Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Tim Harding: The Fabric of Our Lives


Tim Harding

“There is a culturally ingrained preciousness to fabric,” explains American designer Tim Harding, who in partnership with his wife Kathleen is responsible for Harding Design Studio in Minnesota. “We must not tear, scorch or soil our ‘good’ clothes. And yet these textiles have a tempting vulnerability. My work is based on the act of violating this taboo.” The taboo Harding speaks of is powerfully entrenched in our culture. I clearly remember my set of “play” clothes and my school uniform: two types of clothing that designated two different worlds in my childhood. Playing in my school uniform was not allowed, it was a fabric that demanded respect and, at the very least, needed to be removed from a situation where spills and tares were inevitable. Curator Jenni Sorkin explains, “Cloth holds the sometimes unbearable gift of memory. And its memory is exacting: it does not forget even the benign scars of accident.” In addition to the accidents of child’s play, Sorkin goes on to note cloth’s role as record keeper of unwanted violations against the body. But what about the violation of cloth for the sake of beauty, what Harding himself describes as textiles “based on the act of violating a taboo”?

It is Harding’s willingness to celebrate a process that flaunts the values we associate with the “proper” way to treat our clothing which makes his work look so new to the eye. Using what he terms “a complex form of reverse appliqué” he “layers fine hand-woven Indian silks, quilts them together, and then cuts through the layers to reveal a multiplicity of colours beneath the surface layer.” “You actually see into the structure,” he explains. “A final meticulous pressing creates a richly faceted and lustrous surface.”

A student of painting and photography in college, Harding became “intrigued with the intimacy of textiles.” Traces of both media continue to resonant in the textiles he has developed over the past twenty-five years. While not a weaver, Harding cites “the pliable plane, the inherent grid of the weave, as well as the complex cultural roles of this medium” as elements that drew him away from his earlier studies and to the textile. His practice is now devoted to Wearable Art and Fine Art wall hangings, both constructed with his signature reverse appliqué technique. While his Wearable Art undeniably plays with notions of the preciousness of cloth, especially the clothes we wear to “dress-up” in, his ongoing exploration of work displayed on the wall reveals an even more experimental palette, at times including pictorial elements such as flowers, the human figure and landscapes.

“There has always been an aspect of ‘seeing through’ with my work” he explains, “even with more opaque fabrics, in that several layers are cut to reveal something more beyond the surface.” In his recent “Shroud” series, passages of opaque cloth, long present in of his Wearable Art collection, are now beginning to make an appearance in his wall hangings as well. The increased use of opaque cloth means the work can be viewed not only on the wall, but also floating in space away from the wall, furthering the sense of density and layering that makes up the basic structure of his work. “Making the pieces two sided,” he explains, “allows for a fairly clear contrast between figure and ground on one side, while the other side can be more obscure, as if the figure is disappearing or decomposing.”

In addition to the iconic Shroud of Turin, Harding notes that images of individuals jumping for the World Trade Centre in New York City on 9/11 acted as further inspiration for the series: “There were, for just a few days after 9/11, a few very powerful, horrific photos in the news of some of the victims jumping from the uppermost floors of the World Trade Center. These images seemed to disappear quickly, as they were probably too personally tragic to be used in the mass media. The still, frozen, moment-in-time, images of those figures did, however, have an ethereal floating quality, perhaps of an almost peaceful resignation or acceptance of fate.”

Harding’s most recent “Blue Figure Exposure” pieces initially look to be a departure from his previous approach, but he continues to see them as an extension of his deconstructive experiments. “Rather than tearing and fraying fabrics,” he explains, “I’m allowing prolonged exposure of rich blue silk to direct sunlight.” The natural sensitivity of the cloth to direct sunlight is responsible for the colour changes that demark a stencil of his wife Kathleen’s body. Harding explains that among other things the series is a response to his wife bouts of skin cancer treatment in recent years. “She is of Scandinavian descent, fair and blond with blue eyes, and like this blue colour silk, is among the most sensitive to ultra-violet damage.” In these most recent works, Harding once again overturns taboos, not of the preciousness of our textiles and clothing but of death and disease, turning them into nothing less than beauty and inspiration.

Embroidery magazine (Nov./Dec. 2005: 32-34)