The Needle as the Pen. Part 3: Cloth and Body, the Love Affair (1)

A guest post by Andrea Liu

Textiles are the body’s first house, the body’s first architecture.

Ann Hamilton (quoted in Tippett, 2015: 4)

Straight from the womb, our bodies were swaddled in cloth, as if love at first sight. American visual artist Ann Hamilton poetically observes the intimate connection between our skin and textiles: “Textiles are the first house of the body, ‘the body’s first architecture’” (Hamilton, quoted in Tippett, 2015: 4). In an interview with American journalist Krista Tippett, Hamilton reflects:

“How do we know things? We grow up or we’re educated in a world that ascribes a lot of value to those things that we can say or name. And, but, they are all these hundreds of ways that we know things through our skin, which is the largest organ of our body. So, my first hand is that textile hand, and text and textiles are woven, always, experientially for me. And when I first started making things out of cloth, it was like it was another skin. I was thinking about it as an animate surface, and thinking about it as something that both covers and reveals.” (Hamilton in Tippett, 2016: 4-5)

With Hamilton’s reflection, we see layers of interpretation about the skin and cloth. First, there is the physicality of touch. Through touching, we react and learn, acquire data and understand emotions. Our skin plays a part in our cognitive development. Second, there is the language of touch. Text and textiles overlap. We touch before we speak. When we express ourselves, we use metaphors that are textile conscious. Third, there is the metaphor of touch. Lycia Trouton, a visual artist who plays with the metaphorical aspect of cloth notes, “textiles are symbolic of interconnectedness, as touch is an inherent component of cloth.” Hence, touch allows us to emotionally connect with complex issues represented through cloth (Hemmings, 2007: 45). Fourth, the idea that, as our second skin, cloth conceals and reveals spotlights our human condition. These layers reveal the complex love affair of cloth and body.

Moving beyond the direct contact with the body, textiles cover our private space in forms of furnishings and belongings. Within an interior space, cloth encourages warmth, comfort, softness and sensitivities. Even emotion is attached in the textures and colours of the textiles. Founder and materials researcher of design studio Ma-t-ter, Seetal Solanki, categorises textiles as an “ethnographic object” due to its ability to keep records of the person (Martyn White Designs, 2018). Fabrics we choose to clothe or decorate reflect intangible data of the body, revealing feelings, preferences and personalities. Dutch industrial designer Hella Jongerius asserts:

“The objects and materials we surround ourselves with on a day to day basis shape our world, and they shape our humanity. They reflect who we are, or who we want to be.” (Jongerius, 2017: 3)

Since cloth surrounds us all the time, physically and metaphorically, we are shaped by it and it is shaped by us. Cloth also facilitates the body to interact with the environment. The body provides mobility, yet cloth enables the body to move between private and public spaces unhindered. As design historian Judy Attfield notes,

“Because clothes make direct contact with the body, and domestic furnishings define personal spaces inhabited by the body, the material which forms a large part of the stuff from which they are made – cloth is proposed as one of the most intimate of things-types that materializes the connections between the body and the outer world.” (Attfield, quoted in Goggin, 2016: 1)

The ubiquity of textiles unfortunately allows us to easily overlook it (Hemmings, 2010: 38). Often the role of cloth within the arts, culture, politics and history have been under-appreciated and uncelebrated (Hemmings, 2010: 38). As Jessica Hemmings explains:

“But the familiarity, be it of the canvases under conventional paintings or, more commonly, the textiles that clothe our bodies and domestic lives, means they are ultimately common. This familiarity means that textiles tend to be overlooked, rather than scrutinized.” (Hemmings, 2011: 23)

Along with its familiarity, cloth’s usefulness can dilute its power to communicate complex ideas. According to German textile artist Anni Albers, “the emerging awareness of fabric’s usefulness, when linked with the increased ease of its fabrication, tended to dilute its magic potentiality as an art medium” (Albers, 1965: 67). Although the ubiquitous nature of cloth can cause us to mistake cloth as power-less, we nonetheless must also realise that the ubiquity and power of cloth go hand-in-hand. Oftentimes the unpretentious façade of cloth has been purposely used by the maker in order to covertly send messages of truth. Hence, in order to understand the ‘who’ (the maker) and ‘what’ (the message) that hides behind the façade, we need to look beyond the crisscross of wefts and warps of threads. As Hemmings notes, only if we are sensitive to the messages held within fabric, will we then be able to understand and interpret the complex stories and revelations hiding in plain sight within the familiar appearance of cloth (Hemmings, 2010: 38).

