17 May 2021
A History of Political Textiles
We delve into the history of political textiles, which became vessels to depict longings of social and political change.
Textile as a medium is an earthy and inherently tactile one, which evokes an immediate association with women and crafting. However, at times of unrest, textiles have become a vessel depicting a longing for social and political change. The 18th century was a time when the art world was becoming more and more academic. At this time, the Royal Academypassed a rule which banned needlework from exhibition admissions, alongside art forms considered ‘lesser’. Historically, textiles have always been associated with domestic environments and femininity. As a medium, it was continuously labelled as inferior to ‘high art’, most often considered as being painting or sculpture.
However, textiles were soon used to promote political unrest and protest. Often in the form of banners, political textile work came to be hugely popular amongst trade unions over the world. Eventually, political textile work became a widely used medium amongst all, including artists, unionists and political activists. In this article, we delve into the banners of the Suffrage movement, trade union banners, the work of Faith Ringoldand Unframe artist Emily Lazerwitz, to name just a few.
The Fabric of Society
We often speak of the ‘hand’ of fabric meaning it’s texture, whether it be smooth or rough. As well as this, we use the term ‘the fabric of society’ to describe societal foundations and what they stand for. Linked to its functionality and power to tell stories, political textile work is central to the most oppressed cultures worldwide. In their origins, people created textiles for functional use. In the early 20th century, many artists in Suffrage movement embroidered banners for large scale protests in the UK. Women used textiles in early protests to promote women’s equal rights. Importantly, the exclusion of women from traditional artistic mediums left women to reclaim textile art as a wave of empowerment.
In a similar vein, as mentioned in our article on ‘Women in Contemporary Textiles’, the quilts of Gee’s Bend in Alabama are a perfect example of this. Mostly made up of quilts, the vast body of textile work is distinctively eclectic, visually influenced by both African and Native American traditions. They make up a small community of descendants of those enslaved within the cotton plantations in the area. Gee’s Bend quilts have become one of the most important cultural contributions to American art history. Gee’s Bend makers can trace their quilt making as far back as pre-19th century, then influenced by African and Native American textiles.
For protests, banners become a way of expressing a movement’s identity through a simple expression. Many political banners are intriguing in their design and often depict multi-layered narratives. Most often, political banners are seen as proud symbolic gestures of protest. However, as well as this they represent conformity and group action within activism. Banners have always been used to spread the word of a movement and are still used today. Much alike to flags, they attract attention from a distance effectively.
The Suffrage Movement
The Suffrage Atelier began working for the justice of women as an Arts and Crafts society. They were female artists who created works and banners towards the success of the wider movement. In particular, the Suffrage movement was one of the first to use banners to really enact change. The Suffrage banners are a perfect examples of highly skilled traditional needlework skills by women. But in this case, they used these skills to undermine the embedded and conventional view of women in society. In the Suffrage Atelier banner shown above, we see a central figure portrayed in a Grecian-style. Made of gilded thread, silk and paper, the craftsmanship of the piece can be likened to Asian costumes and Chinese textiles. The beautifully crafted figure holds emblems of peace and unity in her hands.
The makers of the Suffrage banners were often working out of their homes around London. Often classes would be held to teach women how to make them. Much like the work of the Gee’s Bend quilt-makers, making the banners became an emblem of community. The ‘Votes for Women NWSPU Brighton branch’ banner shown above derives from the Women’s Social and Political Union. This was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters.
Trade Union Banners
The most familiar banners are often recognised as those of the mass trade union movement over the world. The trade societies began turning into the New Model Unions from the 1850s. The unions’ banners kept many of the same visual images for their textiles. These motifs often include tools and processes of the particular trade. During 1889, the Great Dock Strike sparked a new wave of union membership. Consequently, there were more ‘unskilled’ workers than ever before and the demand for banners grew. Often, union members and sign writers were the makers of these banners.
In a similar way, the American artist Judy Chicago began to make political banners but in an entirely different form. For her seminal feminist piece‘The Dinner Party’, Chicago embroidered tablecloths in great detail. She creates a ceremonial banquet made up of individual place settings which honour 39 important women in history. In many ways, her embroidered tablecloth is just as political as a banner. In some ways, this piece is devoid of protest, but without a doubt ‘The Dinner Party’ can be likened to a political textile piece. Although made in a different time to the banners discussed, Chicago’s piece was addressing the gender inequality that remains today. In a similar way to the Suffrage political banners, Chicago empowers the art form of textiles. Through reclaiming the medium, she also draws attention to the place of textiles in the art world.
Textiles to invoke change
Artist activist Faith Ringold famously switched from painting to textiles as an attempt to move herself away from European painting traditions. Her textiles are inherently political, often featuring layered narratives much like historical trade union banners. They often feature and illuminate the realms of African American history. Her textile work primarily portrays the reality of suffering within an oppressive environment but through vibrancy and colour. Although she addresses difficult topics in her work, her political textile work promotes a world of hope. Ringold quilts in an African American traditional style, as taught to her by her mother. She uses a similar community based process to the banner making of the Suffrage movement and Gee’s Bend quilters.
The President’s Daily Brief – April 6 1968
Hand tufted wool rug hung on butcher hooks, 2020
80 x 100 cm
American artist Emily Lazerwitz explores the intersection of art and craft, as well as technology and language in her textile work. She breaks language down to its core in her intriguing and political work. Afterwards, she transcribes the language to a point where the legibility is present yet seemingly abstract. Most often, she marks key historical moments in her political textiles. In this case, we see this in her work, ‘The President’s Daily Brief – April 6 1968’. Emphatically, she uses an excerpt from the US president’s daily brief in 1968 as her source.
In particular, Lyndon B Johnson’s government made this statement on 6 April, on a day of rioting following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Her work always plays with dark humour, and for her this piece is more explicit than others.
“I was reading through the daily briefs from 1968 as a way to reflect on what is happening today. This phrase really struck me and felt apt as a response to the present status quo.” Emily Lazerwitz
Hand speed-tufted wool rug (statistics courtesy of the Global Terrorism Database), 2018
148.5 x 115.5 cm
Lazerwitz’s piece ‘DOC_00000200100.pdf’ touches upon gun fatalities in the US, global terrorism and censored CIA documents from the FOIA archives. As a politically engaged American artist, most often she explores this through the her practice of art, craft and language in her textile work. In this case, this political textile piece is from an ongoing series named ‘The Archive’. Lazerwitz displays reconfigured data representing terrorist attacks in the United States. Important to note, she sources these from the Global Terrorism Database.
Lazerwitz then formats them, mimicking the style of redacted government intelligence documents. Subsequently, she represents each attack through a series of letters, followed by black bars. Finally, she shows the listed time period on each rug, at the bottom right corner.
Over centuries, textiles have been crucial in the embodiment of organisations. They become potent symbols of core values and desire for social and political change from an oppressed viewpoint. Political textiles are iconic in their ability to provoke change and boldly inform. Historic political textile work has become influential to a contemporary art world. The ever-changing political world sparks inspiration in many contemporary artists today. These include Italian conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti known for his large scale map work, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui who makes large scale installations. As well as the singer Nick Cave who creates sculptural costumes called ‘Soundsuits’. And although textiles as a medium is continuously labelled an inferior art form to most, it has become apparent that this is untrue.