Archive for the 'Research point' Category

Research Point: Textile Artist Liz Williamson

This post is the last of Assignment 4’s research into Textile Art. There are links to all the previous posts on my last entry, about Julie Ryder (posted 18-Nov-2012).
The photo shows Liz Williamson at Barometer Gallery for Julie Ryder’s talk. I’m rather appalled to find that I don’t have photos of Liz’s work, so I have pushed the photo taken on my mobile phone to its limits to provide the closeup on the right. There are many more images and links to a huge amount of information at
The focus of this research point is the artist’s work – a description and the concepts expressed. The piece in the photo is from her ‘Loop’ series. It is an continuation of an ongoing theme of protection. I think it is a wearable variant of Liz’s ‘Sac’ series – doubleweave containers or nests, expressing concepts of enclosing, wrapping, shelter and protecting. The colours are dark and earthy, the materials include leather and silk dyed with black henna.
Another concept Liz has explored in her work has revolved around darning – usually an invisible form of repairing and prolonging the life of a textile, in her work made visible. Darns are records of marks, but worked to be unseen – often by women who themselves are invisible in the Australian history / mythology of nation-building. Liz has presented this very domestic work in gallery settings. The darned cloth has a memory of the body that wore or used it embedded in its surface. Liz has also recreated the texture of darning marks in jacquard weavings, enlarged, embellished and exaggerated, becoming visible works of art.
Darns and worn, deteriorated cloth can also be viewed as a metaphor for the aging that is part of all life. In her ‘Worn’ work Liz explored the processes of life and experience, aging bringing maturity, wisdom, remembered experience and a different kind of beauty to that of youth. This is not nostalgia or yearning for some golden past. To me it appears not a celebration or glorification of the past, more an honouring of it and recognizing that our present will soon be past. The resulting cloth has “a beauty of fragility, of suffering, of survival, and essentially of memory” (Lamb, 1996).

Previously (posts 22-Oct-2012 and 1-Nov-2012) I’ve written about the blended or interleaved roles filled by Textile Artists – designers, artists, craftspeople, teachers, academics, marketers, who work alone, with assistants, or in collaboration. Liz Williamson is the living embodiment of this ideal, a modern renaissance woman doing all this and more with charm and grace. Gushy and awkward, but consider:

Liz is a true master in the craft of weaving and has been recognised as a Living Treasure, a Master of Australian Craft. Since first enrolling in an introductory weaving course in 1977 she has studied and experimented with a wide range of weave structures and materials. She is technically very accomplished and has been published in mainstream weaving books such as her fulled seersucker scarves in The best of Weaver’s: Fabrics that go bump. Liz continues to push the boundaries of contemporary weave and was one of the artists included in the recently published Warp & weft: Woven Textiles in Fashion, Art and Interiors by Jessica Hemmings.

Liz holds academic credentials – MFA (COFA), B Art : Textile Design (RMIT), B Economics (Melb Uni) – and is currently Head, School of Design Studies at COFA (College of Fine Arts, The University of New South Wales). I have heard she will become an Associate Professor in the new year (staff profile here).

Clearly her role at COFA involves teaching, but I prefer to refer to the class I took with her at Sturt early this year (see post 14-Jan-2012). The photo shows work that I and my friend Desdemona did during that class. Des and another class member had no previous experience of weaving, but were able to produce beautiful work using advanced techniques such as doubleweave in neoprene in just a few days with Liz. Liz also inspired us with pieces from her extensive collection of textiles from around the world, plus a pile of books she shared with us during the week (my ongoing interest in Sheila Hicks was one result).

The photo on the left shows a scarf from Liz Williamson: Asian Selection. Liz has been involved in a number of textile development projects in Asia, working with local artisans to develop products for the contemporary marketplace. Both her design skills and cultural sensitivity have been required, for example working with a group in West Bengal who create embroidered scarves combining traditional Indian motifs with Liz’s colour palette and sizing (see more at Liz promotes and sells the work of such artisans through her Asian Selection.

Another example of her collaborative approach is Liz’s participation in Research in Experimental Design: Objects RED Objects, “a collaboration of practitioners and researchers exploring the relationships between design, craft, visual art, and their commentaries”. Last year I attended a symposium organised by the group (mentioned in my post on 16-Sept-2012) which examined methods of collaboration. A selection of papers from the Symposium can be found at

Finally, Liz’s advocacy for textiles and textile art in Australia has included ongoing support of The Australian Textiles Arts and Surface Design Association (ATSADA – the textile group I’m in). Liz has been guest presenter at a meeting, has Opened a number of our exhibitions, and was a major driver and supporter of the Art Textiles conference ATASDA presented in 2008 with Keynote speaker Jane Dunnewold.

I think all of that (which of course is just a small selection of Liz’s contribution to textiles) justifies just a little gush!

Resources Accessed 22-Nov-2012
(2006) Visible Darning: Liz Williamson Leaflet from exhibition held in Object Gallery 15 July – 27 August 2006
Cochrane, C. (2008) Liz Williamson: Textiles in the Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft series, Victoria: Craftsman House.
Hemmings, J. (2012) Warp & weft: Woven textiles in fashion, art and interiors. London: Bloomsbury Publishing
Koumis, M. (ed) (2007) Art Textiles of the World: Australia volume 2, Brighton: Telos Art Publishing
Lamb, J, (1996) “Liz Williamson” in Lamb, J. (ed) Below the surface Goulburn: Goulburn Regional Art Gallery.
Van der Hoogt, M. (2002) The best of Weaver’s: Fabrics that go bump Sioux Falls: XRX Inc Accessed 24-Nov-2012 Accessed 24-Nov-2012 Accessed 24-Nov-2012.

Research Point: Textile Artist Julie Ryder

Throughout Assignment 4 I have been working on an investigation into the work of the textile artist. Previous posts have been around the question “what is a textile artist?” – see discussion on Craft (18-Aug-2012 and 20-Aug-2012), textiles in Art as distinct from Textile Art (27-Aug-2012), a side-excursion on Art / Textile Art / Documentary (22-Oct-2012) and Designers and Designer/Makers (1-Nov-2012). The final requirement is to write about two internationally known textile artists. It was important to me to write about artists based in Australia whose work I have seen in life, not just photos. My first selection is Julie Ryder, seen in the photo at her artist talk during her recent exhibition Second Nature at Barometer Gallery.

All of these photos were taken at the exhibition, with Julie’s permission. I love the sunlight and shadows adding even more to the complexity of the marks on the cloth. Julie trained in science earlier in her life and the knowledge and disciplines gained in that time have remained a thread in her textile works. The fabric in the exhibition is mainly antique Japanese kimono silk dyed using a fruit fermentation process that Julie developed. In simple terms, cut unpeeled fruit in half (lemons work well), arrange pieces cut side down on fabric, leave for 6 months or so to ferment, scrub off the putrid black mess and you have your dyed cloth.
The complexities include measures to minimise risk with the massive volumes of mold spores created. Julie had access to special facilities, had to go through a lengthy process to determine risks and get approval for her work, and she wore appropriate safety gear when working. In fact all of the material in this exhibition was dyed by Julie fifteen or so years ago. A curator was particularly keen to exhibit work in this series, Julie no longer has access to suitable facilities (and I think was reluctant to return to a quite toxic process), so she worked with the pieces of dyed cloth still available to her.
The pieces range from button size to the hangings you can see in the photo, but all are human in scale. In some Julie presents the dyed cloth hanging simply, allowing the beauty of the marks on the woven texture of the silk space to speak. In other works she has combined fragments of cloth with hand stitching. Occasionally there is more stitching on the cloth, responding to the marks that have been made.
There is a gentleness and serenity in the results. Julie has said that her design philosophy fits in the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. She also references the break down of matter, the phases and numerology in alchemy. Seams shown on the outside reflect the inner beauty of people and things. (1)
In the time between her original work with fruit fermentation and the recent exhibition Julie has extended her range of techniques as she continues to investigate her particular interests. The photo on the left is to give just a taste of that. On the left is a cover of Textile Fibre Forum magazine, showing work from the 2005 artandthebryophyte exhibition(2) (I didn’t see this exhibition myself). On the right are leaflets I picked up at generate, an exhibition at the Australian National Botanic Gardens in 2008 inspired by Charles Darwin (3).

