Textile Visionaries (Laurence King)

book review in Crafts Magazine November/December 2013 pages 58-59.
Textile Visionaries: Innovation and Sustainability in Textile Design
by Bradley Quinn published by Laurence King 2013

Textile Visionaries feels like just the right size of book. Not so huge that the occupant of the seat next to you on a train or plane bemoans your existence, not too flimsy to feel trivial. This isn’t meant as a slight on the content. Instead it is an acknowledgement that readers of books about textiles are likely to notice how certain books work better as objects than others. Inside its cardboard cover is a handsome book packed with necessary images. The choice of cover material isn’t explained, perhaps on the publisher’s assumption that cardboard = recycled = sustainable. This works well enough aesthetically, but the cliché is disingenuous if there is a bigger message behind the decision.

Quinn’s writing on design futures is prolific and his tone as a writer is enthusiastic rather than critical. Ironically, this means that some of the slick introductions flatten the complexity of the book’s content. For example, our textiles of today are described as “passive substrates” soon to be “transformed into active technological tools”, while our textiles of the future “will equip the wearer with completely new physical and intellectual abilities, or enhance existing ones.” This stance suggests that the remarkable properties of textiles are only now coming into existence. At times Quinn seems so trained on the future that not much credit is given to the past. For example, he writes that “ironing will become a thing of the past” – a point I thought we had passed by the 1960s, it just happened that most of us hated the way wrinkle resistance synthetics felt? It is the voices of the designers included that often temper these sweeping enthusiasms. For example, Barbara Layne is clear that “textile innovation has existed for millennia”.

The format of this book emphasises individuals and partnerships, but some discussion of the institutions and systems that support textile research would be fascinating to include. It is hard not to miss the influence of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hexagram research group at Concordia University in Montreal and the Textile Futures postgraduate course at Central Saint Martins. In the technology section, Quinn honestly acknowledges that, “the new generation of electronic fabrics has yet to establish a market”. Why is a fascinating question here and discussion of the influence research groups and commissions from the music industry/ performers have in bringing some of the newest innovations to the public eye feels worthy of more scrutiny.

Time sensitivity makes a printed book – which by necessity does not appear overnight – a difficult format for this topic. But this is no reason to exclude dates from captions; an omission that helps suggest all the content is very new, which is not the case. Perhaps more importantly, the omission of dates takes away the opportunity for readers to understand the evolution of the work included. One of the most meaningful and timely messages to emerge from the content is the number of times it is acknowledged that innovation stems from both high and low tech solutions. This is exemplified in the existence of the High-Low Tech research group at MIT of all places. Leah Buechley, director of the research group, explains, “I believe that future technology will be largely created by people who will design and build their own devices.” Buechley’s stance returns value to the place of craft in the process of textile innovation; perhaps more importantly the perspective is refreshingly democratic.

The three thematic sections of this book – technology, sustainability and innovation – are its greatest editorial oddity. Doesn’t innovation drive sustainability and technology? Curiously, it is the final section that contains content readers who are familiar with developments in textiles over the past decade will find fresher than the previous two sections. There are also surprises included. For example, Stretchable Circuits acknowledge their lack of textile expertise. Similarly, the now well publicised images by Lucy McRae in collaboration with Bart Hess, include the human figure covered in soap bubbles or balloons; thoroughly inspiring but equally textile-absent. Read this book with your own critical eye. Some of the most exciting textile visionaries did not study textile design and aren’t working with textiles.