Teaching Textiles

This past Friday and Saturday I attended a small conference called “Teaching Textiles” which took place in a room on the top floor of the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Human Ecology. Human ecology,* as a field, is concerned with the world which people make for themselves. As a material culturalist (not to mention a craftsperson), this totally delights me. (And in fact, the SoHE’s Design History program was one of the places I applied when I was looking into graduate programs back in 2016.)

The Teaching Textiles Conference was an opportunity for scholars and makers to come together to talk about how textile knowledge is transmitted. It also highlighted the fact that, at least when it comes to textiles, the majority of scholars are in fact also makers. This was in evidence throughout the conference, as the audience diligently worked on one or both of the two craft projects provided by the event’s organizers: a tiny palm-sized loom, laser cut from lightweight plywood, and a conference bag printed with an embroidery design and accompanied by floss and a needle.

I presented about my project to teach myself the craft of fulling, which was part of my thesis research last year. Aside from talking about the project itself, my goal was to share how it was possible to integrate craft work with academic scholarship, something which my adviser and I had discussed at length as I was writing last winter. By the time I stood up to speak however, it was pretty clear that I was preaching to the choir. Everyone attending this conference seemed to agree on this point: our scholarship about the material world is improved when we, as scholars, spend some time interacting with that world before we sit down to write. Amy Hare, who teaches contextual studies for the Royal School of Needlework’s degree program, made the point that this goes the other way as well: makers’ work is also more meaningful when informed by scholarship and the historical record.

IMG_2768 (2)
Presenters answering questions after the first session: Gwendolyn Hustvedt, Texas State University, US; Vivienne Richmond, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK; Rebecca J. Keyel, Independent Scholar; and Amy Hare, Royal School of Needlework, UK.

Though this is not [or should not be] a particularly ground-breaking assertion, it is one which continues to benefit from amplification. While material culturalists and historical craftspeople tend to be very aware of the benefits of both making and reading, plenty of traditional historians and modern craftspeople are less tuned in to how crossing these disciplinary boundaries can foster new ways of thinking. I would posit however that textilians** are uniquely situated to cross that line, if only because of how easy it is to stitch while sitting in a lecture. The small fifth floor room which housed Teaching Textiles for two days was a perfect chamber for that amplification.

IMG_2783 (2)
The group taking some time to explore the SoHE’s Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.

I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect from this gathering before I arrived, but it quickly became clear that while the number of attendees was small, the quality was extremely high. Participation was, by and large, limited to people who were presenting (and there were 20 of us!) and about a dozen faculty and graduate students of the SoHE. This small group meant that conversations could easily include everyone and run through both days. As we worked individually with our needles, we also worked collectively to build community and shape big ideas.

In that space, we listened to each other present on our various research projects, an act which inspired me, at least, by illustrating several new ways in which to cross the line between research and making. In doing that, we sat together in community, and passed knowledge from woman to woman, an act which is so fundamental to textile crafts that it was in fact the topic of our gathering. I left Madison with the feeling that I had made new friends, and with a strengthened conviction that it is worth while for me to dedicate myself to helping others see the connections between the world of the mind, and the world of the hands. I like to believe that this is true of all of my fellow attendees as well.

Many thanks to Dr. Marina Moskowitz and Amanda Thatch for their leadership and organization of this wonderful event.

*The SoHE at UW Madison was once the Home Economics department. The two ideas are connected, and it was a home economist in fact who first coined the word “ecology.”

** A term of Linda Eaton’s coinage, of which I am especially fond because, since it lacks a dictionary definition, it is as aptly applied to textile craftspeople as to textile historians.