The difficulties of defining textile art

The difficulties of defining textile art

Erin M Riley learned sewing in Home Economics and set the record for threading the sewing machine in her class. It was something she was instantly hooked on and, for her next birthday, she received the sewing machine she still owns today. Her passion led to her studying at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and since then she’s become a highly regarded voice in the textile art world.

In this article, which is part of the Business of Art series, Erin discusses the topic of identity and debates what impact working within a niche has on us, whether it enables or restricts.


Stuck in the middle spot

Erin M Riley: “I am a tapestry weaver,” all of my profiles across the board used to say that; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all of them. When I met someone new in the art setting and they asked what I did, I would say “I weave tapestries” which was generally always met with looks of confusion and the questions of functionality and wondering what type of “things” I made. I still have some business cards that read: Erin M. Riley, Tapestry Weaver.

Erin M Riley

Even within the fiber community my work was never quite fully described with the terms tapestry weaving, and rarely was it supported amongst tapestry guilds or traditional weaving communities until I showed no signs of giving up. I was stuck in this middle spot that I feel like so many artists who have a strong and long term academic relationship with textiles find themselves. I received my BFA and MFA in fibers and still felt as though I didn’t fit in, despite my work technically being quite traditional. Out of graduate school I began to venture off, applying to less and less fiber- centric opportunities and meticulously studying the eligibility requirements for “fine art” exhibition calls. I remember looking through an issue of New American Painting (a juried regional exhibition in print) and seeing embroidery, I found the eligibility requirements where they stated “we define the activity of painting broadly…as long as the work is singular.” I applied to this and was awarded a spot in the 2009 issue as well as the more recent 2014 issue. This opportunity allowed my work to be seen outside of the textile context, and more importantly, it gave me some validation that I could further pursue opportunities in contemporary fine art galleries and communities, where my work is now more often found and supported.

Erin M Riley

Betraying the higher laws of craft

In the past few years I have been seeing resurgence in the exposure textile material and techniques were receiving. Artists of all genres were engaging with weaving, many with no textile background, and I find without the baggage of the craft world artists tend to flourish with less self-imposed restrictions. Many artists who were taught in the apprentice, mentor or grand mothered traditional mediums and communities feel as though they are betraying the higher laws of crafts if they want to experiment or go off on their own. I never understood this side of the craft world, why keep a medium in one place alienating all of the people who are interested in progressing and keeping the medium afloat for future generations.

Erin M Riley

Frame loom weaving has been something I have seen go from an “intro to fibers” process instruction to something weavers in the past 4 years are devoting their lives and businesses to. This is a hugely controversial move amongst many floor loom weavers but it is thriving nonetheless. This is why when I was recently asked to be on the jury for a grant that gives to “individual artists and crafts people” I was shocked to find 2 submissions out of the 200 utilized textiles, one of which was a weaver. I was wondering why so many textile artists either weren’t looking for funding, or were self-jurying themselves out of the running for opportunities. I wonder if because so much about the textile craft causes us to be supporting cast for designers, painters, fashion designers, etc. we lack the ego that is required to put together a proposal asking for funding for our work.

Erin M Riley

I am an artist first

Initially I had prejudices towards people who have no textile backgrounds exploding in the art world for utilizing a technique that I had seen people take years to master, but I think that this is the important fact, they have a thesis, an idea, and the medium is the means to the ends. We have been taught that jumping into overshot is not allowed; you must first take basic weaving, understand twills and simple weave structures before you can explore the more complex, but why force such long term investment when so many people do not have the privilege of time. I finally realised that while I am a weaver, I am an artist first and not against exploring other mediums, but I am currently focusing my efforts on tapestry weaving. Our medium should not restrict us from opportunities that first and foremost support the visual results of processes.

As an end result, I have removed tapestry from the description of my work, it now reads “wool, cotton” because while I know it is a “hand dyed, hand woven wool tapestry on a cotton warp” it is a visual piece of work first, and if the image of the piece does not pass the first round of jurying the fact that it is a tapestry is irrelevant in either direction.

