"Units of Disruption" catalogue essay for Decorum: Tapis & tapisseries d'artistes published in French by Skira Flammarion (2013: pages 189-193) now available. Catalogue published in French.
In “A Tradition with a Reason” Elizabeth Barber asks: “For millennia women have sat together spinning, and sewing. Why should textiles have become their craft par excellence, rather than the work of men? Was it always thus, and if so, why? Twenty years ago Judith Brown wrote a little five-page ‘Note on the Division of Labor by Sex’ that holds a simple key to these questions. She was interested in how much women contributed to obtaining food for a preindustrial community. But in answering that question, she came upon a model of much wider applicability. She found that the issue of whether or not the community relies upon women as the chief providers of a given type of labor depends upon ‘the compatibility of this pursuit with the demands of child care’… if the productive labour of women is not to be lost to the society during the childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen to be ‘compatible with simultaneous child watching.’”
Throughout history, textiles made by hand have posed minimal threat to young children. The tools of their making are certainly not the same as those needed for hunting: sharp instruments with the capacity to harm. But cooking – certainly also within the realm of the now fraught category ‘women’s work’ – requires a mother keep her children in proximity to fire and knives. More crucial in explaining why the production of textiles is associated with the labour of women is, as Brown notes in Barber’s reference, the ease with which the production of textiles can withstand disruption. Unlike throwing a pot made of wet clay or blowing hot molten glass, the production of textiles can cope with interruptions. Nearly all of our textile structures – weaving, knitting, crochet, and their fashioning and embellishment via stitch – are ways of making based on a unit that repeats. (The process of felting offers us one rare exception to this rule.) Concentration and activity disrupted during the production of these units, be it a line of stitch or a pick of weaving, can be restarted where the maker left off with minimal detriment to the final cloth.
The American literary critic, Elaine Showalter, suggests American quilting traditions provided early templates for women’s forays into fiction writing for much the same reason. Quilting can withstand disruptions, much like short stories or narratives written in instalments for magazine publication demand far less uninterrupted writing time than the extensive writing habits typically adopted to complete a novel. “I would like to suggest that a knowledge of piecing, the technique of assembling fragments into an intricate and ingenious design,” explains Showalter, “can provide the contexts in which we can interpret and understand the forms, meanings, and narrative traditions of American women’s writing.” But Showalter makes this suggestion with some caution, and notes that “in order to understand the relationship between piecing and American women’s writing we must deromanticize the art of the quilt, situate it in its historical contexts, and discard many of the sentimental stereotypes of an idealized, sisterly, and non-hierarchic women’s culture that cling to it.”
Another American, the writer and early feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) offers us a bold rejection of the idealised roles of wife and mother in her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). Gilman’s own experience with what we would now diagnose as postpartum depression received treatment in a Philadelphia sanatorium where mental and physical stimulation was removed in an effort to ‘heal’ the resting patient. In her short story Gilman alludes to this first hand experience in the creation of a fictional world that can be read as a literal prison or, alternately, a way to escape the restrictive social expectations of wife and mother.
The unreliability of Gilman’s narrator, in the sense of how truthful her version of events may be, helps to blur fact and fiction in the short story. For example, the patterned wallpaper of her ‘restive’ top floor room is initially viewed as “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns that commits every artistic sin.” As the story progresses the narrator finds first a woman, and then several women, trapped behind the pattern attempting to shake it free. Female wallflowers, the social cliché of an individual virtually invisible to the rest of the party, are a far cry from what Gilman’s narrator seeks to free from the literal wallpaper patterns that surround her. Who is free and who is trapped and the judgement of what passes as a ‘sane’ perspective are all thrown into doubt. The narrator’s own identity as wife and mother, potentially a prison of social conformity, is replaced at the end of the story with an alternative reading: perhaps the expectations of society are the real prison and a refusal to conform a route to freedom?
Textiles did not become women’s work over time because we are inherently better at juggling simultaneous tasks. In fact the American author Susan Cain has recently debunked multitasking as an unachievable reality. “Even multitasking, that prized feat of modern-day office worker warriors, turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 per cent.” Instead Cain suggests that the personality of the introvert, while far from the popular model of social success, particularly in cultures as gregarious as the author’s own, deserves better understanding. In her view of the world doing one thing well, and in elected solitude, can bring about far greater contentment and, ironically, innovation than forced collaboration.
Why textiles became associated with women’s work is now difficult to disentangle from history. Cain proposes multitasking is a myth, while writers long before her such as Gilman used the thin veil of fiction to suggest other alternatives to the conventional demands of marriage and motherhood placed on women’s time. Instead the ease with which the hand production of cloth can be disrupted without significant detriment to the final outcome, much like the short pieces of writing Gilman excelled at creating, is an attribute that textiles enjoy alone amongst the crafts, regardless of the gender of their maker.
