I revere all things related to the home, which is why I became an interior designer in the first place. However, my love of home goes beyond color trends and furniture layouts to encompass all things domestic — from baking to homemaking to cleaning (even though that last one isn’t my forte). I regularly return to the pages of Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson because there is a joy and community ingrained in the traditionally feminine art of comfort-making. One of these arts that recently caught my attention (and also the eye of younger generations) is fiber art. Fiber art has a rich history of garnering connections between groups of women. In this installment of our Interior Design Glossary, I review the definition, history, and types of fiber art and explain why this old-fashioned craft is taking off in modern circles.
What is Fiber Art?
I recently had the opportunity to interview Lynne Brotman, a fiber artist and founder of the Austin School of Fiber Arts, on my Design Oracles podcast. She defines fiber art as a fine art form that “includes all different types of textiles, like fabric, yarn, synthetic fibers, natural fibers, and more.” This art form is about the process as much as the final product.
“It’s all about different techniques and how those materials are woven into each other and play off each other,” she explains. “It’s an art form that allows you to use symbols and colors to convey different types of meanings and emotions. It’s quite warm when it’s used in homes. It has really found its place in contemporary art.”
Fiber art is traditionally associated with women and served as a social activity and a medium to address issues around feminism, politics, and culture. In many ways, the medium weaves together communities just as much as it does fabrics.
A Brief History of Fiber Art
The history of fiber art dates back centuries when textiles were used for practical applications such as warmth and home insulation. However, as the craft advanced, people used more skillful work to decorate and convey status. Fiber art began to emerge as a fine art form in the 1930s but took off as we know it today after World War II.
Threading the Fiber Art Timeline
Pre-1930s: Before the 1930s, textiles were considered a craft or practical item over a fine art form. However, textile pieces like quilts were artfully stitched together to tell a story, record family history, and even serve as coded maps for the Underground Railroad.
The 1930s: Anni Albers, a textile student of the Bauhaus School, began exploring modernist art concepts through fabrics because women were barred from the school’s architecture program. She called her work “pictorial weaving” and began to shift the perception of textiles as a proper art form.
The 1950s: The popularity of textile arts started to rise after World War II. Curators began using the term “fiber art” to describe the movement. Fiber artists Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen are credited with coining the term. As the decade welcomed the craft into the fine arts, pieces were displayed in museums and galleries.
The 1960s and 70s: Sheila Hicks, considered a founder of the fiber art movement, incorporated a three-dimensional take on fiber arts, creating sculptures by wrapping, weaving, and knotting fabrics. The movement took on new momentum, cementing its place in the fine art world.
Today: A renewed interest in traditional fiber art crafts, such as needlepoint, has exploded in niche social media communities. A new generation takes on the traditional art form and the sense of community that comes with it.
Stitching Together Social Connections
Up until the 1960s, the fiber arts were traditionally seen as a lower art form because they were reserved for women. However, these enduring communities of artists were able to push for recognition in the fine art world collectively. Unlike other art mediums, fiber arts tend to be done in group settings, serving as forums to make social connections, discuss ideas, and initiate change.
Types of Fiber Art
The fiber arts encompass a range of forms, including mixed media and sculptural pieces. Here are some of the most popular types of fiber art we use in the home.
Weaving is a method of textile production where two sets of threads (the warp and weft) are interlaced at right angles to form a piece of fabric. The warp runs vertically while the weft runs horizontally. The process is typically done with a loom.
Quilting is the technique of stitching multiple fabric layers together, either manually with needle and thread or mechanically with a sewing machine or quilting system. Quilts are often created from pieces of patchwork fabric to form a new pattern.
Needlepoint is a type of canvas work where yarn is stitched and pulled through a blank canvas to form patterns and designs.
Embroidery is the process of decorating other textiles using a needle and thread to create designs. Embroidery encompasses other fiber art forms such as cross-stitch, crewel work, quillwork, and featherwork.
Further Reading for When You’re Feeling BLUE
Fiber arts hold a rich history, which you can discover at BLUE, the TATTER Textile Library. The founders of TATTER used their influence to celebrate and elevate traditionally female-identifying roles in society, including the fiber arts. The organization opened the doors to the Brooklyn-based BLUE textile library in 2017. The library comprises interactive exhibits, art installations, and a research center housing over 6,000 written works examining the role of textiles. Here, communities can come together, as the fiber arts intended, to pour over the history of textiles in an environment enveloped in a rich, calming blue hue.
A New Appreciation for the Fiber Arts
The fiber arts have a rich history and are currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Younger generations are building online communities around needlepoint and embroidery, sharing patterns and tips like the generations before. Beyond practicing the craft, fiber arts are making waves in interiors again. Playful needlepoint pillows are trending, with a new array of playful puns and quotes. (The best needlepoint pillows, however, may still be Mario Buatta’s bedroom bolsters embroidered with “Tonight” and “Not Tonight.”) The fiber arts remind us to bring community, gathering, and fun back into our homes.