Why Bother? Handmade Textiles in the 21st Century

By Sarah Quinton, 2002

Today's textile arts span many areas of specialization within the craft, design and visual arts fields. Across Canada, a great number of artists and craftspeople persist in making textiles through painstaking, hand-based methods such as spinning, dyeing, embroidery, quilting and fine weaving. The work of the artists in this exhibition personalizes traditional time-tested hand skills and can be seen - without conflict - as both romantic (personalized and unique, while expressing practices associated with pre-industrial times) and rigorous (precise, restrained and disciplined). The intent of these artists is to make individualistic textiles that reflect conventions and techniques rooted in social and cultural practices. Here, two distinct approaches - romantic and rigorous - merge into expressions of human experience with valued legacies as well as contemporary vitality. Some of these textiles might seem anachronistically out of touch or at odds with our globalized world where mass marketing reaches so many aspects of everyday life. The classic canons of time-honoured craft forms (skill, logic and reason) are the fountainheads of these textiles.

Textile artistry and techniques settled into the world many generations ago, and now artists shape contemporary experience by making personal discoveries through traditional hand skills. Why do the artists in this exhibition make quiet work in a noisy world? Why Bother? Handmade Textiles in the 21st Century offers a variety of means to appreciate the worth and relevance of handmade textiles in a part of the world that has for so long been defined - and driven - by industrial and electronic production.

Raymond Dugan, Judith Fielder, Hiroko Karuno, Isabel Rorick, Suzanne Swannie and Judith Tinkl make textiles that are equally invested in innovation and tradition, and their work is the fruitful result of a productive exchange between the two.

Raymond Dugan embroidered a life-sized replica of the medieval Bayeux Tapestry, a 200 foot long needlework depiction of the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy. Eight years into it, at the halfway point, Dugan's two adult sons were accidentally killed. Subsequently, the needlework became something of a personal obsession for Dugan. He inscribed the margin of his narrative tapestry with the date of his sons' deaths, and the finished piece is dedicated to their memory: DIE: IX: M: APRILIS: A: S: MCMXCIII.

Judith Fielder is a Toronto craftsperson who weaves and dyes her exquisite textiles, which are influenced by traditional techniques from Japan, Peru and Nigeria. She works with chemical dyes and a restricted colour palette, concentrating on the material itself (wool, for the most part). Her scarves, shawls and yardages are made to be touched and worn on the body. The hand of her cloth - its tactility, and the way the fabric behaves - is the essence of the functional, or the human aspect of her weaving. “The idea of making things for people's lives is important. I try to make the kind of cloth people can't keep their hands off.”

Hiroko Karuno, born and raised in Japan, is a spinner and dyer whose textiles are an intricate hybrid of traditional Japanese processes and materials. Karuno creates shifu - paper thread spun from mulberry paper that she then weaves into cloth. This is a highly skilled, ancient technique that is rarely practiced today. Karuno taught herself how to make, dye and weave paper-thread. “There are many unwritten techniques and tricks that I have to find out myself to solve a lot of problems.”

Isabel Rorick is an internationally recognized Haida weaver from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. She comes from a long line of weavers on both sides of her family. Rorick learned her craft of weaving traditional spruce root and cedar bark baskets and hats from her paternal grandmother. She later extended her studies to include in-depth research of artifacts in Canadian museum collections. “I love the challenge of transforming these trees into objects of beauty: a hat for feasts, ceremonies or dancing, a basket for gathering food or storing personal treasures.” Rorick's work promises the continued existence and expansion of traditional culture.

Suzanne Swannie is a Danish-Canadian who creates highly functional, custom floor coverings for private and public environments. Swannie's early and extensive training in traditional and contemporary Danish design and weaving techniques explains her allegiance to the economical modular design approach that is encapsulated in her functional carpets. In this exhibition, her geometric Igneous II (Northwest Territories) is influenced by time she spent living on Belcher Island in the Northwest Territories, where she says “…the landscape appeared black until taking a closer look.”

Judith Tinkl's quilts revel in the innate structures of textiles, graphic patterning and natural forms. For her, the quilt format is a forum for sophisticated colour-plays and geometric patterns where she invents abstract, non-representational structures. While traditional Western quilt patterns certainly inform Tinkl's work, it is asymmetrical, non-Western patterns that resonate for her. “Islamic patterning and West African Kuba cloths hold interests for me because of the patterning involved. There are certain aspects of North American quilt traditions that are mind-blowing, and others that are tedious and uninteresting.”

As part of Why Bother? Handmade Textiles in the 21st Century, these six practitioners have selected textiles from the Textile Museum's permanent collection of 10,000 historic artifacts, which are exhibited alongside their own work. The artists' observations and insights call attention to the importance of the Textile Museum's holdings and heritages, and the impact historical textiles may have had on their studio production. Without resorting to mimicry, these artists affirm (and are affirmed by) their predecessors.

Looking at the indigo-dyed Nigerian robe seen in this exhibition, Judith Fielder said, “This is why you bother! It's an 'Ah-Yes!' moment. This garment is beyond food and clothing and housing… and beyond colours and design. How can a simple piece of white cotton cloth end up looking like this? The fact that cotton cloth can end up looking like patent leather is amazing to me. There's a life in this garment that not everybody might notice. We are not an 'Ah-Yes!' culture.”

The following is excerpted from interviews conducted by Sarah Quinton with the artists during spring and summer 2002:

Sarah Quinton: Why do you bother to practice your craft?