The digitally printed silk organza on the magazine cover, colourful and crisp, seems a world away from the natural dyeing of the fruit fermentation. For Julie it was a logical progression. Faced with restrictions on bacteria she could use in dyeing, she used a scanning election microscope to examine the structures of micro-organisms. The photomicrographs became the inspiration for digital printing, although she retained an element of hand work and connection to the cloth in the post-printing finishing. The works also reflect the research Julie undertook on the history of botanical science, systems of naming and more. As well as the printed silks Julie printed on paper and used collage and assemblage, using the drawers of a large cabinet of drawers to create a contemporary cabinet of curiosities.

Generate explored the life and theories of Charles Darwin. As well as lengths of digitally printed silk, Julie went through a painstaking process of hand-cutting circles from leave then arranging the dots on tapa cloth to create images based on Charles, his wife Emma, and grandfather Josiah Wedgwood. These ‘portraits’ use symbols from historical textiles to represent their subjects. From memory, the actual leaves with all their holes were arranged in a drift along the base of the display cabinets. There was also a glass ‘tree of life’ – glass branches and glass medallions incised with fantastic creatures. There are multiple depths of meaning – for example she used both native and exotic species of leaves “to show how cultures like introduced species react” (4).

Overall it seems to me that Julie’s work is heavily ideas and research driven with a disciplined, scientific approach. She is interested in what lies underneath, not obvious – often at the micro level. Frequently her subject matter is botanical or biological in nature. In most cases her work involves creating colour on cloth. Julie uses a mix of traditional and modern techniques and materials. However leaving those generalisations she seems to engage afresh with each new area that interest or opportunity leads her to. Julie brings all her past knowledge and experience and skills to her present work, but she doesn’t force them onto or into it. She researches and responds to what she learns, developing new themes, new symbolic imagery, new techniques and processes each time.

I’ve listed some links to more information on Julie and her work below.

(1) Koumis, M. (ed) (2007) Art Textiles of the World: Australia volume 2, Brighton: Telos Art Publishing
(2) (2005) Julie Ryder. Textile Fibre Forum, 80(4), Front and inside cover and page 10
(3) (2008) Generate: Julie Ryder. Exhibition leaflet. Australian National Botanic Gardens; ACT Government.
(4) Maher, L. (28 January, 2009) Darwin inspires art accessed 26-oct-2012

Further information accessed 26-oct-2012 accessed 26-oct-2012 accessed 26-oct-2012

Research point: Designers and Designer/Makers

This post follows on from those about Craft (18-Aug-2012 and 20-Aug-2012), textiles in Art as distinct from Textile Art (27-Aug-2012) and a side-excursion on Art / Textile Art / Documentary (22-Oct-2012). I don’t have any particular photographs of textile designs or designers, so the images in this post are of sketchbook work I did while reading two of the texts in the course reading list – Textile designers at the cutting edge (1) and Textiles Now (2) (also in my sketchbook starting 29-Sept-2012).

After searching for quite a time, I haven’t found a single, concise, comprehensive definition of “design”. To design is to create a plan or specification for an outcome or product. There’s generally a functional aspect and there may be aesthetic considerations. Often a design will be produced in multiples or mass production, in different colour-ways and design variations. The production work could be by hand, machine, or a combination. Sometimes good design will go unnoticed, the item performing its function as expected. We’ve all experienced negatives from poor design. For example I once had an electric kettle, a simple and plain shape except for some decorative grooves along the length of the handle – which channeled the steam into your hand while pouring the boiling water.

A designer may work in multiple disciplines. Their skills and interests lead them to collaborate and develop relationships with makers and industry to produce their designs. Alison Page is an Australian indigenous designer who has won a place in the British Council’s Accelerate program. Experienced in design for interiors and jewellery, Page is interested in working with manufacturers of textiles, carpets, lighting, or many other kinds of product. Her vision is about qualities of the design – beautiful, sustainable, and a spiritual layer telling a story about her indigenous culture.(3) Lucy Simpson is another Australian indigenous designer, telling the stories of her Yuwaalaraay family and homeland through textiles. Previously a graphic designer she now designs printed textiles for her campany Gaawaa Miyay working with Publisher Textiles to produce her designs. The tactile nature of textiles, the connection to memory that touch can give, is important to Simpson, as are beauty and sustainability (4). There are some interesting videos of Simpson talking about her work in the article cited (here) and on the Gaawaa Miyay site (here).

Designers may or may not have specific knowledge of and skills in the particular media and techniques used to carry out their designs. A designer/maker will implement the designs they have created. They can develop a deep understanding of their materials and processes, leading to designs that take advantage of all their best properties. That doesn’t negate the possibility for pushing further, introducing new ideas and challenging accepted norms.

In Weaving textiles that shape themselves Ann Richards devotes the final chapter to “Designing as a conversation” (6). In this design is presented as a reflexive practice in which the designer responds and adapts to the material, ready to learn from setbacks, to seek fresh ideas and challenges and to see the design emerge and improve through the process. Richards presents a general process for beginning and developing a design, but her specific focus is the considerations and specifics of weaving. The depth of knowledge, the thought, care and respect shown for materials, product and process is inspiring. The many beautiful photographs of examples help too!

I’ve already presented my end position – that today individuals regularly cross boundaries and combine and interleave different roles as designers, artists, craftspeople and more, working alone, with assistants, or in collaboration (blog post 22-Oct-2012). This week I got a new book in the post (well, a few new books, but one that is relevant just now). In her Foreword to One work: Sheila Hicks at The Mint Kathleen Jameson writes “…this one work is an outstanding example of the cross-pollination in the fields of art, craft, and design that is so pervasive in 21st-century artistic practice. In choosing thread and textiles as her medium, since the late 1950s Hicks has worked both as an artist and a designer, moving nimbly between the two worlds, decades before they overlapped more eloquently.” (5) I believe that boundaries in work descriptions and practices are much more fluid than in the past. Artists/designers/craftspeople in particular need to be flexible, creating and taking opportunities to make work, to find audiences and to make a living. We are, I hope, near the end of a period of adjustment when institutions and individuals in the field were coming to grips with this change and the implications. I’m not suggesting the old categories are meaningless or useless. They remain one component helping us work in and make sense of a complex environment – descriptive, but not proscriptive.

I wrote the above a few days ago but it didn’t seem finished. On re-reading I can see some flaws in my argument.

First, it might seem that I’m expecting everyone to balance multiple hats and to move between modes and types of work freely. Not at all. The answers and choices that are right for me will be different to another’s choices. I’m arguing against artificial boundaries, or the arbitrary rules of some Authority.

Second, how does my concern for the preservation of craft fit in this? Certainly I feel concern about possible loss of knowledge and skills, and I am uncomfortable with the idea of designers-for-hire, who will turn their hand to any type of product in any type of materials. There’s more in my post of 16-Sept-2011 on Preserving Crafts. More thinking required.

Finally, perhaps I am over-enthusiastic and just wrong. There may be some who have been able to cross boundaries, but that doesn’t mean that boundaries aren’t still current and enforced elsewhere or for other people. I have no answer to that. There will be lots of different experiences, and change doesn’t happen all at once. Time may tell.

