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T is for Textile Art

If you look closely at the development of textile art, you can see the threads of human history itself. Textile art uses materials such as cloth, yarn, fibres, threads and strings to create artistic objects.

Being one of the oldest art forms, textile art played an important role in human civilisation. Though textiles from those early days have disintegrated over time, it’s almost certain that the traditions of making and adorning fabrics have existed across every culture.

For a long time, textile art sat in an ill-defined zone between functional objects and fine art. Nowadays though, textile artworks can be found in most major art museums around the world, recognised as fine art objects in their own right.

Woven into history

While the raw materials, like plant fibres and animal hairs, can seem insignificant, early craftspeople used techniques like spinning, felting and weaving to turn raw materials into pieces of fabric. These would then be used for practical purposes like clothing or shelter. 

During the medieval period, we started to see textiles used for decorative purposes, such as representing important historical events. This visual way of recording history crosses language barriers and makes stories accessible to any viewer.

Spaces and processes 

Compared to historical textile art, contemporary interpretations of the medium focus more on the process, rather than the outcome. 

In the context of a globalised world where the pace of life can feel too fast to keep up with, the laborious nature of textile techniques forces us to slow down and reconsider how we encounter the world. 

Additionally, textile art as installation can amplify the sense of scale. It’s easy to create large pieces of work with materials like stone or metal, but far more time-consuming to create them with thin, individual threads. 

This can increase the sense of awe, as the viewer starts to think about the process behind how the artwork’s creation. One example are the red wool strings in Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s work, woven into haunting environments, commenting on memory, territory and loss. 

Returning to nature 

Natural materials like fibres and dyes have always played an important role in textile art, being the core building blocks of the medium. 

Though the Industrial Revolution created new materials and processes in textile-making, some contemporary textile artists have revisited this close relationship with nature by weaving in ecological themes. 

Artists harness the creative potential of textile art in different ways to advocate for the environment. Some artists, like Agy, an environmental policy maker turned textile artist, use free motion machine embroidery, hand-stitching and natural dyeing to depict natural phenomena that are too small for the human eye to see.  

Other artists move beyond depicting the natural world to develop sustainable art-making practices, such as using recycled materials for their soft sculptures. 

Women’s work

Perhaps part of the reason why textile art took a long time to be recognised as an art form is because of its gendered association. 

Historically and across multiple cultures, weaving, knitting, sewing, and embroidery were all lumped into the category of “women’s work”.  They were also considered technical skills that were expected of all girls. As a result, textile works, no matter their aesthetic merit, were devalued in the wider art world. 

In her essay “Strange Lines”, Singaporean artist and curator Berny Tan surveys the works of multiple female textile artists and connects their contexts and themes to her own work with embroidery and thread. 

While the success of many contemporary female textile artists may be interpreted as society moving past textiles as “women’s work”, it remains important to question our preconceived notions and assumptions. 

The line between craft and art

What’s the difference between the woven fabric of the shirt you are wearing and a tapestry hanging in a museum? They are made using the same fundamental processes, but we perceive them totally differently in our minds. 

Singaporean artist Kelly Limerick’s series Unbecoming saw her crochet self-supporting vases. She then torched them, causing them to melt and deform dramatically. 

Commonly associated with mental images of lace doilies and clothing, the craft of crochet has been elevated to something more in Limerick’s work. But as we raise these sculptures beyond “craft” in our minds, her works challenge us to consider why we even think about art as being a “higher” form of creating. 

Successful textile art connects us to the history of textiles – embedded in our shared past but often relegated to the sidelines. 

It deconstructs what we think we know, hitting hard despite its softness. 

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