The chart documents a discussion I had with Dinah Eastop, textile conservator and visiting lecturer at UCL in Qatar. It was just the two of us, and she had brought a collection of objects, small enough to fit in her suitcase, demonstrating a wide variety of things that could be considered textiles, or not: a cotton bag, a knitted sock, a rubber glove, a flat loofah with twill tape edging, cotton balls, birch bark, papyrus sheets, decorative beaded medallions, hotel slippers, a plastic scrubbie, etc.
My job was to sort them into what I considered textiles and not-textiles. I ended up making a spectrum, with the most obvious textile pieces at one end, progressing through the anomalous and questionable to those that I would not characterize as textiles at all.
The exercise was interesting, and the discussion even more so, because it forced me to articulate what my criteria are for designating a thing as "textile." Despite years of studying, making and collecting textiles, I'd never really thought concretely about how to define them or characterize them. I knew there were issues with perception and nomenclature, because when I tell people I work with or study textiles, it's often not readily apparent what I mean. The most striking example of this was when I said I studied (traditional, handmade) textile production - I must have said "traditional" and/or "handmade", but I don't remember - and a woman looked at me and said, "You mean, like child labor?" Um..., no.
I realized then that it's the kind of subject that has so many associations that each person will simply attach to whatever is closest to their interests, if they have any associated interest at all. For most people, this means clothing or fashion, in some cases the "textile industry," which encompasses everything from rugs to upholstery to industrial products. There are times when I've felt tired of the word myself, because of its lack of specific, comprehensible meaning. My interest in the subject always has to be explained, defined, and clarified - what kind of textiles am I talking about when I say textiles? In my mind, it's very specific, but the word has such a vast and varied life that it doesn't suffice by itself.
So although I've grown accustomed to defining the type of textile I'm most interested in, and indeed spent chunks of my master's thesis doing just that, I had never been faced with the practical question of "What is a textile?" Dinah's exercise is brilliant for this, and I enjoyed sorting the objects immensely. Even before I was finished, I found myself raising questions, wanting to discuss particularities - but she wanted me to set them out in my categories, and then we began to discuss.
The chart shows how we ended up explaining my characterizations. What emerged was my emphasis on materials and construction. Most obviously, anything with a woven or knitted construction was a textile, and then anything incorporating some element with that construction, such as the loofah with twill tape edging and cloth backing. Then there were questions of flexibility - for example, plant fibers can be made into cloth, but if the plant matter is sufficiently stiff, it moves into basketry, which I distinguish from "textile," although the techniques are still a type of weaving. Simply examining how my own mind responded to each of these considerations, with Dinah mirroring and responding to my comments, led me to understand the complexity of the various factors and the elusiveness of this term in more depth. Exciting stuff, for a textile maker and scholar, let me tell you.
We ended up with certain materials that were stumpers, such as leather. Dinah mentioned that when she has done this exercise with other groups, quite often people will put anything that is worn in the textile category, because clothing = textiles in their mind, whether it's a leather sandal or a rubber glove. In this case, the emphasis is on function, rather than material or construction techniques. There are plenty of examples of historical clothing, from ancient Chinese armor to Lizzy Gardiner's American Express card dress which would challenge the question of what makes a textile.
And then there's paper, and papyrus, which is similar to barkcloth in terms of production techniques, and modern paper was originally made from cloth waste, after all.... so there is a continuum, and an overlapping of materials and methods that can make something more or less textile-like. I think of clothing made from Tyvek, and how the fabric of this bonded polyethelene product behaves much like cloth.
There was another continuum in my arrangement of the objects, and that was from raw material to manufactured piece. A cotton ball, for instance, is not something I call a textile, although the material can be turned into one. Even spools of thread were not included in my textile category, because by themselves, they are raw materials. This may beg the question of how I would define my own handspun yarn, but I still think I would not call it a textile, even if I consider some skeins as finished objects.