Fiber within the context of the textile arts

- Jan 03, 2019 -

Modern fiber art takes its context from the textile arts, which have been practiced globally for millennia. Traditionally, fiber is taken from plants or animals, for example cotton from cotton seed pods, linen from flax stems, wool from sheep hair, or silk from the spun cocoons of silkworms. In addition to these traditional materials, synthetic materials such as plastic acrylic are now used.


In order for the fiber to be made into cloth or clothing, it must be spun (or twisted) into a strand known as yarn. When the yarn is ready and dyed for use it can be made into cloth in a number of ways. Knitting and crochet are common methods of twisting and shaping the yarn into garments or fabric. The most common use of yarn to make cloth is weaving. In weaving, the yarn is wrapped on a frame called a loom and pulled taut vertically. This is known as the warp. Then another strand of yarn is worked back and forth wrapping over and under the warp. This wrapped yarn is called the weft. Most art and commercial textiles are made by this process.


For centuries weaving has been the way to produce clothes. In some cultures, weaving forms demonstrate social status. The more intricate the weaving, the higher the status. Certain symbols and colors also allowed identification of class and position. For example, in the ancient Incan civilization, black and white designs indicated a military status.


In Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries woven pieces called "tapestries" took the place of paintings on walls. The Unicorn in Captivity is part of a series consisting of seven tapestry panels known as The Hunt of the Unicorn by Franco Flemish from this time period. Much of the art at the time in history was used to tell common folktales that also had a religious theme. As Mark Getlein wrote, "Tapestry is a special type of weaving in which the weft yarns are manipulated freely to form a pattern or design on the front of the fabric...Often the weft yarns are of several colors and the weaver can use the different-colored yarns almost as flexible as a painter uses pigment on canvas."


At the same time period in the Middle East, fiber artists did not make tapestry or wall hanging weavings, but instead created beautifully crafted rugs. The woven rugs did not depict scenes in a story, but instead used symbols and complex designs. An example of this type of art are the giant rugs known as the Ardabil Carpets. Getlein wrote, "Like most Islamic carpets, they were created by knotting individual tufts of wool onto a woven ground."

Another fiber art technique is quilting in which layers of fabric are sewn together. Although this technique has not been around for as long as weaving, it is a popular form of art in American history. Recently, quilted fiber art wall hangings have become popular with art collectors. This non-traditional form often features bold designs. Quilting as an art form was popularized in the 1970s and 80s.


Other fiber art techniques are knitting, rug hooking, felting, braiding or plaiting, macrame, lace making, flocking (texture) and more. There are a wide variety of dye techniques. Sometimes cyanotype and heliographic (sun printing) are used.


Fiber artists face the same dilemma of all artists; determining "what is art?" More so with fiber arts and other media associated with handicraft, because they have long been associated with domestic or utilitarian production. Typically, pieces like pot-holders, which just follow patterns without doing anything more, are not considered works of fiber art. Fiber art works are works of art that communicate some sort of message, emotion or meaning and go beyond just the literal meaning of the materials. Fiber arts face the challenge at times of the message or meaning of the work of art being eclipsed by the study of the materials used and their history, rather than what they contribute to the overall work of art.

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