14 Apr 2021
Women in Contemporary Textiles
We chart the work of historical textile artists whose influence on weaving, sculpture and design continues to make an impact today.
A rich expansive textiles history has rooted the progressive work of countless contemporary textile artists. In modern day, textile art has taken an entirely new form as a respected fine art. The term ‘textile art’ today often implies that of textile based objects devoid of practical use. Although, the realm of fabric and textiles was previously seen as women’s work, female artists changed this rapidly. During the 1960s and 1970s, artists reclaimed the medium entirely, elevating it to a high art form. Textile art is particularly exceptional and stands out from other art forms, primarily combining functionality with beauty.
As a medium, textile art often embeds itself within social and political history, depicted at the time of production. In general, a lot can be told from textiles. From the use of clothes to portray social status to folklore and story telling, textiles and art making have always gone hand in hand. In this article, we primarily discuss the work of contemporary female textile artists who are visibly influenced by historical textiles, including Anni Albers, Rosie Lee Tompkins and the Quilters of Gee’s Bend among the others.
German-born textile artist Anni Albers began making textiles when she started at the Bauhaus design school in 1922. Bauhaus was a revolutionary art school, specialising in architecture and design, started by Walter Gropius at Weimar in 1919 Germany.
Within the school, Albers’ place was often overlooked by the hugely male dominated environment within the school. However, Albers took to textile designing and making, eventually forming a new way to see textiles.
Albers made a place for herself in the strict but visionary design-based Bauhaus school. In particular, she felt urged by many to take up female orientated crafts, at the time these were not even considered art forms. Whilst using the loom, Albers discovered the medium for her could be elevated to a fine art form.
She introduced ancient textile work into her practice, building upon textile tradition used for centuries. Her artistic ideal, formed when she was a student of the Bauhaus, is still relevant today. The artist blurred the lines between traditional craft and fine art. Through alternative surface qualities, rough, smooth, dull and shiny, hard and soft, Albers’ textiles include vibrant colour. The dominating element in her contemporary textiles was texture, as a result of the weaving styles she used.
Albers initiated the action of looking back in history, working from high quality textiles within the field of textile design and production. Her visual and technical skill involved in her textiles is astonishing. Critics recognise Albers’ work as being inventive and depicting the interconnectedness of structure and design. Albers was hugely articulate in how she connected ancient textiles with contemporary designs. At the same time her work shows an awareness of the function of thread and textiles within artistic language. As she experimented, she continuously investigated thread as a ‘carrier of meaning’, not just as a product. In particular, Albers paved the way for contemporary textiles as a high art form in her work.
During the 1960s, many artists began to use weaving to create innovate wall hangings and tapestries. By combining traditional craft with modern techniques, artists created a new kind of textile art. Marked by rapid social change, the 1960s holds great significance, at the time traditional hierarchies were beginning to dissolve. Eventually making way for the birth of the modern world
The American artist Sheila Hicks did exactly this through her experiments with historical or indigenous weaving techniques. Hicks lived in Mexico during the 1960s for a number of years and the influence of Mexican textiles is clear. In her practice, Hicks often examined indigenous weaving techniques during her travels. Importantly, she studied the local culture of Mexico, France, Morocco, as well as India, Chile and South East Asia. During her travels she developed and nurtured relationships with designers, artisans, craftsmen and architects.
“Textile is a universal language. In all of the cultures of the world, textile is a crucial and essential component”. Sheila Hicks
She takes these practices as her inspiration to create her textural and vibrant textile artworks. Her immensely diverse approach to textiles placed her at the centre of the Fiber movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In this time, many artists began to experiment with the new possibilities of textiles. The work produced was mostly three dimensional and rapidly established a new order in the male dominated world of tapestry making.
A huge amount of artists in the 1960s were using the technique of weaving and knotting to create hangings and sculptural work. They often integrated traditional craft techniques into their fine art practices. Hicks continued to depict intense but saturated colour in her works, whilst using textiles in their rawest form. These materials often consisted of wool, thread, linen, flax and hemp and were used whilst wrapping and weaving sculptures.
During the early 1960s, artist Faith Ringold experienced the politicisation of black women at the genesis of feminism. As the birth of black power grew stronger, Ringold began to make work that depicted her experiences. As a young female artist during this time, Ringold felt the full effect of the Civil Rights movement and the first wave of feminism in the US. Through her textile art, she portrayed a turbulent but energised time, whilst using bold, vibrant colours. The visual culture of textiles is almost exclusively drawn from European white tradition. Ringold’s textiles were groundbreaking and represented the cultural diversity of the US.
“I think that has been a benefit to me because I think most people understand quilts and not a lot of people understand paintings. But yet they’re looking at one”. Faith Ringold
Ringolduses narrative in her textile work to convey stories. Through quilt making, Ringold narrates personal stories on her identity as an African-American, history and racial politics in the US. She defiantly built her career in a time when it was very difficult for a Black artist to find representation within a gallery. In particular, her mixed media textile works challenge perceptions of African Americans, whilst also exploring themes of identity and gender equality. Her boldly colourful textile pieces reflect her upbringing in the creative context of Harlem, New York. Her quilts tell stories of oppression, racial and gender inequality, as well as her own personal battles. In many ways she used textiles “to tell my story, or, more to the point, my side of the story”.
