Thursday, 29 August 2013

Masterpieces of Material

We spend so long admiring the cut and shape of clothing that the beauty of fabric itself is often forgotten. Yet textiles are an art form like any painting or sculpture. Self-expression is pieced together in quilting, moments in history imprinted onto silks and imagination comes to life through the embroiderer’s needle. Textile art is not only diverse in its forms but has a rich history and deep significance within many cultures.

Just part of the Bayeux Tapestry
Possibly the most famous piece of embroidery is the 70 metre long Bayeux Tapestry unveiled around 1077 and depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066. However fabrics have played both a decorative and functional role as far back as the 5th century BC. While they are difficult to preserve, remains have been found of embroidery, tapestry and even resist painted fabrics that were used for early interior design as well as nomadic draft excluders.

The Pazyryk rug

In an ice grave in east Russia a finely woven rug was discovered complete with ornate motifs of bucks and griffins. Not only was this piece skilfully crafted even by today’s standards, it is a valuable artwork and artefact capturing the culture of the Scythian people living 2500 years ago. Bucks and griffins were believed to be “mystical expressions of life passing over to death” and the grave itself is associated with a particularly cultured and art-loving Scythian king.

 The textile pattern and colour of Japanese kimonos express social status, individuality and tradition but the silhouette has remained consistent. While dowry quilts have been an important part of Indian culture and heritage for centuries. The production process of such beautiful creations is important in itself. Usually a group project between the wife-to-be and her female relatives, the women share family stories as they sew.

It is believed that during these long creative sewing and embroidery sessions that the minds, hearts and souls of these women became a part of the quilt, thus it was not only aesthetically patched, but also permeated spiritually by the family's love.

The beauty and background of the pieces are appreciated so much that many sustainable designers are now using vintage dowry quilts in their designs as wearable art.
A design from the JoannaJohn Collection
I found myself studying textiles like hanging masterpieces last week at Knole House. Usually parading around large, palatial properties pretending I own them is entertaining enough but the exhibition by craft group Zero3 was a pleasant surprise. Knole House, its five hundred year history and its occupants inspired the works.
Letters from Vita by Sarah Welsby
Members of Zero3, formed by a class of textile graduates in 2003, say they enjoy the tactile nature of working with fabric as well as exploring different textures and layering, impossible with other mediums.

The Fabric of Knole by Janine Ayres
Member Audrey Critchley’s inspiration includes everything from Aboriginal art, which she studied for her dissertation, to the embroidery work of prisoners. “Their exhibition was amazing," she recalls. "They all said they looked forward to being locked in their cells so they could get on with sewing.”

Drawing from her own photographs and screen-printing, Critchley has also created a series on London. For her piece on the recent credit crunch, she incorporated terms like ‘quantitive easing’ and comments from newspapers to capture the mood at the time. “It was bought by a man who had been in finance in the city.  He said it was a ‘moment in history’,” she says. “I work in textile art because I want to produce hangings that say something about the subject I am studying.”  It certainly is refreshing to see such a reproduced landscape imagined in a new form.

The Credit Crunch
Critchley remains positive about the future of the medium and the improving reputation of textile artists within the art world. The V&A already has a great archive and some fantastic exhibitions.

It's just another reminder that fashion reflects far more than what should be in your wardrobe this season. Textiles go far beyond their role in clothing production; they are art, artefact, heritage and stories woven in fabric.

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