Art History 101: Unraveling the History of Textile Art
From cross stitching to AI knitting, we’re delving into the world of textile art and the artists who are breaking new ground.
Allyson Mitchell, “Hungry Purse: The Vagina Dentata in Late Capitalism,” 2004-ongoing
Textile art, much like folk art, has largely been attributed to women’s work and craft. From beginnings in prehistoric Indigenous communities using distinct patterns to identify communities and tell histories, textile art has developed into contemporary art practices that challenge traditional definitions of fine art and craft. This week, we’ll be focusing on textile art from the 20th and 21st centuries, however it is important to understand the roots of this medium.
What’s the stitch with textile art?
At its inception dating to prehistoric time between 100,000 to 500,000 years ago, textiles were made for practical purposes such as clothing and blankets. Using a range of materials from animal skins, wool and leaves, textile art developed into more complex creations using felted materials and hand spun threads.
Community specific designs and techniques later developed and artisans integrated other precious materials such as beads, metals, bone, and shells that resulted in visually and culturally rich textile pieces. Irish and Scottish tartan, Ikat, Batik, and Navajo textiles, among others, helped differentiate communities, express individuality, and differentiate nation hoods.
Throughout history, textile arts have been used as a vehicle to express histories, biblical stories, religious narratives, clan community, and familial values. Through rich tapestries hung in prominent homes and religious buildings, these pieces served as educational and cautionary tools for the masses. From the fine embroidery for clothing and accessories to hooked rug wall hangings that decorated your parents 1970s walk-up, textile art has had quite the journey! Contemporary practices build on this history and incorporate art theories often subverting the notion of textile as craft and elevating the medium to high art.
During the twentieth century, textile art has developed and been used as a subversive political medium in art. The medium was readily available and offered a means of expression where traditional methods were not accepted by the male-dominated art society. Women painters, sculptors and photographers were not generally accepted openly and were often relegated to hobbyists or amateurs even with formal training and exceptional works. Textile art, however, was an accepted medium for women to work within and became a natural path for artists to experiment with and express their practices.
With strong ties to feminist art practices, many women textile artists have reclaimed the medium in contemporary art practices to produce politically charged works commenting on the traditional roles of women, ecological issues, body politics and the integration of contemporary digital technology in the medium.
Who are some key artist’s in the field of textile art?
- Anni Albers (German, 1899-1994): A groundbreaking textile artist and printmaker who integrated modern art and design aesthetics into her practice, having studied at the Bauhaus…you may also have heard of her husband, Josef Albers. Her work combined properties of light reflection, sound absorption, durability, and minimized wrinkling and warping tendencies. Not only aesthetic value was considered, but the practicality and physical development of durable and innovative materials were explored in her work.
- Chiharu Shiota (Japanese, b. 1972): According to the artist’s website, Shiota’s practice is rooted in “Confronting fundamental human concerns such as life, death and relationships, Shiota explores human existence throughout various dimensions by creating an existence in the absence either in her large-scale thread installations that include a variety of common objects and external memorabilia or through her drawings, sculptures, photography and videos.” Recently, her work was showcased at the 56th Venice Biennale as the representative for Japan.
- Sheila Hicks (American, b. 1936): The artist explores the limits of the medium often through scale, color and form with abstract installation pieces and small hand-woven wall-hanging works. She states, “Textile is a universal language. In all of the cultures of the world, textile is a crucial and essential component.” The artist also studied painting with artist and designer Josef Albers.
- Joyce Wieland (Canadian, 1930-1998): A multidisciplinary artist, Wieland was a forerunner in contemporary art of the 1960s and 70s creating politically charged quilt works with intricate stitching and needlepoint. Themes surrounding “women’s work”, the body, and national politics were explored in her works.
- Faig Ahmed (Azerbaijani, b. 1982): The artist is known for his striking surrealist weavings which integrate visual distortions into traditional rugs. The rugs hang on the wall and appear to melt and distort down to the ground. He marries contemporary art practices and traditional cultural art making techniques through his innovative practice. Ahmed represented Azerbaijan at the Venice Biennale in 2007.
How has social media shaped textile art?
The rise of social media has certainly impacted the visibility and accessibility of textile art. Particularly in the current socio-political climate, many artists have turned to textile art practices and have used their platforms on Instagram, SnapChat and Tik Tok among others, to expand their reach and engage in discourse. Accounts like Badass Cross Stitch (Shannon Downey) and Tiny Pricks Project (Diana Weymar Studio) comment on the daily news headlines through their embroidery and cross stitching practices challenging expected norms of femininity and fine art.
