to a towel sculpture. Lots of pawing going on.

  7. HelenMarie Marshall
    | Reply

    Looking at pictures and YouTube videos of my
    Grandchildren gives me that thing…..

  8. Barbara
    | Reply

    . . .and maybe even sneezing on it – oops, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.

  9. M
    | Reply

    Was that the thought that drove the Japanese appreciation of cherry blossoms – so beautiful when they appear, but only there for a brief period of time (?). Or maybe I’m just wishing for cherry blossoms to arrive.

  10. Deanna
    | Reply

    Disappointed in your reaction. Doesn’t the bedspread make you feel squeamish.? Or the sheets that were spread with hands not belonging to someone you trust? I have never been to Mattoon or stayed a single night there. I have read your blog for years, but I hope the person that tried to make your stay nice does not read your blog. It sounds a bit uppity. Sorry, Mary.

  11. Susan Shillito
    | Reply

    How can I find out where you are speaking in the next few months?

  12. Char
    | Reply

    It is very poignant to me to imagine someone in that little hotel in that small town making that towel swan in hopes that it would make a guest happy or to aspire to service the way high falutin’ places do it. Makes me both happy and sad.

  13. Charlotte
    | Reply

    So how do you unfold it? Grab the beak and shake? Pull it’s tail feathers? Kick the thing across the room before it bites you? You know swans can be vicious right?! I’ve never come across towel art in my life and I can see why it gives you the icks.

    But I like the idea of mono no aware – very sweet.

  14. Lindsey
    | Reply

    Motel/hotel bedspreads creep me out. Think of how often/rarely they get laundered and how many people/animals have been on them with their shoes/suitcases/whatever. I always take it off the bed. Then, of course I see the blanket. Hmmmm…
    Oddly, I’m not squeamish about about much. Animal manure, dirt, etc is all in a day’s work, but rented room bedspreads….

  15. Coley
    | Reply

    I used to know several ways to fold a napkin.

  16. Diane
    | Reply

    Folded towel art is really big on cruises. We were on a cruise (5 days, I think, but it felt like 10) and there were swans and monkeys and turtles galore! Glad to see that this fine folding has made it to the Midwest.

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