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New Worlds: The Textile Arts

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon! www.patreon.com/swan_tower

Weaving, knitting, crochet, lace-making, knotwork, tapestries, quilts and patchwork, embroidery of all kinds ranging from crewel to cross-stitch to canvas work . . .

There are a lot of textile arts.

Taken in its broadest sense, this category includes clothing in general, as textiles are (usually) the material from which our garments are made. But since clothing in general has gotten essays before, and will get more in the future, my focus this week is going to be more on the ways in which we decorate the textiles, rather than decorate ourselves with them.

It’s not surprising that this is a huge category, since textiles are one of the most important technologies we’ve ever developed, probably right up there with agriculture. They form the majority of how we keep ourselves warm and our surroundings soft — and since we generally like our belongings to be as pretty as we can manage, they make an ideal target for artistic expression.

On a very broad level, you can distinguish between making the thing itself decorative, and putting decoration on a pre-existing thing. Weaving techniques are one of those topics I think rapidly get too arcane to be worth delving into fully here — if you’re writing the kind of story where the difference between a warp-weighted and a pegged loom is relevant, you either know about those already or know you need to go do some research — but the basic thing to bear in mind is that many kinds of weaving allow you to create designs in the fabric itself. As you might expect, it’s usually more labor than weaving a simple, single-color cloth; how much more labor depends on the technique and loom in use.

Because we need fabric so much in our daily lives, textile production was one of the first industries to be mechanized during the Industrial Revolution. This didn’t only allow us to make plain cloth faster, though; it made it easier to create patterned types. Complex decorations like brocade are even part of the history of computing, as the punched cards developed by Joseph Marie Jacquard to speed up their weaving influenced Charles Babbage’s design for the Analytical Engine, and so on into the twentieth century.

Knitting, crochet, and lace-making (that last of which can be done via knitting or crochet, as well as other methods) likewise incorporate decoration into the creation process, via the patterns of stitches and knots used to make the material and the changing out of thread colors. Because of the labor-intensive process and the delicate, non-utilitarian result, lace is particularly an elite textile, not something an ordinary person would make for themself or be able to afford in the market. It’s also more often used as trim than as whole fabric in its own right — though the latter does happen, especially for fancy items meant to be semi-see-through, like bridal veils.

By contrast, the various forms of embroidery cover the whole range of wealth and complexity. You already have your fabric; now you’re just adding something to it. Even a poor person might be able to afford a little extra thread dyed with a local plant, and in those moments when the day’s main work is done, or it’s too dark or too rainy to accomplish anything outside . . . why not make something nice?

This isn’t simply an idle pastime, however often it gets depicted that way. Women’s abilities with embroidery have long been considered a key accomplishment, the kind of thing that makes them more attractive marriage partners — which makes me think of the value hunter-gatherers apparently place on being a good storyteller, even though telling stories doesn’t (directly) put food in anybody’s stomach. We crave entertainment and beauty, it seems. Someone who can provide those things, above the bare functional minimum required for survival, is very desirable to have in your life.

In other cases, the art aspect of textiles is more about making virtue out of necessity. Although a lot of modern quilts use new fabric, patchwork — sewing together smaller pieces to form a design — is a great way to make use of scraps left over from other projects, or to recycle material from clothing that’s no longer fit to be worn. The resulting fabric can be used for a lot of purposes, like clothing or cushion covers, but we particularly associate it with quilts, whose layers give you something that’s simultaneously decorative and insulating.

The economic value of the textile arts can be significant. The professor I mentioned last week, Henry Glassie, also studied carpet-weavers in a region Turkey where that is both the main industry and entirely practiced by women. (We associate textiles more with women than men, but it isn’t always a feminine art, especially not once it starts being practiced for commercial purposes rather than just home consumption.) In the community he worked with, the carpets a woman produces before her wedding form her dowry, and once married, she is both the household’s main earner and the one in control of the finances — Henry said husbands have to ask their wives for money to buy cigarettes and such.

Despite this, it’s been hard for textile arts to gain much in the way of elite respect. Tapestries are a bit of an exception; because they’re massively labor-intensive and are used kind of like paintings that can also insulate a room, they’ve been commissioned by nobles and kings, given as prestige gifts, and preserved as treasures across the centuries. Some articles of embroidered clothing get similar treatment, though that’s usually influenced by their association with high-ranking people as much as their intrinsic artistic value. But as a whole, the pragmatic use of textiles and their general association with women’s work mean that the discourse around fine art didn’t really start to pay attention to them until the the 1920s or even the latter half of the twentieth century (in conjunction with second wave feminism).

It doesn’t have to be that way, especially not in our fiction. There’s a long-standing tradition of associating textiles with magic: just think of the Greek Fates being depicted as spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life, or the idea that knots can be used to bind spells. More than a few fantasy novels have made use of this idea — usually without the concomitant angle found in history, the notion that women are therefore sinister, untrustworthy witches. Weaving, knitting, crochet, lace-making, knotwork, tapestries, quilts and patchwork, embroidery of all kinds . . . what magic can be made out of these things?

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7 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Textile Arts”

  1. I’m not sure your suggestion that lace was only for elites is entirely correct. I think it completely depends on the kind of lace. There is a long tradition of knitted lace being used for ordinary people. In the Baltics, mittens frequently had lace cuffs. On Shetland, there’s a long tradition of lace shawls. These may not have been garments used for every day, but ordinary people did use them.

    I think it’s more a matter of how much time making lace takes. Bobbin lace is incredibly time intensive. Knitted lace, not so much.

  2. As a lacemaker my pet peeve is for people — especially crossword puzzle designers — refer to all lace at tatting. WRONG. Tatting is one form of lace, sometimes called beggars lace, is actually a form of macrame made with fine thread. One builds up series of half hitch knots on a drawsting.

    Bobbin lace, or pillow lace is actually weaving without a loom.

    Real lace is made with a needle creating design out of thread and air. This is what was mostly used in the elaborate Tudor neck ruffs and collars.

    Chantilly lace, the more modern queen of laces is made from black silk in one village in France. Buckinghamshire Point Ground lace is the same technique but made with white cotton or linen thread but turned right to left and made originally in one village in England. Can you say national pride and the beginning of wars?

    The history of lace making is as varied and deep as any other subject and the research can become a story in itself.

  3. “hunter-gatherers apparently place on being a good storyteller, even though telling stories doesn’t (directly) put food in anybody’s stomach.”

    Given the importance of oral history in a non-literate society, I wonder if that value included “telling us how to do stuff” and “helping instruct kids properly”, not just entertainment. Someone with the right stories could be a walking library, like the Australians who passed on knowledge of long-drowned landforms.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Yeah, that’s why the parenthetical is there — the stories may have practical use in a more indirect fashion. But the entertainment side is valued, too.

  4. Beth Friedman

    I’m kind of surprised that spinning gets such short shrift in your essay. It’s the basis for all of the fiber arts. (I’m a spinner, so I’ll admit to a certain bias.) And I’ll put in a plug for Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

    1. Marie Brennan

      It’s because I’ve discussed spinning already in essays from previous years, and I try not to repeat myself too much.

  5. Yes! I loved Tamora Pierce’s Sandry (a magic-user who works through spinning, and cloth generally) and her magic, and I’m very fond of the thread-based magic in Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light. More of this please 🙂

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