Their work has broken through the cottage craft industry and brought the subversive and loaded pieces to mass audiences. Social media has helped enable artists showcase their work and engage with communities of supporters across the globe and bring textile art practices to higher levels of recognition.
How have contemporary interventions affected textile art practices?
Technology has also had a significant impact on the development of textile art. From hand-weaving and embroidery to large looms and electronic sewing machines, technology has played an integral role in the complexity, scale and accessibility of textile arts. Presently, artists are breaking new ground by incorporating smart technologies into textiles.
Canadian artist’s Lee Jones and Greta Grip are hacking knitting machines and using AI to create physical textile pieces of soft data. Their collaborative work entitled “The Life of a Building” (2021) gathers data from Ottawa Art Gallery visitor interactions. Both through the artist’s website and in the gallery itself, the knitting machine creates a tactile visualization of visitor statistics gathered through these channels. The textile is created by a round automated knitting loom and grows longer with each stitch as interactions are documented from the data. The work will serve as a record of gallery visitors over the course of a year with each month represented by a distinct coloured yarn.
Watch their process video here!
Maggie Orth (American, 1964) also exemplifies contemporary technological interventions in textile art. Using a combination of conductive yarns and color changing threads, the artist harnesses electricity to create phase changes within woven textile. Like Lee Jones and Greta Grip, Orth marries the tactile analogue traditions of textile making and digital technologies in contemporary art practices.
With the global climate crisis, artists more than ever are integrating commentary and critique of mass consumption and the future of our planet. Vanessa Barragão (Portuguese, b. 1992) integrates ancestral techniques with contemporary compositions resulting in large abstract organic forms akin to moss and coral-like formations and growths.
In an interview with Museum Week Magazine the artist explains, “I intend to pass quite a few messages with my works… the most important and that I’m more passionate about is how urgent is the need to change some of our daily actions and routines, raising awareness to it and to how we should be more thoughtful about the harmful impact some of our habits may cause on our environment have and of course, the importance of preserving local crafts, bringing back ancestral techniques, handmade manufacturing processes, and of course, upcycling for a healthier planet.”
Abstract notions on consumption and environmentalism dovetail with textile works with the inherent ability to upcycle material, lean on nature for inspiration and make informed decisions on material choices in the final works.
Finally, Maria Hupfield (Anishinaabe, 1975) merges contemporary Indigeneity in her textile practice. In her artist statement, she shares: “She is interested in the production of shared moments that open spaces for possibility and new narratives. In her work, these moments of connection are recalled and grounded by coded and re-coded hand-sewn industrial felt creations and other material mash-ups worn on the body. An Urban off-reservation member of the Anishinaabek People she belongs to Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario, Hupfield is deeply invested in embodied practice, Native Feminisms, collaborative processes, craft and textiles.”
How do we preserve textile art and its legacy?
By virtue of the materials which are often organic, conservation and preservation of textile artworks can be precarious. Fibers will break down and become embrittled, colors may fade–particularly in pieces like tapestries and wall coverings that were on display for practical use and exposed to light and touch–and holes may appear from overhandling or insects. Synthetic fibers generally will hold their integrity, however these materials are still relatively new in the grand scheme of history, and their future integrity has not yet been realized. Nonetheless, similar issues of fading and embrittlement can be seen in works.
When displaying works, avoiding direct sunlight, touch, and dampness is key to preserve the piece. Although seemingly benign, these actions and environments can have a lasting effect on a piece over long term exposure. Musch like works on paper, photographs, and other sensitive mediums, textile art is vulnerable to conservation issues. Acid-free materials for storage and handling should be used to not expose pieces to potentially harmful chemicals which may eat away at the fibers of the work.
Like every artwork, maintenance of textile pieces will help ensure works can be experienced and enjoyed for future generations.
Where can you see textile art?
There is global support of textile art with a variety of dedicated institutions to the art form. We’ve shortlisted a few places to keep in mind on your travels:
- Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto
- Visions Art Museum, San Diego
- Fashion and Textile Museum, London
- Textile Arts Museum, Lyon– temporarily closed since April 2021 for renovations, but their website offers archived exhibition information and resources to peruse.
- Textiel Museum, Tilburg, Netherlands