Page 23 Questions- Definition of Textiles and how stories can be attached to textiles

P.23 Questions

At the start of project one there are two questions to answer before embarking on the actual project.

Question one

  1. In your own words, write a definition of ‘textiles’ in its broadest sense. What materials do you consider to be ‘textile’ materials? When is a material not a textile? Can you identify any examples?

When glancing at this question as I read through the course material, I thought, “oh yes, ok, that’s easy enough”. Turns out not so much when you start really looking into it!

My conclusion after much reading is that in the broadest sense of the word ‘a textile is any flexible material.’ 

Dictionary definitions seem to imply that a textile is an article made by weaving, knitting, knotting, and felting-any method of interlocking the fibres together, to create a material. So its definition seems to be in the process. It is a product of the process.

So the answer to the second part of the question seems to be ‘any materials made from fibres, natural or synthetic that have been interlocked together but still remain flexible.’

This would include natural fibres such as those from:

Animals-wool, fur, hair silk, skin (I’m not sure about skin as has it been interlocked together, without going into the science of how cells are made and the makeup of the skin I am just going to leave this with a question mark for now).

Plants-cotton, flax, jute, hemp, sisal, grass, rush, coir, straw, bamboo, rice, nettle, seaweed

Mineral-glass, metal

Synthetic-polyester, nylon, Lurex, carbon fibre, acrylic.

There are so many examples of textiles, from the obvious to the not so obvious. Clothing, bedding, home furnishings, boat sails, tents, parachutes. Textiles have a part in Industrial uses such as composite materials used in the making of boats and planes. Even medical textiles- bandages and sterile wipes to things like composite structures for bone replacements and a knitted structure called the Corcap cardiac support device which cradles the heart and provides ventricular support.

Link for further information on the Corcap.

So when is a material not a textile? I think when it has not been created using the processes mentioned- the interlocking/interweaving of the fibres to make a material that has a certain amount of flexibility.

If you use a textile material or a collection of textile materials to make another item that is hard and rigid, is it still a textile or a material? For example, a motorbike crash helmet is made from fibreglass, carbon fibre and some type of foam on the inside for comfort. It is hard so that it protects your head, and although would probably dent during an impact it is not designed to be flexible. So is it classed as a textile material or has it made up from textile materials. Has the process in which it has been put together taken away the definition of a textile?? You would not look at a crash helmet and see a textile, although it is made up of textiles as per the definition of a textile.

It is a difficult question to answer and even more difficult to find examples. Something to ponder on a bit more as I progress upon this course.

Question 2

2. In what ways could textiles have stories or narratives attached to them?

Oh, in so many ways…..

Everything has a history and history tells a story. You may have to look deeper at some things to find that story but it will be there if you care to look.

Different ways of finding that story with textiles could include looking at –

The origin of the textile/fabric-where was it made, how was it made, who made it, what was it made for, who wore it, how old is it, how was it dyed, is it specific to a culture or a tradition, memories evoked from the item, where did the fibres come from to make the material…

I believe that people leave their energy imprint on items, especially if they have put their heart and soul into something and other people can pick up on that energy. Textiles can tell the stories of someone’s life, their culture, how they lived and died. It can give insights into the fashions of the times, and the processes of making the fabric/material/item.

I have lots of personal examples of textiles holding memories and having stories. My wedding dress for example. I couldn’t afford to buy my wedding dress and was going to  hire it but then my dad won a little bit of money and so he bought the dress for me. This was a really special gift to me as I don’t think I could have bared wearing the dress on one of the most important days of my life and then giving it back to the shop, while all the memories of my wedding would have been tied to it. My sister then wore my wedding dress for her wedding and my daughter has always said that she would like to wear it as well. So the dress will hold so many happy memories and may become a tradition in our family.

I still have the first items of clothing my children wore when they born, their hand knitted baby blankets and their christening outfits and they hold so many stories and evoke so many memories. One of the blankets was made by my great aunt who has since passed so it is a way of remembering her also. My daughters christening outfit consisted of a white satin dress that I bought new for her and a beautiful handmade old christening cape that I found in a charity shop for a couple of pound! I bought it because I was intrigued by the unknown stories behind it. Who had made it, who wore it, why would someone give something so precious away to a charity shop? So now that cape has my memories attached to it and my daughter knows the story behind why I bought it and if she has children and uses it then they will also know the stories attached to it.