(1) Quinn, B. (2004) Textile Designers at the cutting edge London:Laurence King Publications
(2) Cole, D. (2008) Textiles Now London: Laurence King Publishing
(3) Frew, W. (2012). The rise of the allegorist in Australian design. The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October, p. 13.
(4) Safe, G., 2012. Indigenous flair with feeling. The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September. Link Accessed 27 October 2012
(5) Jameson, K., 2012. Foreword. In: One work: Sheila Hicks at The Mint. Charlotte: Mint Museum of Art, Inc, p. 9.
(6) Richards, A. (2012) Weaving textiles that shape themselves Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd

Other resources
British Council Accelerate

Exhibitions, Research and Textiles/Art/Design

This post has been sitting in draft form for over a month. It started as part of the Assignment 4 Research Point, which is investigation into the work of the textile artist. The idea was that having discussed Craft in earlier research points (blog posts 18-Aug-2012 and 20-Aug-2012), I could consider textiles in Art as distinct from Textile Art (blog post 27-Aug-2012) and then examine the work of designers and designer/makers (that was going to be this post). This would allow me to establish my overall concept that while depending on context all these descriptors can refer to different things, a particular individual will operate in multiple modes – craft, art, textile art, design, then add in teacher, author, sales person… I don’t think this follows a linear developmental progression – start in mode 1, then learn and progress to mode 2 etc. Individuals and their work are more complex, they do what could be categorized as mode 2, and then a bit of mode 1, and sometimes both at the same time, and very often after a time one can see that what appeared to be one thing should be reassessed. Categories and labels are useful to help us organise and extend our thinking, but we shouldn’t confuse them with reality or necessity.

After all that I was going to take a deep breath, then write about two multivalent* individuals who include Textile Art in their practice.

However before progressing with The Plan, I want to write about two exhibitions I visited this weekend just past.

Eugène Atget: Old Paris is on at the Art Gallery NSW and includes over 200 original prints by Atget (1857-1927), who is considered the founder of documentary photography.

I did have two images, believing them to be from a source which allowed this use, but have removed them due to copyright concerns raised since. The first image was The Bievre, Ruelle des Gobelins, May 1900. There is beautiful textural detail, shadows and reflection of light, an incredible sense of space and depth to the image. It appears to be empty of people, or perhaps there are a couple of wraith-like images in the distance, where people were moving during the long exposure.

The second image was Rue de Seine and Rue de l’Echaude, c. 1900. The same comments apply. Being able to see Atget’s original prints up close was amazing. None are in fact black and white – the tones are sepia. Large areas of the photographs are very crisp and detailed. I don’t know photographic technique, but he used light-sensitive paper in contact with the glass negative, and never enlarged his images.

Coming back to the subject of this post, in the little brochure that is provided when you enter the exhibition there is the paragraph:

“In the 1980s Atget’s photographs at Carnavalet, which had previously been classified thematically, were given an inventory number and received special conservation treatment. In the process, these photographs, acquired as simple documents, attained the status of works of art.”(1)

Treating the photographs individually, doing conservation and inventory work – these processes can confer Art status. I find that thought confronting.

This led me to reassess an information panel in the exhibition about Atget not wanting attribution for his photos when published by Man Ray because they were “just documents”. I thought he meant that the reproduced image in a book or magazine was only a shadow of the actual print he had made. A quick internet search just now found confirmation that Atget did see his work as documents – only documents – so he chose anonymity. (2)

The second exhibition was Dani Marti, Mariposa (Butterfly), at Breenspace. I’ve written briefly about Marti, or at least my attempt to see his work (blogged 25-Nov-2011), and his work on the facade of a shopping centre in Sydney (blogged 25-Mar-2011). The photos are of the facade, since I don’t have any of his gallery work.

Mariposa (Butterfly) was a very different experience. It felt intimate and personal. The gallery is basically one large room on the third floor of a small office block in a maze of lanes in a once-seedy part of town. Marti’s work is a video – an interview of sorts – and accompanying woven wall pieces, portraits of ‘Mark’. The video was on a loop of around 16 minutes, projected on a full wall of the gallery. For most of the time I sat alone in a darkened room, my vision filled with ‘Mark’ almost naked, whirling white squares of cloth around his body in a trance-like dance. He was absorbed, ecstatic, lost in the sensuality and physicality of his dance. His eyes were closed or unfocused, except once or twice when he paused in his dance and looked directly at the camera, when he was suddenly present and conscious of himself and the viewer, and it seemed to me accepting of himself and his choices. He had made choices which allowed him to dance with joy and freedom and completely in the moment. At the same time I was aware of the cost of those choices (although perhaps I shouldn’t write “cost” – just more choices). According to the exhibition notes (3) Mark is a meth addict and drifter. The video was filmed in sessions six weeks apart, and in the later sequences Mark had one eye swollen shut, cuts and grazes across one side of his head – perhaps he had been bashed. He’d lost weight, and I was more conscious of the physical effort of his dance.

The video was filmed in New York and the dance genre is “flagging” which originated in gay clubs. Almost everything about Mark and his choices is foreign and unfamiliar to me. But I sat there in the dark and watched his dance and thought about choices – Mark’s, Marti’s in what he chose to see and present (apparently he had much more confronting and gritty material), my own choices – and I thought about living in joy with the positives, at least for some moments, and accepting the negatives. And about accepting ourselves with our choices and their consequences.

Filled with those thoughts, in fact with a new perspective on something that’s been causing some pain in my own life, it was strange to stand up and walk to the woven pieces on the walls behind me. Trap 1-3 consists of three pieces, each a deep, square frame of powder coated aluminium, the front and back enclosed with wide-set strips of leather in plain weave. Armour I is an even larger frame, woven through with nylon, polyester, polypropylene and leather, some a few centimetres in diameter, coiled around and creating a dense, defensive, spikey shield. It made me think of scar tissue or a hedge of thorns. Not at all my reading of the video – but then people are much more complex and changing than can be expressed in any static portrayal (and in this I regard the video as static, being frozen in time).

There are some images and other perspectives of the work at these links:,

Clearly this is art. It is also at some level documentary, so a strange contrast to Atget’s work – although both are carefully setup and arranged. Both also skirt or cross the line to exploitation of their subjects – Atget photographed prostitutes and ‘zoniers’ – people living in abject poverty in shanty towns outside Paris city walls; Marti’s subjects are often the vulnerable and marginalized (some of his work I would find very difficult to watch).

For this Research Point the thing that really grabbed my attention was not Marti’s work as such, but the language used in a recently published monograph. “Dani Marti’s paintings are physical distillations of human encounters” Colin Perry begins in his essay Bound and unbound desire: Dani Marti’s paintings (4). Perry contends that these woven or stitched works “clearly relate to painting as a medium and lie within its historical trajectory” (page 16). Historical influences are cited, abstraction, art as anti-art, modernism, minimalism, Pattern and Design. Perry introduces the term “materialist portraiture” to describe Marti’s woven works. What I find significant is that Perry doesn’t deny or diminish the media and techniques used – rope, threads and weaving, among rubber, barbed wire and material assemblage. Marti’s cv includes studies in tapestry technique, and he does the majority of the weaving. In my reading so far about textiles and art I haven’t seen such a bald and bold statement, asserting the place of a textile work in Art’s development.

As a weaver I’ve sometimes felt at a disadvantage in the world of textile art, working in grids and stripes, all the structural constraints. Was tapestry the only option? Yes, I’ve looked at the work of Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks and more, but I’ve never before felt such an impact from work – not just emotional, but seeing and maybe just a very little knowing more of a person and world so remote from me, and finding it so relevant to my own life. I don’t know how I can do it – create work of impact and intensity – but I’m hoping I can find my way.

On which lofty note I will end. My exploration of the work of the Designer and Designer/Maker will progress another day.