The irony is that credit for women’s involvement with textiles has, over time, been minimal. Sadie Plant, for example, charts the contribution Ada Lovelace made to the invention of modern computing via the Jacquard loom, although it is Joseph Jacquard whose name we first recognize. This blind spot can also be seen in female designers own acknowledgement of their work with textiles. For example, the Irish-born Eileen Gray designed a number of rugs during her lifetime but was quoted in 1970 as saying, “It seems rather silly to have made these big portfolios giving all importance to carpets and early decorations that can interest no one. Whereas Tempe a Pailla and the Centre de Culture et Loisir and the Maison au Bord de la Mer plus some croquis (if I manage to finish them) might still interest some students and are much more important to me.”
Libby Sellers, owner of the eponymous gallery and curator of the Eileen Gray exhibition at London’s Design Museum in 2005 confirmed Gray’s attitude towards textiles as dismissive when compared to the other forms of design she was involved with during her lengthy career. “The rugs were extremely pivotal to her developing career. However, while Gray designed many rugs and was a fan of using them to punctuate spaces with different tactile and sensory experiences I personally don’t think she prioritised them over the furnishings and architectural designs.” In fairness to Gray, who aspired to the male dominated world of architecture, or at least furniture design, her dismissive outlook can be understood as a response to associations of textiles with home and hobby.
Historian Elissa Auther observes, “At its worse, the effort to challenge the gendering of fiber as ‘women’s work’ actually reinforced its association with femininity and its low place in the art-world hierarchy. In the late 1960s, when off loom techniques rose to prominence, the work of fiber artists adopting these techniques was interpreted as free from the craft tradition’s conventional values by virtue of their rejection of the loom.” Auther goes on to note that the absence of the loom proved useful, to a certain extent, in repositioning large scale works beyond the realm of the domestic. Textiles provided the materials, but the finished objects were seen, at least by some, as sculptures rather than evidence of the technical skill of craft production. Regrettably, the reception Auther refers to was not only short lived, but did little to shift dominant understanding of works of art – made by men or women – that did involve conventional tools of textile production.
Elsewhere the textile has emerged as a site of interest in discourse that sets aside the concerns of gender. The well-cited French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, for example, refer to the woven textile structure as a metaphor for striated, as opposed to smooth, space. In their conception, striated space “seems to have a top and bottom; even when the warp yarn and woof yarn are exactly the same in nature, number and density, weaving reconstitutes a bottom by placing the knots on one side.” Deleuze and Guattari seem to overlook the plain weave structure, which is balanced in its composition, instead referring to knots that could be understood as the warp ends along the two non-selvedge edges of a woven textile. A purist can offer a number of deviations from this structure, but of interest here is the sense of establishing a top and bottom, a side facing the world and a side concealed from view.
The large-scale tapestries of Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz show little deference to distinctions between back and front, interior and exterior, public and private. Similarly, the beguiling structures of Columbian Olga de Amaral confuse what could be defined as inside and outside through the complexity of their surface structures. And while the towering bundles thread sculptures of American Sheila Hicks do not so much disrupt our sense of interior and exterior, they instead challenge assumptions about textiles and scale. All three invite the viewer to rethink stereotyped expectations of the textile as modest in scale and demure in message.
To be fair, this interest in disrupting viewers’ expectations of interior and exterior is not isolated to the literature or textiles of women. It is also evident in the work of make artists such as Mike Kelley and his inclusion of scatological content or a Freudian reading of Abakanowicz’s tapestries as suggestive of sexual organs. The latter establishes a disturbing interpretation for the motive to create textiles in general if read through Freud’s view that women weave to conceal what they anatomically lack. While laughable on one level there is a worrying reality felt through much contemporary textile work that continues to bemoan inadequacy of public perception about the value and worth of textile production that Freud followers could justifiably offer up as further evidence of this insecurity.
The individual units that make up our textiles are resilient to the disruption and distraction of their maker. They can be, to the untrained eye, mindless work suitable for occupying the empty minds of women. But as Rozsika Parker proposed, textiles have simultaneously provided, in their making, a way to challenge long held stereotypes. The resilience of textiles – to interruption, to stereotypes, and to use – may in fact be their greatest strength.
 Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1994). “A Tradition with Reason” Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. London, W.W. Norton & Company: 29.
 Barber: 30.
 Elaine Showalter (1986). “Piecing and Writing”. The Poetics of Gender. Ed. Nancy K. Miller. New York, Columbia U P: 227.
 Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892). “The Yellow Wallpaper”. London, Virago: 13.
 Gilman: 30.
 Susan Cain (2012). “When Collaborating Kills Creativity”. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. London, Viking: 85.
 see Sadie Plant (1997). Zeroes and Ones: digital women and the new technoculture. London: Doubleday.
 Jessica Hemmings (2005). “A Foothold in History” Modern Carpets and Textiles, winter: 69.
 Elissa Auther (2008) “Fiber Art and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft, 1960-1980” The Journal of Modern Craft, volume 1, issue 1: 28.
 Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (1987). “Smooth & Striated Space” A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Trans Brian Massumi. Minneapolis & London, U of Minnesota Press: 475.
 see Rozsika Parker (2010) The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine. London, I.B. Tauris.