Words & Textiles

Intersections: Words & Textiles

Words and cloth have drawn inspiration and meaning from each other for centuries, continuing into the present. The incorporation of the written word into textiles appears in two distinct forms: either words are rendered in a legible manner or they are intentionally illegible. From this difference, one can discern two vastly different forms of motivation for the textile artist. On one hand, the written word is employed to communicate an accessible message. On the other, it is a response to the beauty of mark-making.

From this separation comes a further distinction, the technical rendering of the word itself. Words are sewn, woven, or screen printed onto the surface of fabric or transferred with methods that tend to be associated with the printed word such as Xerox or laser printing. Textual transcription onto cloth brings new techniques to textile design, while methods such as embroidery and weaving often have historical associations. Although these delineations may seem simple, the ways in which textile artists have combined these sources of inspiration are surprisingly broad.

Bhakti Ziek’s Alphabet Samplers acknowledges its contemporary setting while paying homage to the many women who polished their embroidery skills while learning the alphabet and rudimentary spelling. Ziek’s use of contemporary type faces and the technical feat required to translate the images into weaving establish a fruitful tension between the historical textile and the new possibilities offered by computer-assisted design and weaving.

In contrast, Judy Chicago’s image at the entrance to her traveling exhibition Resolutions: A Stitch In Time refers more closely to traditional stitchery. Chicago describes the purpose behind Resolutions as a desire to raise public consciousness and respect, not just for the craft, but also for the time-honored sayings used in so many cross-stitch patterns. While these phrases may not be considered literature per se, the long tradition of samplers depicting phrases such as “Home Sweet Home” is substantial enough to form its own genre. For Chicago, equal importance lies in elevating the tradition of stitchery and elevating the very phrases that are stitched.

Leslie Golomb and Louise Silk’s The Daughters Speak Right is a collaborative effort. Louise Silk prints the fabrics with passages from the Old Testament; Golomb then constructs the fabric into garments. For those who can read and understand only the English portions of the text, the Hebrew passages from the Old Testament act as a barrier to understanding. Nevertheless, the distinctive Hebrew script communicates information about the text even as the words themselves remain foreign.

In contrast, the written mark is altogether absent from the installation of tapestry by Soon Yul Kan from her MFA show at Goldsmith’s College, London. While no text is depicted, the work itself is inspired by, and embodies, writing. Soon Yul rubs the ashy remains of burned letters fro her mother onto surfaces of white tapestries she has woven. Though transformed, the words that were her inspiration become embedded in the surface of the cloth.

More literally, Bo Breda’s I Had a Dream refers to a literary piece but operates under conditions that are similar to those in Soon Yul’s work. In her artist’s statement, Breda explains that putting white beading on a white sheet was an intentional decision to make it virtually impossible to read the text. Since the words are from her own dream journal, Breda admits she is relieved, rather than frustrated, to know that few have the tenacity or eyesight to read an entire passage. Straining to read the surface of the fabric, the viewer has the sense of stumbling upon something private. The difficulty in deciphering the words underscores their intimate nature.

Joan Schulze overlaps and photocopies appropriated scripts until it is hard to read more than a few related words. Documents in Old English, Japanese, and Chinese reveal the artist’s interest in the beauty if mark-making rather than the texts’ ability to communicate. Most poignantly, in Haiku 131 the artist’s own notebook scribbles are covered over until they are illegible. As in Bo Breda’s work, the legibility of the word is intentionally obscured.

Patricia Autenrieth’s Bird uses an inkjet printer to print the poem of the same title onto cloth. Autenrieth credits Beth Joslow as author of the poem. This establishes the contribution of the writer, as well as the artist, to the work. Like Schulze, Autenrieth uses an inkjet printer to combine the process of literary transcription and textile design. While the porous surface of the cloth is noticeably different from the paper on which the poem was printed, the text remains legible. Another piece, Rant, strays further from the parameters of “literary” inspiration but offers a powerful example of appropriated language of the graffiti artist or the billboard advertisement when she stitched and spray-painted phrases from labels and signs onto the surface of this quilt. The layers of phrases and images provide a sense of the visual and linguistic bombardment faced by the artist. At the same time, the conflicting combination of the banal and the personal expose the disparate worlds the written word inhabits.

In Tracey Emin’s Pysco Slut, the subject matter and intentional misspelling deny the nurturing sensibility of the quilt. Acting as an artist’s statement of sorts, Emin’s agenda is spelled out in the brutal language for which her confrontational work is known. In this case, the medium through which she renders her thoughts makes them all the more poignant.

Finally Tilleke Schwarz’s Mark Making addresses the new millennium’s means of written communication: the internet. The piece is embroidered with the swift, graffiti-like hand that echoes the frantic pace of our lives. Filled with references to personal computer scripts, cyberspace, and the threat of the Y2K meltdown, the work is a moving record of the new millennium’s literature.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2002: 43-45)