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Monday 04th, December 2023 / 21:34

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10 comments on “The difficulties of defining textile art”

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  3. Rachel Biel says:

    The issue of identity is a tough one within our textile/fiber art community and I haven’t seen this struggle in any of the other high craft traditions. Well, there is some of it in the clay community where “potters” and “ceramic artists” see themselves in different camps, but not like our textile people who want to erase the technique completely from their identity. The basic struggle has been about money and recognition, “fine art” getting more pay than “high craft”, but ultimately, it’s problematic for many reasons.

    My position is that we should reclaim these titles and techniques and bear them proudly. The fight for equal pay and recognition needs to happen first within that community so that traditional and contemporary can see that both inform the other and both need to be celebrated. Being an artist, crafter, maker, etc. in any capacity is a constant state of evolution that involves education both for the self and for the observer. Many will never go beyond the kit, the paint by numbers, the basic scarf. But, as a love affair develops for process, a lifetime commitment of exploration can lead to a unique voice in any field. And, if that voice wanders from what is considered the norm, it will always beg for an explanation, for acceptance, for understanding…

    But, the main reason I think that we should hold on to these classifications is that “artist” can mean anything and does nothing to help search engines find what people might be looking for. Perhaps someone really does want a powerful tapestry for their home or business. If they go searching online for that kind of work, keywords like wool or cotton do nothing to help in the search process. Let’s say a gallery is looking to exhibit contemporary tapestry work. By not using the word, you exclude yourself from the possibility of being found. There is so much competition now and while an artist might work with different mediums and change direction from time to time, the piece itself has an identity that might be rooted in traditional techniques that have meaning and that help them get found.

    I see this a lot with contemporary quilters. They don’t want to be lumped in with traditional quilters so instead of a quilt , they are “painting with fabric” or are just a watered down textile artist. Historically, the word “craft” was used for any skill that was specialized, including writing, music, dance, etc. It got bumped down to a bad word in the 70’s and we’ve never recovered from the association with kits and mass produced hobby products. In the same way the traditional techniques have been devalued in the public arena while specialists rush to recover and replicate knowledge, resources and techniques that are quickly disappearing as the master crafters in so many cultures die off with no next generation to keep their skills alive.

    Each person has to find their own comfort zone and use the language that they can identify with, but I long for the day when we can embrace what we do with pride and compel others to share our vision about the potential each medium has to express new ideas and individuality.

    Fascinating work, Erin! Thanks for sharing your struggle and insights.

    • I got onto the original thread as I don’t fit into any current category and find that when people ask me what I do I actually struggle to find a simple, one or two words, that describes my work. I am a Traditionalist, all my work can be traced back to traditional roots and I constantly strive to produce work of the highest technical quality from a ‘hand crafted’ point of view.
      The reason I don’t like to use the term ‘Textile Artist’ is that over the past 20 years I have seen so much poor quality work where people haven’t actually taken the time to learn about and actually learn what they are doing, or using, and have thrown work together under the name of ‘Textile Art’. I’ve had galleries along side them at shows and have never heard so much ‘rubbish’ spoken about how they have created their works. Which are, in some cases, of such poor quality workmanship,
      I’m not alone in this, I have colleagues that spend years learning their craft and constantly finding new ways to work with new mediums and improve their work. They also do not like the term ‘Textile Artist’, some use the term Quilters, some Fiber Artists and some, like myself, just end up saying. ” Oh I just make things!”

      • jane stevens says:

        I finally gave up. it took me more than a decade to be able to say, out loud, and in mixed company, I am an artist.
        artist’s statements have some latitude in descriptions.
        other people’s opinions have been the bane of my working life.
        at this point in time I am trying to do enough research and learn enough to market my entire estate of artwork before my demise. I prefer not to leave the resolution of a life’s work to family who understand little of my work.
        it’s still obvious to me that much discussion about art, materials, methods, and the whys and wherefores of art are discriminatory.

  4. Ann says:

    Great article ..challenging to bring new thinking and vision into traditional arena’s..

  5. Mickie Rader says:

    As an “art quilter” I readily agree with you that recognition is a big problem. The traditional quilters, where I first began many years ago, think we are “strange” and the art community doesn’t understand us either. It’s so hard to be in limbo.

  6. Kathe says:

    Thank you! I have been having a bit of trouble trouble defining myself as a tapestry artist lately.

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