Over the past couple of years, those of us with a passion for textiles as fine art have been noticing, with excitement, that there have been many major exhibitions in prestigious UK galleries featuring art made using textile processes and materials1. It’s clear that this upsurge in interest in craft and making is reflected in the work of established and emerging artists alike. This year’s Turner Prize winner, Veronica Ryan, for example, uses multiple craft processes in her sculptural work, but also a large proportion of the selected artists for the New Contemporaries 2022 award for emerging fine artists use textiles.
Thread, as cloth, is woven through our lives. It surrounds us and accompanies us from the moment we’re born till the day we die. It’s like a second skin. Yet, precisely because of these close connections, it becomes almost invisible to us.
So, why is thread becoming more visible as a medium in fine art right now? I also wonder whether this is a worldwide phenomenon. If you don’t live in the UK, are you seeing more textile fine art exhibitions in your country?
In 1984, the feminist theorist, Rozsika Parker, wrote in her book, The Subversive Stitch, that cloth itself is a gendered material. She highlighted the gender divide between ‘high’ art and feminised craft and proposed that cloth is a signifier of the private, and thus feminine, domestic sphere. Rooted in craft techniques, work made with thread has historically been seen as ‘women’s work’, overlooked or disregarded by the contemporary art scene. Traditionally, hard, durable materials like stone, marble and bronze have been used for sculpture; the soft, impermanent nature of cloth, however, evokes the human form and its mortality, revealing alternative meanings in its folds and surfaces (Barnett, 1999, p186). In addition to being an unconventional medium in fine art, its associations with clothing and the body also add to the meaning it conveys. Using cloth in fine art questions the orthodoxy of the patriarchal hierarchy of ‘high’ art and challenges notions of embodiment. The materiality and multiple gender dichotomies associated with cloth communicate complex meanings, adding nuanced subtleties to the artwork.
Now, nearly 40 years after Parker described this gendered public/private divide, it seems that things are changing; art made with textiles is going public!
‘Taking the pulse of creativity’
Having researched cloth, specifically second-hand clothing, as a medium in fine art for my undergraduate dissertation, and knitting as sculpture during my recent MA in Fine Art2, I was utterly delighted to have an installation of my abstract knitted sculptures selected for New Contemporaries last year. Eddy Frankel, of Time Out magazine, says that the New Contemporaries ‘acts as a sort of state-of-play for (emerging) art in this country, a way to take the pulse of creativity in the UK’. I was subsequently amazed to discover, that of the 47 selected artists, 13 of us, including myself, use textile processes and materials in our work – hand- and machine-knitting, crochet, quilting, applique, tufting, beading, embroidery, textile print – it’s all there! Sadly, the exhibition is now over, but if you’re interested in this textile trend in emerging art, have a look at the New Contemporaries 2022 online platform for more details about all the artists involved.
Here are some examples of the diverse use of textiles in the work at New Contemporaries:
Textiles in the limelight
There have also been numerous significant exhibitions of established artists featuring textiles in London recently and I have been lucky enough to visit quite a few of them over the past year. Highlights for me have been Magdalena Abakanowicz’ magnificent woven Abakans at Tate Modern and Cecilia Vicuna’s hanging installation, Brain Forest Quipu, in the Turbine Hall. The scale of the work in both instances is breath-taking. Other notable aspects of these two artists’ work, for me, are the subtlety of colour in Abakanowicz’ dyed rope and sisal, and the participatory and political co-creation of Vicuna’s Quipu.
I was also intrigued by Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Infinite folds exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery. Waterfalls of wrapped and braided silk, wool and synthetic fibres, looking uncannily like hair, are set against shiny aluminium or matt patinated bronze, creating striking contrasts in materials and surfaces.
