Summary of Textile Art
The production of textiles is one of the oldest artistic practices. Even though there are practical underpinnings to their origins, textiles quickly developed a secondary function as symbols of status, power, and beauty. From the elaborate garb of royalty to minimalist woven wall hangings, textile art has been revered both for its technical expertise and visual appearance. The imagery and symbolism, is dependent upon the culture and time period in which it was made, but the common thread of artistry and skill is ever present.
For many centuries, art meant the mastery over a particular, skill, style, or discipline but this changed in the 19th century when the term began to be associated with something that was intended for display but did not necessarily have a practical use. Consequently, the definition of textile art is also fluid - initially inseparable from the practical uses of textiles in dress and home comfort - more recent examples of textile art do not always have a direct function. In a historical context, it is also difficult to separate the learned craft and skills associated with the manufacture of textile art from the art of its design and execution, particularly given that the people, usually women, associated with making and designing historic, domestic textile art are rarely recorded.
Due to their fragile nature and domestic associations, ancient examples of textile art are rare. However, there is evidence of works from Egyptian, Peruvian, and Chinese cultures that provide deep insight into their production and usage. Surviving textile art becomes more prevalent from the Medieval period onwards and the rich and varied techniques displayed such as dyeing, weaving, embroidery, knitting, and crochet are still widely used to this day. This long tradition continues to inspire artists to innovate while perpetually referencing these historic practices.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Although textiles are often only considered for their utility, many cultures, both ancient and contemporary, have also used textile art to weave cultural narratives, establish hierarchies, display political affiliation or resistance, and express vivid emotion. In doing so, both the tangible skills associated with textile creation and decoration and the intangible stories of a culture are passed onto the next generation.
- The styles and types of textile art created in any given period has been shaped by numerous factors including fashion, innovation, and availability of materials, and these elements of social, cultural, and technological change have consistently impacted the appearance, design, and production of textile art.
- Textile art is different from other works and movements due to its focus on patterns and shapes and because it speaks, not just to the visual, but also to tactile sensory experiences. From clothing to decorative works, textiles employ a variety of textures that engage the viewer in a truly multi-sensory experience.
- Even with modern modifications, contemporary artists essentially employ the same ancient techniques to create textile works, but modern technologies and synthetic materials have broadened the aesthetic and structural possibilities of the movement.
Artworks and Artists of Textile Art
Bayeux Tapestry (detail)
The Bayeux Tapestry is an extraordinarily preserved example of medieval textile art. Contrary to its name, it is actually an expansive work of embroidery, meaning its scenes are sewn onto the fabric instead of the designs being woven into the cloth. At almost 200 feet long, The Bayeux Tapestry's richly colored, continuous narrative scenes depict the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy, more commonly known as William the Conqueror, in 1066. The background is kept bare, drawing attention to the vividness of the characters and scenery and the needlework is exceptionally refined and purposeful, making the scenes clear and distinct.
Although the patron of the work is widely believed to be Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William the Conqueror's half-brother, the individual Anglo-Saxon artists who created the work remain anonymous. It is likely, however, that the intricate needlework was executed by a team of female embroiderers. Unlike most art during the Romanesque period, it displays a detailed secular scene as opposed to Christian subject matter. The work functioned as militaristic propaganda, narrating the Battle of Hastings from the Norman perspective.
Inspired by its impressive age or its succinct storytelling, artists have referenced the Bayeux Tapestry's cinematic, comic-strip like story for hundreds of years. Influencing disciplines from paintings to cinema, the dramatic narrative continually serves as fodder for inspiration. Author and professor Gerald Noxon states that "there is no other work comparable to it, directly known to us, or likely to be discovered." As an artwork, it is famous not only for its exquisitely detailed rendering of the military campaign, but also for the remarkable length and condition of the fabric. The action-packed content and skillfully-executed design makes the Bayeux Tapestry stand out from other medieval works and hold relevance for contemporary viewers.