* Multivalent – adjective. “having or susceptible of many applications, interpretations, meanings, or values: visually complex and multivalent work. Definition from, accessed 21-Oct-2012

(1) Art Gallery of New South Wales (2012), Eugène Atget: Old Paris, brochure. All texts in the brochure are based on those written by Françoise Reynaud and Jean-Baptiste Woloch (intern: Emmanuelle Day)

(2) Fuller, J. “Atget and Man Ray in the Context of Surrealism” in Art Journal Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter, 1976-1977), pp. 130-138 Published by: College Art Association Article Stable URL: Accessed 21-October-2012

(3) Katsof, A. (2012) Mariposa (Butterfly): Dani Marti, exhibition leaflet

(4) Perry, C., (2012). Bound and unbound desire: Dani Marti’s paintings. In: M. Price, ed. Dani Marti. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, pp. 14-27.

Research point: Textile Art part 1

Textile Art is the subject of the research point in Assignment 4. I’m going to start by looking at some works in the 18th Biennale Sydney: all our relations which use textile techniques or materials, but which I think would not be classified as textile art. The photos below were all taken on my phone. You’ll find much better images and additional information on the Biennale website

I previously wrote about Nicholas Hlobo here (21-Aug-2012). On the left and above are closeups of Tyaphaka at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The base is paper, the stitching / lacing / weaving is in ribbon.

On Cockatoo Island is another work by Hlobo, Inkwili. The full work is large – 300 x 1200 x 400 cm. The materials listed are rubber, ribbon, hose pipe and packaging material. It is a site-specific sculpture, located on a slipway carved from the island and is joined by flotsam and jetsam from the harbour tides.

Based on quotes from the artist there are a lot of different metaphors and issues tangled up in this work – gender, ethnicity, ideas submerged and revealed, water as a source of destruction and sustenance; lack of control as people float in and out of our lives; the relationships between materials and between the work and its location…

Maria Laet has works at both MCA and the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW). Laet examines encounters, interplay between two parts. On the left is her work Untitled (Attempt to note the limit of the sea). Quoting Laet from the catalogue “In [it] sewing occurs at the limit between sand and sea, but each time another wave stretches itself out leaving a new mark – as if denying the ida of limit. Here, sewing could be the notation of an exchange territory, notes that become traces and eventually disappear.” Gesture is captured, extended, by the sewn line. Another work shows sewing in snow – so delicate.

El Anatsui’s Anonymous Creature is not a textile in material or technique. It is found aluminum (from bottle caps) and wire. His artist statement talks about consumerism, colonialism and relational links. To me the visual suggestion of a patchwork quilt or strip weaving is impossible to ignore. It’s not mentioned in the Biennale information I’ve seen, so I googled for a link between El Anatsui and textiles. In an interview with Alisa LaGamma at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, El Anatsui clearly positions his work as sculpture rather than textile based, but also comments on his early exposure to workers at the National Cultural Center of Ghana, including textile artists, and his attraction “on account of the fact that they were handling very abstract concepts” leading him to try to “replicate the motions of artists who created these forms or signs”.

Phaptawan Suwannakudt has a full room at the MCA displaying Not for sure. Neither in the artist’s statement at the gallery nor in the catalogue is fabric listed as a component of the work. The focus is on the use of text, overlapping and not able to be decoded, and the way humans connect through text. A quick search, and I discovered Suwannakudt learnt to weave in Thailand, and weaving has been a major part of her previous work (John Young Zerunge 2010; Traces of Asia catalogue).

I don’t know if the artist wove this fabric herself, and I also understand that in a room with perhaps a dozen components you can’t write about everything. Still, in the context of writing about Textile Art, it could be meaningful.

The canvas and text above are part of Nadia Myre’s The Scar Project. There were walls covered and tables stacked with canvases, each with an identifying number on the frame which matched to a page of text by the individual contributor to this interactive art installation. Participants write about their scars – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – and stitch them onto the canvas.

At one level this can be seen as a study of symbology – for example, Myre has identified some of the most common motifs and used them in further work. At a more fundamental level, as Myre has explained “as a vehicle for people to anonymously share their personal narratives and traumas with others, the project creates a space that is simultaneously contemplative and  transformative” (Nadia Myer website).

Viewing this work, seeing emotion described with needle, fibres, scissors on canvas, was moving and challenging. Myre has produced a book dedicated “to those who sewed and scribed their wounds … sharing something human with us all”, which is available and part viewable on blurb (

It feels flippant and inadequate to mention it, but given this is my student learning log I’ll just record the obvious – the depth and reality here exposes the triviality of my responses to early project work expressing emotion in drawing and stitch.

This installation by Ria Verhaeghe is titled Living with cuddles”. Verhaeghe creates links, narratives, between images found in magazines and newspapers. Her created threads provide continuity and create links.

I don’t have a photo of Gao Rong’s The static eternity at AGNSW. For a start her embroidery is a very detailed trompe l’oeil, and a photo of fine satin stitch on a fabric window would look like a photo of flaking paint on a window sill. In addition this large, ambitious project is incomplete – the matching windowsill on the other side of the entrance is just fabric, unstitched. Last year I saw her work Level 1/2, Unit 8, Building 5, Hua Jiadi, North Village at the White Rabbit Gallery which was much more complete and in my opinion much more wonderful and satisfying. Gao Rong uses embroidery as a language, redefining it in a contemporary light. Gao Rong pays quiet tribute to home and family, especially her mother and grandmother who made beautiful embroidery.

Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project is a participatory event. Anyone can bring an item requiring mending. There is a connection made between artist or assistant and the participant, through conversation as the artist mends in bright colours, celebrating the repair. The mended items remain connected to the threads for the duration of the exhibition.

Erin Manning presented Stitching Time: A Collective Fashioning in a huge room, the entire top floor, of a building on Cockatoo Island. These photos really only hint at the scale of the installation. Everywhere are pieces of fabric, hanging from a web on the ceiling or piled in hanging baskets. They are sorted by colour, and each is actually the shape of a dressmaking pattern piece, with lots of buttons, button holes and magnets in apparently random places.

From the exhibition Guide: “Stitching Time is a relational architecture, a textile proposition, a sewing circle, a tea party, an environment for emergent collectivity. Join us to design a garment, craft an environment, take a nap, sew a button, have a conversation. Come make time with Erin Manning and her collaborators.”

From the perspective of this Research Point, this is the most fascinating of the works I’ve selected. It seems so deeply rooted in traditional female textile concerns – working with pattern pieces, making clothes or your environment, sewing together, adapting by adding a button where needed, even the paraphernalia for sharing a cup of tea on the long worktable. That may be a part, but Manning crosses through multiple disciplines – dancer, painter, philosophical practice. She holds a University Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University (Montreal). Manning has a list of publications as long as your arm (assuming you have long arms!), including an essay “The Art of Time” in the Biennale exhibition catalogue. In it she writes of “Art as the intuitive process for activating the relational composition that is life-living, for creating a memory of the future that evades, that complicates form. The art of time: making felt the rhythm of the differential, the quality of relation” (Manning, 2012). Out of context, which makes something difficult even more difficult to understand, but unlike some artist statements that seem to me more a conglomeration of catch-phrases (and one at least I saw I am absolutely certain was an intentional joke) this seems to me to have real fundamental meaning in both art and human terms. I only catch glimmers, but I find them enticing. There’s a much more approachable video of the artist speaking at

There were so many more works that used textile techniques and / or materials, and sometimes actual textiles (for example Jin Nü, who uses twenty silk children’s dresses in Exuviate II:Where Have All teh Children Gone?). There is no doubt in my mind that textile techniques and materials are entirely acceptable as part of an artist’s practice. At this point of my research I’m not sure about “textile art” as a term. As I was searching on the internet for more information about the artists shown above I found references to “visual artist” or “multi-disciplinary artist”, but not “textile artist”. Instead I found a fairly recent article by Jessica Hemmings discussing the work of Nicholas Hlobo and El Anatsui among others, in which she commented on the discomfort some of the artists felt about the term textile art as a discipline and continues “this may be fair, particularly in light of the undervalued position textiles tend to experience, both in academic and commercial contexts…” (Hemmings, 2010).

