Tracey and her "Needlework"
It’s probably not escaped your notice that Tracey Emin has recently been appointed Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy. Unlike some, I don’t want to take issue with that at all, in fact I feel its very well deserved. Rather it was the following quote from the BBC news website that made me draw in my breath with horror – “Emin works in a number of media, including needlework, watercolours, sculpture, film-making, animation and installations.”
Did I read that correctly? After I stopped spluttering, and shouting “Textiles, textiles!” at the screen, I wondered why the use of that word “needlework” so got to me? Surely the pieces referred to are made with a needle and thread, so the description is a apt one? In other places her work is frequently referred to as “stitched fabric work” or “textiles” which I find quite acceptable. Why does “needlework” feel like a derogatory term? Thinking about it, because it sounds like something, a million years ago, girls were forced to do at school, overtones of badly stitched PE bags and aprons, light years away from anything professional involving art and design. It feels gender specific and I know some of you hate it as a term. The other image that comes to mind is a lady of leisure slowly whiling away the hours in a gentle, feminine way, nothing too stressful – no assessments, deadlines or written projects to worry about!
Of course, I recognise there’s something else going on here too, a need to remove oneself from anything smacking of the amateur; after all, we work very hard to gain mastery in our specific medium, don’t we? So surely we deserve that recognition, a term which recognises that professional standing? In my own case (as with plenty of others) I now make my living from what was once a keen interest/hobby. Well, they say that pride comes before a fall, and I was brought up short a few days later when reading a student critique of the work of Audrey Walker, who reputedly doesn’t care whether her work is called art or craft, textiles or needlework, as long as she can get on with it! I point out, in passing the obvious distinction between Textiles and Needlework – the former term covers a wide range of techniques from embroidery, fabric dyeing to weaving and so on, whilst needlework tends to imply a narrower band of ideas relating to decorating fabric decoration/manipulation/piecing. As Emin tends to applique, piece and embroider, her work would surely fall within that later definition anyway?
But I think it’s this need to distinguish between an art school subject and these skills as they otherwise exist in society that lies at the heart of this question. How do we imply professionalism, that specialized language and design skills whilst still acknowledging our making roots and history? Then I remembered a lecture I went to years ago at the V and A given by Micheal Brennand-Wood. In it he called for more inclusiveness, an acknowledgement of guilds and amateurs, for their “fluency with the history and diversity of techniques”. He also argued that the “art textile establishment” of art schools and learned commentators had taken it away from “their core association with humanity” – in the techniques, the uses and an over formalised history. I think its highly significant that Brennand-Wood came from a artisan background, where textiles and wood were often the means of making a living.
I was studying with the OCA at the time and remember how much those words resonated with me. I had forebears who were seamstresses at Norman Hartnell and was proud of the passed on skills, but envied those whose who had gone to art school; it seemed to bestow a legitimacy and language beyond mere skill. So, the terms we choose to use, reflect these layers of meaning and can be very emotive as a consequence. On reflection, call it needle crafts or textiles, we share common threads and a common ancestory. The collective legacy we share is a love of fibre (in whatever form), a need to make which runs through our lives and becomes part of it.
Trisha Goodwin, textile tutor