Wool yarn on linen - Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, Bayeux, France
The Unicorn Rests in a Garden
The Unicorn Rests in a Garden is one of a series of seven tapestries from the narrative series The Unicorn Tapestries. Heralded for their remarkable condition and quality, these works are some of the finest and most famous examples of weaving from the Late Middle Ages. Each tapestry depicts a scene in the hunt for the unicorn by a group of noblemen and hunters, all donning their finest clothing and weapons. Every scene is brimming with lush vegetation, detailed depictions of people and animals, and the enigmatic unicorn. To show distance, people and buildings are shown significantly smaller in the top register of the tapestry, creating a sense of perspective. As the hunt progresses, the unicorn becomes weaker, culmulating in the final scene, The Unicorn Rests in a Garden, with the creature in docile captivity, showing that the hunters were successful in their chase. In the Middle Ages, the unicorn was a multifaceted symbol, representing everything from the sacrifice of Christ to mystical associations of immortality.
Because of the expensive materials (in this instance, fine wool and silk with silver threads) and the specialized skills and tools necessary to create tapestries, they were some of the most expensive artworks to commission, far surpassing painting and sculpture. It required teams of skilled artists to deftly weave the scenes based on a detailed cartoon, or pre-planned drawing of the tapestry. Margaret Freeman, Medievalist and curator of The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote extensively on the legacy of The Unicorn Tapestries: "The Unicorn tapestries have been shown in many different ways throughout the centuries...There could be no better evidence than this of the undying vitality and the ageless appeal of The Hunt of the Unicorn."
Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts - The Met Cloisters, New York
Silk Animal Carpet
Produced in Persia (now known as the country of Iran) and featuring 800 knots per square inch, this richly decorated, pure silk carpet, would have been an extremely expensive and time-consuming product to create. Carpet weaving has played an important role in Persian culture for hundreds of years and this piece was created during the Safavid Period (1501-1732), one of the most fruitful and creative times in Persian art. Surviving carpets from the period are some of the most elaborate and detailed weavings in existence. As author Cecil Edwards notes, this is the timeframe in which Persian carpet manufacture "rose from a cottage métier to the dignity of a fine art".
Here, images of fighting animals are portrayed against a deep red background covered with flowering plants. The central panel is surrounded by a wide repeating border featuring birds, probably golden pheasants. The animals, including lions and tigers as well as mythical beasts such as dragons show that the designer had a familiarity with Chinese art, where some of this imagery originated. Similar pictures appear in illustrated manuscripts and on book bindings of the period, suggesting a widespread Chinese influence in Persia at the time.
Carpets were not exported from Persia until the middle of the 16th century, but European inventories show them in evidence in Italy and Portugal in the 1560s and 70s, where they functioned as a significant status symbol. It is probable that this small-scale carpet demonstrates the early creation of a commercial product that was sold both locally and internationally. In this way, the design of the carpet reflects the history of Persia, and its culture and traditions whilst also being a product of the trade routes that brought Chinese goods and influences into the country and exported items to Europe.
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Hand-painted cotton overdress
This robe a l'anglaise, or English gown is made up in a hand-painted cotton, featuring an all over pattern of floral clusters and bamboo shoots linked by sinuous green stems. The dress was made by an unknown seamstress and the style, with its closed, funnel-shaped bodice and wide pleated overskirt, was very fashionable between around 1720 and 1780. The cotton fabric was imported to Europe from India via Amsterdam and it is stamped with the mark of the Dutch East India Company. It was produced by Indian artists, usually women, for the European market and the design, which is incredibly intricate, would have either been painted freehand or stenciled with freehand additions.
Painted cottons had been produced in India from the 14th century and they were first imported to Europe from the 17th century. These increased in popularity in the 1700s, as trade networks grew and designs were adjusted to appeal to European tastes. European traders also brought printing technology to India and printed cottons gradually superseded hand-painted ones. Towards the end of the 18th century, cotton mills in France, England, Germany, and the Netherlands began to produce their own printed cottons and this caused the import trade from India to diminish.
