Following a Thread | A Brief Journey through Time & Textiles

Paracas mantle 100BC to 200AD_preview.jpeg

In 2016 the first sewing needle was discovered in Siberia’s Denisova Cave. Measuring around 7cm (3”) long, made of bird bone and with an eye for stringing thread, it’s thought to be at least 50,000 years old. You could argue that apart from the material they’re made from, needles haven’t changed much! 

We have the needle, so what about thread and cloth? Dyed flaxfibres have been found in a prehistoric cave in the Republic of Georgia that are some 36,000 years old. Used for wrapping the dead, the oldest known woven textiles were found in at a Neolithic site at Çatalhöyük, Anatolia. The ancient Egyptians developed different spinning techniques such as the drop spindle, hand-to-hand spinning, and ‘rolling on the thigh’, producing linen cloth for mummification purposes, clothing andother functional uses. Anyone who has traveled in a hot climate appreciates the breathability of linen and its cooling properties. The earliest proof of silk production dates from between 5,000 to 3,000BC and weaving in Japan started in the Jomon period, lasting from 12,000 BC to 300 BC.

Ancient Egyptians weaving and spinning

Ancient Egyptians weaving and spinning

Coptic textile

Coptic textile

So, we can appreciate that textiles have been around since time itself. From the moment we’re born, there’s barely a moment when we’re not in contact with cloth. We’re wrapped in swaddling, dried off with towels, tucked in to linen, clothed with garments, snuggled under blankets and eventually, clothed or shrouded in our coffins. Fine linen drapes a table, curtains keep out draughts and ‘dress’ a room, carpets make hard floors warm and comfortable, napkins protect our laps, cushions offer comfort. However they come, textiles radiate a tactile quality and I believe we unconsciously respond to our connection to fibre and cloth; they are deeply rooted within us whether we appreciate it or not.

So we know that we wouldn’t get far on a day-today basis without textiles, but I’m interested their use or incorporation in fine art and it’s important to begin in the past ...

Early Days

The use of textiles as an art form has been around for a long, long time. Most cultures have all used textiles to show wealth and power through their clothing and the decoration of homes, palaces, castles and fortresses. In Europe, textiles such as tapestries and embroideries played a vital role within living spaces.  Colourful, warm and large, they could cover stone walls, provide a ‘dressing’ for the room, indicate (through their size, content or complexity) the status of the owner and literally warm up what were generally cold, damp, draughty environments – in other words they both decorated and served as insulation.

Lady and Unicorn Tapestry

Lady and Unicorn Tapestry

Let’s take tapestry, a large-scale weaving done by hand on an upright loom, with the imagery usually being narrative (a hunting scene, a battle scene), decorative (flowers, trees, elements of nature) or religious (Christ, angels); or sometimes a combination of all three. A classic example of an early tapestry would be ‘The Lady & The Unicorn’, a series of six images woven in Flanders around 1511. The story goes that this is an allegorical work about chastity, with five of the pieces exploring the different senses (taste, smell, hearing, touch and sight) and the sixth is called ‘À Mon Seul Desir’, a title that’s somewhat open to interpretation!   I find the imagery in these tapestries delightful and somehow full of innocence although I know the world – even at that time – was far from innocent.

Flanders (in northern Belgium) was the weaving centre in medieval times and the skilled weavers were often father and son teams, with one generation passing on the skill to the next. However, tapestry wasn’t just restricted to men. Smaller-scale weaving and embroidery was usually done by women and seen as a suitable ‘occupation’ for a well-born woman, with many wives also making garments such as cloaks and shirts. The wealthier the husband, the finer the materials and the ‘richer’ the look of the item.

when is a tapestry not a tapestry?

Bayeux Tapestry.jpg

In my world, the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidery, not a tapestry. Made (roughly between) 1077 and 1092, it’s named for Bayeux in France where it was discovered hanging in a cathedral. No one knows for sure who made it although based on the style and the way the images are drawn into the embroidery, some scholars see evidence that the makers were Anglo-Saxon. Whenever or whomever, this embroidery used eight colours of wool and showed elaborate and dramatic images of horses, knights, soldiers and combat – all created from verbal descriptions of the battle. I had the pleasure to see it many years ago and although only 20” high, at 231 feet long it’s a show-stopper. Let's hope that France does loan it out to be seen in the U.U.

With the opening up of the Silk Road, precious fibres such as silk became available in Europe and the cloth, weavings, embroideries and clothing of the rich became status symbols of their connections, wealth and power. I find it amazing that ancient textiles are still around to be seen today and although a little faded, the colours, patterns and images still sing to us.

What Changed?

 In nineteenth century Europe, the Industrial Revolution transformed the production of textiles. With the invention of the cotton gin, spinning jenny and power loom, textiles could be produced quickly and cheaply which in turn made them available to a larger portion of society. Cloth no longer had to be woven by hand (unless you lived in remote, poor places) and this skill declined or in some cases (if you were well-off) became more of a pastime or hobby activity for women. Sewing and embroidery were very much women’s work, with seamstresses working long hours in appalling conditions to create or embellish clothes for the wealthy.  In addition to working with textiles as a job, most women had to sew at home, making or mending the family garments or soft furnishings - I feel that early quilts were born mainly out of necessity, not necessarily a love of making.

Every Tear has a Mend of its Own

Every Tear has a Mend of its Own

In addition to quilt-making, other textile-related activities such as knitting and crochet entered the average household as tasks reserved for women. Generally an activity done at home, these crafts became identified with domesticity and ‘women’s work’, and were devalued. If done as a hobby, they were usually seen as non-productive and again, de-valued. As such, work related to textiles was down-graded from a high art form practised by both men and women to the ‘feminine craft’ of a thrifty wife, as demonstrated by the book ‘Practical Home Mending Made Easy’, a copy of which I own. Written by Mary Brooks Picken and published in 1946, it has delightful hand-drawn illustrations and brilliant chapter headings such as ‘Every Tear Has A Mend Of Its Own’ (10 specific mending techniques), ‘Darning as Fine Art’ (a statement that certainly resonates with me!), ‘Count Stitches not Sheep’, ‘A Turn for the Better’ (reversing collars, repairing shirt cuffs etc.), ‘Young and Gay’ (tassels, fringing and pompons) to name but a few.  Find a copy if stitching is in any way of interest you.

So, we come to a point where history shows that textiles were an art form that was both decorative and useful, with usefulness or functionality gradually taking over.  But, the wheel turns and I’ll be turning my attention to the artists of the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century who chose textiles as their medium.  They brought the art – rather than the functionality - back in to play. But before that happens, it’s important to establish what I mean by ‘art textiles’.

Textile Art or Art Textiles?

Textile art is broad term that can encompass many types of approaches, materials, methods and forms.  But I find it interesting that the qualifier of ‘textile’ is needed.  In the fine art world, there are simply artists.  Some may say they are oil painters, or sculptors but very few include the medium they work in as part of their title.  Nancy Crow refuses to categorise herself as an ‘art quilter’ on the basis that no other artist needs to categorise themselves.  Does Grayson Perry make ‘art pots’ or ‘art tapestries?  No, he makes art.  Does Gerhard Richter make ‘art paintings’?  No, he is an artist who uses paint as his medium.  As such, Nancy describes herself as “an artist whose medium is quilts”.

As such, if there has to be a categorisation for textile art, I prefer to put the art before the textile and use the term ‘art textiles’.  For me, this is one way to encourage people to see that artwork made from, or incorporating textiles and fibre is art, and art that has additional benefits to the visual. art textiles.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the above article