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How to look at textiles

In this blog post I will be discussing what to look for when examining textile works, these may be art works, pieces of design or engineering. The way you look at textiles is extremely important for a number of reasons. The purposeful examination of your textile research enables you to gain a depth of understanding of individual textile pieces. This analysis is evidence of your academic thinking and a vital component to studying at degree level. Added to this the considered study of individual works assists you in developing an eye for looking at a broad range of work. By this I mean as you understand there are certain qualities evident in textiles you will more readily see them in other textile pieces, placing you in a better position to digest a wide range of textiles. Having a broad understanding of your subject is also an aspect of the assessment criteria and therefore worth your attention. Another reason it is important to master the art of looking is that the knowledge you build up will inform and help you create meaningful and engaging works. This element of study, also known as synthesis is in itself important in your creative endeavours as well as being looked for at assessment.
So where to start? Looking is a skill like any other; it therefore requires time and practice and may not come as easily as you hoped. Your research material will come from a diverse range of places – gallery visits, magazines, books, social media to name a few. Wherever the work is and in what form (photograph, piece of clothing, artefact in museum, etc.) the first facet of looking is time. Often the temptation is to rush the process, to consume and get to the next item in a gallery or swipe and pin an image on Pinterest. I would suggest you instead almost meditate on what you are looking at. Blocking out thoughts and other distractions to focus on what is there.
What is it you see? Seems obvious but we don’t always see, at least straight away what is there. It is therefore a good idea to have a framework of elements you will be looking for. This will help you build up a comprehensive appreciation of the work and as I mentioned above counts for any branch of textiles you are looking at. These elements can be brought together in three main areas.

  1. Materials, techniques and processes. Here you will be examining the materials used in construction and the way those methods of construction have resulted in the outcome. You may be able to do this intuitively or it may pose questions that require you to investigate further. The process of figuring out how a work is made will not only deepen your knowledge but also inform the way you use materials and techniques.
  2. Qualities. The qualities contained in textile works are varied and multi sensual, for example visually you will be looking for colour (the balance and use of), forms both in surface structure and composition and also scale. This could be scale of individual motifs in a print say or the overall scale of an artwork. If it is appropriate you will use touch to examine tactility, drape and texture to help build a well thought through impression of the work. This consideration of a range of qualities will help the work to reveal itself to you.

3. Approach, context and meaning. Through the act of looking and the compilation of knowledge acquired by the purposeful looking at many textiles works you will begin to find approaches and meanings within the work that offer up the context in which the work sits. I would suggest this is a more advanced stage of looking but all students are capable at some level. To break this down a little, approach is the direction from and to the work is projecting. For example take a piece of embroidered knitting that is used as a surgical implant. Knit and embroidery are traditional crafts with long practical and aesthetic histories – this is where the piece of work has come from. The understanding of how textiles deliver strength and flexibility combined with medical engineering has created discreet and life saving outcomes (where the textile piece is going). A textiles context is where it sits historically and culturally, how it has been developed from past knowledge to fit in its contemporary environment. For example printed textiles emerged around the world in many communities to create well-established traditional styles. These signature colours, forms and methods are continually being explored and reinvented by contemporary practitioners. For example the Haitian/Italian fashion designer Stella Jean who through the exploration of her creole heritage designs garments that meld bold African colours and shapes with 21st century fabrics and silhouettes.

And finally meanings. Meanings are hard to pin down because they are about personal interpretations. There is therefore no definitive answer to the question of meaning; it is what feels right to you. Fine artists for example may consider the meaning of their work during the creation stage and commentators have have written extensively about meanings they have seen in haute couture garments but you could possibly see something different. Hopefully through this process of looking you will find your own meanings in your research material. For example my own personal interpretation of Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” is about the position of women in art. Traditionally if there is a bed in a painting there is more than likely a woman in it, a nude, willing and uncomplicated and the artist is a man. In Tracey’s version she turns this on its head, firstly the artist is a woman and the muse has left the bed and therefore unavailable. The artwork instead demonstrates the messy complicatedness of women’s lives. You will find your own meanings and interpretations in the research material you gather that will add to the continuing conversation about what the practice textiles means.

My Bed 1998 Tracey Emin born 1963 Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L03662

Whatever sort of textiles you are looking at this method of exploring the work will help you hook out what is there, aiding you to learn from the work and construct an effective analysis.

Posted by author: Rebecca Fairley
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5 thoughts on “How to look at textiles

  • Thanks for this very helpful post Rebecca. I learned a lot about analysis and synthesis of textile pieces doing ‘Exploring Ideas’. Your post captures the essence of that and I will be taking it with me as a reminder and prompt when I next go to an exhibition or museum. I was at the textile and fashion museum a couple of weeks ago to see the Joseph Frank exhibition and you are right, the temptation is to rush round as there’s so much to see. Even just choosing one piece, whether it’s a textile piece or a painting, and really studying it in what you describe as a meditative way is so much more rewarding and certainly less confusing.

  • Thank you Rebecca, very interesting and really helping me as a relatively new student. We met at the Whitworth Gallery study day and I remember having some very inspiring discussions that day. Have saved the blog for future reference, thanks, Lorna.

  • Thank you SO much for your very helpful blog post I feel I am struggling and do not always understand what is expected of me and any advice is much appreciated I am just at the end of part one and moving on to part two and really enjoying it although the course is not what I expected and I have come close to giving up I feel I have broken through my fears and am moving on, Many many thanks for your help Jean

  • Thank you SO much for your very helpful blog post I feel I am struggling and do not always understand what is expected of me and any advice is much appreciated I am just at the end of part one and moving on to part two and really enjoying it although the course is not what I expected and I have come close to giving up I feel I have broken through my fears and am moving on, Many many thanks for your help Jean

  • This is really clear, after reading this I feel I can do a better rewrite on my research this is really helpful… Thank you… Rebecca.

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