Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

A Vivid Vocabulary


Jo Barker “New Green” (detail)


Stroud Textile Festival 2010

Textiles communicate.[i] They express joy that language renders as cliché; withstand abstraction that words try to qualify and contain; record pain without evoking sympathy or condolences. Thankfully the voice of contemporary textile practice conforms to no particular rulebook.[ii] This might seem a little odd, considering the other strength of textiles: they work.[iii] Textiles are the first material to touch our skin at birth and what many of us will lay upon at the moment of death. Textiles are the material that covers our bodies every day of our lives; the material we rest between each night. It is the textile that is used to staunch the flow of blood from wounds and protect us against cold and wind and excessive light. They are an inescapable presence, trailing close behind air, water and food in our list of needs and wants.

The sheer hours textiles spend absorbing life have left them well prepared for the messages they carry. Textiles already know what we aren’t saying. They know what we are too excited to mention or can’t bare to remember. Textiles already understand how to say two things in one breath without fretting over seeming contradictions.

This poses a bit of a problem, because humankind is quite enamoured with the written word. We’ve been working at it for a while now. We were quick to dismiss the rich flexible narratives of oral traditions and replace them with static written language. We were even more pleased with ourselves when we harnessed the printing press to tell us the same stories ad infinitum. Our newest romance is with the World Wide Web, a system that speeds and shares astounding amounts of certain types of information. Yet the Internet that has not come to terms with several of the textile’s most articulate modes of communication. Colour is as arbitrary as the settings on our individual computer monitors. Texture is all but nonexistent. Touch, for now, remains impossible.

In Dreaming by the Book the American literary critic Elaine Scarry tries to understand why “monotonous small black marks on a white page” can conjure such vivid images in our mind’s eye.[iv] She notes that “the verbal arts… unlike painting, music, sculpture, theatre, and film – are almost wholly devoid of any actual sensory content.”[v] Her observations share one thing in common. Scarry, to my eye, determines that it is qualities we commonly associate with the textile that are instinctively used by authors to make fiction vivid. Descriptions of stretching, folding and tilting, for example, are needed for our imaginations to function. The more things are described with textile attributes, the more readily our brains can translate text into an imagined world.

The artists exhibiting at the Stroud Textile Festival this year all enjoy their own vividness of vocabulary. Many have connections to Scotland, but this is where their similarities end. Each has built a career on the refinement of their particular visual language. Like Scarry each, in their own way, understands what is needed to create a convincing experience for the viewer.

Jo Barker[vi] uses the time intensive tradition of tapestry to weave surfaces full of speed and light. Somehow, Barker’s tapestries betray none of the labour their construction demands. Instead she records flourishes of drawn lines, watery edges of painted colour and mottled shadows of photographed light. Fibre brings its own unique sensibilities to these observations. Varying tensions of thread cut deep channels across tightly packed surfaces; loose fibres create halos around spots of rich colour.

The intangible associations we have of the landscape are the subject of Sara Brennan’s[vii] tapestries. A sobering sense of vastness is apparent in her modestly sized work. Light and cloud mutate. The concrete remains just beyond our focus. Instead there is a sense of the insignificance our daily concerns can begin to have when placed in a broader perspective.

In Snow Country the Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata writes: “The thread was spun in the snow, and the cloth was woven in the snow, washed in the snow and bleached in the snow. Everything, from the first spinning of the thread to the last finishing touches, was done in the snow.”[viii] Brennan’s palette has its own softer hues than the frozen landscape Kawabata describes, but the same sensibilities are evident. It is as though the threads she selects for her tapestries are shaped and coloured by the landscapes they record.

Norma Starszakowna’s[ix] printed and embellished panels are covered with complex textures that overlay fragments of text with surfaces that could be crumbling plaster walls, letters or graffiti. Her techniques are her own invention rather than a particular tradition of making. Because of this, technical concerns are impossible to compare and the unfamiliarity of her surfaces enjoys priority. In stark contrast to this is Kate Blee’s[x] vocabulary of confident blocks of colour that speak through their simplicity. There is a bravery needed to work with such bold shapes and here details such as texture or a selvedge edge demand quiet observation on the part of the viewer.

Henny Burnett responds to personal connections she makes with history’s objects. Here the fragility of materials she gathers and illuminates are from sources that relate to Stroud’s wool industry. Both Burnett and Glasgow-based artist Deirdre Nelson[xi] are sifters and sorters, making sense of huge amounts of material and bringing to the surface poetic responses to local settings. Nelson, who is currently Artist in Residence at Stroud’s Museum in the Park, often adopts narratives for her work. Folklore, oral traditions and humour all play a part in a practice that has come to be known for its accessibility and democracy. Like Burnett, Nelson finds details in the gems of wisdom she is expert at teasing from objects and communities alike, reviving history and inviting participation.

Each of these voices is as divergent as they are assured. All make use of the enormous vocabulary contemporary textile practice enjoys.

I think the textiles should be allowed to say the rest.

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies
Edinburgh College of Art

[i] I say this with the knowing apprehension I might be writing myself out of a job!
[ii] Clarifying the rules of textile art, as Lynne Truss does for grammar in Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, would not create a best seller.
[iii] Joan Livingstone and John Ploof note in their introduction to The Object of Labour: “Originating with the history of survival, cloth manufacture, and its accompanying division of labor, expands to impact all spheres of culture and power.” (page vvi)
[iv] Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book. (page 5)
[v] Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book. (page 5)
[vi] Edinburgh College of Art (Postgraduate Diploma 1986)
[vii] Edinburgh College of Art (BA Hons 1986)
[viii] Kawabata, Yasunari. Snow Country
[ix] Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (BA Hons 1966)
[x] Edinburgh College of Art (Postgraduate Diploma 1986)
[xi] Glasgow School of Art (MPhil 1992)