This dress is a beautiful example of the, often unattributed, work and art of women in the textile and garment industries. Immense skill and concentration would have been needed to paint the complex, replicating design on the fabric and the dress itself would have been cut, constructed, and sewn into this close-fitting gown without the use of patterns or machines. The completed garment was a high-fashion status symbol, but also a testament to the talent and ability of those involved in its manufacture.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Embroidery design by May Morris, worked by May Morris and Theodosia Middlemore for Melsetter House, Orkney
This is one of a pair of hangings designed and worked by May Morris, daughter of Arts and Crafts designer, William Morris. Both pieces are of the same design, but worked in different pastel colors. They depict a central tree against a trellis background, surrounded by stylized roses, organic curling stems, and an array of birds. The design can be seen as a reference to 15th century trees of life, designs which represented growth and continuity. The pieces were created for Theodosia Middlemore and she helped to work them. Middlemore and her husband were patrons of the Arts and Crafts movement and their home on the Scottish island of Orkney, Melsetter House, was designed by the Arts and Crafts architect, W.R. Lethaby and furnished with items from Morris & Co, William Morris' company.
The Arts and Crafts movement rejected the shoddy machine-produced items that were the result of large-scale industrialization and focused on a return to simple, well-designed, high-quality goods, often with a Medieval aesthetic. At the age of 23, May Morris took over the running of the Morris & Co. embroidery department, supervising the production of a range of textile items from altar cloths to bed covers in the Morris house style, of which this was one example. She also created her own designs, some of which, such as Honeysuckle (c.1883) and Horn Poppy (1885), went into production on printed textiles and papers and were often misattributed to her father. May's work fulfilled the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement in that it was both useful and beautiful, but she never received the same acclaim as her father. As curator Jan Marsh notes, this "was the standard denigration of women's work as essentially second- or third-rate that kept her works from critical or public attention".
Wool, linen, metal
6 October 1942 (6. Oktober 1942)
Hannah Ryggen was a modernist textile artist whose works engage both with the formal experiments of twentieth century art and the folk traditions of her native Norway. Working partly under the influence of Northern-European Expressionism, and coloring her pieces with dyes grown in her garden, she produced organically colored, experimental tapestries that were nonetheless steeped in tradition, telling stories of love, life, war, death, and hope in a potent visual language. Ryggen was a political artists: anti-fascist and bitterly opposed to the political dictatorships that overran Europe during her lifetime. Among those leaders Ryggen most despised was Adolf Hitler. In this tapestry she depicts the consequences of his Nazi invasion of her town in Norway in 1940 during World War II. As author Figgy Guyver explains, the title refers to “the date that martial law was declared in Trondheim by occupying powers,” while the piece “depicts the tragic execution of prominent citizens”.
Hitler is shown in caricature, brandishing a pistol and surrounded by Norwegian sympathizers including the Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling and the author Knut Hamsun, presented as cawing black birds. To the left the actor Henry Gleditsch has been shot and lies in his wife’s arms. His execution had been ordered by Reich officer Josef Terboven for his resistance work. Terboven is depicted, along with two other men, floating above a boat in which Ryggen has included herself, her husband and her daughter. Hitler is shown hovering above the executed man. As art historian Marit Paasche states, “with a pistol in each hand, [he] floats like an omnipresent devil.…Ryggen ridicules Hitler by depicting him with oak leaves issuing from his anus. ”
This work shows Ryggen’s capacity to memorialize the key political narratives of her era. And yet the work is also biographical, with events presented, as it were, through the eyes of the artist herself. The placement of Ryggen and her family in the boat shows their desire to flee and yet their inability to do so. The formal and compositional aspects of the work were also vital in ensuring that the message carried across—as Paasche explains by outlining how Ryggen’s works grew in conception over time: “[Ryggen’s] journal entries reveal that the colour scheme also played an important role, often directing the composition. Once the entire image ‘sat’ well enough, she could begin to weave. ”
Tapestry woven in wool and linen - National Museum for Decorative Arts and Designs, Trondheim, Norway
Best known for her woven works and wall hangings, Anni Albers' pieces have an iconic, geometric quality and a bold color palette. Under Way (1963) exemplifies Albers' technical expertise and precision, while still maintaining a lively, organic quality. Albers studied ancient textiles from Central and South America and these strengthened her artistic vocabulary. In Under Way, the high contrast of black, white and red threads and the wave-like pattern is reminiscent of Peruvian pieces.
