Textile Art: History & Artists

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

You don't have to use paint and pencil to make art. Some artists work with wool, silk, and other textile materials. In this lesson we'll explore textile art history and learn about some of the artists who focused their creative work on textiles.

What is Textile Art?

Textile art involves fabric and fibers and includes activities like weaving, embroidery, and sewing. Textile art may be a rug, a wall hanging, an item of clothing, or even a sculpture made with fabric.

Textile art has a long history. We know that ancient Egyptians made textiles. In China, examples of clothing have been found dating back thousands of years. But many artists who specialized in textiles are unknown to us today because their work tended to be used in everyday life (think about things like quilts and coverlets). We see what they made, but don't always know their names. This is true for early textile art like tapestries.

Tapestries and Other Historic Textile Art

A tapestry was a very large weaving made by hand on a vertical loom. Imagery could be narrative or decorative and early tapestries had a basic purpose: to serve as insulation. These large fabric works hung on castle walls, protecting inhabitants from large drafty rooms and damp cold weather. Many tapestries were made in Flanders (today, the northern part of Belgium), which in medieval times was a weaving center. Threads were dyed a variety of colors, all from natural sources, and skilled weavers were often father and son teams. One generation passed on its skill to the next.

The process of making a tapestry began with a cartoon, a full-sized color pattern. Weavers used the cartoon as a guide to weave the colored threads on the loom, replicating the chosen pattern. One example is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series, a set of six images woven in Flanders of wool and silk around 1511. You might have seen them in books or stories of the Middle Ages. Each is a little different but all feature an elaborately clothed woman with a smiling fanciful unicorn and other creatures (often a lion) on a red background dotted with foliage and small animals.

One famous early textile work isn't a tapestry, despite its name. The Bayeux Tapestry is actually an elaborate example of embroidery, which is the decorating of fabric with stitches and colored threads. Made of eight pieces of linen sewn together, it is 231 feet long and almost twenty inches high with elaborate images embroidered in eight colors of wool yarn. Just think of how long it would take you to sew something like that!

The Bayeux Tapestry has dramatic images of horses and knights, of soldiers and combat. It tells the story of the Norman Conquest, when William the Conqueror (from the Normandy coast of France) successfully invaded England. Possibly made between 1077 and 1092, it is named for Bayeux, France, where it was discovered hanging in a cathedral. We don't know who made it, although some scholars see evidence the makers were Anglo-Saxon based on style and how the images are drawn in embroidery. Oral histories from Bayeux suggest that Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux (and William the Conqueror's half-brother), might have commissioned it when his cathedral was dedicated in 1077.

Detail of embroidered scene, Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry

Famous Textile Artists

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, we begin to see textile artists working alongside other fine artists and become individually recognized for their work. Let's discuss a few of them.

Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) was born in what is today Ukraine and lived and worked primarily in France. Her work featured geometric areas of pure color. She and her husband, French artist Robert Delaunay, championed orphism, an art theory that emphasized form, color, and rhythm as simultaneous and independent of having to look like something else. In the 1920s, Delaunay designed brilliantly colored textiles and dresses with bold abstract patterns. Her Maison Delaunay was a workshop for costumes and textiles. Delaunay designed fabric patterns and actual clothing, focusing on styles that allowed women the freedom to pursue any activity they wanted. Her works were sometimes hand-sewn, screen-printed, or embroidered. An example of her work is Simultaneous Dress (1913), with its bold placement of fabrics and flowing form.

Simultaneous Dress, 1913, by Sonia Delaunay
Delaunay dress

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