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Introduction to FiberArt (instructors' course)

August 13, 2001
[originally given as introductory lecture for an instructors' course]

When I was asked to prepare an introductory lecture I agreed, and theng ot a bit flustered, Not because there is nothing to introduce but because there is too much to explain and talk about. The simplest and easiest way, would be for me to tell that there are all kinds of threads and various Techniques like Weaving = Ariga [Hebrew] = Khiaka [Arabic],Knitting = Sriega {H} = Khaak [A], Crochet = Tsinora {H} = Sinora [A],Felting, Knotting = Kshirot {H] = Marbutin [A], with which we make cloth= Badiem [H] = Kmaash [A], or different Nets = Reshatot [H] = Shabaaka[A], and than I will Explain to you that it is possible to Adorn andcreate with Sewing = Tefiera [H] = Khaayata [A] and Embroidery = Rikma[H] = Tereg` [A] and more, and I will remind you much of what we do withthe threads and the cloth, clothes = begadiem [H] = melaabess [A] andthings for the home like sheets = sedieniem [H] = SharShaaf [A]
and towels = magaavot [H] = minshaaf [A], and curtains = vilonot [H] =sitaar [A] and blankets = semiechot [H] = kh
araamto [A] and justadornments, and Tents= ohaliem [H] = khiyaam [A], bags =tiekiem [H]=shinaat [A] and Parachutes
, and Rugs = shtiechiem [H] = basaat [A] arealso possible, and with that I might really finish my introduction to the lesson, and this would be it, But it is not so simple .
In order to be able to work and study we should have a common Dictionaryso that when we say something or open a magazine or book , we shallunderstand what is meant when they say Weft, thread, embroidery, art,craft etc... There is no choice then, each one will prepare a little note book in which she will write the technical words and terms in
Arabic Hebrew and English. Thread = khoot[H] = khet[A] or silki[A]. Whenone does not understand something I ask you to get used to looking it upin a Dictionary, Encyclopedia or in the last pages of some of the booksbecause sometimes there is a `list of words`, or a `dictionary of words`or a `glossary` or a `list of terms`.In all those kinds of lists you will find the meaning of the words, and you will write yourselves alittle Dictionary for you.
Threads and fabrics as well as the Different usage techniques servedhumanity for many generations, for practical needs when we call it Craftand also for decorative uses or self-expression or for an emotional,politcal or religious message when we call it Art.
Even though according to archeological findings, most of the techniques we are about to learn were practised in this part of the world, we use a lot of European terms for the simple reason that they documented and wrote more about those techniques and also because those countries were richer. Throughout history the amount of written and printed materialfor all kinds of embroidery knitting and weaving was more widespread there than in other places. Another reason why it is important that we should know, at least briefly, what happened in Europe, mainly inrelation to textiles, is that the global perception of terms that diferentiate between Art and craft have been influenced mainly by European events. So we use those terms, even though right now, in recent years, and surely in the coming years new
terms are accepted which aremore respectful to what has been created in the past and present in non- European socities, by all kinds of minorities and in this case also bywomen, and yet we still have to know and use the old terms while remembering that we are allowed to dissociate or discuss them and decide how much they mean to us.
Part of the knowledge we have about the past comes from remnants ofcloth or mats that have been preserved in Mud or a very dry climate. The antropologist Olga Soffer from Illinois University Urbana checked in 1990 burned mud pieces that were found in Pavlov mountains in Chechia, and by Carbon testing found then to be 25000-27000 years old, until those tests, the oldest known fragments that were found were only around 10000 years old.
We use fabrics not only for comfort and so we would not be cold but also to distinguish a status or a role. By the dress we know many times what the man`s or woman`s job is, or to what folk, sect or religion they belong.