Albers considered texture to be particularly important in her artworks, noting that "Besides surface qualities, such as rough and smooth, dull and shiny, hard and soft, textiles also includes colour, and, as the dominating element, texture which is the result of the construction of weaves. Like any craft it may end in producing useful objects, or it may rise to the level of art." To achieve texture, she often combined materials, here utilizing three textiles with different properties, but in other works she incorporated more unusual elements such as horsehair, paper, and cellophane. As Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, states: "For Albers, weaving combined art, architecture, and engineering. Her quest was to devise ways for her materials - the threads themselves - to create the visual and textural action in her work."
Albers attended (and later taught at) the Bauhaus school in Germany in the early-1920s and she continued to work as part of the movement. Although women were admitted to the progressive institution and completed the foundation courses alongside their male peers, they were encouraged to specialize in arts and crafts, particularly weaving. In a 1968 interview with Sevim Fesci, Albers admitted that she initially resented the pressure to pursue weaving, but she later found the restrictions of the medium to be liberating. "I felt that the limitations and the discipline of the craft gave me this kind of like a railing. I had to work within a certain possibility, possibly break through, you know." Her persistence and experimentation set a liberating precedent for women artists to experiment with textile arts. As she herself noted, "Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness". Albers helped lay the foundations for the increased acclaim that textiles arts garnered later in the 20th century.
Cotton, linen, wool - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
After meeting in Paris in 1958, Christo and Jeanne-Claude pioneered site-specific fabric artworks that engulfed and dominated spaces. In their mature period, the pair worked on a colossal scale, encasing both national monuments and landscapes in textiles. Although Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 and Christo in 2020, some of their works were realized posthumously. Due to bureaucratic, environmental, and monetary restrictions, many of their works took years, sometimes decades, to realize, and Wrapped Reichstag (1971-95) is a prime example, completed over two decades after it was first conceptualized. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Christo and Jeanne-Claude conceived the project as a metaphorical clean slate for the German people, and a marker of the reintroduction of Berlin as an international capital city. The Reichstag was a former German government building, that had been unused for decades. Even so, it took twenty-four years of government lobbying to see the project come to life.
Although their work has been associated with land and environmental art, their wrapped pieces play a significant role in the history of textiles. Textiles have the reputation of being small-scale and fragile and the wrapped works challenged these misconceptions about the power and presence of textile art. By enveloping buildings in fabric, their artworks blurred the lines between architecture and fine arts and this statement was enhanced through the use of an iridescent, silvery-blue fabric. The reflective qualities of the fabric changed during exposure to sunshine and wind and through specifically structured pleats in the wrap, enhancing the overall sculptural appearance of the completed work.
When considering why fabric was an attractive medium to the artists, Professor Peter Jelavich stated: "Christo and Jeanne-Claude claimed that textiles marked the beginning of civilization; agriculture and weaving stood at the dawn of human history. They also contended that fabrics evoke transience, like the tents of nomadic tribes." The extensive history and ephemeral quality of fabric enticed the artists; it would wear and deteriorate over the installation period, and eventually be permanently removed, but it would have a lasting historical impact.
Polypropylene fabric with an aluminum surface and blue polypropylene rope - Reichstag Building, Berlin, Germany
Family of Women Series: Faith
Faith Ringgold's politically engaged paintings, quilts, and sculptures draw on a range of sources from the vibrant arts and music scene of the Harlem Renaissance to her travels in Europe, Nigeria, and Ghana, where she absorbed the artistic traditions of each region she visited. Soft sculptures, Ringgold's most prominent series from the 1970s, emerged as she embraced textiles more broadly, working with her mother who was a professional seamstress and a frequent artistic collaborator. Ringgold was further inspired by traditions of mask making, and the influence of Second Wave Feminism and the Black Power movement helped to focus her interest on an exploration of pan-African artistic practices and styles. She later began incorporating her textile works into some of her performance pieces.
