Tracey and her "Needlework" | The Open College of the Arts
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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.”

Tracey Emin, Hotel International

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!
Mary Cassatt, Woman with Sewing

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?
Michael Brennand-Wood, Babel, machine embroidery, wire, text, glass tile, resin, ceramic and acrylic on wood

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.
One we made earlier - The Queen's Wedding Dress

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

Posted by author: Trisha Goodwin
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12 thoughts on “Tracey and her "Needlework"

  • Audrey also says:
    “I like the description maker. It is wonderfully direct and applies whether we make paintings or poems,films sculpture,cermaics,jewellery,textiles… Craftamanship is essential for eloquence in any medium and many of the tediously worn out arguments about fine art or craft might be set aside if it could be agreed that we are engaged in a common endeavour to make things with as much concivtion – eloquence – as we can manage. We might then be able to look at all kinds of work without prejudice identifying its maker’s aims and ambitions more sympathetically”
    Audrey Walker ISBN1900941287 catalogue
    However I think the above is easy to say once you have achieved recognition. Meanwhile those who are struggling to overcome the prejudices against art containing textiles will continue to get hot under the collar!
    Great piece Trish!

  • Hi Liz, I think its important to add (although referring to art pieces here) that textiles is a huge subject, involving more product design in reality than anything else. I think if you were designing for a manufacturer or elsewhere, you would be loathed to call what you do “needlework”. A whole other discussion of course, as is that old chestnut, is something art or craft?

  • oh yes, I heartily agree: the term “needlework” makes me cringe. It’s far too twee and dainty. My stuff gets called “sewing” in my house, which also rubs me up the wrong way but does at least cover everything from sewing on buttons to sewing on computer keys.
    We need a whole new vocabulary: how about “fabric work” (except sometimes there is no fabric involved) or maybe “stitch work” (ditto stitch). When anyone asks me what I do, I just say “art” and leave it at that.

  • Although I agree that needlework and other crafty terms are often seen as perjorative, I doubt anyone who has seen the finished work up close believes they were easy or stitched by idle hands. The two women who laboured to stitch William Morris’ ‘The Romaunt of the Rose’ were evidently undertaking hard physical work as well as technically challenging stitching to create these epic friezes. It’s a shame that activities associated with women are somehow diminished. And that it is a view attached so often to making is even worse. The reaction to needlwork as a title is understandable but perhaps we should reappropriate it and make it good again.

  • Here in Australia the professional textile arts associations have long had the same debate over what is art and what is craft.
    My view is that I have to perfect my craft to produce my art. After all, a Master Craftsman is a title not to be sniffed at and that calibre of person usually produces art – in whatever form – of an outstanding quality having spent many a year perfecting their techniques and honing their craft.

  • I tried to send you a longer reply but it didn’t go through, so this is a shorter one
    Hi Trisha, I can’t understand why you need a distinction between amateur and professional. Art is art, no matter who makes it

  • I got a place in a juried art show “The Kerteminde International Art Festival” in Denmark. 10 days in July, hard work with lots of visitors from all over the world. There were about 40 juried members, and some invited, exhibiting all over this small coastal town. The committee encouraged that we were active while there so I had my machine with me and sat creating most of the time not occupied with talking to guests.It was a really inspiring 10 days for me and I left with an intense feeling of satisfaction. This only lasted about 14 days until the next art magazine “Kunst” hit the streets with a short review, derogatory at that, actually mentioning “Housewife art”. This is one of the reasons I joined the OCA ; if you cannot beat them join them. I might never get famous but I will have the right to enjoy a personal satisfaction.

  • Thanks for all your kind comments and interesting thoughts!
    Di, yes, I often call what I do “sewing” in a tongue in cheek way, although I acknowledge that many techniques we use are not actually this, but rather painting, dyeing, etc.
    Christina, yes its a shame that the term “needlework” has become derisory, as you say, “art needlework” of the late 19th C/early 20th was wonderful and did a lot to promote female design work and making skills – its an important part of our history. I’m not so certain that it would work as a contemporary term though.
    Claire, interesting that this has moved from a discussion about the term “needlework” to a debate about art or craft! I think you are right, you need to perfect good craft skills as a given in order to produce art – that is work that says something, that has meaning. But sometimes good craft is what the maker sets out to achieve as its own end. I don’t see any hierarchy here, just different aims from the start.
    Mp, sorry you don’t understand why I differeniate between professional and amateur, I would not have seen this myself at one time. There are huge differences though, not so much in practical skills (often amateurs have these in abundance) its rather a mindset, that honing of a language and abstract thinking, the theoretical underpinning which is at the basis of what we do, which take things on to a whole new level.
    Edith, you express so much of what I felt at one time! This is why we have the OCA courses after all, so that anyone can make that transformation through degree level study, not a lucky few. I wish you every success and hope you achieve everything your dream of!

  • I’m teetering on the brink of signing up for the Open College and I would like to explore textiles. I’m so hugely impressed by what I’ve seen so far, and read; howver, I’m left totally intimidated to the extent I may teeter and, possibly, fall off the ladder completely. I’m bowled over with admiration and astonishment.

  • Hi Jilly, please don’t teeter on the edge, come and join us! I promise you we all felt as you do to start with, its quite normal, but the aim is to bring the potential out of you – at your pace, not to intimidate! Why not make this the year you go for it – as the saying goes – you only regret the things you don’t do in life, not the things you do!

  • Hi Jilly, I started the first course last August so I’m still quite new. Don’t be intimidated, you will have a tutor to guide you if you hit a problem, student forums you can join, learning logs you can refer to on-line and a fantastic manual that sets out the exercises clearly and in good bite size chunks.
    It’s stimulating work, good fun and very interesting, covers a wide range of disciplines and gives a good grounding to move forward into future courses.
    I hope you join us.

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