Is textiles an art or a craft? | The Open College of the Arts
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Is textiles an art or a craft?

What is a craft? What we should be asking is; what is a person who uses craft to make work?
A Craftsperson is, for me, a practitioner who displays an understanding of their chosen materials, and an understanding of the traditions that have gone before, it is not a term used automatically with terms such as ‘cosy’, ‘technique based’ or ‘quirky’ – all used in association with craft on a regular basis, but to me it implies knowledge and understanding of gestures and mechanics of process and their application in order to make work.

by OCA student Robin Fuller
It does not mean that the practitioner is judged solely upon the skills displayed in the work, but that without this knowledge the piece would lack the rigour and substantiality that good art requires. There does remain a plurality of motivations within craft, some wish to be noted for their practical skill, some for their adherence to tradition and technical absolutes, but there is also the place for those to whom the very media and processes enable a deeper, conceptual and emotional body of work to emerge. Exhibiting such a wide ranging media such as textiles remains an enigma, if the practitioner ‘resides’ within the textile environment it is difficult to show in mainstream art events. However, if the practitioner is able to identify with the ‘fine art’ milieu, and use the appropriate language and references, (often those that reject the notion of ‘craft’ ) they are accepted and acknowledged as serious challengers to the establishment. Strangely enough we textile artists have access to an environment that is unique to us, and it is one that we often dismiss.
By OCA student Amarjeet Nandhra

This time of year sees the Knitting and Stitching show season open. This show has been going for seasons and it remains the major showcase for textile artists, especially those who wish to show to peers and enthusiasts. We can be quick to judge the motivations of the attendees and the visitors, but without the legion of aspiring artists and makers we would not even have this forum to show in. Exhibitors are engaged with their audience in an unimagined way for the ‘fine art fraternity’. Opinions are freely given, inspirations are freely ‘borrowed’, questions range from ‘what technique have you used?’, through to ‘tell me about this piece’, with the eternal ‘how long did it take?’. This leads the artists and makers to confront their practice, examine their working methods, share and analyse their emotional reasons and states and be prepared to talk and engage with an audience who generally ‘know their onions’ . Work exhibited in more traditional gallery settings rarely are exposed to such detailed observation and scrutiny, and as a textile artist each time I show at the Knitting and Stitching Show I feel that my own working practice is challenged and therefore grows, it is up to us as artists to use the opportunity presented and grow rather than bemoan our continued exile outside gallery doors.

Posted by author: James Hunting
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15 thoughts on “Is textiles an art or a craft?

  • I totally agree. Such shows are opportunities to share, to meet like minds, to learn, to provoke thought, to be inspired, and of course to shop! When I can I visit local exhibitions of textile work, and sometimes am lucky enough to be able to talk to the exhibitors about their endeavours. While viewing the display and reading the “artist’s statement” is good, a conversation is so much better.

  • The distinction beteween art and craft is a tricky one. All craft has an art element and vice versa. I suppose I would define craft as something that has an application- can be worn, eaten out of, used to furnish your home etc. If something is for aesthetic appreciation only then I see it as being more art. Of course I realise this is not absolute.

    • That is an excllent distinction – thank you. I think it is easy for Textiles to be classed (sometimes dismissed) as Craft, often purely because Textile work seldom attracts large sums of money when sold. I also feel that a lack of exhibition space and promotion at museums does not help and if given would enable wider public appreciation and recognition.

      • I think it is also the case that we still gender media and processes and Textiles is gendered feminine and as we all know, feminine things aren’t as important as masculine ones and art is soooo much more important than craft!!!!!!!!!!!

        • Peter, your comment made me laugh out loud – nothing like a bit of trolling eh?
          On a serious note I think James has really succeeded in provoking interesting discussion – long may it continue.

  • I agree with Olivia that an easy way of distinguishing art from craft would be in the application, how practical it is, whether it is or not necessary for survival. That is why fashion or gastronomy were not Classical Arts. However, isn’t that distinction too simple? For example, how does that idea match with Architecture being an art? Are crafts (like making baskets, fashion design, crochet) somewhere in between Painting and Sculpture? Or do they only share some aspects? There’s no question about the beauty of crafts. Why then, were they not better considered in the past to be counted as arts?
    By the way, I have never been asked how long it took me to finish a basket or a ply-wood box!