The will or need to create is something blessed, and as we saw, very old. The British zoologist Desmond Morris even
claims in his Book `Animal Days` that this is characteristic to all Primates, mamal Monkeys, He checked and found
that Chimpanzees have a sense, ability and wish for color, order and certain forms. Many generations Men and women learned by imitation, they watched their parents, usualy the girls imitated the mothers and the boys imitated the fathers and yet thing schanged and developed. Probably there were always Individuals who foundnew materials or a new way to process the available materials and theycombined it into the traditional work so that slowly it changed.
In different places we find diverse techniques that developed from the local materials. In Japan and China they grew [silk] worms from which they learned to produce silk. in England there is lots of rain and grassand sheep, so they developed wool growing and processing, while the cotton and the linen were grown and processed in India, Egypt and Mexico. The Local materials as well as the life conditions dictated also the way in which the materials were processed, for instance in places where nomads lived we find narrower looms or weaving facilities which resulted in their weaving narower fabrics and in the creating of clothes we find lots of seams that over time developed into very aesthetic and beautiful forms, for example African and Mexican fabrics. In China where they grew cotton and processed silk from worms there was almost no wool,thus they made warm clothing by layers of raw silk or cotton, which they sewed one on top of the other, and even filled it with raw unprocesed silk or cotton. While not far away from there in Mongolia wefind clothes from local leather as well as from imported silk cotton andwool. Merchants, tourists and conquerors that traveled to other countries brought with them not only stories but textiles and other materials and of course the techniques to use those materials, and again in each country this `import` developed in a different way. But we canstill identify the origin of certain fabrics by their names, Broderie Anglaise= English Embroidery, Calico from Calcuta India, Bengalinedesoiesilk from Bengal, Damask from Damascus, Arab cloth, Cahmier, Shantung, Pananma cloth, Gauze from Gaza, Denim from Nim in France etc.....
In Europe of the 12th cent. we can read about Family workshops where all members of the extended family worked in order to create, sell and make a living. All the families that made the same product were members of a Guild, that dealt with all kinds of laws and regulations in favour of acertain profession. There were guilds of Weavers, Knitters, painters andbuiders and the like . We are of course interested in the guilds that made fiber related works. In the Middle Ages Economy, Women were Equal in Duties and Rights. In the Rennaissance as Statesmanship and Banking came to be, women were pushed towards more home based occupations, in the same time when a division was formed between Sculpture & Painting as art and all other professions as craft. Women were educated in the house or maybe in a convent towards the homely occupations, a heavy emphasis was put upon the textilic abilities because the woman had to provide the clothes and their repairs. Men had more educational possibilities open to them, the mercantile and statemanship professions. They studied outside the home reading, writing and math, which was also necessary to the study of painting because great emphasis was made on perspective. Slowly Women were pushed towards the tasks that seemingly required less learning or training. The importance of the Household and its tending and managing rises while women have less and less time for activities that are termed non practical and things made by females seem less respectable. The guilds too change for they are not a working group but they accept the name of the Group head or family and there is lots of documetation, of women creating beautiful rugs or designing wonderful clothes or painting but it is sold under the name of their father or husband.
Simultanously in Asia and Egypt there is documentation of Men who go on weaving, embroidering, and knitting. The Greek Historian Herodutus already mentions in his writing that..." in Greece weaving is part of the housewife`s duties, while in Egypt in same period the man is the weaver. In the 16th cent. we find in the papers of the East-India company that in vilages or famlies that produce cloth for them, the men weave while women and children spin, dye and wash the materials. In other documents by Embroidery merchants it is specified that European oriented embroideries were made by men while the women worked for local markets or what is meant to be sold in neighbouring Islam countries. It is important to know all this in order to uderstand how the European opinions defining fiber works as a female
occupation have spread, gained the Upper hand everywhere even where it was not the local tradition.
In the mid 15th cent, a trend starts in Europe that the drawing for the embroidery will be made by a man while the actual labour, can be done by women, children, or somebody with a lesser eduaction. As embroidery was already pushed to status of a home based craft that needs lots of handwork but no eduaction, so `the equation` folows us - embroidery= notskilled work=female work. In art the woman becomes an object to be drawn or the Worker who makes other`s instructions and she surely does not sign her work, many beautiful quilts or embroideries exhibited in museums today are shown under the title Maker Anonymous.
