Importance of textiles.

[Textile arts] may be viewed as the products of technology, as cultural symbols, as works of art, or as items of trade.  The textile arts are a fundamental human activity, expressing symbolically much of what is valuable in any culture.

Randall Frost, The Significance of Textiles

Textile arts are one of the oldest forms of arts and crafts in human culture.  Textile arts include any kind of art that uses plant, animal, or synthetic fibers to create functional and decorative items.  Anthropologists estimate that early humans created textile pieces for practical purposes, such as for clothing or blankets, as much as 100,000 to 500,000 years ago.  As human culture and thought became more complex, so too did the art created from textiles.

As textiles have been a core of human culture, they have also been core to economic trade throughout the ages.  For example, the Silk Road trade routes brought Chinese silk to India, Africa, and Europe.  Wealthy individuals could obtain these imported textiles for clothing as well as decorative wall hangings, floor coverings, and furniture.  The Industrial Revolution and the invention of such contraptions as the cotton gin lowered the price of textiles so that more of society beyond the wealthy could afford to purchase textiles.  This created the advent of experimentation with textiles outside those of practical objects as was previously seen.

It is important here to mention the feminist and racial history of textile arts, especially in the United States.  Textiles arts have traditionally been considered women’s work, and still to this day the majority of persons who engage with this art form are women.  In fact, engaging with textile arts to this day can identify someone as a member of a particular social class, gender, or status in society.  In the 1960s and 1970s, female-identified artists began to reclaim the field of textile art and elevate it to a form of high art.

The mention of the cotton gin could bring any educated person to a thought of slavery.  The modern cotton gin was invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney, during a time of racist and forced slavery in the United States.  Eli Whitney was an inventor who by all accounts came up with the idea for the gin from a slave only known as Sam whose father developed a comb mechanism to separate cotton from the seed. Whitney simply turned this mechanism into a machine.  Without Whitney’s stolen idea, slavery was thought to die out in the United States. However, the cotton gin allowed for plantation slavery to explode: an estimated 4,000,000 humans were subjugated to slavery between the invention and the Civil War in 1861 through 1865. Truly, slavery didn’t fully end until the last slaves were notified of the passage of the 13th Amendment, months after the end of the war, on June 19, 1865.

Understanding this history and how interconnected our cotton is to slavery in the United States requires textile artists to hold anti-racist ideas. 

Anti-racism can be defined as some form of focused and sustained action, which includes inter-cultural, inter-faith, multi-lingual and inter-abled (i.e. differently abled) communities with the intent to change a system or an institutional policy, practice, or procedure which has racist effects.

Anti-racism Digital Library

Arts, crafts, and other creative outlets involving textiles owe much to the labor of the Black community.  This debt can never be repaid, but I will strive to create a space where textile arts are safe for all artists.

To start, here are two organizations I know of doing good work in the quilting space: WCQN and Color of Connection.

In the beginning, all textile art pieces were made by hand and thus were intensely laborious.  Modern use of machines and tools, such as the cotton gin and the sewing machine, has made the process less tedious. With these advances, textile arts are less often a necessity and can be an art of relaxation and creativity.  Textile art includes any artistic process that uses textiles, including: weaving, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, sewing, dyeing, quilting, and various other needle arts not mentioned.

My textile art of choice is quilting, but I also do embroidery and crochet on occasion. What is your favorite textile art? What has textile arts meant to you? Comment below!

Love, Madeleine


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