Arts·Museum Guide

Who knew quilts could be so inspiring? An artist's guide to the Textile Museum of Canada

'It's an extraordinary resource' — Emily Jan on her favourite place to see art.

'It's an extraordinary resource' — Emily Jan on her favourite place to see art

This it it! The Textile Museum of Canada. (Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada)

Let's go to the museum! Over the next few weeks, we'll be discovering Canada's favourite museums and public galleries and sharing little lifehacks for planning your trip right. What are the must-sees? The hidden gems? At every stop, a different artist will be your tour guide.

Your tour guide, artist Emily Jan. (Photo: Phil Bernard/Courtesy of Emily Jan)

Of all the tourist destinations — even just the ones that you'll find within a 10-block radius of the "Toronto sign" — the Textile Museum of Canada isn't an obvious attraction, being an unassuming brick building tucked between Toronto's City Hall and the bustle of Dundas Street. And Emily Jan gets it.

"Textiles can be a hard sell," says the Montreal-based artist. But since her first visit in 2011, she goes back every time she's in Toronto. Over the years, she's had practical reasons for those return trips. As an artist who often works with things like cloth and fibres, the TMC's become an important destination when she's researching a new project — but no matter the circumstances, she says the place always kickstarts her imagination.

"People might be like, 'I dunno, is it going to be a bunch of quilts or something?'" And yes, there are definitely quilts there. But as Jan explains, the TMC's appeal goes beyond its 13,000+ item collection. Its job is to weave connections between archival objects and contemporary art, revealing what makes everyday life special — both here and globally, all through the ages.

Most people take textiles for granted, Jan says. "Unless you're some kind of wolf child who was raised by animals, you come into contact with them every day," she laughs. "But the museum lifts them out of an everyday, mundane context. They curate such dynamic shows."

Here's how she spends a day at the museum.

Start with the new stuff

Installation view of "Beads, They're Sewn so Tight" at the TMC. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada)

With just three exhibition spaces, the TMC regularly cycles through shows, and while the current schedule features two contemporary art exhibitions, they usually pair an up-to-the-minute show with an exhibition focused on their archives. Jan never starts there, though.

"One of the things that can be challenging about a collection of historical artifacts is that it can seem like, 'Here's a bunch of stuff in a room.' And it might be amazing stuff, but I'm looking for a way to understand it beyond, 'This a quilt on a wall or a spool of thread,'" she says. "I'm looking to understand the narrative of it. Where has that lineage ended up today and where did it start? What are all the places it passed through along the way?" 

By starting with the contemporary show, you can frame the rest of your trip. Use what you saw there to help piece together a story. 

"There's almost always connections that have been made between the exhibitions," says Jan. When you encounter items from their collection, call back to the ideas, or even the materials, that you saw in the contemporary galleries. And since the TMC's relatively small — with exhibitions spread over just two floors — it's easy to look for those common threads over and over, if you want to.

Want even more insight? Try a tour

Installation view from a past exhibition at the TMC. (Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada)

"In most museums, I try to avoid tours because I want to experience things and take my time looking at the objects the way that I want to look at them, but when I was there last we did a walkthrough," says Jan. "Because of the level of insight [my guide] was able to provide, I found it was really worth walking through with someone who knows the collection well."

Led by volunteers, tours are offered on Sunday afternoons (more info here), but you can also arrange a private walkthrough. (Unusually popular? The TMC can accommodate groups as large as 60.)

All that said, Jan says that all of her trips felt like the VIP experience. "I've never been there when it's crowded, and selfishly, I enjoy that," she laughs.

Take photos — so many photos

Jan's occasionally at the TMC to research a new project, but even when she's not on a mission, she's always hunting for ideas. "It's probably true for most artists in whatever capacity they work. Everything is a possible source of inspiration, right?"

"In a museum where we are allowed to take photographs, I do take a lot." Her photos might be memos on texture or technique, for instance. "It's visual data for later."

One of the (thousands of) photos Jan's taken at the TMC. (Courtesy of Emily Jan)

"If look at my work, there's a lot of that visual language of taking objects in and making them parts of these sort of installations," says the artist, and she brings up her recent body of work as an example, The World is Bound by Secret Knots. (Read about it here.) "I was really excited about making hybrid creature/plant/fungus/furniture. They're all mixed up into these entities."

Feeling inspired? Make something! Like, immediately

(Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada)

Check the TMC's event calendar before planning your trip. "They do a lot of public programming, and a bunch of it is actually free," says Jan.

Want to learn how to crochet, for example? Or embroider? There are classes for that — and no registration's required. "The workshops are usually thematically related to the shows that are in the galleries, and sometimes they're led by the actual artists who are showing," she says. "It's an extraordinary resource."

Keep falling down the rabbit hole

The H.N. Pullar Library, which is inside the TMC, is open to all museum visitors. (Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada)

If you wind up discovering a new passion, there are plenty of resources on site to help you pursue it. Jan always pops into the museum's H.N. Pullar Library, which is open to all visitors. "A lot of people don't know about it," she says. "It's physically not a huge room, but it is dense, dense, dense, dense, dense, with so much material." (According to the museum, there are 4,500+ books in the stacks, in addition to a collection of journals and video resources.)

Process the experience over coffee (or noodles or bubble tea or Japanese cheesecake...)

Works by Bev Koski installed at the TMC as part of their exhibition "Beads, They're Sewn So Tight." (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada)

"Going through a museum, I've just ingested a whole lot of visual and textual information," says Jan. "I want to go sit down and digest it."

"There's a number of coffee shops in the area, so that's what I'll do. I'll go to the museum, and then I'll sit down in a café somewhere." Swipe through your photo roll, she suggests. "Write down notes and sketches — stuff like that."

"I look back at what I've looked at," she says. "Bits and pieces might make it into shows in the future."

Retrace your steps online

Man's formal cape (date-gera). Tohoku, Yamagata prefecture, Shonai, 1930s. Linden tree bark, seaweed, grass, cotton fabric. (Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada)

It's rare to encounter the same objects on a repeat trip, but if you ever want to revisit a favourite item from the museum — or discover something new, for that matter — the TMC's entire collection can be viewed online.

This piece, a Japanese rain cape made of woven tree bark and seaweed and cotton and grass, is one of Jan's favourite TMC treasures, and she actually first saw it on their website. "It almost looks like a bird of paradise," she says. "It's absolutely a practical garment, but it looks so impressive and kind of animal."

For more info on how to plan a visit to the Textile Museum of Canada, visit

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.