Ringgold's life-size soft statues, with their mask-like faces, are both imposing and inviting. Family of Women Series: Faith (1973) was directly influenced by the construction of the ceremonial wooden masks of the Dan tribe of Liberia, but it also exemplifies the interest of the Women's Movement in abstract design. The construction of the piece is deceptively simple, with few signs of anatomy apart from the face and breasts. The face is symmetrical, with a vertical reflection evident in the text incorporated into the green eyebrows: "faith faith faith" on the left and its opposite "htiaf htiaf htiaf" on the right. Beneath her eyes, three teardrops of the female gender symbol cascade down the cheeks. A larger, red reproduction of the symbol is repeated around the mouth, disguised slightly by its hollow center. The earrings, necklace and belt are all intricately beaded in colors that complement the garment.
Each figure in the Family of Women series was modeled after a woman from Ringgold's life. Ringgold is inviting the viewer to temporarily see through this woman's perspective, emphasizing her impact and individuality. Additionally, Ringgold uses symbolic elements to highlight the gender of the sculpture and to make a wider case for the importance of women in social and artistic environments. Author and fellow activist Lucy Lippard reflected that in producing art that was rooted in the domestic and utilized traditionally feminine skills, artists like Ringgold were "shedding their shackles, proudly untying the apron strings - and, in some cases, keeping the apron on, flaunting it, turning it into art."
Mixed media - Collection of the artist, ACA Galleries, New York, New York
Blocks, Strips, Strings, And Half Squares
Mary Lee Bendolph is a prominent member of the Gee's Bend Collective located in Alabama, in a small town of the same name. Her work utilizes the historical quilting techniques and knowledge from the female members of her family to create mesmerizing works of art. Traditional quilts usually feature the symmetrical repetition of a small number of shapes, but Bendolph pushes the aesthetic limits of the practice with bold colors, asymmetrical patterns, and unexpected fabrics.
Blocks, Strips, Strings, And Half Squares (2005) embodies the improvisational and energetic characteristics of the Gee's Bend quilting techniques. The irregular, geometric patterns and saturated colors are evidence of the influence of the African heritage of the artists and the earlier influence of Native American textiles in the region. Although the quilts are now displayed on walls, many of them bear the stains and marks of years of use, intimately connecting them to the lives of the artists.
The growing recognition of the Gee's Bend Collective is completing the narrative of both textile art and American art history by celebrating the works and lives of female artists of color. These artworks are not only artistically innovative, but historically significant. A majority of the artists have ancestral links to enslaved people from the region. The quilts were originally made out of necessity, but they became a form of creative expression and storytelling by the women. Blocks, Strips, Strings, And Half Squares is an homage to the earliest quilting traditions, but presented in a modern form. Through her quilts, Bendolph preserves a familial practice and an American tradition while continuing to explore her passions as an artist and maker.
Cotton - Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Woods of Net
Based in Canada and Japan, Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam creates large scale, interactive crocheted environments. Crochet is usually done on a small, wearable scale, but MacAdam pushes the boundaries of the technique. Woods of Net (2009) is one of her textile playgrounds, made specifically for the Hakone Open-Air Museum, located just outside of Tokyo. A large, colorful netted web is enclosed inside a wooden shelter, contrasting the crochet's movement with the rigidity of the super-structure. The crochet is inspired by, and interacts with, the architectural elements, challenging ideas of structure and stability.
As a series, the textile playgrounds are expansive crocheted spaces that encourage exploration and play amongst all audience members, especially children. MacAdam was inspired to create interactive spaces after some children at an opening asked the artist if they could play on her work: "Textiles were produced by humans and developed for their needs. But I had been so intrigued with structures and objects that had nothing to do with people." Since this inspirational moment, she has been using durable, hand-dyed nylon rope to crochet interlocking sections in web-like patterns whose forms change and develop as pressure is applied in different areas. Each crocheted section is entirely handmade, with hundreds of hours of work going into its creation.
