Nina's Textile Trail

My OCA Textile Tales

Part 4 – Textile Structures – RESEARCH POINT – How do you view Textile Art? Do you think about it in the same way that you would look at a painting or a piece of sculpture? How far do you feel it has been accepted as a medium for fine art by the fine art establishment?

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How do you view textile art?

Do you think about it in the same way that you would look at a painting or a piece of sculpture?

How far do you feel it has been accepted as a medium for fine art by the fine art establishment?

I make no distinction between art. It is so subjective. I like what I like, I don’t always look for meaning. I am attracted to colour, texture, technique. I can admire and appreciate an artist’s ability and achievements but not like their work.   I agree with Jann Haworth’s comment in the opening page of Contemporary Textiles: The Fabric of Fine Art, who in the early sixties when studying the Slade, “failed to see the barriers between correct materials and incorrect ones – between ‘high art’ and ‘the crafts’. Perhaps I am naïve, having only been recently introduced to the diversity of art available today but I don’t feel any bias, I know what I like, regardless of the medium.

My acceptance without question of the immense diversity of art available today and my ignorance of the ‘fine art establishment’ and the inherent traditions make it difficult for me to grasp how far the profile of textile art has grown.

I had written the above and another thousand words or so and had, in my mind, completed this question, when I visited a local ‘Embroidery and Textile Art Exhibition, which was advertised as “an exciting exhibition of works created by many of the country’s leading textile artists to celebrate the art of stitch. It did indeed celebrate the art of stitch but it raised the question, where do these artists fit when considering textiles as a medium for fine art? I realised the extent of my naivety and wondered how I could possibly comment on how far textile art has been accepted as a medium for fine art by the fine art establishment when I have little or no understanding of the either fine art establishment or textile art in its wider context.

I wondered, “Who are the artists “cementing textiles’ place at the heart of contemporary art?” as suggested by Nadine Monem as editor of The Fabric of Fine Art. What is their background? Are they Art graduates who have chosen to work with textiles or did they set out to study textiles or embroidery?

I’m also questionning Rebecca Fairley’s blog post So what is Research? where she states “When your journey starts, perhaps during your first Level 1 course, the main type of research activity you will be engaged with is looking at and collecting imagery. This will be of art works made by others and the purpose of this research is to develop an understanding of what creativity is in your field.”   I appreciate that answering this question will help me to understand what creativity is in my field, but it certainly feels like a lot more than ’looking at and collecting imagery’!

So, returning to the initial question, How do you view textile art and do you think about it in the same way that you would look at a painting or a piece of sculpture? My answer remains the same, I look at all art in the same way. If I am at an exhibition, firstly I judge a piece as a whole, considering if it is aesthetically pleasing to me, I consider the materials, colours and techniques to determine if I’m attracted to it. If no interest is sparked, I will probably move on. I don’t linger to look for meaning, I’m impatient to see the next thing. If the materials or colours attract me, I will be drawn in to look closer, often to examine texture or consider the techniques used. Often, the ‘whole’ doesn’t interest me, but aspects of it do, particularly if detailed stitch, print or techniques suggest texture, real or illusory.   At this point in my learning, I rarely ‘feel’ anything, so perhaps I’m looking at the ‘face-value’ of the art, a simple approach, possibly ignorant?   Although, I may not have seen much art which has been produced with the intention of being meaningful.

How far do you feel it has been accepted as a medium for fine art by the fine art establishment?

I think here to understand how far textile art has been accepted, we need to consider what the ‘traditional Fine Arts’ encompass.’s definition of fine art is “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture”.   The Fine Art Society have been dealing in Fine art since 1876 and specialise in 19th and 20th century British art and design and established and established a ‘Contemporary’ section in 2005. A cursory glance through the artists they represent offers nothing remotely related to textiles.

However, in Contemporary Textiles: The Fabric of Fine Art which was published in 2008, seven years ago, Jann Haworth believes we have “vaulted away from an art tied to the illustration of gods, myth, narrative and the record of royalty and patrons”.   Bradley Quinn believes textile art has been drawn into the folds of ‘high art’ and the editor Nadine Monem says that the artists “are pushing the boundaries of traditional categories of fine art practice and in the process they are producing some of the most important, inspiring and evocative work being done today, forever cementing textiles’ place at the heart of contemporary art.”   So, it would appear that there is a far greater acceptance of textiles and more experimental art. As Jann Haworth comments further “we live with the abstract, the emotional, diversified mark-making and impossible to tame materials.”   This is true and there are numerous examples within the aforementioned book of textile art really pushing boundaries in their subject matter and materials.

