Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Words are not enough: textile narrative


Textile Texts: Linda Hutchins, Sara Haskell and Brigitte Amarger

Textiles can be read as texts on many levels. Literal narratives conveyed through text appear on the surface or are embedded in the structure of the textile and can often be read by the public in the same way that text on paper is read. In contrast, personal languages created by an individual are often, at least partially, inaccessible to a public audience and instead convey attention to the beauty of pattern and mark making. In the following textiles text operates in these two discrete ways. At times it is a tool likened to the written communication of a poem of novel. In others text acts as the basis of patterns that revel in complex layers of mark making.

American artist Sarah Haskell approaches language as a private rather than public system. She cites the rhythms and seasons of the natural world as her inspiration and sees thread, colour and pattern as a language capable of capturing “complex connections in the human world.” Often drawing on maps and symbols, Haskell invents her own languages for her woven textiles that offer alternative versions of written text. While these systems communicate fact as well as emotion, their symbolic nature leaves their precise narrative intent open ended. “The Language of Truth” series, for example, includes the Japanese technique of Shifu or twisted rice paper containing text that is later embedded in the textile. Haskell explains that her work attempts to, “explore the likeness of text and textile and investigate the mystery of encoded fabrics and the hidden language of weaving.” At times this encoding is quite literal such as the embedded rice paper messages that, alongside the language of weaving and the artist’s private language of code, represent legible texts concealed from the viewer.

For many artists, especially in the United States, the events of September 11th 2002 were a catalyst for the reevaluation of their own artistic practice. In Haskell’s case her development of woven language shifted from a more personal record of events and concerns close to home to a broader investigation of the troubles facing the entire world. As she explains, “I try to come to terms with the mysteries of my own life by creating diagrams, maps and woven metaphors.” In contrast, American artist Linda Hutchins’ use of text is very much a public affair. Several works using plastic barricade tape raise issues about our psychological regard for boundaries that, materially at least, are far from substantial. “Restricted Area”, an installation of woven barricade tape for Portland International Airport, was conceived before the events of September 11th but on display in the fraught weeks of travel after of the bombings. Inevitably the work took on new resonance during this time with heightened security measures and frayed nerves at the forefront of many travelers’ minds. Beyond these timely considerations, Hutchins use of barricade tape addresses the disrupted and partial messages that language can convey, literally weaving together ideas that both heighten and disrupt the seeming clarity of communication.

In contrast, the ephemeral is at the core of Hutchins recent investigation of typewriter text on velum and tissue paper. As Terri Hopkins, director of The Art Gym where the work was displayed in 2004 explains in her introduction to the exhibition catalogue, “the letters of words typed over and over become “stitches”, their patterns assuming the roles of warp and weft. Panels and squares of typed text hang like cloth, or are laid out like quilts on the wall.” Stitched samplers and quilted narratives have a long history of narrative content for the textile. Here those historical roots are returned to their more common medium of paper, but maintain textile references a long the way.

Hutchins explains of these typed paper studies, “I court typos and other irregularities by speeding up my typing, keep them in check by slowing down and concentrating.” Here language is both partially concealed and allowed to mutate. The fastidiousness of precise stitches slip into ephemeral patterns of shapes on a page. The message is far from lost, but rather than read individual lines one must approach the composition as a whole and wait for the conceptual narrative to unfold. Hutchins dialogue becomes one with pattern, an approach also taken up in the work of French textile artist Brigitte Amarger. Amarger references literary traditions through her use of book and scroll-like formats. But here it is handwriting, rather than Hutchins’ monotone type, that takes on a calligraphic role. Amarger’s use of phosphorescent paints also enhances the sense of line weight and texture and allows for portions of text to be read in the dark. This further step in the reading process allows the visible to become invisible and the invisible visible, conceivably unearthing darker – or lighter – narratives lurking beneath the obvious. The fact that the works are often designed to be viewed from front and back also heightens the idea of language as mark rather than concrete message, with mirrored words alluding to other partially concealed stories.

Of her work Amarger explains, “Some words, sentences or text can be read, others stay willingly unreadable, secrets or thoughts, layers of superimposed writing, day after day, like palimpsests of diaries.” In reality, it is easy to read each of these artists’ works as a diary of sorts. In some cases they capture the subconscious doodle that so often reveals more than we wish others to know. Often these details are then partially obscured through the layering of text as pattern rather than legible message. In other cases, such as Hutchins use of barrier tape the overt message must be understood as one of many – complex in material as well as linguistic purpose. In every case the available readings are multiple and shifting – ideal communication for today’s rapidly changing world.

Embroidery magazine (Jan./Feb. 2005: 26-29)

image: Linda Hutchins Beyond (hope, doubt, wonder, despair)  (2003) typewriting on paper