Hand-dyed nylon braid and hand crochet - Hakone Open-Air Museum, Hakone, Japan
Trained as both a visual artist and dancer, Nick Cave's creative background informs the visual and tactile elements of his work. Cave's soundsuits, life-size, multimedia costumes, are his most prolific series and he has created more than 500 suits. Cave wears the soundsuits during performances, then displays them in an anthropomorphic stance. Each soundsuit is made of different combinations of colorful, highly decorative fabric and an assortment of found objects. Soundsuit (2011) is an oversized structure with the suit functioning as a full-body mask, obscuring the wearer's identity. The materials are carefully arranged to add volume and depth to the garment. The circular, swirling pattern used to create Soundsuit recalls both traditional African textiles and the works of abstract artists such as Robert Delaunay.
As sculptures, the soundsuits mimic the dancing of the performances, bringing attention to the viewer's relation to their own body. Cave's work bends the expectation of textile art; the suits contain a strong vitality even when they are not being worn, as though the energy of the performance remains. The series has always existed as a political statement. The first soundsuit was made in 1992 following the attack on Rodney King, an African American man who was the victim of police brutality. Cave developed the soundsuits as a way to express both his experiences as a black man in America and to create a new identity through the suit. As Valerie Mercer, Head of African American Art at The Detroit Institute of Arts, elaborates: "Cave embraced soundsuits early on because they liberated him from any one specific aspect of his identity, as gay, male, or African American, allowing him to function as a shaman to everyone." Masks and suits are used in many African cultures as an immersive form of storytelling. Using this precedent, Cave pushes the artistic capacity of textiles by telling a contemporary story using ancient methods.
Buttons, wire, bugle beads, basket, upholstery, and mannequin - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
Beginnings of Textile Art
For thousands of years, artists have utilized plant fibers, animal skins, and other organic materials to create fabric and thread for both utilitarian and decorative purposes. Around 20,000-30,000 years ago, early man developed string by twisting plant fibers and the first textiles were produced by knotting and lacing these strings together. The nature of these materials caused them to deteriorate rapidly, so there are very few ancient examples. However, we know through literature, oral accounts, and depictions in other visual art that ancient peoples used a range of textiles and designs for clothing, shelter, and adornment.
The Technological Advancements in Textiles
Whilst the development of new technologies and machinery was predominantly driven by the need for faster, more efficient, and easier production of fabric goods, each new invention and development opened up novel possibilities in the creation of textile art, enabling more complicated designs, brighter colors, and new techniques. For instance, the loom was invented around 7000 years ago and this allowed the first textiles to be fully woven. As technology improved looms became increasingly sophisticated, allowing larger and more complex fabrics to be produced including intricate and specialized artworks such as tapestries.
The mechanization of industry from the 18th century using steam and water power sped up textile production considerably and the introduction of new technologies, such as the invention of the flying shuttle in 1733 and the power loom in 1786, helped to lower the cost of making fabric and increased its availability. Machines were also increasingly used for the construction of textile items and they took over the production of most sewn and knitted goods from the early-20th century.
This had several impacts on textile art, most prominently creating a disconnect between the newly machine-made items and their artisan roots, potentially removing them from the realm of art and situating them as nothing more than consumer goods. The Arts and Crafts movement can be seen as a direct response to this process, rejecting mass production and focusing on craftsmanship and individuality. Other movements, like Art Deco, found ways to embrace the new technology. Artists such as Sonia Delaunay, who used textile art to push the boundaries of color and form, ultimately ran a high fashion brand which used her designs, alongside mass production techniques to create, as author, Jacques Damase explains, "some of the most striking and original fabric designs of modern times".
Mass production also allowed greater access to the raw materials, such as thread, needed to create textile art, making the production of textile art more egalitarian, and skills including knitting and sewing became popular hobbies. Artists such as Kaffe Fassett created work across a wide range of decorative arts including needlepoint, patchwork, and knitting, but also tapped into this wider democratization by designing tapestry kits and knitting patterns that allowed people to recreate his work at home. From the 1970s, artists began to use knitted and sewn works as a feminist statement and recently knitting has seen a renaissance as public art, as yarn bombers decorate communal spaces with their temporary yarn-based graffiti. In this way, the Industrial Revolution dramatically altered people's relationships to textiles and set the groundwork for the expansion of fabric-based art in the 20th century.
