Women and textiles through history

Women’s work and creation of textiles are interwoven through history. But since the abundance in production or overproduction of textiles (considering the quantities that daily end up on landfills) we lost appreciation for the essential role textiles played in human history. ‘Convenience textiles’ (ready to wear, disposable clothing) from the 20th century erased the time when women were producing all the fabrics by hand (inconvenience textiles), in between all the household activities and taking care of the children.

That’s an important time. The process of textile production before the 20th century included harvesting the fibers from plants and animals, preparing them for spinning, then spin the fibers into yarn, weave the yarn into the final shape, dye the textiles and then stitch the last details onto the garment — a work of thousands of hours.

The patriarchal spirit present yet in today’s society and through the history is mirrored in the evidence of no evidence of women or women’s every day lives in the distant past.

Virginia Postrel, who is the author of the brilliant and educational “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World” in an article for The New York Times writes: “Exploring the past experiences of women is valuable not because it weaves a new and separate historical fabric, but because it restores strands that have gone missing.“ She points out that even the popular feminist retellings of fictional sagas, like Vikings, emphasise women as warriors and chieftains, but they do not mention how important was women’s work to the ships that carried the warriors to distant lands. Postrel underlines the fact that one of the main characters in Vikings is an ingenious shipbuilder while the fabric is just there, when in reality it took longer to make a Viking sail than to build a Viking ship.

Ignoring textiles writes women’s work out of history.
Virginia Postrel

Men created weapons; women created cloths to stop the blood from the wounds.

From being cloths to being one of the first goods to be traded over long distances and the main industry of the Industrial Revolution — textiles are important part of our history and everyday life. They represent economic, social, religious and political identity. Textiles are used as an expressive medium (there are many examples of women who protested through their craft before they could speak their minds freely) and pave the road to place members to a specific community. Textiles impact culture.

Textile design has developed from a medium of ornamentation to a central discipline of knowledge that unravels the performance and efficiency of diverse fields: fashion, interior, aircraft, healthcare etc.

The textile industry was the first to use modern production methods and even then female textile designers stayed on the top of it. There is an undeniable connection, a continuous umbilical cord in history between women and textiles. The design, production, and feeling of textiles embody many feminine qualities: intuitive, creative, playful, gentle, beautiful, flowy, sensitive, warm, cooperative, expressive, modest, tender, emotional, devoted, understanding.

Finally, I would like to mention few textile designers who changed the XX century's design history:

Lyubov Popova (1889–1924) was a Russian painter who in 1923 created her first textile design that was manufactured by the First State Textile Printing Works in Moscow. Her paintings are among the first examples of Russian cubism and constructivism. The geometric nature of Popova's work translates itself well into textile patterns based on a play of primary colors and shapes. Abandoning the floral motives from the past, her brave, angular edges and stong, simplified colours gave new identity to the aesthetic of Russia’s Soviet era.

Textile design by Lyubov Popova, 1924
No artistic success has given me such satisfaction as the sight of a peasant or a worker buying a length of material designed by me.
Lyubov Popova

Her wish to integrate “art into life” by combining avant-garde designs with the industrial production of fabric embodied her art into the lives of ordinary people. All her designs were made by hand using stencils and rulers, prioritising a machine-made aesthetic. Politically, Popova’s patterns were deliberately free from any references to class or social status, introducing a new ethos of freedom and equality.

Lucienne Day (1917–2010) is the most influential textile designer of post-war Britain. She graduated from the Printed Textiles department of the Royal College of Art in 1940. As soon as the restrictions of the war were lifted, she connected with manufacturing clients to produce textile designs. She promoted modern living and embodied the image of the newly styled professional designer. Along with her husband in 1951, Day was working for the Festival of Britain's Homes and Gardens Pavilion, for which she designed the Calyx fabric that uses a very traditional — botanical source of inspiration, but the plant motifs are almost abstractly presented. Contrary to her fears, Day's new design had a great success and today is recognised as a seminal piece of British post-war design.

Aspects Of The Sun, silk mosaic, Lucienne Day, 1990

Enid Marx (1902–1998) was a prominent artist and designer in the fields of textile design, printmaking, book illustration and postage stamps. She studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art (RCA). Although she didn't graduate from RCA, she was widely acclaimed designer with a strong vision. Marx who already made a name for herself with her hand-blocked textiles, was the first designer comissioned by the London Transport to design woollen moquette seating fabric in 1937.

In 1944 she was chosen as a Royal Designer for Industry and started her design journey of Utility furnishing fabrics. Marx designed over thirty textiles that went into industrial production during wartime rationing and austerity. As a designer, she embraced the restrictions on colours and yarns, and the opportunity to uplift people’s lives.