In Churches of that period we start to see paintings of the Madona knitting and in general she is in a homely suroundings while she knits, usualy in the round on 5 double pointed needles and the message is clear- sit home woman and make clothes .
Simultaneously The Knitter`s Guild with only male membership still exists, they specialize in knitting Silk Stockings, Variuos Jackets as well as clerical wear and they control the market.
In the 300 years that followed, this was the situation. Men traded and sold and foughtand women took care of the family needs . In England of the 17th cent. thousands of families made a living from the home cotton industry, the women and the children sort and spin while the men weave . In 1793 the American Eli Whitney invented a machine that separated efficiently the cotton seed from the fiber, and this realy symbolizes the start of Industry. In America they needed more and more African Slaves, in 1860 there are more than 4 Million slaves in the cotton fields of southern America, at the same time in England various machines are developed that accelerated the weaving of fabric, women and children work on, under, and around those machines and there are horendous stories about their lives. The functions of foremen, clerks or warpers are held by men because it is considered more clever and of course simoultaneously they get better pay, and so we go on with the equation woman= textile =less. Gradually women get more eduaction, The ecomomical situation demands their cooperation, the woman learns reading, writing, and arithmetic mainly for home economics and so that she can pray and help the husband. Throughout Europe and later in America Embroidered Letter samplers appear. This was realy Ideal, the girl learned how to read and write and sew, and mainly to darn and repair all in one needle`s prick. Girls 5 years and up learned different stiches, they embroideredthe Latin A B C , in print letters and script letters and the digits. Very often they embroidered a phrase from the New Testament as well. They learned to copy several patterens of animals and flowers so that in due time they would be able to adorn their house. The finished project was hung in the Salon as a public anouncement that here they finished the training of a future housewife. In 1799 Mrs Hurley, advertises in a paper in Boston that she just came back from London and she opened a school for Young ladies where they will learn Reading, writing, arithmetic, Geography, History, French, all kinds of needlework and Drawing `upon very moderate Terms`. Aquarel was thought to be appropriate for women. In 1879 Sarah Anna Emery writes in letters and articles that "At each of the female schools, in addition to knitting and plain sewing, Ornamental needlework was taught..."
The upward swing of equal rights for women that started with WW1 caused women who wanted to be equal artists, meaning not only making and getting a place to exhibit but also Sign the works. as well as being accepted as students in the art academies. In the last century many terms gradualy Change. Non European arts and crafts, that have been exhibited first as Picante Curiosa or Exotica, without any consideration to their Aesthetical values are slowly being understood to be Artifacts of another culture, of an other climate and other spiritual needs .The European world that has put himself in the center and by means of his imperialism also destroyed a lot of other cultures is still central but not completely, and just as other minorities, national and religious started to demand acknowledgement of their aestetichal values thus variuos Female movements rose that wanted to expresses themselves artisticly, raised their voices and said : What is that? We are artists too and we have a need to express ourselves! First they tried to get into their conventional shoes, in other words to create identical art. They painted sculpted and photographed women as objects in the classical situations.
A housewife doing housework in festive attire ,women modeling clothes, almost sterile clean children, naked women. The homely Still life was usualy jars with flowers and fruit baskets. Annie Albers the great teacher and creator in the Bauhous - a design and art movement that developed in Germany between the two world wars, and
which in fact influences our building and designing and furnishing concepts until today - complains in a 1943 article that when `a woman enbroiders an apple it is craft, and when a man draws an apple it`s Art`. The understaning Develops slowly, that the female creators are in fact creators and not copiers, and if they do not copy and the idea realy comes from within themselves and they make it themselves, then indeed it is art for it`s own sake and not `just` craft.