Synthetic Fabrics and Dyes
Until the 19th century only fabrics from animals and plants, such as wool, cotton, and silk, and dyes derived from natural sources were available. This changed with the invention of aniline, or coal tar dyes, in 1854. British chemist, William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered mauveine, a purple dye, while trying to synthetize the anti-malarial drug, quinine. He went into production and other colors followed shortly afterwards including vibrant pinks, greens, and yellows. These dyes were more intense and colorfast than their natural predecessors and could be manufactured on a much greater scale, making strong, bright colors more accessible to the general public.
The first semi-synthetic fabrics were developed as silk substitutes in the 19th century and involved the processing of tree bark to produce fibers. This was commercially produced in the UK from 1905 and later became known as rayon. The first fully synthetic fabric was nylon, developed in the United States by Dupont in the 1930s. Synthetic fabrics with new properties continued to be developed throughout the 20th century and this opened up a huge range of novel possibilities for their use in clothing, domestic goods, and ultimately, artworks. Artist and fashion designer, Hussein Chalayan's 1999 Airmail Dress uses the lightweight, sturdy properties of the synthetic material Tyvek to create a dress that can be comfortably worn, but that can also be folded into an airmail envelope and sent through the post.
Concepts and Styles
Textiles were originally designed with practicality in mind; tapestries kept homes warm, rugs helped keep floors clean and comfortable, and clothing protected bodies against the elements. As time and technology advanced, the appearance of these objects became just as important as their functionality. The incorporation of vibrant colors, patterns and materials resulted in the aesthetic elevation of some textiles to art. While everyday objects remained plain, ceremonial garb and the clothes and belongings of the wealthy were richly decorated. This combination of function and beauty coexisted in most pieces of textile art until the 20th century, when increasingly, pieces became divorced from purpose. Whilst functional textile art is still being made, the utility of items is considered less important in a modern context. This move away from functionality can be seen in the work of artists such as Chiharu Shiota, Louise Bourgeois, and Nick Cave
The utility of textile art is further removed by placing works in museums. Displaying rugs on walls or clothing in cases removes immediate contact and access to these objects and denies the viewer a physical connection. The displacement of utility invites viewers to see historic pieces of textile art for their technical precision and aesthetic value instead of their functional purposes.
Power, Wealth, and Status
Prior to industrialization, textiles were very expensive and consequently they were a key means of displaying power and status. Both clothing and interior decoration served to demonstrate the wealth of an individual and importance of their role in society. The more decorative a piece, the more it would have cost in terms of materials and labor and the more important the owner. The part that textile art played in demonstrating and maintaining hierarchies can be seen through the prolonged and widespread use of sumptuary laws which were one expression of deep-rooted concerns regarding the transgression of social boundaries through textiles.
Sumptuary laws were pieces of legislation which prohibited the wearing of certain fabrics, colors, or styles usually by people below a certain social position. For instance, in the late-Medieval period, European sumptuary laws prevented wealthy middle-class merchants from imitating the dress of the aristocracy by stopping them from wearing satin brocade, cloth-of-gold or certain types of fur. It was believed that if the middle-classes could be mistaken for the ruling elite through their use of textiles, then the power of the rulers could be delegitimized.
Textile art is less frequently used to convey power and status in modern and contemporary art, but it can still carry influential messages about hierarchies and politics. Los Angeles-based artist Tanya Aguiñiga, sees using textiles in her art as "acts of defiance, resistance and cultural survival". Aguiñiga was raised in Mexico, and now collaborates with other artists and activists to create installations that address political and human rights issues around the US-Mexico border.
