Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.


Copyright 2002 by the author(s). Used by permission of TSA.


This is a position paper of sorts, arguing that the experience of making a textile is an important component of understanding it, and we should be encouraging textile researchers to include hands-on experiments as part of their investigation. Some TSA members will take this idea for granted because they have first-hand experience with textile making, and may find it overly obvious. The point is hardly new, and archeologist Elizabeth Barber made a strong case for the value of textile "reconstruction" in her 1994 book, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years. Nevertheless, this is not a universally shared assumption, and it flies in the face of some of our dominant cultural paradigms. Many who study textiles come from disciplines where the "making" component is undervalued, and it is left out of many textile history programs. The issue of technical competency is generally not part of professional dialogue-I don't think I have ever heard it discussed at a professional conference, for example. I happily take the risk of seeming obvious by addressing it here. I document ways that the bias against hands-on investigation is embedded in our culture, and offer examples of the critical insights that emerge from trying to reproduce historic textiles or experience how they were made.

Many who are interested in textiles come from disciplines where the "making" component is undervalued. Art history departments, for example, typically position themselves as scholarly, rather than studio, programs; their students are trained to look at artworks, but not to make them. Unfortunately, this sometimes creates a great divide. The prevailing attitude was made explicit to art historian Melanie Herzog when she first started teaching at a small liberal arts institution in the Midwest. Herzog requires students in her art history classes to do an art project as part of the semester's work. Administrators strongly objected to her hands-on assignment, stating that it did not qualify as "academic learning" or "intellectual work," and thus had no part in the curriculum. The Bard Graduate Center, which offers advanced training in the history of the decorative arts, design, and culture, boasts that students can select from over 70 courses. None of them relate to technique or object construction. Bard doctoral candidates are required to demonstrate reading knowledge of two European languages, but are not required to demonstrate knowledge about the way the designed objects they are studying are made. The same attitude prevails in other design history and material culture programs, and sadly, extends to textile study. The few college-level courses that focus on textile history don't usually presume technical familiarity.

While in some ways a debasing of the making process may be traced to the Renaissance- this is when we begin to see a split between art and craft-the real separation occurred with industrialization. Western aesthetic theory defined art and aesthetic experience in conceptual, Platonic terms, and removed it from manual processes altogether. Theoreticians were concerned with an abstract ideal of beauty, and with the experience of "the sublime." In order to experience that quality, they maintained, one had to attend to an object with a quality of "psychic distance" and "disinteredness." In Polly Ullrich's words, this philosophy of art "identified the 'inner mind' and its ideas as the primary and most important mode of human perception and denigrated the manual, the material, and the bodily senses as authentic ways of perceiving the world...Enlightenment philosophers subsumed and dematerialized the material universe under theoretical and analytical models [and] isolated art from everyday life."