Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at “Textiles and Settlement: From Plains Space to Cyber Space,” Textile Society of America 12th Biennial Symposium, Lincoln, Nebraska, October 6-9, 2010. Copyright 2010 Textile Society of America.


Based on the model explicated in my forthcoming (Thames & Hudson, Fall 2010) book, The Fiber of Our Lives: Why Textiles Matter, I will present a holistic framework that can be used to articulate and compare the meanings of textiles of any given culture or historic period. The framework considers the range of human activities and concerns, including meeting practical survival needs and securing physical, psychological and psychic protection; social interactions; the propensity to seek and wield power; the communication of ideas and aesthetic expression; and activities geared to transcending the limits of human experience—i.e., the spiritual realm. This approach draws from several existing systems (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, the Hindu chakra system) but it is not inherently hierarchical and it is applied to cultures or traditions rather than individuals. It can be used to consider overall cultural
traditions (e.g., Guatemalan backstrap weaving) or to specific types of textiles (e.g., stumpwork embroidery, Fante Asafo flags).

As we examine a given tradition, we consider how the textiles “fit” in each of these domains or realms—which domains are most salient or developed, how they work together, etc. The framework provides both an organizing system and a kind of checklist that allows us to approach a tradition systematically. It is particularly useful for cross-cultural comparisons. I will demonstrate how the model can be applied to a few well-known traditions (Gothic tapestry, Hmong paj ndaub or Cuna reverse appliqué molas), and how it can help us understand cultural practices and values.