Textiles and value systems

Textiles and value systems

Many quilters ask why is it that textiles can not get the same price as paintings or the ‘fine arts’. Why are they valued as lesser items because they are textiles? This is an important question because so many textile artists battle to earn even a part time living from their work.

Anyone who is serious about textile practice, needs to place textiles not just within the larger history of textiles but within the larger cultural story of art history, Elizabet has done that in response to my post on web truths . Do pop over and read her post as it is one of those must reads over coffee this morning.

Elizabet was fortunate enough to have been taught by Griselda Pollock. Anyone who has not read her and is strongly interested in this subject I strongly recommend Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art. Of course I have read Pollock’s work and her argument has shaped my thinking.

Related to this topic the other book I highly recommend is The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine by Rozsika Parker. If you want to be informed and be able to place what you do within a larger cultural context make the effort to read these books.

The margialisation of textiles in the overarching story of art in western world is in part because of gender but it is also because of the value placed on the notion of the original – or to be precise on how we talk and think about the original in this story. Textiles were seen as part of the decorative arts and many of the practices involved deriving motifs from other sources – they were and often and still are derivations which in the dominant story is not an original. The notion of the “original” produced by the “artistic genius” in modern art is a concept which has driven the values system applied to all arts and artistic practice.

I have for a long time worked with the idea of what is original in the 21st century (check out this personal view if you are interested. Particularly the pieces written about Samplers and Sampling exhibition, the Playing False exhibition and the Shareware project).

I started off this post saying that ” Anyone who is serious about textile practice, needs to place textiles not just within the larger history of textiles but within the larger cultural story of art history” Textile practitioners if they want to be perceived as being part of the overarching story of art, need to inform themselves, be able to step back, to see the over view and then see where their work fits within the cultural context. Who of us can do that? Do you agree with me that it is needed? Who, and lets be honest about this, fudges their artist statements, pads them out with writing rubbish that you think people want to read, rather than really asking the hard question of where, the cultural artifact that you produce fits in the culture?

Funnily enough – or perhaps not so funny considering the topic, I am not going to expand on this further at the moment as I have a heap of things to do after being away on the weekend like cleaning and putting away camping gear, washing etc…I am not complaining in the least but how ironic.


  1. For the longest time I seemed to be the only person I knew who had read The Subversive Stitch. It is a joy to find so many others who know about it and love the topic. I feel that any discussion of needlework and art also need so look at the place of fabric in society so I also recommend “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Soceity in Early Times” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. I am going to be working with my daughter’s art club this school year to make a commemorative tapestry and I hope I can instill in at least a small group the value of textile art.

    Margaret Henderson
  2. On my list of things to do today is preparing the last bit of my scarf inventory for delivery to some local galleries for Holiday sales. I’ve developed a couple of new “bread and butter” sellers which look very distinctive and lovely – in fact, they are gorgeous – but they take very little time and energy to complete once I’ve chosen a dye pallette. While it is gratifying to churn out goods that I know will result in a sizeable profit, these are not my most interesting or expressive works of art. These are things that people want to wear without thinking about what I mean when I make them. People respond to these scarves much more readily that the handpainted silks I make which are much more abstract and colorful and take significantly more time and care to produce.

    I think that this issue is also related to the disparity between textile arts and “fine arts”. The majority of people in and out of the arts expect that textile arts are supposed to be functional as opposed to decorative or having a purely artistic or intellectual intent. Textile arts are also percieved as being fragile or delicate or difficult to display and care for. Folks expect to be able to hang an oil painting in a room and have it stay there for decades with no special attention given to it over the years. However, I think that is slowly changing as more and more textile arts publications become available and more home decor magazines feature textile arts like tapestries or wall hangings. As individual artists, we can help by communicating with our communities about our inspiration, the processes we use, how to display & care for our “non functional” work and about the history behind the techniques we incorporate in a piece.

    Thanks for reminding me today that I’m not just a scarf-hawker!

    Virginia Burnett

    Virginia Burnett
  3. Another great resource on women and art and the patriarchal culture of art is Judy Chicago. Are you familiar with her Dinner Party and its wonderful embroideries? She’s written several books from a feminist artist perspective and she has nurtured other women artists, helping them see their art as just as valuable as “male” art. Here’s her URL http://www.judychicago.com/

    JoWynn Johns
  4. I too enjoy reading The Subversive Stitch. I do like to try to add a little political content to my work (see I remember my Shelley from Univ!). I think even textile artists have a duty to future historians who would be interested to know that women who sew have a political opinion! It is important in my view to sew within my century and not try to imitate works from the past.

  5. Sharon thank you for the brilliant post, and for the link to Elizabet’s post. Your comments on originality really struck home for me. In my other life I’m an English professor, teaching precisely these concepts, which have circulated for decades now in literary studies–but in relation to texts. For some reason, probably because I’m not trained in art, I had not seen this deep connection between my work in (specifically feminist and ethnic )literature and my work in needle arts. Here I am doing this “hobby” on the side, slightly chagrined when my students tell me that they’ve seen my blog, not really seeing that needle arts, very much like post-modern texts, are indeed sampled (I love the way you appropriate that word in your work) and collaged into new forms. A light has dawned in my head. Thank you!

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