Textiles of power

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Textiles of power

My post yesterday provoked a few comments one of which came Virginia Burnett pointing out that people think textiles should be functional. I agree this is a commonly held belief but it is one that comes from a single cultural viewpoint even if it is a dominant one! We live in a consumer society in which textiles are purchased worn and often thrown out at the end of a season. It’s called fashion! For some textiles have little significance as they are familiar – familiar in the sense that we use textiles constantly, day in day out. So much so, that as objects they are unnoticed and invisible.

We still have ritual textiles in the form of wedding dresses, christening gowns, graduation gowns etc but apart from these rights of passage as a culture, generally, textiles are not seen as important objects. They may hold sentimental value to an individual or add a decorative element to our home but in general they have little or no value to the wider culture. Just look at what turns up in opportunity shops. Someone somewhere has decided that the textile concerned has no value and to give it to charity.

Textiles in their very familiarity become invisible. Not all cultures are like this and not all textiles have been functional in a practical everyday manner. Textiles have in other cultures and in the past been objects of power.

As I type I glnce across the room to look at a hanging on my wall. It is a pua weaving from the Dayak people which Jerry collected when he was in Sarawak. This would be considered a textile which held particular power because they were associated with head hunting. As pointed out here

Among the Iban Dayak, the most sacred of all textiles are those known as pua sungkit. These blankets were only used in conjunction with head hunting. Traditionally pua sungkit were displayed when sending a warrior off to battle, and for receiving a warrior’s capture of a pala, or fresh human head. Ibans honored these blankets with ritual offerings and with pantun, or sacred chants. By identifying with the central theme or image on a pua sungkit, a warrior could expropriate its power in his quest for heads.

If you want a little more information on this type of cloth and its cultural power see the entry on this type of ritual textile at the bottom of this page.

This is not a simple travel souvenir or a piece that simply decorates the room. One of the reasons this textile hangs where I see it everyday is to remind me that textiles are not items of consumption or necessarily associated with the domestic, filled with sentiment. In some places in the world they still represent power and in the past have played a role in life and death. My point is that textiles as cultural artefacts can be powerful.

If we frame the way think them as fashion or consumables we narrow the opportunity to value and promote textiles. There is of course nothing wrong with turning out items for sale that are functional and in our culture we often have to do this. We all have to survive and earn a living. I have no argument with the practice my point is that I do not want see textile practice just from the narrow viewpoint of consumerism. If as texile practitioners we forget the rich history of textiles we will end up boxed in by the way think about what we do. If we don’t inform ourselves and learn about the rich history and cultural traditions associated with textiles we are equally boxed in and possibly on treadmill of producing items that are simply consumed rather than valued.

Margaret Henderson who also left a comment reminded me of yet another must read for those interested in gender and textiles. Elizabeth Wayland Barber’ s, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times . Barber examines textile production and women’s changing roles in society and it is well worth curling up one afternoon – or two and reading it.

Many textile practitioners are unable to situate their activity both recreational and professional within a larger cultural context. It is almost as if we need an online book reading group. Does anyone have any experience in these? I would love to hear if they are a successful experience. If they have been successful what made them so? If anyone would be interested in reading a serious book a month (rather than a book on techniques) and throwing around a few ideas in an unpretentious way let me know.


  1. I would be most interested, as reading about my crafts is always stimulating to the work itself.

    As for how it works — Maybe a shared responsibility with book summaries on a blog page would be good start? Somewhat like the “Carnival of the ___” weekly roundups. Those without blogs could comment on the summary page, and those with blogs could make their comments on their blog and link back in the comments.

    Although — that might be too restrictive to truly good discussion.

  2. HI Sharon
    I would also be very interested in an on-line book reading group.Intersting reading about placing your work in context- I have for years battled with this one, and have come out of the side of decorative for my won work- and it was actually quite liberating to think of it as that way.

  3. Ok everyone – I will do a little research and see how other online reading groups work and see what I can think of –

    I would prefer a public area (rather than closed discussion groups) simply because search engines turn the conversations up which means other like minded people find the conversation – and possibly join –

    Also if the conversation is public it does highlight that textile artists do think! Many of the recreational blogs give the impression that there is no engagement what so ever – which I know is not true

    In the meanwhile I am putting together a list of books – any suggestions welcome

  4. I love the idea of an on-line book club. Although my blog is generally pretty light, I do delve into the more serious stuff. Right now I have Cloth That Does Not Die by Elishe Renne on my bedside table as well as Carved Paper by Susanna Kuo. And I would highly recommend Cloth and Human Experience edited by Weiner and Schneider as a good starter in thinking deeply about textiles.

  5. I think book discussions are a wonderful idea. I don’t know how other groups do it, but in the Jane Austen book discussions I’ve participated in there is a moderator who summarizes each chapter – generally on a set schedule that harmonizes with how fast people can read the chapter or how busy people are. Once the summary is posted, everyone comments/discusses. Usually, you do not comment on future chapters in case there are readers who haven’t made it that far. Each book would have a different moderator, to spread the wealth so to speak. I’ve done a couple of discussions in a group that is bulletin board style, but I’m doing one right now that is a Yahoo group, which is probably easier and cheaper.
    The list of suitable books for this group would be endless, I’ve just been reading about Persian carpets and the Bayeaux tapestry and there is a book on the colour red and another on mauve that are waiting in the wings.
    I’ll stop now, see what happens when you bring up books with a librarian!

    Margaret Henderson
  6. Hi… As I read your first paragraph about the value today’s textiles have, I remembered one particular event. The Tsunami. Folks from around the world donated clothing, blankets, quilts, etc…. The survivors did pick and chose items they needed and/or wanted. But there was plenty of leftovers. Leftovers which were subsequently destroyed. I remember hearing a news report about how these items HAD to be set on fire or buried because there was just so much of it. It kind of made me sick to know the items would be thrown away like that. So much for our textiles having any value….
    It has made me ask myself: In general, do we have too much now? Is that the real problem? Just thinking as I read your entry and wondered…. Brenda

    Brenda Minor
  7. One other thing. I quite enjoy your treatment/observation of the traditionally esoteric and practical views on textiles as a whole. Another list in which I participate concerns vintage fabrics and the views, uses, and aesthetics of each as a whole, not only as originally used in the daily course of life, but also (for those which have survived) the artistic and historical information contained in each through the manufacture, decoration, and prescribed use, i.e. (for example) what was once utilitarian but is now viewed as a work of art not only for its value as a set of clues concerning the particular period (archeaological needlework as it were) but also for its value now as an artistic piece which actually had once been, i.e., a useful daily object which was decorated to enliven an otherwise boring chore or use of the item.

  8. “If anyone would be interested in reading a serious book a month (rather than a book on techniques) and throwing around a few ideas in an unpretentious way let me know.”

    Oh yes! Almost as good as a grad school ‘fix’ but less expensive. What a good idea!

    Elaine G

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