Throughout history, civilizations and cultures have used textiles—rugs and blankets—as currency. One particular culture that did so was the Zapotecs, a pre-Columbian indigenous civilization that dates back around 2,500 years.
The Zapotecs's use of textiles forms the basis of a new project by Austin-based designer Nick Hiller, which taps into this history of textiles as currency by creating a series of jacquard loomed throw blankets inspired by contemporary banknotes from around the world. Called Currency Blankets, they include the US $100, Hong Kong $10, Uganda 100 Shilling, Kyrgyzstan 5 Som, Argentina 10 peso, Australia $50, Romania 2000 Lei, and Switzerland 10 franc. "Most currency is so beautiful, and yet so ubiquitous that it's easily overlooked," Hiller notes.
The project was launched along with Hiller reopening an old family store, Hiller Dry Goods, which recently launched online. The store, originally opened in Detroit in 1904, goes back four generations in his family but ended when his father was forced to sell due to the 2008 recession.
"My father used to sell handwoven Zapotec rugs from Oaxaca and Pendleton [textile manufacturing company] blankets in my family's old store," Hiller tells Creators. "Growing up, I was always fascinated with the history of rugs and blankets having been used as a form of currency."
Hiller notes that via their connection with Oaxaca, he was able to learn about the Zapotecs's highly valued textiles, and how it allowed them a degree of self-governance under the Aztecs and saved them from being eradicated by Spanish conquistadors, too. "That really stuck with me," Hiller says.
The designer decided that when reopening the store, he would also create a range of rugs and blankets inspired by the millennia-old tradition of using them as currency. "A little digging led to so many other examples," notes Hiller. "In West Africa, many cultures, including the Wolof in Gambia, used 'cloth money' in standardized strips that functioned as individual units of value; in medieval Iceland, a woolen fabric called wadmal (Old Norse for 'legal cloth') was the official currency for over 600 years; even the Silk Road, civilization's first global trade network, was named after the route's dominant form of currency."
Our contemporary currency, banknotes and coins, was also of huge interest to Hiller not just for its designs, but also for how they reflect upon contemporary culture and represent a nation's collective mindset. Because, the designer explains, you can learn as much about a country from what's excluded on its notes as what's included.
"I think the best example is the US dollar," says Hiller. "We've always been a diverse nation, and yet if someone from another planet tried to make assumptions about the US citizenry based on our currency, they would be led to believe that we are a homogenous society of old white men and bald eagles. This belies the brand image we try to project to the rest of the world—equality and the melting pot. But there's no melting pot on the money. In fact, unlike many developed nations (and some developing ones) we've never had a woman on one of our banknotes. I would argue that this profound contradiction is at the heart of the American psyche. And it's all there on the money!"
To find designs he wants to use, Hiller looks at banknotes from across the globe, and when he sees a pattern or shape he likes, he gets a high-resolution scan so he can take a closer look. As for what aspects he uses, the designer says he likes to focus on the more "core design elements and motifs," ignoring a lot of the ornamental, committee-designed excess. This means he might just take a small detail, perhaps insignificant to most, and use that as the basis for a piece.
"One of the more interesting things that I've noticed is that there are certain motifs—small, randomly dispersed rings, a certain honeycomb pattern—that you see over and over. I suspect De La Rue (the printer of more than 150 national currencies) has something to do with this."
Hiller then redraws the parts he wants to use, incorporating them into his designs using Illustrator. The blankets are then woven on an industrial CNC jacquard loom to get the right amount of detail. This is done by weavers who use CAD software to create the weave pattern, and who Hiller says are "one of the last textile manufacturers in western North Carolina… Their ancestors were some of the first weavers in the American colonies."
The results are finely detailed blankets that explore and play with both the abstract, unsung design on the banknotes, the characters who appear on them, and the concept and history of currency itself.
"These days when we refer to currency, we're referring to fiat currency, which is purely conceptual," says Hiller. "Banknotes and coins have no intrinsic value (a penny costs more to produce than it's worth in copper) and yet are accepted the world over. That's incredible in and of itself. This also happens to be an important time in the history of currency. With the growing acceptance of credit cards and digital cryptocurrencies, we might be witnessing the obsolescence of physical banknotes and coinage. Just this year, the People's Bank of China announced its intention to become the first major central bank to issue its own cryptocurrency. Last year Prime Minister Modi demonetized 86% of India's banknotes in an attempt to combat money laundering and corruption. Collectors must be pretty alarmed. What I find compelling about the currency blankets concept is that by converting these 'valueless' modern currencies back into an ancient form, they regain a functional value—the Marxist 'use value'—that they haven't had in centuries."
You can see more and purchase Nick Hiller's Currency Blankets at the Hiller Dry Goods website.