Ringold often made paintings which she then would transform into large scale quilts. The artist’s mother pieced these textile works together, before she died in 1981. Within this process, Ringold combined images with handwritten text in her painted stories, eventually translating them to quilt form. Ringold would often use crafting techniques and ignored the tradition of textiles not being an art form. Instead, she used her textiles to demonstrate the importance of roots, family and collaboration.
Rosie Lee Tompkins
Arkansas artist Rosie Lee Tompkins‘ work was discovered in 1985 by Eli Leon, a collector specialising in African-American quilts. In many ways, Tompkins’ work can be likened to ‘outsider art’ and her practice was predominantly led by her religion. Tompkins believed God directed her hand in her art making. Furthermore, her abstract and improvised textile creations often had personal significance for her.
Tompkins learnt quilting from her mother as a child. However, the technique became her primary artistic practice during the 1980s. For Lee Tompkins, quilting became a way in which to depict her faith and belief in God. She often made quilts portraying themes of healing and spirituality, mostly to honour members of her family. In Lee Tompkin’s textiles, she employs a variety of traditional patterning and shapes in contrast with abstracted ones. She would use the traditional quilting techniques of half squares, medallions and yo-yos in energetic and mismatched colours.
Also, she frequently employed embroidery in her quilt making, often stitching Christian scripture and quotes as well as religious citations. As well as this, she would print images on second hand clothes, eluding to social and political commentary. Her work is a particularly innovative branch of the medium of textiles, harking back to traditional African textiles and African-American improvisational quilt-making.
“I think it’s because I love them so much that God let me see all these different colors. I hope they spread a lot of love”. Rosie Lee Tompkins
The quilters of Gee’s Bend
The isolated area of Gee’s Bend in Alabama in the United States is home to a close knit community. The small community are the descendants of those enslaved within the cotton plantations in the area. Women in the area, since the 19th century have created vibrant and abstracted textile art made mostly from recycled material and ephemera. Mostly made up of quilts, the vast body of textile work is distinctively eclectic, visually influenced by both African and Native American traditions. Whilst they made the quilts and textiles predominantly for practical use, the work of the Gee’s Bend is now recognised as a fine art. The textile works are known now as unique contributions to American art and cultural history.
In 2002, New York’s Whitney Museum displayed an exhibition named ‘The Guilts of Gee’s Bend’, made up of the group of artists that founded the Gee’s Bend collective. As well as representing the often disregarded craft, the exhibition offered visitors the opportuniy to learn more about the group. The Gee’s Bend quilts are a rare type of patchwork, known in particular for their striking colour, geometric shapes and asymmetry.
Mary Lee Bendolph
Not only was quilting essential to communities around the world, it became a utilitarian and practical need for warmth in unheated homes for many. Quilter and artist Mary Lee Bendolph became one of the foremost quilters associated with the rural African American community, the Gee’s Bend collective. In her arresting textile work, Bendolph uses a variety of salvaged and recycled fabrics to form alternative patterns and bold colour pairings. In her embracement of the abstract, Bendolph’s work really portrays the stark imaginative nature of the Gee’s Bend artist community. Bendolph’s quilts and that of the African American quilts sit in contrast to the symmetrical and uniform nature associated with Caucasian quilt tradition.
Her designs have become known across the world, now reproduced in many different forms, such as rugs, greeting cards, prints. Throughout history, in this case those who have been invited to work with printers to create these have been white male artists. By inviting an African American quilter to this realm, depicts an acknowledgment and altercation to historical media, race and gender exclusion.
To conclude, textile art embeds itself in the social and political history of a certain time. As objects, textiles become living historical mementos of an era most often seen through the eyes of the oppressed. Predominantly a female craft, female artists have made textiles for practical use, however the production for centuries has remained an art form throughout. Textiles tell the stories of those resigned to the world of crafting in history, one which is slow and considered but emotive and undefying in it’s message.
Discover textile artists at Unframe
Hand hooked wool rug, 2016
100 x 100 cm
Rug works are an integral part of Emily Lazerwitz’s practice. Art and craft and science come together in these intricate works. In this textile piece, she uses as her source the currency exchange on the day of the EU referendum results. Tracking the different currencies at this pivotal moment, the work is a snap-shot of an important historical moment.
London-based US artist and mathematician Emily Lazerwitz primarily explores the intersection of art, craft, technology and language in her work. Most of all, she creates intriguing pieces where language is broken down and transcribed, with the legibility present, yet seemingly abstract. Importantly, in her work, Lazerwitz is concerned with the way technology shapes the direction in which language develops.
You pluck up a felt tip pen
Tufted wool work with honeycomb shade and embroidery letters, 2016
118.9 x 84.1 cm (Framed in perspex box)
‘You pluck up a felt tip pen’ is one of a pair of contemporary textile pieces that artist Caro Halford has made. These pieces are an extension of her work with collage, but push the multimedia elements further. However, this textile artwork also connects to, and is a celebration of, female labour. The use of textiles connects her works with a line of female artists working with the medium, such as Annie Albers and, more recently, Tracey Emin.
Predominantly, artist Caro Halford creates work that spans from performance, video, sculpture to collage and photography. Much of her work, crucially, examines social and political concerns of women and their sexuality.