Textile art took on an important role in many religions. Much in the same manner as the ruling classes, religious leaders denoted their authority through intricate and decorative ceremonial clothing and artefacts such as altar cloths and church hangings. These were often ornamented with religious or spiritual symbols and motifs which could relay information without words, making them easily understood by illiterate congregations. For example, Christian items often displayed narratives from the Bible that functioned as allegorical connections to piety and morality. Sometimes these symbols were also incorporated into the dress of royalty to indicate their divine right to rule. Religion has impacted societies for thousands of years and textile arts with religious uses or themes are extremely diverse. They can be seen to encompass everything from works such as the beautifully woven Mid-Byzantine panel depicting the annunciation in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which was thought to have originally been worn as a garment to the work of contemporary artists such as Farwa Moladina, who uses textiles and embroidery to explore Muslim female identity.
The way in which textile art was produced, decorated, and constructed was dictated by wider fashion and this continues to the present day. The cut, decoration, and color of clothes and the styles of interior textiles such as hangings and curtains changed dramatically over time and was influenced by different countries at different periods as well as wider social and technological change. In the 19th century, the growth of avant-garde art movements worked in a similar manner, producing textile art that linked into the ethos and beliefs of the movement, often producing art work with similar underlying styles. This can be seen in the impact of OpArt and wider ideas around fashionable colors in the work of 1960s and 70s artists including Victor Vasarely and Eduardo Paolozzi.
The creation and assembly of textiles has always been a highly gendered industry and, with the exception of weavers and tailors, it was heavily dominated by women workers. As both the production and, later, consumption of textiles became closely associated with women, whilst the beauty of items were appreciated, it was dismissed as a form of art. This meant that during the 19th and 20th centuries it was neglected in terms of research and preservation. Textiles were slighted in comparison to paintings or sculptures, usually created by men, until the Feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s reclaimed textile items as a tribute to the historical innovation of women artists.
Second wave feminist artists pushed for textile arts to be taken seriously in museum spaces. Inspired by literary works such as Linda Nochlin's Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in 1971, feminist artists began tapping into the larger history of women's artistic practices, legitimizing the historical works. Artistic practices that had been previously relegated to the domestic sphere, such as needlework and embroidery, were treated with the merit they deserved. By working in mediums that were neglected by male artists, feminist artists created a new visual language through which they could communicate their social and political views. For example, Judy Chicago incorporated textiles in her work, The Dinner Party (1974-79). By including stereotypically feminine items in such a monumental work, Chicago created a piece with sharp historical connotations that directly confronted modern sociopolitical issues.
Later Developments - After Textile Art
Textile art has boomed in the 21st century, evolving into an interactive and prolific field with visual artists exploring the aesthetic and structural limits of organic and synthetic materials. It is impossible to sever contemporary textile art from fashion; high fashion is becoming increasingly experimental, with garments transcending the world of utility into art. Institutions, such as the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was founded in 2014, are both legitimizing and expanding their collection of fashion objects.
Conscious of the detriment that the fast fashion industry causes to the environment, artists are beginning to seek out sustainable alternatives to create new works. This restriction has driven innovation, with recycled and repurposed fabrics becoming both a popular medium and a means of environmental activism. Artists are gravitating towards institutions such as The New Denim Project in Guatemala that are broadening the accessibility to high-quality, low-waste materials. By using upcycled cotton and post-industrial waste to create durable fabrics, artists do not have to sacrifice the quality of their works for eco-friendly materials. While only using recycled or reused materials might seem restrictive, artists are finding innovative creative solutions while being environmentally-conscious. This brings the production and use of textiles full circle to pre-industrialization techniques where, due to its expense, every piece of fabric was carefully used and garments were taken to pieces and remade multiple times or passed onto family members or servants to wear.
Useful Resources on Textile Art
- The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the WorldOur PickBy Virginia Postrel
- Textiles: The Art of MankindBy Mary Schoeser
- Power and Style: A World History of Politics and DressOur PickBy Dominique Gaulme
- Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200By Maureen C. Miller
- Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold StoriesEdited by Sue Pritchard
- The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a MasterpieceBy Carola Hicks
- Women's Work: Textile Art from the BauhausBy Sigrid Wortmann Weltge
- On WeavingBy Anni Albers
- American PeopleBy Faith Ringgold