I have recently visited a number of group exhibitions in smaller galleries in London too, which all focused on art made with textile processes and materials. At Richard Saltoun’s recent Antigone: Women in Fibre Art, for example, I found a selection of artworks by artists I had heard of and others, until then, unknown to me, some established and some newer names. As a knitter of large-scale installations, I was especially struck by the simplicity of Barbara Levittoux-Świderska’s red knitted hanging sculpture – again, the variations in the seemingly haphazard knitting and the colours of the dyed sisal and rope made it look like a drawing in space. The contrast between Ewa Pachucka’s bodily crocheted form, made in the ’60s, and Anna Perach’s recent sculptural representation of a body was intriguing. Both pieces seemed to come alive when seen in real life.
Another striking up-and-coming sculptor whose work I saw at Fold Gallery’s Techne exhibition is Erika Trotzig, who has recently been selected for the Royal Society of Sculptors Gilbert Bayes Award. She knits, wraps and binds with cloth and yarn, synthesising these processes with more traditional sculptural materials and techniques – concrete, wax, casting and some less conventional materials, like sand, the yellow foam from old sofas and found objects. One delight was to see an assemblage of her small maquettes which combine a wide range of contrasting materials and surfaces.
I’m also very excited that Arnolfini, the major contemporary fine art gallery in Bristol, where I live, is planning a major exhibition of works with textiles this summer. It’s called ‘Threads: Breathing stories into materials‘ and is co-curated by Alice Kettle. Alongside the exhibition there will be a wide range of community events and opportunities to make together.
There have, of course, been many well-known artists throughout the centuries who have used textiles as a medium for fine art – men as well as women – Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Yinko Shonibare, Christian Boltanski, to name just a few. In 2019 there was also a major retrospective of craft and making in the works of established fine artists at the Whitney Museum, New York, Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019. However, it feels as if this recent wave of exhibitions is changing the expectations of what is regarded as fine art.
So, why is art made with textiles becoming more prevalent right now? I’m not sure there is just one factor that has prompted it but here are a few possible ideas to consider:
‘Great Women Artists’
Is it due to pioneers like Katy Hessel and her campaign to promote women artists? Katy Hessel is an art historian, curator, broadcaster and bestselling author of The Story of Art without Men, awarded Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2022. She runs @thegreatwomenartists, an Instagram account that has celebrated women artists on a daily basis since 2015. I’m sure that her dedicated promotion of women artists is a contributing factor to this recent interest in so-called ‘women’s work.’
However, there have, of course, been others who have been campaigning for more visibility for women artists for many years, notably the Guerrilla Girls. They have been fighting for artwork by women and people of colour to be acknowledged by the art establishment since 1985, highlighting the inherent gendered and racial inequalities in the art world.
Is it about touch? The word ‘textile’ has the same etymological root as ‘tactile’. Just over 10 years ago, trend forecaster, Li Edelkoort, predicted that the increased use of computers and screens in most people’s daily lives would make us crave touch and tactility. She said, ‘super technology is going to ask for super tactility’ (2012). Edelkoort was specifically referring to interior design, and, of course, in most gallery settings, it’s forbidden to actually touch the artworks. However, for many people, there is a merging of the senses of touch and sight associated with cloth. ‘The materiality and multi-sensory nature of cloth blurs the boundaries of visual and tactile experience’ (Bristow, 2011, p45), ‘The eye…does not simply look. It also feels. Its response is both visual and tactile…’ the senses are ‘…each enfolded in the other’ (Barnett, 1999, p185). For the artist using textile materials and techniques, touch will probably be a highly significant reason for their choice.
Women with influence?
Is it because there are now many more women who are curators in the major galleries? Over the past ten years or so there has definitely been a significant increase in the number of women appointed as directors of prestigious galleries. Frances Morris, for example, has been director of Tate Modern, in London, since 2016. Around the world there is evidence that more women curators are having influence on the landscape of fine art.
I don’t really have an answer to ‘why now’? It feels, however, as if we might be on the crest of a textile wave …. Is this about gender, or material, or touch, or is it impossible to separate these factors? I suspect it’s a combination of all of these things and possibly other factors too. Whatever has prompted it, it’s certainly redressing the male-dominated balance of centuries of art history, as all of the artists whose work I’ve mentioned are women. Maybe it doesn’t really matter why, but it does seem that cloth is, at last, becoming accepted as a medium in fine art.
