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Textile Art: Unravelling Women’s Legacy

Textile practices have for a long time been considered a relic of women’s past and of their confinement inside domestic spaces, where needlework was mostly a hobby or a source of revenue and self-sustainment. Encouraged by the feminist movement’s advocacy for the recognition of women’s art, the artistic value of techniques like knitting, crocheting, and embroidery is finally being recognized. Textile arts have also been a way to reconnect with women of the past, to understand and empathize with them. In her article Weaving the Fabric of Our Lives, feminist historian and thealogian Carol Christ (1997) writes that “like every woman on the planet, I am descended from women who created things of use and beauty with their hands” (p.135) and reveals that learning about textiles has made her feel closer to her female relatives and to women in general. Unfortunately, such interest in women’s textile production has started only recently and since then, feminist scholars have stressed the importance of analyzing women’s textile art as an important and influential cultural phenomenon, and not just a utilitarian product dictated by material necessity. The conceptual divide between fine arts and women’s “arts and crafts” has also been questioned, bringing to light the cultural and artistic value that female textile creations have had in the past, and how they have evolved to become subversive tools for feminist artists and movements.

Throughout Western history, women have hardly ever been recognized as artistic agents or subjects, although they were often the objects of art, and in her essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? feminist art historian Linda Nochlin (2018) observed that many women have been excluded from recognized art because of the western European concept of the Great Artist, who “is conceived as one who has ‘Genius’; Genius, in turn, is thought of as an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist” (p.153). Associated with the Genius were ideals of creativity, individuality and independent thinking, qualities that were exclusively identified as masculine. Decorative arts like knitting or embroidery were regarded as a mere practical activity, and its proximity to femininity and domesticity contributed to it being disregarded and undervalued. To be considered art, a creation had to be the result of a particular artistic intent that aimed for aesthetic pleasure and was created for public display; women’s textiles were instead seen as primarily functional objects that were confined to the private and domestic spheres, and therefore did not meet the standards to enter the definition of fine art.

Figure 1. Indigenous textile from the CDMC, Madison (WI)

However, contrary to the common belief that textiles were not created with an artistic purpose and therefore lacked aesthetic value, women throughout ages and cultures have used colors, patterns, and techniques to express both cultural and personal aesthetic visions. Due to the lack of interest in the subject, it has long gone unnoticed how central women and their work might have been in ancient societies. Gretchen E. Meyers (2013), who is specialized in classical archeology, laments that the “limited attention to textile tools in archaeological contexts has marginalized their importance as evidence for social or ritual practices in pre-Roman Italy” (p.248), and stresses how textile practices indicate that Etrusco-Italic women were rather integrated in their society’s sacred sphere and held important roles and agency during rituals. Moreover, studies on Latin American textile traditions attest to the fact that in many social groups, textiles were used to “assert personal, ethnic, religious, and economic identities,” and therefore represent one of women’s oldest means of artistic self-expression, as well as a tool to pass down evolving cultural norms through the combination of individual creativity and technical expertise.

Rozsika Parker, one of the first scholars to recognize the importance of fiber arts for women’s history and author of The Subversive Stitch, famously wrote that “to know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women” (as cited in Michna, 2020, p.168). What Parker refers to is the fact that many cultures consider written texts as the primary tools to communicate information and pass down traditions but fail to recognize that the knowledge formed and transferred through written language is only partial: women hardly ever possessed the necessary education to comprehend written texts, let alone contribute to them, while the realm of literature and written language was largely reserved for higher-class men. Therefore, it would not be accurate to claim that written texts represent humanity’s account of history, because for the most part, they only testify to men’s point of view, and the continuous disregard for women’s textile creations and their cultural value has made the world illiterate to how women have been expressing themselves and their worldviews. The recent reconsideration of textile practices, however, has brought to light the parallel between weaving and writing, proposing textile practices as women’s way of building and communicating their own legacy. Such connections start at the etymological level: the noun text originates from the Latin verb texere, which also means to weave, and in many other languages the verb to weave does not only refer to the making of textile products, but can also define any creative act (Chacón, 2020, p.49). Far from being merely practical objects, textiles have thus represented the female equivalent of written texts, embodying societal values and customs and communicating them through colors, patters, and textures instead of ink on paper. This is especially relevant in Mesoamerican cultures: Maya textiles were prepared and worn to define daily and ritual roles, Shipibo textiles were instead a means to represent the designs inherent in the structure of the universe through embroidery. In other cultures, like that of the Kuna, women’s textiles known as molas and men’s verbal customs display slightly altered variations of repeated themes, creating parallelisms between oratory and weaving skills (Berlo, 1992, p.116). Today, many indigenous women claim that their works are “the books colonization c