People understand that one can make with the same material both a practical and an artistic object, and many Female artists that were already adept in working with the textilic fibers felt at ease to turn this material into their means of artistic self expression. At the same time we find lady painters and photographers who dared to make pictures of their homes with the dirty dishes with unclean playing children etc, in short without the idealization of the home but as it realy is, a hard tedious labor, meaning they create their own patterns from their images of what surrounds their life the household, raising the children and using materials they have, remnants of cloth, threads and such like and this too can and should be considerd Art. Which got the name Fiberart to separate it from the daily use of cloth anf thread when it is craft. Of course there are also men who do fiberwork, but sure enough in most circles there are more women than men and history explains it. From this you underastand that everyone that gets a textile education realy gets an education and preparation both towards an artistic and a practical direction, thus you should master well all the possible techniques in the behaviour of the materials in certain situations [for instance how a certain thread reacts to water or instant heating or how a thread looks in various techniques]. The knowledge of this history of materials and those techniques should nourish and fill the creative acummulators. They are the Water and Earth of the maker. Even if you want to make a new thing and also if you want to create an historical reproduction it is good to know how and what was made by so many human generations. Of course one should not forget to browse in magazines and books, it is important to learn and think about new materials and new ways of expressions, not to copy but understand and tell it in your own way.
As you remember, I said in the begining that it was not a simple story, you have enrolled to became instructors, this is a very important profession, people who come to you and don`t have your knowledge expect you to help them solve a motoric or personal problem, or just spend their time in a nice way. In any case, the amount of your knowledge is important. The more you know and undestand the Alpha betha of each technique it will be easier for you to instruct. Many years ago I used to give knitting instructions and how would this happen women would come to me with a magagzine and ask `to knit this sweater!` and usualy they expected me to cast on their stiches and write down for them exactly all the stages exactly where, when and how much stiches to decrease, increase etc....
sometimes they would come with an instruction sheet and simply didn`t undestand what is written in them.
Sometimes they DID understand but as the gauge was different they were ever so surprised that that sweater didn`t fit, "you see it says 40 stiches and I knitted 40 stiches, so why is it too narrow " they would complain, I always asked " did you check the guage?" and they always wondered why, and every time I had to explain that not every person knits in the same density and thus one needs to check it.Than there were those who wanted to knit "Exactly the colour of the sweater in the picture!" and when it was impossible to find "exactly that colour" than "They could not knit it ! because it WAS WRONG!". I remember a case of a young woman that was in love with a certain Sweater`s pattern, but wanted to add a pocket:" No trouble" I told her "Where do you want it?" She insisted it was not possible as "it did not appear in the Picture!". Sewing colegues sometimes have a similar problem:" The pattern of the dress is marvelous but I want a shorter or longer sleeve"." Well do it!"- "No this is impossible because of the picture......."
I sew, weave, knit and embroider Art works as well as practical things in an individual style, unique to myself. I am free to design what I want because the techniques serve me and I do not serve them. The Fundemental knowledge I have of the tecniques and the materials enable me to create whatever I want . That is the feeling that your teachers in this course want to pass on to you and what you have to do , you already know , to learn, read, ask, try and make, look , listen, and take advantage of this opportunity to become richer within yourselves, always try and understand Why and How , and never to accept anything at face value but check and understand and you will succeed.


Animal days by Desmond Morris , Bantam books, 1981.
Anonymous was a woman by Mirra Bank, St. Martin press 1979.
The Art and Craft of Handweaving by Lili Blumenau,Crown pub.1964.
Art history`s history by Vernon Hyde Minor, Prentice-Hall inc.1994.
Bilingual etymological dictionary of spoken Israeli Arabic and Hebrew, By Abraham Stahl, Stahl& Dvir, 1995.
Chinese dress by Verity Wilson,Victoria&Albert museum, 1986.
Mongol Costumes ed. by Ida Nicolaisen, Thames&Hudson, 1993.
Needlework by Adolph s. Cavallo, Cooper Hewitt museum, 1979.
Weaving 27000 years ago, from brief notes, Textileforum, 4/95 p.2.
Women art&society by Whitney Chadwick , Thames&Hudson 1994.

Mirjam Bruck Cohen
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