In the same book, Bradley Quinn goes on to comment that attempts to bring fibre arts into the world of Fine Art were ‘routinely overturned’ and that ‘textiles were traditionally dismissed as functional forms or decorative expressions”.  This view is supported in a clip of a BBC2 programme, “Contemporary Visions”, first broadcast on 25th October, 2007, where Maxine Bristow, a textile artist comments on the division between fine art and craft. “Textiles has always been relegated to the second division. Its always been seen as a minor art or a lesser art. Textiles are always used for clothing or within the home. Over the years there has been this division between fine art and craft because art was about expressing ideas, it was more to do with the mind than actual manual skill”. She infers that the traditionally feminine skills of embroidering and stitching are less valued and this impacts on the view of textiles today.  I think this is often true in society, where the immediate thought of many puts ‘textiles’ in a more domestic, functional role and relegates them to almost to ‘hobbyist level’.  So many people are ignorant of the quality and diversity of textiles being produced today which allows the historical role of textiles to perpetuate the myth that they are not the medium of fine art.

Bradley Quinn supports his argument that ‘the relationship between textiles and contemporary art is forging fresh directions today” by listing artists, such as Lucy Orta and Tracey Emin, who have ‘fused textiles with a diverse range of media’ to produce artworks, and shows how the profile of textiles as a medium for fine art has grown in the last fifty years. (Contemporary Textiles: The Fabric of Fine Art)

I conclude that there have been great steps forward in the acceptance of art in many different mediums including textiles, and that textiles have been accepted as a medium by the Fine Art Establishment.

However I would suggest that, in general, textile art lacks proper recognition.  This country’s best textile artists constantly strive to have their work valued.

Sanda Meech in her book Connecting Art to stitch refers to Mixed Media as “one of the closest disciplines to stitched textiles in the’art world’. Unfairly, ‘art’ is promoted as being very different to ‘craft’, and a fine artist who might combine some fabric and mark making stitches with paint on canvas is considered a ‘mixed-media’ artist. But, when hung on a wall, an art quilt that is a collage of paint. paper, plastics with fabric and stitch is labelled’craft’. This will continue to be an issue until quilt and stitched textile artists can have their work taken more seriously and hung in the same ‘fine’art galleries as other works of art.”

Three of the best Textile groups in England (as judged by also work towards this goal.

Prism is striving for excellence in the field of fine art textiles and craftsmanship.

The 62 Group aims to challenge the limits of textile practice through innovation and ambition. This group was established in 1962 by a small number of embroidery lecturers and recent graduates; they were determined that textiles receive wider acceptance as a legitimate medium in the context of fine art. believe this battle is still being fought today, although the 62 Group have made progress and been instrumental in the wider recognition of textile art.

Studio 21 group of textile artists formed in 1997 with the goal of challenging and extending the boundaries of traditional techniques and expectations within the realm of textiles. A number are Members and Licentiate Members of the Society of Designer Craftsmen.

This society promotes and supports the work of creative thinkers, designers and makers who continue to innovate in the crafts through their exploration of materials and skills. They are proud of their roots, were founded in 1887 as the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society with Walter Crane, William Morris and William de Morgan amongst their forbears and believe that they continue to uphold the values that they established, but it is interesting to note that they almost set themselves apart from Fine Art, stating that they “give a voice to beautiful, challenging and exciting work that is different from the traditional Fine Arts”. They actually divide their textile membership into six categories, constructed, felted, knitted, printed, stitched and woven, appearing to make a genuine attempt to recognise and promote textile artists. (accessed 11.4.15) (accessed 11.4.15)

Jefferies, J & Quinn, B, Monem N (ed)(2008) Contemporary textiles: The Fabric of Fine Art Black Dog Publishing

BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour A Celebration of Craft 6th April, 2015 (BBC 2 Contemporary Visions first broadcast 25 oct 2007)

Meech S (2009) Connecting Art to Stitch (Batsford


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