What is Textile Art?

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.

Have you ever sewn a stuffed animal or tried to knit a pair of slippers? Both of these projects use fibers in the process of making art. In this lesson, let's explore some basics about textile art.

Basics of Textile Art

Textile art is the process of creating something using fibers gained from sources like plants, animals, insects (think silk worms!), or synthetic materials. Making textiles is an extremely old art form. Textile fragments have been found dating back to prehistoric times and there's a good reason for this. Think of how cold winter can be. How would you feel if you didn't have warm clothing? People developed textiles to keep warm, to protect surfaces and to insulate dwellings.

Examples of such textiles include tapestries, rugs, quilts, and of course clothing. People also used textiles to make objects that signaled status or commemorated important events. Examples of this type of textile include things like flags, military uniforms, or ceremonial banners.

Example of ancient textile art. Woven tunic decoration from Egypt, circa 800 AD
tunic decoration

Many cultures around the world have distinct methods of making textiles by using materials available to them, and some have become famous over the centuries like Chinese silks or Turkish rugs. Today, many contemporary artists work with fibers and textiles in new and exciting ways. Let's look at a few methods of making textile art.

Yarns and Threads

Textiles are often made through traditional methods like sewing, weaving, and knitting. These methods all have a basic principle in common -- they use thread or yarn to make or connect pieces of fabric. In sewing, a single needle and thread stitches pieces of cloth together and also adds surface ornament. Embroidery, covering the surface of a textile with decorative pictures and colorful patterns, is a form of sewing.

Weaving involves interlacing two sets of threads. These are called the warp, which runs vertically, and the weft, which runs horizontally. Weaving requires using a piece of equipment called a loom. The warp threads are held tight and the weft threads are fed through them. Merging the two together is the process of weaving.

Let's look at an example. The native Chilkat peoples, who live along the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, made beautiful, elaborate blankets by weaving warp threads made of cedar-bark string with weft threads spun from mountain goat or sheep wool. Can you image how long it would take to make something like this?

Example of woven textile, Chilkat blanket from Pacific Northwest, ca. 1900
chilkat blanket

Knitting is one of the oldest and simplest means of making a fabric. You don't need a loom or other fancy equipment. Just yarn and large needles, both of which are portable. The process of knitting involves connecting the yarn by a series of loops. It's normally done by hand, although there are such things as knitting machines. Clothing and blankets can be knitted, and today some artists also get creative with public art by doing something called yarnbombing. Yarnbombing involves covering items in the neighborhood or external environment, like cars, bicycles or trees, with knitting.

Example of a tree decorated with yarnbombing in Ulverstone, Tasmania

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