When I tell people I’m majoring in textile art they assume two things: I’m either going to design unwearable outlandish clothes for the catwalk, or I embroider ugly old-fashioned doilies. Neither of these is true, but even if they were it does not diminish the value of my art, and that’s how people view textile art.
Many perceptions of art history and art making ask us to empathise and comprehend the infinitely complex skills a practice would require of an artist and sometimes the toll this would take on their body. This is evident in the narratives of many ‘great’ artists. What this perception of art history lacks, is, firstly, the demised status of textile art, to that of a ‘craft’ and secondly, the acknowledgement of the highly refined skills required to make textile art. Women’s skills which created lace, embroidery, quilts, and clothes that were seen as frivolous or (paradoxically) purely practical, therefore beneath more artistic endeavours of works produced by male counterparts. This perception persists as we are still hesitant to acknowledge quilting, textile work, lace making and other methods with the due skill, time and creativity that allows for its creation.
A lace edging could take one woman days to complete as she sat in a cold room (too warm and the flaxen thread used would warp), with minimal lighting (candles being the only source of light would over heat the room), working with fine threads that weaved in and out of braids and knots. This lace would then be sold to the wealthiest of peoples as a symbol of fashion and status, whilst the woman who made the lace would be losing her eyesight in a cold room. Whilst this kind of exploitation is still in practise today (evidenced in the fashion industries continual exploitation of people in sweat shops), it’s frustrating to see the intricate and delicate objects these women made reduced to craft. If men had made lace society would have built monuments in their names, but women are ignored and forgotten throughout history.
The gender discrimination within textiles is still very much alive and well today. Male designers dominate the fashion industry even though women are the main consumers. For men design and fashion is a legitimate choice of careers, for women it’s an expected passion. Textile art is still a hesitant and shunned aspect of the artistic community. Art from textile artists are expected to either be so startlingly modern that they defy the regular definition of textiles , or a representation of a traditional textile practice and it’s signifying oppression of a gender, sexuality, or race . And whilst both these aspects are completely valid and important, if your art doesn’t fall into these categories people will merely deem it a craft. Some of the best examples of this art/craft paradox are seen in the quilting community. Whilst quilts are often seen as purely beautiful and practical items for a cold climate, many quilters are experimenting with ‘landscape quilting’ , paper piecing , and modern quilting to create textile art and designs that are beautiful and astoundingly intricate. But you wont find them in galleries. They are proudly presented on beds, thrown over the backs of lounges, or occasionally entered in a local quilting exhibition.
Many of these talented people don’t see themselves as artists even though they create beautiful things. Whilst many would argue that art must make a statement, I believe that art can just be beautiful, provocative, interesting, or just be art for art’s sake. We marvel at the skill in oil paintings, stand in wonder at the life-like curves of marble sculpture, stare agog at contemporary digital art, but hide away the intricate works of textiles. This shunning of a form of art that is traditionally female and has not been hijacked by a large male presence (although male textile artists are out there) argues not only inherent sexism in our society but also in the artistic community. Textiles are an art, not a craft.