I made a memory quilt for my daughter out of some of her baby clothes and she still has it on her bed today 14 years later. (Photo below) She knows what squares came from what item of clothing and when looking at baby photos she will often say, ‘that dress is now a part of my quilt’. I also made a wedding quilt for my sister. I transferred photos of her wedding day onto fabric and used these and the colours of her wedding to create the quilt. I also hand embroidered their wedding vows around the edge.


I have my Nan’s cardigan. She died last year and when I hold it I can see her bustling around, making dinner, sitting in her chair and it brings me comfort.

I used to belong to a quilting group and listened to many talks about the history of quilts. Many of the fabrics used were old work clothes and even flour and feed sacks (interesting fact- that manufacturers once realising that women would use these sack materials in quilts and clothing, began making them in colours and then printing them with designs, see link for further information on this)

Quilting Bee’s were very common in America, where women would get together to help make or finish quilts. This was a good way for women to socialize, share news and support one another. They would all sit around the quilting frame working together, chatting with each other, how could their stories not be bound up with the stitches of those quilts? I also learnt how important it is today to put your details, such as, name, location, materials used, type of pattern etc. onto the back of your quilt so if it becomes an heirloom people will know the history of it.

You could also go right back to the growing and picking of fibres such as cotton before they were even made into textiles. Plantation owners in the British colonies could meet the high demands for cotton by using unpaid slave labourers. These slaves would work all day hand picking cotton, without a wage and with only their very basic needs being met. Many slaves died from poor conditions and lack of nutrition and medical care so that plantation owners became rich and cotton production could be met. Their stories have to be acknowledged when talking about textile production of the old days as it is such an important part of history.

During the industrial revolution many people worked in the cotton mills, doing long hours in usually poor and unsafe working conditions. Young children were employed as cheap labour and also because their tiny hands could reach parts of the machine that adult hands could not if something went wrong. Again, many met their deaths in the mills due to unsafe practises.

We still have child labour today in many countries like south Asia and Latin America, often with the children earning less than £1 a day. These stories are all attached to the manufacturing of textiles and something to be aware of. How many of us ask ourselves if our clothes or even home furnishings are ethically produced or are fair trade items?

Cultural Textiles are another example of how textiles can tell a story. I started by looking at Tartans from the Highlands.               I originally believed that each clan had their own tartan, specific to them, an identifying mark for their family name so to speak. After further research though, I found out that each district in the Highlands would have had a weaver and he would have made the same tartan cloth for everyone of that district. The different colours of the tartans came from the area in which the weaver lived as local plants would provide the dyes for the yarns, so colours were dependent on what was available in that area. So a piece of tartan could tell you what district it came from and the different families who would have worn that design.

Most countries have their own form of traditional dress, many of which you can recognise on sight- the Welsh traditional costume for example is very identifiable.              These are normally based on historic dress that can tell a story of how those people lived.

Tribal clothing or textiles from many different cultures have their own stories to tell. The clothing worn can be a sign of one’s rank or authority within the tribe, have spiritual significance or may only be worn for special tribal ceremonies. In some African cultures, they use their textiles as a means of communication. Based on the choice of dyes or threads they may have an historical or even spiritual meaning.


Other ways that textiles can tell stories is through narrative textiles- art works made from textiles to tell a specific story.

The Bayeux tapestry is probably one of the most famous examples, telling the story of the Norman conquest of England. The tapestry is embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns.

While I was researching different narrative textiles I came across this site

Esther Krinitz was a holocaust survivor who in 1977 began to create pieces of fabric art to share her survival story with her daughters. Her original works have been exhibited and there is also a book sharing her story and artworks.

Another site I came across was  which details the history of Chilean Artilleries, works of fabric art telling stories of the devastation left behind from the 1973 military coup that happened in Chile. These works of art were made with the help of the Catholic Church to help find a way for women to be able to support their families. They were made on burlap and were then sold and the money raised given back to the women.

A quote from the site that resonated with me.  These arpilleras began to tell a story, to leave a history, a testimony in cloth, of what the women were experiencing. It was an emotional release, and for many it was a way of expressing what they could not bring their voices to say”

Many textile artists today work with narrative textiles, using their art to tell stories or create awareness of specific local or global issues. They can be a way of acknowledging a story, an idea, a travesty, a moment in time, an experiment. A way of evoking something within or waking something in another person who views the work. They can be a symbol of hope, a cry for help, obvious or subtle, translated in as many ways as a person can interpret it.

I could probably research forever on this subject and come up with many more references but I feel that I have covered a good range of examples here.