    • Its an interesting question and one that raises so much debate. a recent conversation with a friend led to a discussion about is one difference about craft that it tends to be a single media that is employed rather than a range, I’m not convinced but it is interesting… I feel that it is also very led by how the maker ( of art or craft) identifies themselves, oh and that is yet another slippery slope, does hiding behind labels avoid a critical approach? maybe the next post will be about that.
      All I know is that like much art and craft, or lets call it creative practice, I consider that a critical approach and use of language must be employed to ensure that rigor is present.

  • I would say anything can be art but very little is of sufficient quality to be so. I find it a very personal thing, like what food to eat, or what religious beliefs to hold. That way, some paintings to me aren’t art, yet some tablecloths are!
    And I would just say that functionality doesn’t fit much into it for me, as anything can be initially designed with a function in mind but then transcend that in the final stages/analysis. Like how readymades are. It also works in reverse, from art to function. Some paintings I’m sure would make great floorboards or windbreakers, or dust-gatherers (abandoned all over the place and not cared about, true art isn’t treated this way unless unintentionally, they demand respect through their awesomeness) or statues great birds nests. in fact, I know of several statues that are completely ghastly and so are only loved by birds.

  • I think Olivia is right. So if someone says ‘Yes, but what is it for….? it is definitely art! The question I find so much harder is: can it be art if it has no craft? Or if the ‘artist’ didn’t craft it, someone else did?

    • Yes, an interesting question. Quite a few contemporary artists use technicians to make their pieces. They don’t have the skills. The technicians don’t have the initial idea- so whose art is it? Only the initiator gets the credit. I can only think the skilled technicians don’t mind.

      • There is nothing new in this, it goes right back to the dawn of artistic time. Think of the medieval workshops, the renaissance and later studios, sculptors rarely have done their own casting and many printers don’t print their own work etc. etc.
        It seems to me that ideas are the important thing rather than technique in art works and technique more important than ideas in craftworks and of course there is a whole spectrum here.
        But then, why does it matter?

  • Crafts were a skill learnt so that a person could earn their living by selling their product. The best practioners could take it to new heights, and their stuff became art ie: the best silvermakers in the 17th. century or Bernard Leach the potter.
    Perhaps we artists learning today should consider ourselves only craftspeople until we produce something out of the ordinary then we might call ourselves artists. In the mean time we should leave more modest crafts folk to just get on and enjoy their hobby.

  • I am with Noah – beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder and I am sure this will apply to Textile Art too. As I progress on the OCA Textiles degree pathway I am increasingly beginning to think that skill in any or all of the techniques I am learning are actually secondary to my ability to develop and idea through to a cohesive concept. I think I started this journey believing my work has to stand alone as a product, however as time moves on and I grow as an “artist” I am finding my focus is very much on what the final piece says or represents, and the developmental processes rather than the finished article.

  • I once saw an exhibition of sculpture/relief paintings which married art and craft in a way which was breathtaking. The artist – Will Mclean, the exhibition, ‘Symbols of Survival. The idea underlying the exhibition was the forced movement of people from the land to the sea in Scotland, and the ordinary tools which helped them survive that harsh environment. Not a whiff of nostalgia, but each assemblage told a story. The objects must have been subjected to many hours of waxing and burnishing because the surface seemed to have a quality of worn polished pebbles on a beach. Ordinary objects took on an iconic significance because of the superb craftsmanship in the assemblages. Some pieces made me shiver, and incredibly I had never seen his work before. I knew I was looking at great art. Incidentally, an interesting paragraph in the book I bought told of how he and another student spending the summer vacation renovating an etching press because ‘etching was not included in their fine art course, because it was not considered a fine art!

  • An interesting topic and one that was broached earlier in the year, I believe in response to a sewing article read by one of the tutors. I can’t lay my hands on the weekly bulletin where it featured but I can see that this is an ongoing topic around the world.
    So how do each of us define ourselves when asked? A textile artist? An artisan? A craftsperson? A crafter? A hobbyist?
    In Australia we have a large and vibrant textiles community covering every level of expertise. Some teach, some exhibit, some sell and some remain private but most seem to belong to some kind of association relating to the arts in some form. It is within these organisations, or professional platforms, where these people find a degree of understanding and appreciation of what they produce – be it designing or making.
    Many of us strive to be associated more with art than ‘craft’ but I’ve always believed that you need to learn and perfect your craft before you can produce your art – be it functional or not!!
    When I tell ‘non-creative’ people (having been asked) that I am a textile artist they usually come back with “So you make dresses then, right?”

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