What is textile art and can you make a living at it?

What is textile art and can you make a living at it?

What is textile art and can you make a living at it?

Once considered a mere craft, more and more artists are establishing textiles as a fine art medium, and buyers and collectors are responding with increasing enthusiasm as they look to expand their art collections with textile art.

Alongside the cave drawings from many millennia ago, textiles, in the form of animal skins once appeared. Over the centuries, textiles have become more decorative and practical with patterned throws, rugs and the occasional macrame or crocheted wall hanging.

macrame on a living room wall
Fabric art, weaving and macrame are finding their way on to our walls

Textile arts are arts and crafts that use plant, animal, or synthetic fibres to construct practical or decorative objects. Many artists reflect on the modern world and its creation in their subject matter and textile art has a fascinating history – geographical and political – from trading Tyrian purple dye in the ancient Mediterranean, through to The Silk Road and the Industrial Revolution. But its history is often limited to luxury fabrics and political unrest. Modern textile artists have begun to introduce the concept of fibre artists, removing away from references to textile craft and the catch-all term ‘mixed media’.

‘You all know how great art can affect you, you breathe differently’.

One of the world’s most influential textile artists of the 20th century was Anni Albers (1899-1994) who did much of the ground work to move textiles away from the world of crafts and into the arena of the fine arts. As a member of the influential Bauhaus, she turned to textiles after being refused entry to the painting workshop (because she was a woman). Textiles was often seen as women’s work and Albers admits she thought it was rather sissy. But working under, the perhaps better known Paul Klee, she approached the discipline with an artist’s eye, researching, experimenting and often incorporating non-traditional materials into her compositions – including, rather curiously, cellophane.

In keeping with the philosophy of the Bauhaus, the German-based arts school aimed to reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts, she considered purpose alongside form. The result was simple patterns or bold colours. She talked evocatively about the art of touch, the tactile sense that textile art can satisfy. Like many textile artists, she turned to history for inspiration and credits the weavers of ancient Peru as her greatest teachers.

In 1949, she became the first weaver to have a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the exhibition travelled to 26 venues throughout the United States and Canada.

A traditional hand weaving loom with purple thread
A traditional hand weaving loom

So what is textile art?

Usefulness, Alber tells us, does not preclude something being art. “A work of art, we know, can be made of sand or sound, feathers or flowers as much as marble or gold,” she writes in her seminal text, On Weaving, which was published in the 1960s. But sensitivity and imagination renders a work art rather than design regardless of the material.

Since then, textile art has both grown up our walls, and is now taking over floors. Artisan rug makers are working with artists to transfer artworks into textiles. While artists themselves are picking up looms and incorporating weaving into their practice. 

Silk textile artist and artweb member Diane Rogers developed her work from her job as a commercial print textile designer. Originally trained in fashion, she saw changes in the industry towards painting and embroidering design directly onto fabric.

“A quilting technique I was using on a particular group of designs, inspired me with its possibilities and I began to experiment with free machine embroidery and quilting to develop this method as a way of producing raised fabric art pieces,” she explains. “Nature and the environment provide the inspiration for my textile art and also my paintings. The gnarled, grainy texture of tree bark, carpets of rich colourful leaves, pebbles and structures on beaches, tangled nets and the ever changing rock pools on the south coast are recurring themes. The neglect and decay of structures, exposure to the natural elements and the passage of time, reveal interesting surfaces, shapes, textures and patterns.”

textile artwork using hand-painted embroidery
Hand-painted embroidery by textile artwork by artist Diane Rogers

Her method of hand painting and printing on to silks and adding embroidery and embellishment through a quilted layer creates texture and raised areas in relief. “This gives a compelling, irresistible tactile quality to each original piece,” she says. “I feel there is a fascinating discord between the smooth lustrous quality and properties of silk as a medium and my subject matter.”

Buyers of her work are wide ranging, but she does get a lot of interest from women who are keen on needlework and doing crafts. “Women traditionally are more familiar with the processes used and time taken to create textile art work. Men, I find, are fascinated with the detail and effects that can be achieved and are most appreciative of the time taken to produce a piece.

“It is frustrating textile art is generally under-appreciated in the art world, though in America it is held in higher regard and there seem to be more opportunities and galleries willing to show textile art as fine art. Many open submissions for art work or exhibitions exclude textile art as a category and work has to be submitted as mixed media.

“I simply employ textiles and threads or fibres as a drawing, painting and sculpting material. Hopefully, slowly textiles and fibre art is getting closer to being considered a fine art.”

You can see Diane Rogers’ work on artweb.