There’s also a question mark over the ability of artists who come from a textile making (rather than fine arts) background to move into showing their work in a fine arts environment. This is one of the issues discussed by Elissa Auther (see my post of 26-May-2012), considering the different treatment of apparently visually similar works, based on the background and “credentials” of the maker. Of the artists listed above, the two who seem to me most textile-oriented in the exhibited work, Gao Rong and Erin Manning, both have formal academic training in fine arts.

I will be returning to some of these questions and to a discussion of the work of some specific textile artists in later posts, interleaved with some of the more practical course work.

Auther, E. (2009) String Felt Thread: The hierarchy of art and craft in American art, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press

Hemmings, J. “Material meaning” in Wasafiri Vol. 25, No. 3 September 2010 ( Accessed 27 August 2012)

LaGamma, A. “Interview with El Anatsui”, Accessed 25 August 2012

Manning, E. “The Art of Time”, in de Zegher, C. and McMaster, G. (ed.) (2012) all our relations: 18th biennale of Sydney 2012, Sydney: Biennale of Sydney Ltd. Accessed 27 August 2012

Myre, N. “The Scar Project” Accessed 27 August 2012

Myre, N. (2010) The Scar Project, ( Accessed 27 August 2012)

Sambrani, C. “Phaptawan Suwannakudt” in Nakamura, F. (ed.) (2010) Ephemeral but Eternal Words: Traces of Asia, Accessed 25 August 2012

Young, J. (2010) “Phaptawan Suwannakudt: Wakeful Moment Catching the Moment: Each Step is the Past”, Accessed 25 August 2012

Research Point – Craft part 2

Having considered different uses of the term “craft” here (18-Aug-2012) I need to look at why craft-produced textiles maintain a place in our society. The particular focus is why people choose to purchase them, the obvious alternative being industrially mass-produced goods.

I’ve quoted Octavio Paz in the past (16-Sept-2011) including “… craftsmanship is the heartbeat of human time. A thing that is handmade is a useful object but also one that is beautiful; an object that lasts a long time but also one that slowly ages away and is resigned to so doing; an object that is not unique like the work of art and can be replaced by another object that is similar but not identical. The craftsman’s handiwork teaches us to die and hence teaches us to live.” Earlier in the essay Paz writes “the destiny of the industrial object is the trash barrel” and “it becomes mere refuse that is difficult to dispose of.” Written in 1973, these passages are still reflected in contemporary concerns.

Craft-produced objects may appear to meet desires for sustainability, more local, perhaps part of the slow movement. I suspect such assumptions are not universally correct.

At a craft market a purchaser may be partly buying into a lifestyle, at least by surrogate. The idea of a free and creative existence becomes part of the object taken home. “Selling the imaginative lifestyle translates to higher prices” (Lucy Gundry)

Superbly crafted goods promise quality, luxury, exclusivity, privilege – evident in Gucci’s Artisan Corner

Appreciation, and therefore purchase, of handcrafted textiles may result from an appreciation of beauty based in human psychology and survival instincts. Predictability can be associated with security, and found in the repeating patterns of many textiles. Within that predictability, we seek to identify variation in detail – again important for survival, and again found in handcrafted textiles. (Barry, 2012)

Craft objects are generally unique, at least in detail, or duplicated in very low volumes, making them attractive to consumers tired of mass-produced sameness and conformity.

Purchasers may admire the skill they know was involved in making the goods or be attracted by the story behind the object, what it represents. This and a whole lot more about consumers of craft, what they look for and value, is in the report of a survey done by Morris Hargreaves McIntyre for the Crafts Council, “Consuming Craft: the contemporary craft market in a changing economy” (pdf here).

While searching the web for this topic I came across the term “craft consumer” – described by Colin Campbell as a consumer who “typically brings skill, knowledge, judgement and passion while being motivated by a desire for self-expression” (Campbell, 2005). Initially I only had the Abstract and assumed “craft consumers” referred to consumers who are craft aficionados and collectors, following trends and the development of individual makers. I later found the full text of Campbell’s article and realised  I had completely misunderstood the term. Instead, “the craft consumer is a person who typically takes any number of mass-produced products and employs these as the ‘raw materials’ for the creation of a new ‘product’, one that is typically intended for self-consumption.” So this more properly fits into my previous post on the meaning(s) of “craft” (19-August-2012).

Liz’s silk scarves

The final part of this Research Point suggested visiting a local craftsperson and asking about their way of working and personal meaning of craft. I had always intended to ask my weaving teacher, Liz Calnan, who has made a successful and longterm career in weaving. Unfortunately I’ve mismanaged time, so won’t be able to see Liz before I send this Assignment off. I’ll try to add her views in a future post, but in the meantime have a few observations of my own. I’ve included a couple of my photos of Liz’s work, but there is much more to be enjoyed on her website

Liz’s mixed yarn shawl

Liz has a deep love and knowledge of all aspects of her chosen craft. She is endlessly interested in experimenting with new structures and materials.

Liz produces a wide variety of work. Scarves and shawls are the major part, but she also creates wall hangings, throws and rugs.
While she has a particular fascination with double weave, Liz uses a wide variety of structures and techniques. She also works in a wide range of colours, including colour schemes she dyes herself and many not necessarily to her personal taste. All of this provides the consumer with choice, able to find a unique textile that appeals to them.

Liz is very conscious of efficiency and productivity in her work, allowing her to provide good value to the consumer and a moderate return for her own investment of time and resources.  One example is the long silk warps she paints, cleverly designed to minimise waste and maximise variety. Such long warps mean loom setup time per item woven is kept to a minimum. Liz also has an extensive collection of looms, so is able to use the most appropriate tool for particular warps. She has multiple looms warped at once, each with a different structure, fibre, width… This helps with variety of product and also efficiency as she is able to tie on new warps quickly without needing additional time on rethreading etc.

An important concern for a production weaver is potential repetitive strain injury. Liz consciously cares for her body in the way she works – in her weaving technique, by moving from task to task, by maintaining general fitness.

Liz makes sales opportunities for herself. In the photo on the left are a bookmark and scarf by Liz, plus an enamel piece by her mother-in-law Heather Calnan, that I purchased at one of their roughly annual exhibitions in the Palm House in Sydney’s botanic gardens. Liz also exhibits  in galleries and craft shows with other crafts groups such as The Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW (

Obviously Liz also supplements her income by teaching weaving – although given the time and effort she puts into preparation and notes for her classes as well as the classes themselves, I suspect this is more for love of weaving and creating new weavers than the financial aspect.

Finally, to quote Liz on her website “I believe hand woven pieces should be functional but beautiful – a joy to use and behold.”


Barry, C. “Beauty theraphy: we analyse why the brain likes handmade textiles” in Selvedge Issue 46 May/June 2012

Campbell, C. “The Craft Consumer: Culture, craft and consumption in a postmodern society” in Journal of Consumer Culture March 2005 vol. 5 no. 1 23-42 (Abstract at accessed 20 August 2012; Full text at accessed 20 August 2012)

Gundry, L, “Exhibition Review: Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshop 1913-19″ in  Textile Journal Vol 9 issue 1

Morris Hargreaves McIntyre “Consuming Craft: the contemporary craft market in a changing economy”, Accessed 20 August 2012

Paz, O. “Use and Contemplation” in World Crafts Council (1974) In praise of hands: contemporary crafts of the world New York Graphic Society Ltd

Research point – Craft

This research point focuses on craft-based textiles. The course notes suggest that while boundaries are blurring in terms of material, technique, function and concept between craft and industry and between craft and fine art, “craft practitioners” continue to share a common goal – to produce one-off or small production run quality items – and craft-produced textiles continue to hold a place in our society.

This falls into an ongoing area of interest for me – what “craft” is and the implications – which actually makes responding to this research point difficult. I’m starting with a selection of uses of the word.

* Craft as cutesy decoration. Alexandra Lange recently wrote that “craft” as a word has lost all meaning. She refers to the TV show “Craft Wars” (I haven’t seen it here), where it seems people use perfectly good materials to make or alter objects to be neither beautiful nor useful, but cute. Martha Stewart is another name I associate with the dressup and kitsch end of craft (for example almost any link at

* Mancraft. This is where the alpha maker man, self-sufficient, resourceful and wise, designs and makes stuff. My source on this is Dr Sandra Alfoldy’s special design lecture at COFA, available for download at Alfoldy suggests the mancraft phenomenon is a response to the economic collapse, links to sustainability, and gives the illusion of control in a chaotic world.

One could roughly group these first two as gendered variants sharing some values – homebuilding, control, bonding. Sandra Alfoldy’s lecture also introduced me to the term “compensatory consumption” which has been defined: “Compensatory consumption is engaged in whenever an individual feels a need, lack or desire which they cannot satisfy with a primary fulfilment so they seek and use an alternative means of fulfilment in its place.” (Woodruffe-Burton and Elliott, I can certainly recognise such behaviour at times in myself. From my current workplace, if I go out one door there’s a fabric and haberdashery store a few steps to the left, a stitching and knitting store a few steps to the right, and an art supplies store across the road. If I escape by the other door I’m safe unless I cross the road to the bookstore. It’s a dangerous area after a challenging work morning.

* “the craft” of something – the traditional techniques, design vocabulary, materials, natural constraints of a particular “discipline” or area of work. For an example of this usage in textiles see Another craft (traditional skills and knowledge) area familiar to me is bellringing (for example see language in I’ve previously posted about the Gucci artisan corner (, celebrating fine traditional craftsmanship, and of course there are guilds such as the one I belong to, the Hand Weavers and Spinners Guild of NSW ( (see my post on 15 September 2011).

* A definition close to my own approach, by Max Fraser: “Contemporary craft need not be defined by genre, it can include a wide range of media, but whatever the medium, craft practice is at the core of the making process. It is a combination of hand, mind and eye – the technical mastery of tools, materials, aesthetic sensibility and design skills.” I particularly like this list of attributes of “…the more human centred definition of craft – where time, patience, evidence of hand skill, rarity, chance, snap decisions and risk of failure are all contributing factors to an object’s charm and value.” Interestingly Frasers’ essay “Lab Craft: 3 Digital Adventures in Contemporary Craft” ( is in the exhibition catalogue of a Crafts Council touring exhibition which displays the use of digital technology in craft. (Thanks to Cally for this reference).

* craft as something that isn’t art. My post about Glenn Adamson’s book discusses a prime example of this – (6 July 2012). Avoiding a single clear definition, Adamson presents craft as a horizon to avant garde art. Adamson examines perspectives and implications of craft as Supplemental (not autonomous); Material (versus optical); Skilled (more complex, but perhaps beside the point in art); Pastoral (that is nostalgic and limiting creative freedom); Amateur. I think this has links to arguments in Elissa Auther’s work (see my blog post – 26 May 2012). The label “craft” has been used as a negative, a way to exclude or diminish work, particularly that of women. Closer to home, at ATASDA (Australian Textile Arts & Surface Design Association), our Objectives start:

  • To promote, foster, develop & advance textile and fibre arts
  • To promote interaction and co-operation between textile artists and all artists using dyes, pigments, stitch and/or manipulative techniques for fibre and fabric decoration

( The word “craft” is rarely heard at ATASDA. Generally when someone wants to introduce a new skill in their work they’ll talk about learning the rules so they can break them. It’s purpose that matters, not technique – or at least, only technique that is appropriate to the current purpose. I really like this approach, and enjoy the no barriers, no holds barred approach. That’s not to say that more traditional, beautiful, well-crafted work by members isn’t admired and celebrated, perhaps just being very clear that the kitsch end of craft is a long way away (unless we’re feeling ironic). To any friends from ATASDA who happen to read this, I hasten to say “my opinion only, of course” 🙂

* “Craft” has been used very broadly.  For example in “Making is Connecting: the social meaning of creativity, from DIV and knitting to YouTUbe and Web 2.0”, David Gauntlett explores the meaning of making and various philosophies of craft, from the skilled practice of a master woodcarver to traditional hobby crafting and on to trendy guerrilla crafts (knit-wrapped trees…). Gauntlett identifies an intrinsic human urge to make, and a joy experienced in making, whether that is handcrafts or well crafted computer code. He finds a connection between craft, creativity, our connection to each other and our entire culture, and ends the book with a vision for a political and social future where communities aren’t satisfied with consuming what is provided by “the system”, but take an active part in making the world their own.

* “Craft” can also be defined very narrowly. I’ve been reading “A theory of craft: function and aesthetic expression” by Howard Risatti for some time, but I’m struggling and haven’t got far. Risatti takes the definition of craft very seriously, as a necessary basis for developing a coherent critical theory. Rather than using materials, techniques or form to identify craft, Risatti focuses on purpose and function – so craft objects have functions of containing, covering and supporting. In this definition jewellery is an adornment, and cannot be a craft object. Surface decoration is not an intrinsic part of craft. Tools are not self-contained, having a further purpose and requiring energy input to make them work, so are not craft objects. By this logic, Risatti finds that cutlery cannot be classed as craft. I got as far as chapter 4, where Risatti argues that craft objects are made by tools, as extensions of the hands and reflecting their motions, but not by machines (page 51). Just a couple of pages earlier he had clarified that levers are machines, giving mechanical advantage and changing direction, distance and speed of energy. That’s where I’ve stopped. I think the vast majority of looms have levers of some kind raising shafts (backstrap, warp-weighted and a few other specific loom types being exceptions).  Woven textiles are definitely on Risatti’s list of craft objects (having the function of covering the body). I don’t know how he manages to reconcile this.

I’m continuing with other reading, but that’s enough to chew on for one post! Most of the above is actually off-topic for the question posed in the course notes – why craft-produced textiles maintain a place in our society. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

Alfoldy, S. “Special Design Lecture: Mancraft”, recorded 9 May 2011. accessed 18 August 2012

Auther, E. (2009) String Felt Thread: The hierarchy of art and craft in American art, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press

Fraser, M. “Lab Craft: 3 Digital Adventures in Contemporary Craft” ( Accessed 18 August 2012

Gauntlett, D.  (2011) Making is Connecting: the social meaning of creativity, from DIV and knitting to YouTUbe and Web 2.0, Cambridge: Polity Press

Hopper, J. (accessed 18 May 2012)

Lange, A. “Don’t Put a Bird On It: Saving “Craft” from Cuteness”, Accessed 15 August 2012

Risatti, H. (2007) A theory of craft: function and aesthetic expression, The University of North Carolina Press

Woodruffe-Burton, H. and Elliott, R. “Compensatory Consumption and Narrative Identity Theory”, accessed 18 August 2012

Other websites referenced:

Relevant previous posts:

* Preserving crafts (16-Sept-2011).

* Reading – Elissa Auther: String Felt Thread (26-May-2012).

* Reading – Glenn Adamson: thinking through craft (6-July-2012).

Research point – Diversity of textiles available

One of the OCA research points asks for an investigation of “style and design in textiles available to the consumer”.

During the Olympics many of us will be seeing a lot of the latest technology in sportswear and I thought it would be interesting to see what’s happening at the elite level, and how much of that has filtered into the general marketplace.

Starting with the Australian team,  the use of Adidas technology gives the expectation of enhanced speed, strength and temperature control. Adidas TECHFIT™ PowerWEB technology is used in compression suits and uses Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) material in a design which supports muscle movement. Adidas ClimaCool® technology uses “heat and ventilation zones, moisture management fabrics and conductive fibres to draw heat away from the body”. With all this technology it’s interesting that the use of “traditional hand-crafted techniques” together with “acute attention to detail” is credited as part of creating lighter shoes.

