Textiles are this strange thing – they are both structure and flow; material and meaning; they are everywhere in our lives, on our bodies and in our homes,  yet they are also  taken for granted; they provide so many jobs and livelihoods for many people around the world,  yet they are also toxic and polluting; and they have been used by humans in sacred rituals for thousands of years, yet they are also just needed to keep us warm and protected.

What is it about textiles that is so compelling? What are the qualities of cloth that we seem to be yearning for?

I was at the Tamworth Textile Triennale seminar this week at UTS in Sydney, talking about these questions. The show curated by Cecilia Heffer, is a fantastic showcase of textile artists from around Australia. The image here is one of the artists, Kim McKechnie.

Li Edelkort, the trends forecaster and great advocate of textiles, has recently described the qualities of cloth that we are all craving so much:

“We live in an unstitched society that is suffering from the aftershocks of a severe economic crisis. This prolonged period of hardship has made humans overly protective of their assets and openly egocentric in their ferocious defence, resulting in a world that is governed by greed and that has lost basic manners and human respect. This is, therefore, a time for gathering, for bringing people together again in order to restore society. Mending the fabric of our lives.”

As a society and culture, we have divided everything up into easy-to-digest parts. We have separated the design of textiles and garments from the making, with millions of people involved in textile and garment production, who are not involved in the design or creative aspects. The designers who are involved in the creative aspects, are kept far away from the production, as it mostly goes on in Asia and the far East. So you have a separation between the creativity and the production. The hand-made qualities are also missing from the mass-produced, fast fashion we have all become used to. At a wider level, this can be seen as a separation between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left brain likes to divide and separate things, and to focus on utility and resources. The right brain likes to bring things together and make things whole, and this is where creativity, emotions and meaning occur. The hand has been separated from the mind and this creates a de-humanising of clothes.

Design + Production
Body + Mind
Left + Right
Warp + Weft

It turns out that textiles and textile designers represent this strange position in the middle of all these dualisms. We are both nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Textile designers are anonymous in the fashion system, you only know us from our print or embroidery on a dress you are wearing. Our language of decoration, colour and texture is appreciated by millions of fashion consumers (mainly women) around the world, yet we are anonymous and have little control over our designs.

The more I understand about the ambiguity of textiles, and their position in the fashion system, the more I don’t understand how to ‘solve’ the problems of unsustainability and environmental impacts. The more I know, the less I understand. Perhaps this is the mystery at the heart of textiles and their role in our lives and why they are so compelling.