Raymond Dugan: I thought the Bayeux Tapestry was such a magnificent piece of work and such an insight into a period that's so long in the past.

Suzanne Swannie: There's a certain kind of perversity in what I do. It's a way of not wanting to be pushed through information, ending up knowing nothing in the end. It's about knowing something in real depth.

Judith Fielder: All this work to create something that is invisible! My idea is to celebrate that. I'm interested in highlighting the construction to draw attention to the actual making. A woven textile goes on to have a life after you've made it.

Judith Tinkl: Because it's what I do. If you had told me when I was 20 years old that this is what I'd be doing, I wouldn't have believed you. It's a fit between inclination, timing and opportunity. I've always been drawn towards the abstract, non-representational.

Quinton: Why did you choose this particular craft?

Hiroko Karuno:I was born and grew up in a paper culture. [Everything] from a famous sliding door to a placemat are made of handmade mulberry paper. Ever since I first encountered this traditional art form, it seemed to be natural to work with it.

Isabel Rorick: Until I was 19, I was practicing both carving and basket weaving. My maternal grandmother started to teach me to weave when I was 13. My paternal grandmother, a weaver who lived in Alaska, came to Massett when I was 19 and told me to choose either weaving or carving: right then and there! I chose to go with her to Alaska, where I spent time with her making baskets. She was very smart.

Tinkl: I was very reluctantly dragged into quilt making. I wasn't prepared to do all that hard work, but once I started looking at old quilts, I soon understood that the precision of making was essential to the success of the piece.

Quinton: Are you engaged in an intellectual or spiritual pursuit?

Rorick: Spiritual. It's to do with connections with plants, nature and ancestors.

Tinkl: Everything is both spiritual and intellectual, one way or another. But I wouldn't say it's consciously about both. It's just the way things are. Recently I've been paying attention to the pebbles I collect - think about it - each one is part of the core of the earth. Trace back to where it began: it's pretty amazing. A pebble is a very important little object.

Swannie: I don't know what it is when you are so obsessed with something that it just has to come out in your work.

Quinton: How would you describe your relationship to new technologies?

Rorick: All I need is my deer-antler awl and a knife. The awl is used to push the weft into place.

Dugan: Well, the whole thing [the Bayeux Tapestry] can be found on the Internet!

Quinton: Do you follow conventions to the letter or do you invent things along the way?

Swannie: After 40 years I'm still making discoveries. What is invention? It's all there if you really start looking, you know.

Rorick: I remember one time, I got the idea from an old basket, but I couldn't remember it well enough. I had to do a trick with the weave to make it look like I thought it should.

Fielder: I'll never forget the first time I did arashi shibori (pole dyeing). Here I was, wrapping the pole, pulling the string so tight I was bleeding. Nobody told me what it would do to my hands!

Quinton: What role does originality play for you? Is your work original?

Rorick: Some of it; not all of it. I get patterns from a lot of old baskets. The originals are big, and I make them smaller. They are now sold as art pieces; the originals were made for utilitarian purposes.

Tinkl: Originality is a strange notion. It's within yourself. If you arrive at something through your own discoveries, then I think it's original. It also depends on who's looking; whether it's a new experience for them, an original moment for them… It's all such a synthesis; is the work an echo of something else by someone else?

Karuno: As you know, “originality” is a tricky word. Throughout human history, most originality seemed to be out in the world already. Whenever someone says his or her works are original, he or she must get some kind of inspiration from somewhere. Some copy something from nature itself, a traditional work or something already out in the world. This way we can make the quality of our works improve. The skill capacity of an individual is little; contemporary makers depend on the hard work of our ancestors. I do not have any doubt that my works are original.

Quinton: Is your work connected to your cultural heritage?

Tinkl: We were all knitters and sewers in my family. But then everyone was, out of necessity.

Swannie: Yes, it comes out of that. My early pictorial tapestries were influenced by my situation - playful pieces that were meant to introduce my daughters to a gap in their heritage. If you don't work hard, then it's very easy to lose your own history. I still feel very Danish. I grew up in a mild socialist state. Today, I worry about our idea of profit as a value. Sharing of tradition equals identity


Karuno: Yes, it is. My hometown Kyoto is a cultural centre of all Japan, especially the textile industry. No matter how hard I try not to be influenced by this culture, it is impossible to avoid. It is there on my shoulder. The shifu I choose to make is influenced by this Kyoto culture, though there is no tradition of shifu in this city. Shifu is an art, not a coarse country craft.

Quinton: Are you a guardian of tradition?


Tinkl: I don't think so, no. But when you think about it… look at some of those simple farm quilts. The best of that time [mid-19th century] is expressed through a great amount of creativity. If they had been born later, and in different circumstances, they would have been me - and gone to art school. I, too, have an instinct to “make do.” I'm not fussy about the materials I use as long as the colour is right.

Dugan: Yes. It's the tapestry's historical significance. Were it not for this event [the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD] we would not be speaking English, as we know it today. We would be speaking Anglo Saxon.

Quinton: Are you interested in broadening traditions?

Karuno: Very much so. It is like our universe. Traditions are growing and ranges are broadening as long as we respect them and keep practicing. It seems to happen naturally along with us, not anything we pay effort to do so.

Rorick: I don't need to because I'm really busy making what people want. I have made about 10 hats for dancers so far - more people are becoming interested. At the last potlatch I went to, there were eight or nine people wearing my hats. Some of them were dancers, but not all.

This exhibition was sponsored by the Anne Angus Contemporary Program Fund, the Hudson's Bay Charitable Foundation and the McLean Foundation.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada