Research Point: Investigating the work of the Textile Artist

How do you think the work of the textile artist differs from that of the designer, the designer-maker or the craftsperson?  

I gave this question much thought as there is a lot of overlap and it really depends on the individual maker: what they produce; the techniques they use; how and where they market and display their work and their goals in producing their work.
Firstly I considered what the work each entails and came up with the following:
Textile Artist designs and produces original and unique artwork that is hand-crafted using a variety of techniques but using fabric and/or stitch as the main medium.  The resulting artwork is displayed on the wall to express ideas, beauty or imagery. The Artist may exhibit her work in galleries and exhibitions
The Textile Designer designs and develops new materials, surfaces or patterns for textiles for commercial purposes which may be reproduced and printed either by hand or digitally.  The Textile Designer will often work to a brief by a manufacturer, or on commission. 
The Textile Designer-maker designs and manufactures limited edition, one-off or bespoke craft-based products for retail.
The Textile Craftsperson learns and develops craft skills, to produce products. She may design and make or use a pattern or template designed by someone else. Often the craftsperson will concentrate on a particular skill or technique then she is more likely to refer to herself as : an Embroiderer, Weaver, Felter, Screen printer, Dyer or  Quilter.  A Textile Craftsperson may also regard themselves as a Textile Artist – particularly if they exhibit their work, or use mixed media/techniques and their work is conceptual. 
I think that the Textile Artist essentially differs from the designer, the designer-maker and the craftsperson in that they all may share the creative process, market-place and skills and techniques but the Textile Artist produces work which may or not be functional but the main aim is to serve an aesthetic use or to invoke a response in the viewer.     
Is there any crossover in terms of approach or the way in which each uses ideas or textile processes?
As I researched this question, it became more apparent that there is much overlap in techniques, processes and approaches.  The Textile Artist shares many of the skills of the designer, designer-maker or craftsperson and often uses many different mixed-media techniques, bringing traditional techniques up to date.
Some Textile Artists may produce items which may be considered crafts. Sarah Deerins, calls herself a Textile Artist and produces textile jewellery, accessories, shoes and bags.  Artist Frances Pickering creates handmade books and journals. Jo Gallone uses dyeing, embroidery and quilting techniques to construct cushions and one-off wall hangings.

Some Textile Artists use more than one label to describe their work, depending on the audience, and primary technique. Joanna Kinnersley, who produces domestic linens as well as commissioned pieces calls herself a Textile Artist/Designer. 