Not necessarily related to sportswear, but something I find very interesting, is the DryDye technology that Adidas has introduced. Instead of the 25 litres apparently required to dye one T-shirt, this process uses no water, 50% less energy and 50% less chemicals (although I don’t know if that means in weight or toxicity or variety or…). Information in the video included in this article took me to DyeCoo Textile Systems who can dye natural and synthetic textiles in supercritical carbon dioxide.

An implementation partner of DyeCoo is the Yeh Group, and suddenly I’m back on topic. Yeh Group sell innovative fabrics for sports and outdoor wear. Moisture management keeps wearers drier and the technology includes special knit construction, topical treatments and/or “technology inside the yarn”. I suppose that could include possibly the spinning or yarn-construction process(es) or the chemical composition (polyester is mentioned in bold at the top of one page, but some technical info well beyond my understanding also mentions wool, spandex, cotton and “Cocona”). Other fabrics are made from a spun polyester to provide the hand of cotton with polyester performance. The pages on Laminated, Polypropylene and Melange are still under construction, which is disappointing.

Not having heard of Cocona, I followed that reference to Cocona Inc. Their technology incorporates natural active particles with a micro porous structure in fibres, polymers and films, greatly increasing their surface area. Benefits include moisture management and reduced drying time, UV protection and odor management (the particles absorb odor then release it during normal washing). The benefits continue as one layers garments, with high breathability and comfort.

Going wider in my search, I found textiles designed to provide real-time scoring data in combat sports. CSIRO has worked with the Australian Institute of Sports on the development of an electronic fabric that can be made on a commercial knitting machine. The Automated Impact Sensing System detects impacts in the boxer’s gear (glove, helmet, garments) then uses Bluetooth to communicate with the software. If impacts register at the same time for one contestants glove and the other’s helmet, objective points are awarded. This development seems to be a bit late coming into use given today’s controversy on boxing judging in the Olympics.

Looking through a series of websites, it appears all these technologies and many more are available to consumers. There is often a premium price to pay, but that’s generally the way with new developments. None of the innovations I read about appear to have a direct application to my own textile work, being generally industrial rather than crafts-based. A number of the organisations referred to positive environmental aspects of their processes – the waterless dyeing is particularly interesting, as long as there isn’t a matching downside somewhere. As a consumer – well, I tend to the cynical when manufacturers are extolling their own and their products’ virtues, but perhaps I will be a bit more openminded when my gym gear comes up for replacement. I’m not trying for anything more than personal bests, but being a little more comfortable in the process would be nice.

Resources accessed 3 August 2012– “adidas’ DryDye garment dyeing process delivers significant water and energy savings” by Enid Burns dated August 2, 2012 and accessed 3 August 2012 accessed 3 August 2012 accessed 3 August 2012

“Getting Smart with textiles to revolutionise combat sports” dated August 2010, accessed 3 August 2012

“Ring of ire: judging standards under attack as spotlight falls on boxing” by Chris Barrett

Research point – textile collections in a museum

A Research Point in the OCA course recommends visits to contemporary and historical or ethnographical textile collections. For contemporary, I wrote about Sensorial Loop here. Now taking a slightly different slant, in the past few weeks I’ve seen textiles in a number of non-textile-oriented collections, and have been musing over the different approaches taken in their display.

First up a trio at the NSW Art Gallery (which has the advantage of allowing photographs of most items in its permanent collection – although no flash allowed, so apologies for photo quality).

This magnificent Atsuita No robe is displayed centre stage in a section of the Lower Asian Gallery. It dominates the room in a large free-standing display. The space allowed both inside and around the cabinet together with the raised stand adds to the drama and visual importance of the piece. It is the only obvious textile piece in the area, which also contains ceramics, paintings and drawings, netsuke, etc. The lighting in the gallery generally is dim and the spot lighting enhances the textile and allows clear viewing of the detailed work.

The robe is Edo period (1603 – 1868), circa 1800, and is a theatre costume. The whirlpool and dragon design is in silk and gold, using ikat dyed threads for the warp (information provided on signage). There is further information and a photo on the gallery’s website (click here).

The workmanship of the weaving is just amazing. I’ve never seen ikat dyeing used in such a crisp, formal way – in fact it took me a long time examining the work to accept the information. The use of colour is very effective. I particularly like the flashes of brighter colour in the whirlpools.

This Kalinga skirt cloth from the Phillipines is a more modest cloth, more modestly displayed. It is in a back corridor in the upper Asian Gallery, quite a bright area. The piece is mounted in a frame behind glass -I had difficulty getting a reasonable photo, so apologies for the reflections of lights and the ceramics displayed on the opposite wall. The Gallery website has a much, much better photo – click here.

Once again the signage was very informative. Also once again I had trouble believing it, originally thinking it was embroidery rather than floating weft decoration (I’m still not totally convinced – I think there is a combination of techniques). I first took a close look at this cloth in February – notes and a schematic in my sketchbook here. The dangling beads and shell pieces reflect the triangular shapes in the cloth, and add an extra touch of colour and texture to the textile. They must look very effective when worn as a skirt.

The final piece I have chosen from the gallery is La Somnambule, by Rosslynd Piggott, made 996-97. Unlike the earlier two pieces of costume and clothing, this was obviously created as an artwork although elements are drawn from clothing design. In keeping with this there is much less information provided in the gallery – names and dates for artist and piece, plus a brief list of materials (silk, hooks, coathangers, perspex, stainless steel). There is much more descriptive and interpretive information, plus photos, on the Gallery website (click here).

This work is displayed in the Contemporary Galleries, at one end and rather separate from other work. This provides a sense of space and quiet that fits well with the piece.

It is a very beautiful and intriguing piece. I find it quiet and gentle, although the many hooks in one of the “nightdresses” and the unravelling in both could suggest more sinister ideas. The mirror-shaped perspex suggests a reflection and possible distortion, or perhaps a displacement “Alice through the looking glass” effect. Looking now at the photographs the disproportionate sleeves look somewhat reminiscent of a straight-jacket, but I didn’t get that sense when looking at the work itself – the beautiful, gleaming silk doesn’t fit that notion. It is much more a fragile, dreaming sensation.

Each of these pieces has been displayed in a different way by the Gallery. Each is in the company of its peers. I feel the Gallery has done an excellent job of considering the nature and requirements of each individual work, and appreciate the value clearly given to textiles as cultural and artistic artifacts.

In Canberra a few weeks ago (blog post here) we had some time in the National Gallery of Australia before going into the Renaissance exhibition. We wandered into a gallery of Impression and Post-Impressionism works, enticed further by one piece after another (including Sonia Delaunay‘s Dubonnet), and came to a large case of costumes from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and other Ballet Russes companies that followed. No photography is permitted in the Gallery, but I have included a link below.

There were 9 or so costumes in the case, with diffuse lighting above and spot lighting from the very high ceiling. Signage explained the fragile nature of the pieces. Unfortunately the case was at the end of a cul-de-sac in the gallery layout – it gave a good view at a distance to bring visitors in, but you couldn’t move around to see the sides and backs of the costumes.

A dress designed by Giorgio de Chirico for the Ballet de l’opéra russes á Parie production of Pulcinella in 1931 and 1932 particularly attracted me given the current OCA work on painting and printing. There is a photo on the Gallery’s website here. The full skirt has been stamped and painted with blue paint in simple triangles and dots. It is clearly hand-done, and achieves a very lively and spontaneous air. The bodice has been painted with large scrollwork and a fleur de lis kind of shape. There are curious stuffed shapes on the shoulders, yellow puffed sleeves and for me there is an overall almost cartoonish feel. I can imagine the skirt lifting and swirling as the dancer moved.

Another favourite was attributed to Picasso, elements from a production of Le Tricorne. Detailed information was given putting the costumes and production into their historical and design context. The costume, including men’s breeches, was fairly plain, but there were little bobbles that I thought may have been crocheted attached to the seams – again with lots of potential for movement during the ballet. Other costumes used raw edge applique and tassels sewn on, again with a cartoonish, raw, fresh and handmade appearance.

Overall the quality of information provided and the variety of textile work used was very interesting and satisfying.

The final exhibition is Travelling the silk road: ancient pathway to the modern world at the National Museum of Australia, also in Canberra. The exhibition is organised by American Museum of Natural History, New York. It had only been open a day or two when we went and a few things weren’t quite set up (a film show, a few of the exhibits not working).

The exhibition is telling a very big story – the “Silk Road” was many routes through many cultures and countries over 600 years. It cleverly does this by taking the visitor on a journey to four cities on the road. It is educational, entertaining, interactive. You can walk in dappled light under a grape vine and smell the spices and scents of the markets while camels snort in your ear (the lights bright spot lights, the grapes plastic, the scents under sliding covers in barrels so you could try to guess what they were, the camels recorded and thankfully not spitting). You can tell the time using the “stars” and a model astrolabe (set at a height convenient to children). You can find links in culture and technology on an interactive map (set at a convenient height…). There was a huge setup explaining a karez underground irrigation system – I’m glad to have learnt about this remarkable achievement.

I feel really conflicted about this exhibition, because in many ways it was wonderful but I found it sterile and distancing and unsatisfying. It was so artificial. It was so well intentioned. It was so cheesy. It was so polished. It provided nice little chunks of information conveniently packaged for my consumption. I should add that my companion knows far, far more about the Silk Road than I do, she has visited three of the four cities featured, and she really enjoyed the exhibition.

Focusing back on textiles, there was no stinting the information and carefully designed displays on all the stages of silk production. Entering the exhibition you immediately see a huge replica of a Tang era loom, dressed in gleaming rich golden yellow silk. There are shuttles, a thread winder, bobbins, a roll of woven cloth… of course I tried to read too much into it – the position of the beater looked impossible, the roll of finished cloth on the cloth beam had never been woven on that loom, whatever, whatever – not relevant to the purpose of the exhibition. I liked a display based on a reproduction of a scroll that illustrated all the processes of sericulture, harvesting the cocoons, through winding off, processing and weaving the silk. I was pleased with myself for recognising Michael Cook on a video (I used to follow his blog wormspit). There was a lot of use of modern silk in patterns based on possible silk road trade goods. Further on there was an interesting set of items showing the diffusion of designs from textiles to ceramics to architecture.

I think the problem for me as a textile obsessive is that in a way the silk wasn’t real – it was a tool, a part of telling a wider story. In terms of entertainment and education it didn’t matter that everything was a reproduction – and large pieces of bright coloured cloth are much more eye-catching than tattered, stained, precious remnants woven by someone’s hands centuries ago. I don’t want slick presentation and everything given to me, I want some spaces for my imagination and a sense of my own discovery.

With all this negativity I don’t want to put people off visiting this exhibition. It has a lot to offer. I just tried to make it something is isn’t – something that fits into a research point about an historical or ethnographical collection of textiles.

Textile research point

Wedding shawl of Elizabeth Travis

The course asks for an in depth look at a textile I have at home.

Elizabeth Travis (1843 – 1897) was the daughter of Thomas Travis and Ann Travis (née Lofthouse) and the sister of Mary Ann Brant (née Travis). Mary Ann was the mother of Alice, who was the mother of Eleanor Louise, the mother of Margaret Eleanor, the mother of Judith Margaret (me). Which I think makes Elizabeth my great great great aunt. As a child my grandmother, Eleanor, lived in a house in Sheffield UK with four generations and although she didn’t remember much of that time she had been told that she learnt to walk in her Great Grandmother’s room (that would have been Ann). I don’t know any more of Elizabeth’s story, when or who she married, but the shawl and story were given by my grandmother to my mother. Early this year I asked mum about the shawl for this research exercise and she has now given it to me.

The shawl is woven, rectangular and large – around 275 cm in length plus a fringe of 9 cm at each end, and 146 cm in width. The ends of the shawl have a narrow hem and the fringe has been added separately. It is very light – just 235 grams.

I did a burn test on some fibre taken from a torn area and assessed it based on a chart and information from (accessed 13 April 2012). It burnt briefly then self-extinguished. There was an odour of burning hair (I cross-checked by burning a snippet of my own hair!), and left a black, soft bead of ash. Based on this plus the appearance of the shawl, I think the shawl is a mix of silk and wool.

The central part of the shawl is warped in a very fine off-white thread with a sheen. The warp is spaced, with pairs of threads every millimetre or so. This gauzy weave seems quite stable, suggesting to me a leno structure or similar, but even with a fairly strong magnifying glass I can’t see clearly. At each side there is a striped border – a broad (5.7 cm) stripe of heavier tan-coloured silk woven in a twill (I think) at the side, then four narrower stripes. Each stripe is edged by a few ends of off-white silk, heavier than that in the main cloth.

Weftwise, there is a matching border of tan silk striping at each end. The body of the shawl has a very regular repeat of stripes. I think the main weft may be wool. Certainly it is more matt in appearance that the other threads. There is a stripe of wool a couple of picks of the off-white silk, a stripe of wool, then a stripe consisting of a dark silk, the off-white silk, then a variegated dark and tan thread.

In the photo the shawl is partly over a black sheet of paper, and you can see just how fine it is. Given the weight of the silk used and the regularity of the weaving I believe it was machine made.

Although there are no signs of fading, the shawl is in poor condition. There has been moth damage and I found a couple of what appeared to be old moth bodies in the cloth. There are also tears in the cloth which seem to be along fold lines. For many years the shawl has been stored in a plastic bag in a dark drawer, and even when taken out to show me it hadn’t been unfolded. I found one area of mending.

If the family story is correct, Elizabeth may have been married in the 1860s or 1870s (although it’s really just an assumption even that it was her wedding). A brief search on the internet found mention of large shawls – up to 11 feet – to cover the wide skirts in fashion around that time, although those seem often to be triangular. Wearing white at weddings is thought to have become popular after Queen Victoria wore white lace at her wedding in 1840, although confined to the elite due to laundering considerations (, accessed 15 April 2012). The shawls I found in my search were lace, or beaded and/or embroidered. There is no embellishment on Elizabeth’s shawl. Thomas, her father, was described as a labourer on her birth certificate and in later documentation was described as a Maltster Journeyman. A light coloured fairly plain silk and wool shawl may have been appropriate for the wedding outfit of the daughter of a man of that station in life.

It’s impossible to judge the accuracy of the family story, given it is mostly oral history. There is a note in my mother’s handwriting stored with the shawl, and a brief mention of the house in Sheffield in a letter from my grandmother in 1990. Mum has also spent a lot of time researching the family history, so we have copies of some birth, death and marriage certificates. It’s such a lovely story and there seems no particular reason not to believe it, although memories are frail and many a family researcher has found surprises where there was no apparent reason to mislead.

It is wonderful to feel a connection with women through five generations of a family. It has been treated by all of us as something special and precious, including the careful darning. I’m lucky to have that sense of continuity and belonging.

As a weaver I would love to create a piece inspired by the colours and structures of the shawl. At first glance it is deceptively simple although attractive. Looking more closely for this research piece has made me appreciate the complexity of the design.

I don’t know if, how or when I’ll use this shawl. It’s certainly too delicate to wear as it is. Perhaps one day I may have the inspiration and the courage to cut into it and use part in a textile piece. In 2005 or so I made this piece Life Weaving – Generations which incorporates a fragment from Alice’s 1897 wedding dress, but that was all I had. (I was much more blasé about taking scissors to my wedding dress and my mother’s!). It would be harder to cut into something that is perhaps 150 years old and still basically one piece.


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