With thread being “among the earliest transmitter of meaning,” cloth is a platform for communication (Albers, 1965: 67). Textile artist Francesca Capone illustrates how textiles and texts are interconnected. Capone identifies “similarities between language and weaving patterns” and explains how straightforward it is to translate “from text to textile and textile to text” (Capone, quoted in Salomone, 2016: 1):

“I see textile as a forbearer of linguistic traditions. Throughout history textiles have been used as a place for recording information and for telling stories.” (Capone, quoted in Salomone, 2016: 1-2)

As well, the language of cloth has seeped into our linguistic culture. According to textile writer Beverley Gordon, “the English language…is full of expressions that indicate how central textiles are in our collective consciousness; we often visualise our reality in textile terms” (Gordon, 2010: 2). As proof of how intimately connected we, our bodies, are with textiles, we use fibre-related metaphors that are biological, “used to express the essential stuff of which we are made” (Gordon, 2010: 2). Expressions such as “life cord,” “life hanging by a thread,” “moral fibre”, and the “fibre of our being” are used to describe our existence. In terms of character and morality, phrases such as “dressed in rags” or “in tatters” have been viewed as “maligned states in which clothing and its deteriorating condition is linked historically to the morals of man” (Healy, 2008: 261). As well, “the word ‘stain’…brings to play the most extreme cultural standard relating not only to hygiene but purity, moral and social order” (Healy, 2008: 261). In social terms, people’s lives are described as “interwoven”, in a “social fabric”, “entwined”, or “inextricably bound” with each other (Gordon, 2010: 2). Emotionally, we use expressions like “cloaked in fear” or “clothed in darkness” (Gordon, 2010: 2). Our psyches, our bodies are steeped in textiles in what we wear, where we live and how we move. Visual artist and researcher Karen Nickell explains:

“The language of cloth gives us a way to talk about a fragmented society and nation holes, tears and seams, patches, layers, mending, darning, joining, fraying, ripping – all ways to visualize and articulate fabric of society. As well as their role in symbolism and semiotics, textiles have also been used in their own right, as protest, testimony, storytelling, and memory.” (Nickell, 2015: 2-3)

Textiles define the essence of who we are. Louise Bourgeois understood how fabrics, particularly well-used, “have a capacity – if not unique then unusually powerful – to embody both a communal, historical moment and a local, specific history” (quoted in Newman, 2004: 2). Thus, in order to understand cloth in its entirety, the body plays a key role. What better place than to start at the underbelly of the cloth.

The underbelly of the cloth is deemed as the most intimate and “privileged surface” (Healy, 2008: 262). According to curator and fashion researcher Robyn Healy:

“The interior of the garment is a privileged surface, which offers an aspect of familiarity known only to the maker, the cleaner, and the wearer and perhaps curator. It is the most intimate surface of clothing, touching the body. It is a façade that conceals and reveals the mysteries of construction and knowledge of the lining, guards the maker’s label, protects the visible stitching trails, the repair secrets and alterations and shrouds the stains and signs of wear.” (Healy, 2008: 262)

This meeting, or touching, point of the cloth and the body is an affectionate and private setting. Textile artist Celia Pym speaks of a darning experience where she darned stockings of strangers and recalls how the act of putting her hand into the stockings triggered an intense sensation of intimacy (in Wilson, 2017: 48). As Amy Newman notes: “What physical substance — apart from our flesh — could be more intimate than what we put against our flesh?” (Newman, 2004: 2).

Since the “physical proximity of textiles to the skin” plays an imperative role to why and how cloth is more capable “to embody individual emotions and collective experiences,” cloth is proposed to possess a greater emotional potency than other manmade artefacts (Dolan and Holloway, 2016: 154). Fibre artist Heidi Parkes testifies, “our clothes contain so much of who we are: they feel like us and reflect our habits” (Parkes, 2018: 1). There is a preciousness in cloth that makes us want to preserve and hold on to them. American designer Tim Harding identifies this preciousness in fabric and observes how we react to it:

“There is a culturally ingrained preciousness to fabric. We must not tear, scorch or soil our ‘good’ clothes. And yet these textiles have a tempting vulnerability.” (Harding, quoted in Hemmings, 2005: 32)

Harding identifies fabrics that “demand respect,” such as Sunday dresses and uniforms (in Hemmings, 2005: 32). He considers methods of violating this preciousness through spills and tears that are permanent, and even excessive washing and sunlight can discolour the cloth. Fabric’s sensitivity to rough or sharp surfaces and to heat and light reveals how similar its mortal and transient nature is to humanity. Both “cloth and our body can be cut, stitched, age, and decay” (Nickell, 2015: 2). Furthermore, “cloth carries traces of our bodies through direct contact, in stains, creases and smell” (Nickell, 2015: 2). Curator Jenni Sorkin recognises these mended areas as scars, that remind the owner of a specific incident or memory and even after the owner passes on:

“Cloth holds the sometimes unbearable gift of memory. And its memory is exacting: it does not forget even the benign scars of accident.” (Sorkin, quoted in Hemmings, 2005: 32)

Cloth plays the role “as record keeper of unwanted violations against the body” (Hemmings, 2005: 33). Not only does cloth record violations, but cloth itself has also served “our lack of humanity in ropes, gags, blindfolds and balaclavas” (Nickell, 2015: 2). Particularly in times of conflict, textiles can serve as evidence, even personified as witnesses, to the atrocities experienced.

Human experiences and memories play a role in our deepened understanding of cloth. Artist Louise Bourgeois reveals, “Clothing is…an exercise of memory. It makes me explore the past…like little signposts in the search for the past” (Textile Arts Centre, 2011: 2). Bourgeois’ assistant and long-time friend Jerry Gorovoy recounts:

“[Louise Bourgeois’] fabric works consisted mostly of things that belonged to her: shirts, skirts, towels, sheets and stockings. She had this phobia of throwing things out. That opened up a dialogue of memories, and it was fascinating for me to see it open up this relationship with memory.” (Gorovoy, quoted in Burley, 2015: 1)

Bourgeois’ “wardrobe and linen closet became representative of memory” (Chiem & Read Press Release, quoted in Textile Arts Centre, 2011: 1). Since memory is able to store, to forget, to hide and to reveal, Bourgeois has stated, “Clothes are about what you want to hide” (Bourgeois, quoted in Burley, 2015: 2). For Celia Pym, she reads all the holes that mark the garments she receives from strangers before she darns them. Pym interrogates “our feelings towards vulnerability, care and repair” and is able “to draw out memories and meaning” (Crafts Council, 2017: 2).

Celia Pym’s visible mending of a Norwegian sweater. Follow this link for the photo, and this link for more on Celia Pym and her work.

Memory in cloth induces an emotional potency. Interdisciplinary historians Alice Dolan and Sally Holloway enter an in-depth investigation on the emotional aspect of textiles:

“Textiles are often highly emotional for their makers and owners. Their association with women’s domestic work across the social spectrum has made them a key means of preserving and accessing female histories…Textiles remains emotionally charged for myriad of reasons, including their association with women history, admiration of skill and the sensation of physical comfort created by the touch of soft textiles on the skin. Furthermore, the ability of cloth to retain the shape of previous owners can evoke a physical presence of long dead bodies.” (Dolan and Holloway, 2016: 155)

On one hand, textiles that are worn or used in very specific circumstances are able to attain emotional power (Dolan and Holloway, 2016: 154). On the other, cloth’s ability “to retain the shape of previous owners” show how cloth becomes the recorder of the body’s movements, growth, health and even state of mind (Dolan and Holloway, 2016: 155). Cloth’s malleability to the body and preservation of the body evokes sentimentality and nostalgia. Each stain, crease and smell in cloth carries traces of our bodies like entries in a private diary. Hence, whatever the body undergoes in ageing, cloth participates in it as well.

To be continued…


About Andrea Liu

Born in Orange County, California, Andrea Liu is a writer, researcher and designer.  Graduating from Central St. Martin’s in 2018, she specialises in woven textile design and has honed her skills in material research and off-loom woven construction.  She endeavours on making sustainable designs, approaching every project with the goal of turning waste into material of value.  Prior to Central St. Martin’s, she worked as an Executive Assistant and ghostwriter for a film producer.  As well, she attained a B.A. (Hons.) in Chinese Studies from The University of Manchester in 2011 and a M.phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2012. Read more about Andrea and her projects on her website.


About “The Needle as the Pen” post series

The series of “The Needle as the Pen” blog post is based on Andrea Liu’s unpublished B.A. dissertation in Textile Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, in which she investigated–under the same title–why and how needlework moved from the private sphere to public sphere in context of activism. With Liu Zhuanghuan’s coat in mind, I examine why and how the needle, the cloth and the body actively work together. Blog posts will discuss the needle, the cloth and the body, and explore conflict, resolution and activism experienced by the needle, the cloth and the body when the private and public spheres collide and crash into one another. Examples of arpilleras from South America, sourced from the Conflict Textiles Collection in Northern Ireland, will be used to illustrate how textiles speak truths about the women’s experiences in pain and healing.


References

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