The brief is to consider why craft-based textiles maintain a place in our society.
Cogito ergo sum (French: “Je pense donc je suis”, English: “I think, therefore I am”) is a philosophical Latin statement proposed by René Descartes in 1637. This phrase became a fundamental element of Western Society.
As I think about this I am considering the difference between the human race and other animal species. My conclusion, taking into account numerous readings throughout my life, is that we are self-aware. We are able to reason, to problem solve, to interact in an intelligent and progressive manner and to understand and calculate the consequences of our actions, but most of all we are able to see ourselves as individual and unique beings separate from the rest of those of our race.
Historians, archaeologists and anthropologists have long found evidence of adornment throughout the evolution of man. Visit any museum and you will find ancient artifacts demonstrating various degrees of decoration. Items including pots and vessels, religious paraphernalia, tribal and ceremonial clothing, jewellery, decorated dolls and other children’s toys. It seems that we have a long association with personal, tribal and cultural displays of individualism.
Randall White, Professor of Anthropology at NY University, is one of the world’s leading specialists in the study of Paleolithic art and personal adornment. He was one of the first to recognise the evolutionary importance of personal adornment and its critical role in the organisation and demographic expansion of modern humans.
It seems that individual and communal craft based creativity is in our DNA, so to speak.
So why is there the need to express ourselves in this way? What does it bring to our lives and how does it fulfill us? I see many reasons, some of which are:
- To express personal thoughts and feelings
- To provide new visual experiences
- To record a place, person or memorable event
- To stimulate and educate ourselves
- To communicate, be it in a singular manner or to tell stories
- To maintain traditions and pass on skills to future generations
- To worship
- To improve our lives – perhaps healing the sick or affecting social change
- To gain recognition for skills others may not have
- To earn a livelihood
- To create community cohesiveness through working together
- To spend time making something for the simple pleasure of it
In recent history craft-based textiles became, for wealthier households, a means of women passing the time together stitching both useful and decorative items. Journeymen visited larger establishments to sell patterns and threads to the lady-of-the-house. Young girls were required to learn to stitch and produced samplers showcasing their various skills and improvements.
Huge advances were made to textile production during the industrial revolution (the period 1750-1850) and I’m not going into details here but it is worth noting that as inventors increased efficiency of manufacture and machinery it was seen as a threat to employment, and early innovators were attacked and their inventions destroyed.
One of the most famous entrepreneurs, Richard Arkwright, nurtured inventors, patented ideas, financed initiatives and protected the machines. He created the cotton mill which brought production processes together in a factory, and he developed the use of power, which made cotton manufacture a mechanised industry. Textiles could now be produced in much larger quantities.
Since then mass produced garments, jewellery, footwear, accessories and so on have become the norm. However, we have never fully moved away from the hand-made, individual, one-off, ‘special’ items and as the novelty of fast, cheap ‘throw-away’ goods has waned we continue to search for the unique. It seems to be the very essence of being human that we wish to belong to the group but stand out as an individual – show some independence and difference – but never so much that we ostracize ourselves from our community.
With the advent of the internet and, very recently, on-line shopping, social media and extensive advertising we are able to fulfill that desire by searching for something to satisfy our own view of ourselves as exclusive and singular. Today we are swamped by choice and things which may have appeared exciting and innovative a few years ago become more mainstream and expected. New items are constantly being evolved and marketed to satisfy our appetite for difference. We may be makers, sellers or buyers but the need to produce, gain recognition and stand out from the crowd remains as strong as ever.
In today’s world of limited resources and the need to conserve those resources I find a new language evolving. 10 years ago we recycled and re-used. Today we up-cycle – create new and better ways to transform used items into pieces with new meaning and usefulness. We re-purpose – we change the very nature of an item into something completely foreign from its original function.
With 7 billion people now inhabiting our planet, fast evolving computer and communications technology, and newly emerging textile interpretations I see only growth in the craft-based and limited edition – small production run – textile market as we move forward.