Critical Issues in Tapestry

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[Editor’s note: This talk was presented at “Outside the Studio: Presenting Tapestry within a Broader Field” a forum and panel sponsored by the American Tapestry Alliance in Denver, Colorado, July 3, 2004. The author has provided a list of the accompanying slides at the end of this article.]

by Sharon Marcus

This paper addresses some of the critical issues facing the tapestry field today in three major areas: higher education, exhibitions, and the art world.

Education

In the early 21st century tapestry is essentially no longer taught in US college fiber departments, except for a few exceptions. The truth is that it has never had much of a presence there, except as a small segment in classes concentrating on other techniques. In the 1950s and before, most college weaving in the United States was taught in Home Economics programs, where the focus was on textile science, and functional fabrics for clothing and interior design. As Home Economics departments closed or changed emphasis, fibers was often incorporated into Art Departments. In the 1940s the influence of the Bauhaus, and its practice of requiring foundation courses in drawing and design had been introduced at Black Mountain College in North Carolina by Annie and Joseph Albers and other former Bauhaus artists. Designing textiles as industrial prototypes, part of the Bauhaus ideal, was incorporated into some fiber programs around that time.

In the idealism of the late 1960s, and the 1970s, finely made functional crafts, including weaving, took on a new importance as environmentalism, ecology and the “back to the land” movement became popular. Handmade crafts represented a rejection of the excesses of the modern world. It was also a time of great fascination with non-Western culture, and many people began to weave at that time, a great number of them self-taught, and inspired by the textiles of other cultures. College fiber departments, experiencing a paradigm shift of sorts, encouraged an eclectic approach to textile research as ancient techniques were “rediscovered” and fiber art for the wall became popular.

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