Making thread visible
It’s been thrilling to be part of seam collective’s past year of research into making thread visible. In March last year, seam was selected for The Holburne Open, a month-long research residency at the University of Bath, awarded by the Holburne Museum. We used the time, space and opportunities afforded to develop ideas for our forthcoming exhibition tour, working alongside one another, collaborating, connecting with the public and experimenting with ways to make thread more visible in the world of fine art. Since then, we have continued our research and seam collective is now thrilled to present an exhibition of new works which will stimulate thought and conversation. Through each artist’s unique perspective and through a diverse range of textile disciplines, seam artists have been exploring ways to make thread visible.
Do you have a different answer to ‘why now?’ Please come and continue this conversation about making thread visible in a fine art setting with seam collective during our forthcoming Arts Council funded exhibition tour of A Visible THREAD.
Catch A Visible THREAD if you can at:
- Fine Foundation Gallery, Swanage: 16 May – 7 June 2023
- Black Swan Arts, Frome: 16 September – 29 October 2023
- Llantarnam Grange, Cwmbran: 17 February – 4 May 2024
- Thelma Hulbert, Honiton: 20 July – 31 August 2024
See seam collective’s website and Instagram for full details of the tour, workshops and participatory events and sign up for seam’s newsletter for regular news and updates.
- Select list of recent exhibitions of art made with textile processes and materials:
JGM Gallery, London – Creature Comforts, 9 Nov 2022 – 12 Jan. 2023
Now Gallery, London – Matty Bevan, Ribbons, 30 Nov. 2022 – 5 Mar. 2023
South London Gallery, London – New Contemporaries 2022, Dec. 2022 – Mar. 2023
Tate Modern, London – Cecilia Vicuna, Brain Forest Quipu, until Apr. 2023
Serpentine, London – Barbara Chase-Riboud, Infinite Folds, Oct. 2022 – Apr. 2023
Richard Saltoun Gallery, London – Antigone; Women in Fibre Arts, 31 January – 23 March
Unit London – Within + Without, 12 contemporary textile artists, 7 March – 6 April 2023
Fold Gallery, London – Techne, 15 Feb – 18 March 2023
Tate Modern, London – Magdalena Abakanowicz, Every Tangle of Thread and Rope, until May 2023
Hauser and Wirth, Somerset – The New Bend, Jan – May 2023
Royal Academy, London – Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers, 17 Mar – 18 June 2023
Arnolfini, Bristol – ‘Threads:Breathing stories into materials’, 8 Jul -1 Oct 2023
- For more information about my own research into the use of cloth and knitting in fine art please see:
Baker, L. (2020) Critical knitting; knitting as a research method
Baker, L. (2014) Second skin; used clothing and representations of the body in the works of Louise Bourgeois and Christian Boltanski
Artnet (2015) 25 Women Curators Shaking things up Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/25-women-curators-on-the-rise-276386
Barnett, P. (1999) Folds, fragments and surfaces: towards a poetics of cloth in Hemmings, Jessica (ed.), 2012, The Textile Reader, Berg: London, New York pp 182 -190
Bristow, Maxine, 2011, Continuity of touch- textile as silent witness in Hemmings, Jessica (ed.), 2012, The Textile Reader, Berg: London, New York pp 44 – 51
Edelkoort, L. (2012) Super technology is going to ask for super tactility Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2012/12/28/super-technology-is-going-to-ask-for-super-tactility-li-edelkoort-at-dezeen-live/
Frankel, E. (2023) 12 Amazing Artists you have to see at Bloomberg New Contemporaries Available at: https://www.timeout.com/london/art/12-amazing-artists-you-have-to-see-at-bloomberg-new-contemporaries-2022
Genevieve, A. (2019) 8 female curators shaping the art world Available at: https://www.riseart.com/guide/2297/art-world-news-influential-women-the-art-world
Hessel, K. (2023) The Great Women Artists
New Contemporaries (2022) New Contemporaries online platform Available at: https://platform.newcontemporaries.org.uk/
Nixon, Mignon, 2005, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a story of Modern Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press
Parker, R. (2010) 3rd edition, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine, London: Tauris