Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fiber art -- the olden days -- the rise of fabric

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I have been reading  "The Art Fabric: Mainstream," written by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen in 1980.  I have been struck by how dramatically the field of fiber art has changed in just thirty years, and how dramatically our ways of looking at and even talking about our techniques and materials have changed as well. 

Since my route to fiber art came through quilts, I have always viewed fabric as the quintessential raw material.  But no -- in the olden days that title belonged to yarn, because weaving had always been the major if not the only, widely accepted technique.  During the 1970s, in the words of Constantine and Larsen, "for the first time, fabric rivaled yarn as the dominant stuff...." 

Under the heading "Fabric -- A New Raw Material" the authors explained:

"Usually unembellished although sometimes dyed, fabric manipulated as a pliable plane became, in the 70s, a major concentration.  The planes are sometimes draped on a grandiose scale.  They may also festoon, swag, swaddle, beribbon, bunt -- dusty nomenclature for front runners of our avant garde!  Fabric may also be furled, i.e. folded or compacted into a linear element for any number of fabric structures.  Often it is cut or torn into strips to serve as the linear elements of fabric structure.... 

"All of the above is in reference to unembellished cloth.  Multiply these cloth types by the application of printing, including the myriad resists, embroidery in all its aspects, embossing and perforation -- the possibilties extend limitlessly."

The language alone of this description signals how gee-whiz-wow new and exciting this all was to fiber aficionados.  It must have been a heady time, in which things that people had always been familiar with in a non-art context suddenly got invited to the ball! 

Jack Lenor Larsen, Obelisk, linen yardage, 1959

Larsen himself was trained in art and architecture but became rich and famous by designing and making textiles for interior design.  Printed fabrics, mentioned so briefly in passing in that last quoted paragraph, had been made commercially for hundreds of years, but were just barely starting to be thought of as art.  It must have been exciting for Larsen and other textile designers to realize that by simply changing their attitude they could join the art avant garde!

Today it's hard to realize that within our lifetimes fabric could have been considered "a new raw material."  But I wonder if any aspect of that excitement has a counterpart today.  Do we have a new raw material?  (Angelina fibers and Misty Fuse don't count.)  Do we have anything in fiber art that's causing the stir and exhilaration today that fabric caused in the 70s?  Any nominees?

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