A Companion to Textile Culture
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A Companion to Textile Culture

Jennifer Harris, Dana Arnold, Jennifer Harris

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eBook - ePub

A Companion to Textile Culture

Jennifer Harris, Dana Arnold, Jennifer Harris

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A lively and innovative collection of new and recent writings on the cultural contexts of textiles

The study of textile culture is a dynamic field of scholarship which spans disciplines and crosses traditional academic boundaries. A Companion to Textile Culture is an expertly curated compendium of new scholarship on both the historical and contemporary cultural dimensions of textiles, bringing together the work of an interdisciplinary team of recognized experts in the field. The Companion provides an expansive examination of textiles within the broader area of visual and material culture, and addresses key issues central to the contemporary study of the subject.

A wide range of methodological and theoretical approaches to the subject are explored—technological, anthropological, philosophical, and psychoanalytical, amongst others—and developments that have influenced academic writing about textiles over the past decade are discussed in detail. Uniquely, the text embraces archaeological textiles from the first millennium AD as well as contemporary art and performance work that is still ongoing. This authoritative volume:

  • Offers a balanced presentation of writings from academics, artists, and curators
  • Presents writings from disciplines including histories of art and design, world history, anthropology, archaeology, and literary studies
  • Covers an exceptionally broad chronological and geographical range
  • Provides diverse global, transnational, and narrative perspectives
  • Included numerous images throughout the text to illustrate key concepts

A Companion to Textile Culture is an essential resource for undergraduate and postgraduate students, instructors, and researchers of textile history, contemporary textiles, art and design, visual and material culture, textile crafts, and museology.

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Decorative Arts

Part I
Histories and Frameworks


The methodological approach to writing about textiles has traditionally taken place from the empirical perspective of material culture, from social and economic history, or from the history of design. Glenn Adamson (2013, p. 34) has argued, “it is no coincidence that the move towards a social history of art and the emergence of design history as a discipline were roughly simultaneous.” Both shifts contributed to breaking down the traditional hierarchy of the fine and applied or decorative arts, and the academic study of textiles certainly benefited from the broadened range of visual and material expressions that were addressed within the social history of art. What the study of textiles took from the latter, and from the burgeoning of design history as a discipline, was a move away from the exceptionalism of elite decorative textiles to a new focus on the everyday.
While still anchored in the histories of art, design, and visual studies generally, textile culture is currently attracting researchers from a wide range of other disciplines. Indeed, its great strength is its interdisciplinarity. Numerous disciplines now “frame” ideas about the study of textiles – anthropology, economic history, postcolonial studies, women's studies, art history, design history and fashion studies, archaeology, psychoanalysis, and literary studies. In recent decades women's studies and postcolonial studies have made a particular contribution to a reframing of the discourses around hierarchies of art and design, from which textile culture has indubitably benefited. These different methodological approaches have contributed to a rewriting of textile histories, which the essays in this volume are intended to reflect.
Cloth and clothing are leading players in material culture: they play a fundamental role in structuring social rules and interactions; they function as cultural symbols; they are the products of technology and also perform as individual works of expressive art. Yet, until the 1980s, the academic study of things, including clothing and textiles, was largely excluded from university teaching and research. Thus, the importance of material evidence is closely aligned to the curatorial role and to the archaeologist. Archaeology, anthropology, and material culture are closely related, their research methods overlapping, and it is notable that in this volume there are similarities, in terms of research methodologies, between the work carried out by Margarita Gleba, Eiluned Edwards, John Picton, Chris Spring, Paul Sharrad, and Christine Checinska, even though it has been assigned to different thematic sections of the book.
In many ways archaeology is the science of objects par excellence and prehistoric archaeology has material culture as its principal source of evidence about the human past. Margarita Gleba's work on prehistoric finds demonstrates how material analysis of textiles and textile tools can have significant implications for cultural, social, and historical knowledge of the past. Adrienne Hood's chapter, however, considers how object‐centered approaches, when combined with documentary research, open up new ways of understanding the role of cloth in shaping history and culture.
The materiality and semiotic qualities of cloth lend themselves well to the anthropological method and, indeed, cloth and clothing have been an essential element of the study of material culture in anthropology since the discipline was in its infancy over a century ago. Lengthy periods of study in the field, involving interviews and surveys – as a method of collecting data – have been established as an element of anthropological research since the 1930s (Hansen 2019). As part of her research for the chapter in this volume Eiluned Edwards has undertaken extensive fieldwork with women in the rural areas of Gujarat, India, examining the contribution that the marketization of embroidery is making to economic regeneration in the region. Embroidery has been one of the main expressions of material culture in the pastoralist communities of Kachchh. It is an area where the seclusion of women is still common practice, but the craft provides an acceptable way for women to enter the labor market, much as it did in late Victorian Britain. Edwards's research traces a “refashioning” of the embroidery trade, from sales of heirloom dowry items of embroidery to “labor work.”
The contributions by Edwards (Chapter 4) and Christine Checinska (Chapter 13) both explore the significance of oral testimony as an investigative research tool in analyzing cultural expression. Edwards's work allows the voices of craft workers to be foregrounded as primary evidence, as well as bringing in representatives of the state development agencies and embroidery dealers who disseminate the work. Checinska uses oral testimony to gather data on the fashion and home dressmaking experiences of those living in diaspora.
So‐called traditional, indigenous, or ethnic dress and textiles are constantly undergoing change and development. They respond to external cultural influences and to interaction with other markets, both local and global. In the early days of cultural anthropology as a discipline few studied fashion in the West as an integral part of it but anthropological research methods demonstrate that the concept of modernity is not just a phenomenon of Western capitalist production. In his chapter in this volume John Picton discusses the false dichotomy between tradition and modernity as it applies to textiles in West Africa. He reinforces the argument that modernity is local to a given place, not invented in the West or elsewhere. The traditions associated with a given locality interact with forms and fabric styles introduced from outside and become what he describes as “local modernities.” These local modernities will exhibit elements that are both new as well as entirely local.
Early modern historians have long studied textiles but the focus was traditionally on quantitative economic analysis and on the impact of changes in production methods that shifted the sites of textile manufacture. Historians of trade have also noted the centrality of textiles to the growing global commerce of the early modern period (post 1600), a theme that underpins a number of contributions to the section of this volume that addresses the movement of textiles around the globe. In his broad survey of historical method in relation to history scholarship of the early modern period Robert DuPlessis writes about a broadening of the discourse around cloth and clothing that embraces consumption as well as production and trade. History writing about fashion and textiles has increasingly concerned itself with the processes by which textiles were acquired and deployed, in other words introducing a more “cultural” approach to the history of such goods.
This “cultural turn” in writing about textiles of the early modern period has been influenced not only by anthropology and currents in social history but also by research into nonelite social groups and the development of women's history. DuPlessis's chapter argues that the evolution of consumer history has led to Eurocentric, elitist, and diffusionist models being increasingly discarded in favor of a new emphasis on global histories and socially multiple sites of creative consumption. This cultural perspective is increasingly being applied to periods before 1600.
It has become a critical commonplace that textiles and text have a shared etymology, and text/textile is a field that is currently galvanizing humanities scholarship and traversing disciplinary boundaries. Susan Frye's work, for example, examines the intersections of verbal and visual textualities for women in the early modern period, from the mid‐sixteenth century to c. 1700. She argues that the literary and the visual were separate, but related, forms of expression for educated women of the period: “pens and needles [were] related endeavors” (Frye 2010, p. 9). Both text and textile derive from the Latin verb texere (to weave) and phrases derived from textiles are woven into everyday speech. In English we talk, for example, of ...