There is a growing breed of crafts-based designer-makers, who combine fine art with more commercially briefed work.  They are able to sell their work through the internet on sites such as Etsy. With the availability and reduced cost of digital printing, artists are able commercially produce their work and become surface pattern designers or textile designer-makers.
Craftspersons seem to fall into two skill sets. There are those who are skilled technically and produce beautifully executed work but they need to follow instructions/templates.  There are others who are able to apply their skills and experience and develop their own designs to create original works.  There is considerable crossover in terms of approach between this group and Craftspersons and Designers, Designer-makers and Textile Artists.
The work of this new breed of craftspersons is displayed in the book, ‘The New Artisans’.:
They are described as, ‘uniquely skilled independent designers and artists experimenting with techniques and materials, to produce high-quality, modern, one-off objects of creation.’  The works they produce may be utilitarian or purely artistic but they all have an artistic quality, ‘history, visions and feeling are incorporated into each piece – distinguishing them from mass-produced goods.’
It seems then, that there are no clear boundaries between the work of the Textile Artist, the Designer, the Designer-Maker and the Craftsperson.  They seem to all lie on a spectrum and what they call themselves or what they are called by others seems to be quite liquid, depending on the design process, degree of creativity and originality and the market-place. One person can be all four at different times.
I like the term, ‘New Artisan’ which to me denotes the best of Art and Craft and the crossover of ideas, techniques and creativity between the Textile Artist, the Designer-maker and the Craftsperson.
Choose two internationally known textiles artists whose work you find particularly inspiring
I chose two designers whose work I really enjoy and feel inspired by.  British Textile Artist Cas Holmes and Canadian Textile Artist Dorothy Caldwell both have a Fine Arts training but went on to develop their love of Textiles and incorporate stitch into their work.  They have many similarities and I am attracted to their work as they both use recycled materials and are inspired by the traditions of darning and patching.  Interestingly, both have spent time in Japan and share my love of ‘Boro’.  Perhaps that is why I felt drawn to their work!  Despite their similar interests, their work is very different and both have a very distinct style.  
I was lucky enough to meet both artists and talk about their work.
Cas Holmes
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Photographs of Cas Holmes and her work on display at The Knitting and Stitching Show, Alexandra Palace, 2012
Cas Homes uses found and recycled materials from which she constructs and deconstructs new fabric. She layers the textiles, a mix of her own dyed, aged and hand-printed textiles, along with vintage and found textiles. She adds stitching, beautiful drawings in thread, inspired by her sketches of birds and flora and fauna in her local environment. She produces small, individual pieces often grouping them together into sets.  She also produces large scale installations and collaborations. Her work tends to be neutral in colour, using soft, natural colours from the environment.
Cas is interested in ageing and decay and the interaction of man and the environment.  She expresses this in her use of mostly low-tech techniques and found materials which are dyed, printed with household emulsion paint and at times aged by being buried in the garden. She states that big part of her work is the human connection and many of the textiles and papers she uses are written accounts of family memories and cast-off sheets and clothing. She is interested in the history of these fabrics, sheets and clothing, what we do with them. Cas layers the fragments of found materials to mark the passing of time, and states that ‘the rituals of making (drawing, cutting, gathering materials, machining, sewing) act as part of the narrative of the work.’ When she’s built up the layers she cuts them up to reveal what’s underneath, works on them further and then cuts again.
Dorothy Caldwell
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Work by Dorothy Caldwell on display at The Knitting and Stitching Show, Alexandra Palace, 2013
Dorothy uses natural materials, found and vintage textiles onto which she adds paint, mud, ochre, dyes, and thread.  Her hand stitching is influenced by kantha and sashiko which reflects the time she spent in Japan. She produces work of all sizes but her most impressive pieces are huge.  One has to stand right back to appreciate them but on closer inspection the detail of the work can be observed with wonder. She uses subdued colours with small area of bright colour, that reflect landscapes e.g. her Australia series. Dorothy uses darning, mending, couching, patching, and appliqué to show texture and add detail.
Dorothy’s work is concerned with the concepts of the mapping of land and memory. She is interested in the landmarks that give a sense of place and how humans mark and visualize the land. Through gathering, touching, and recording she creates a sense of place, identifying her own personal landmarks. Having studied textile traditions and ordinary stitching practices such as darning, mending and patching she is drawn to cloth that has been repaired, and reconstructed and in that ongoing process encodes time and the richness of lives lived. She states, ‘I’ve acquired a deep respect for the way cloth behaves.  It breaks down, wears out and is then repaired and reconstructed.  These sensibilities resonate for me:  Cloth is very powerful when it retains traces of its previous life, gathers history and becomes something new.’ Dorothy uses techniques such as discharge and over dyeing, as well as adding mud from the landscape to add imagery of gridlines and landmarks to her works.
How do you view textile art?  Do you think about it in the same way that you would look at a painting or a piece of sculpture? 

There are good and bad artists and good and bad craftspersons.  In days gone by, a craftsman or woman would have been highly regarded for their skills. Nowadays, there is a wealth of prepared kits and instruction and books on every craft subject and anyone can practise their chosen craft.  Unfortunately, although on the one hand,  there is a growing demand for quality, hand-crafted items, on the other, handcrafts are often linked in mind with hobbyists and work produced is not always skilled. 
I view Textile Art as skilfully crafted original Art, using textiles as the medium, rather than paint, stone or clay.  The Artist crafts pieces of Artwork which evoke an  emotional response from the viewer. Personally, I get more excited seeing a piece of textile art than a painting or piece of sculpture as I feel more of a personal connection with Textile Art and the Artist who produced it. 
How far do you feel it has been accepted as a medium for fine art by the fine art establishment?  
I don’t know how to measure the degree of acceptance but I imagine it is a combination of how much Textile Art is exhibited in the leading galleries and the prices it fetches. There is definitely a growing acceptance of Textiles as a medium as artists such as Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry exhibit and sell their textile art for huge prices.  Most successful Textile Artists seem to have a background and training in Fine Art and it seems to be that it is more acceptable for artists to prove themselves first as fine artists using the traditional media or by being outrageous (Emin and Perry).  Many Textile Artists have to supplement their earnings by teaching or producing more commercial work (e.g. prints or interior textiles), so it seems that it is nigh impossible to earn a living by Textile Art alone. Probably the same for all artists though!
The difficulty in Textile Art being fully accepted by the Fine Art establishment is due its position in the Art versus Craft debate.  Unfairly, Craft is often devalued.  By focussing on the material, rather than the techniques, skills or concepts behind the art, Textile Art is often put in the same category as Craft and because of it’s association with domestic or utilitarian production, Textile Craft is devalued even further.
In her book, Material World: The modern craft bible, Perri Lewis asks “What makes some craft art and other craft, well craft?”

