Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).


We all associate meaning with textile designs. If we can see the principles of Revolutionary zeal and the sanction of family life and work in one textile design, we can perceive the explicit Modernism of another and realize that in the complex decisions that comprise the creation of a textile, we have fashioned our world and its values. Perhaps the textile is small, but its condensed values and meaning may be a more clarified perception about the world than most others. For many, such as Roland Barthes, textiles and clothing can thereby be described as a sign system offering a language by which we have non-verbal communication in the world. The effectiveness of such a sign system as Barthes proposes depends upon the sharp denotation and appropriate connotations of the visual sign that inheres within the textile. That is, we would have to know, or at least agree upon, its meaning. If language with uncertain meanings become a tower of Babel, textiles without explicit meaning can be for Barthes only stammering stuff, not objects that speak with eloquence and directness. But I ask if we seek rhetoric in our objects, or rather, if we not hear a stronger voice in the stillness of complexity, conversation, and consideration.

I want to address one textile example, tartan, and to offer the possibility that Barthes' metaphor of a sign system in textiles and dress is inaccurate and insufficient. I shall not argue for the lack of meaning in non-verbal communication, specifically in the messages of textiles, but rather of their shifting interpretive potential, something that may even surpass language as a supreme act of human relations and human achievements. To be sure, one of the most banal vulgarizations of Barthes' idea of the discourse of dress is Alison Lurie's sophomoric The Language of Clothes in which she claims, "Most distinctive of all [among plaids and checks] is the tartan of the Scottish Highlanders. ... these plaids have an ancient political significance. ... even today the display of clan tartans is often a political act. It is also highly informative: since each clan has a distinctive pattern or patterns, a knowledgeable person can identify the owner of a shawl or kilt as a descendant of one of well over a hundred ancient families." Lurie goes on to lament the extension of tartans to umbrellas, outfits for Scottie dogs, and the like insisting that there is a connection to clan and a logical association with hard work and serious effort.

Everything that Lurie claims is spurious; though I dislike tartan for Scottie dogs, I do love the thermos bottle; her assertion about history is wrong and can be demonstrated to be perniciously wrong; her assumption regarding our interpretation of textiles is, I believe, also wrong and must be rejected. Textiles are not a simple language to be translated into words and made into equivalents; they believe, also wrong and must be rejected. Textiles are not a simple language to be translated into words and made into equivalents; they are subtle, ever changing visual display, prismatic in their complexity, always elusive and all-important in their meanings. Henry James spoke in the preface to The Spoils of Poynton of "the fatal futility of fact." From James' simple trope of the fiction that enables and enlivens all that we might know, we learn that attributed meaning may be as substantive and perhaps even as intrinsic as any primary fact in design.