I can’t knit for toffee. But I love material and my bedroom is stuffed full of fabrics ranging from vintage pieces to sarongs I discovered in Ghanaian markets. I prefer prints that tell a story. Traditionally, textiles have been dismissed as women-centric and domestic, but in recent years work is being undertaken to bring the medium further into the artistic domain.
One such project is Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles and Feminism, an exhibition taking place this month at Manchester’s Portico Library. Organised by Sarah-Joy Ford, an artist and curator who works with textiles and focuses on feminist and queer theory, it’s a project of reclamation and elevation. It contemplates the rise in popularity and commercialisation of arts textiles, and features immersive workshops, installations and even a book launch with free cocktails.
Initially a one-woman show, Ford admits that Cut Cloth has grown into a much wider project than she anticipated, even incorporating a heritage site.
“The project came out of research concerns in my own practice such as feminism and queer theory and their relationship with textiles,” she tells me. “I wanted to bring together artists and writers, and think about the position textiles holds in contemporary art culture.”
Cut Cloth was originally intended to be part of this year’s Wonder Women festival but unfortunately things fell through, and Ford came across the Portico Library. So, what influences Ford’s own pieces?
“My practices are concerned with identity and I am interested in LGBT culture and how that has its own visible patriarchy, lacking in a visible language for queer women,” she explains. “The objects feel like I’m creating an imaginary queer utopia that maybe I, or other LBGT people, could have grown up in. They could all exist in this imaginary space.
“And integral to me is the joy of making the pieces. I love to work with cloth and textiles, and what excites me is that these objects are not just a painting on the wall that you can’t touch. They have a life outside of the gallery. They come home and they sit on the bed, or the cat will sleep on them, and they’re not these function-less art objects.”
I remember being at school and choosing GCSE options – back in the late 90s – and textiles was an extremely ‘female’ subject. The teacher was female, the items people made where labelled ‘feminine’– handbags, embroidery – and the boys didn’t opt for the subject. Does Ford think attitudes towards textiles are changing?
“Absolutely. When we’re looking at textiles being ‘women’s work’ that is a very western narrative. If you look at cultures like Nigeria, or the making of Kente cloth, that’s traditionally done by men. There’s been a huge resurgence in interest in craft and textiles over the last few years, which has meant that a lot of different people have become involved.”
Ford has commissioned other female artists to get involved with Cut Cloth. I’m familiar with a few of them, particularly Sophie King with her high-fashion sequin patches (made for the likes of Gwen Stefani) and Hannah Hill whose needlework recently went viral. The now-famous image depicts an embroidered meme of children’s character Arthur (a quick Google tells me he’s an aardvark) clenching his fist and clutching a needle and thread, with the caption: ‘When you remember that historically embroidery hasn’t been taken seriously as a medium because it’s women’s work.’
“As a pair, they have a very strong online presence. [The internet] has been a fantastic way to make textiles more visible, but it’s also a place to communicate. Craft is about communities and communication, and the sharing of knowledge,” Ford enthuses. “I taught myself to knit from YouTube videos. Technology has supported this massive boom in people enjoying and taking part in craft and textiles.”
The project is inclusive of complete novices like me, and urges people to get involved with workshops like the Feminist Collaborative Knitting drop-in day. I am not the most co-ordinated of people so tend to shy away from crafts, particularly anything that involves oversized needles.
“I think knitting is good for the uncoordinated,” says Ford. “It’s a wonderful thing to learn if you’re fidgety.”
The workshop will be held by led by artist and activist Helen Davies on June 17.
“It is suitable for everyone so if you don’t know how to knit, we can teach you and help you. If you do know how to knit, we can help you improve you are knitting skills. If you can spark an interest, people can then go away and keep going. We are basically knitting a great big long tube and then we’re going to make a word with it.”
The collaborative art will be on show at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery during the launch of a book of essays commissioned for the event.
“Textiles has been this domestic space, it’s been marginalised as an artistic medium, and it has an interesting radical history, and so it’s interesting to see that a lot of the writers are picking up on the queer nature of textiles and how it can be used to talk about problematic narratives.”
Writers include Janis Jefferies, a professor at Goldsmiths, founder of The Journal of Cloth and Culture, and author of The Handbook of Textile Culture; Elizabeth Emery who will be writing about Hannah Hill and Sophie King and the relationship between digital and craft; and Gill Crawshaw, curator of Shoddy, an exhibition exploring the work of disabled textile artists and how they may have been excluded from the mainstream feminist narrative.
“The project is trying to look at different methodologies for exploring these concepts and the book expands on these ideas. Everything is looking for this future of feminism and textiles, and what that relationships means now.”
The launch is being curated by Manchester-based collective, COLLAR, who are building a sculptural table for the book and creating cocktails inspired by the textiles archives at The Whitworth. Ford explains: “It won’t just be ‘come and buy the book’. The launch will be an exhibition and it’s an informal opportunity for people to get involved.”
The essays will be available to download for free in PDF as the main idea of the book is to make textile theory accessible to everyone. The book will be published by PO Publishing and then taken into the V&A collection and the Women’s Art Library in Goldsmiths.
“The project spiralled,” says Ford. “I don’t quite know how all that happened.”