Perri talks to a number of people to try to answer the question.

Artist, Rob Ryan says, ‘For me, craft is based on instruction. It’s like painting by numbers’. He goes on to say: ‘Craft stops being craft when people design it for themselves. Once people have an idea and put it into practice and they make it, then I don’t think it can be considered craft anymore.’
Artist,Tracey Emin says, ‘I have never faced opposition for using traditional handicrafts. Somehow it’s been amazingly easy. But I do know that, traditionally, textiles aren’t as valued and are considered to be craft and this reflects itself in the marketplace.’
T|he above illustrates a common view of ‘Craft’.  It disregards years of experience building up skills and understanding of materials. And more fundamentally it has an impact on what you can charge – art is expensive, craft is under-priced.
Over the years, groups and organisations have worked hard to improve the standing of Crafts in general and Textile Arts in particular within the Art world.
 The ’62 Group’ was set up in the late 50’s to make a difference in peoples attitude to embroidery which was the poor relation of textiles and certainly of Fine Art. Membership was later opened up to any textile medium. Founders of the 62 group were determined to place the best of Textile Art within the context of the best art practice, whilst never losing sight of high quality skills and material understanding that were at the root of their work.
The Society of Designer Craftsmen has a category for Textile Artists and ‘promotes and supports the work of creative thinkers, designers and makers who continue to innovate in the crafts through their exploration of materials and skills.’  They hold regular exhibitions at the Mall Galleries in London of their members’ work. 
On their website they claim to ‘ give a voice to beautiful, challenging and exciting work that is different from the traditional Fine Arts.’
‘We … and are proud to have as members some of the finest, most exciting and respected designer makers.’
‘Innovation, originality and quality are seen as integral elements of our work…We look for people who design and make original, beautiful, exciting, challenging works which can be decorative, functional or both. We expect members to have a strong and innovative design sense with the skills, craftsmanship and sensitivity to materials to make the objects they design.We don’t accept work that is confined within the past tradition or limited to assembling conventional or pre-fabricated components.’
There does then, seem to be a new niche for Textile Art in its own right by aligning itself with ‘Designer Crafts’ or the ‘New Artisans’, rather than Fine Art! 
That’s not to say, however, that there there is no place for Textile Art within the fine art establishment.  There is evidence of a growing appreciation of the value of Craft and by extension of Textile Art, in the partnership between the V&A and the Crafts Council. To celebrate this partnership, leading figures in the craft world were asked what the term craft means to them.  I shall conclude with their words:
‘Contemporary craft is about making things.  It is an intellectual and physical activity where the maker explores the infinite possibilities of materials and processes to produce unique objects. To see craft is to enter a world of wonderful things which can be challenging, beautiful, sometimes useful, tactile, extraordinary; and to understand and enjoy the energy and care which has gone into their making.’
Laurie Britton-Newell

Curator, ‘Out of the ordinary’ exhibition, V&A,  November 2007
‘Craft, art, and design are words heavily laden with cultural baggage. For me, they all connote the profound engagement with materials and process that is central to creativity. Through this engagement form, function, and meaning are made tangible. It is time to move beyond the limitations of terminologies that fragment and separate our appreciation of creative actions, and consider the “behaviors of making” that practitioners share.’

Professor Simon Olding

Director, Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, Surrey

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