Fiber Optics

Images of textiles address our hunger for texture and depth in the images we view on screens

Images are never pure. Like any form of communication, they are slippery and potent. They can never quite divorce their own biases — the photograph is always tethered to the gaze of the photographer, a portrait is always distinguished by the materials used to paint. Since photography’s inception, photographs have been used to capture reality and possess it. Images inhabit a persistently contentious space, where intent is at odds with interpretation and, in the digital age, the motive of replication. These images are never pure because the motive is to simplify, to focus: Roland Barthes states that photographs without connotation or context do not and cannot exist. Every image is polysemous, relaying a “continuous message” of associations, analogies, and contradictions.

Many of us interact with images every day, or every hour, in a blasé, nonchalant manner, gliding our fingers across glass and surveying post after post, creating an impossible data archive mostly aslant to memory. The stream is persistent and never-ending. There is no bottom.

As we collect these images, we are picking up stitches: Our online lives are woven by the handy repetition of touching, tapping, and looping, coalescing into an invisible mass

As Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest have grown, rooted in the personalized curation of immersive images, they have become a destination for niche: taxidermy, dank memes, and bodily functions (see: Dr. Pimple Popper). These photos often reflect a curiosity that exceeds the restrictions of cultural norms: The familiar can still surprise us. We want to peer into an image that speaks to something within ourselves, perhaps buried. In some cases that image is primal, insolent, wounding or offensive; in others, soothing. As we collect these images, we are picking up stitches: Our online lives are continually woven by the handy repetition of touching, tapping, zooming, and looping, coalescing into an invisible mass.

Over the past year or two, an interest in textile images has been steadily rising. Cropped into uniformed tiles, these images force the view to bypass the textile’s traditional role of utility and instead focus on aesthetics. As such, they are experienced as fiber art. A practice that reached its widest recognition among second-wave feminists, fiber art highlights the techniques of textile-making in all forms in service of a greater creative vision.

The fibers on Tumblr include everything that is and could be fabric art, whereas textiles on Pinterest tend to resemble the high-brow fiber art on reserve in museums; users glom onto images with abstract intention to keep in a tidy box indefinitely. On both platforms, there is a pronounced balance of cultural exposure; we see ancient work from Tibet, the stunning spherical work of Serena Garcia Dalla Venezia, and vintage Peruvian fabric imprints. But because Tumblr and Pinterest require sharing as interaction, images lose authorship along the way. Even though most artists are credited, a successful image or post is often shared so many times that the person who created it is lost in the shuffle.

Instagram has a different modus operandi. As a self-marketing medium, there are more self-identified fiber artists promoting their own content. Within this niche, there is a rich variety of fiber art: soft, woolen yarns, portraiture needlecraft, and decadent wall hangings. Size is no issue — there are penny-sized embroideries and enormous ropey knits (knit with needles the size of water noodles). Artists primarily feature finished works for sale on Etsy, showcasing intricacy and detail. The fibrous images are absolutely transfixing and bizarrely comforting, almost a form of visual meditation.

_JuJuJust_, whose tapestries vary in texture from one inch to another, employs high contrast colors that are not quite neon, but nonetheless scream playfully from the screen. Bright pink wools bubble out of tightly knotted space, evoking both safety and wildness. Maryannemoodie weaves geometric shapes varying in texture and depth, the edges of the shapes reveal the soft focus of the handmade. Tassels hang from one of her wall pieces with such precise elegance, it would be easy to mistake it for a “peasant skirt.” One of her comments calls her work a “weavolution.” There is no weaving emoji yet, so they use the rainbow. Their photos complement the platform’s gallery aesthetic, carefully packaged, as if wrapped in Saran. Textile photos are dense but contained by minimalism — reflecting the invisible barrier between our thumbs and the infinite data that lies beyond our screens.

The transporting effect of these images is consoling and grounding, a grave contrast from the devotional anxiety of most posts. Studying the photos, I do not long to own these fabrics or live vicariously through them. I am content to revel in the image, awash in complex coziness.

Why is this? Is it because they are contained within an online space, safe from fraying and decay? Or perhaps it is filling a void in my online life, and I crave softness to offset the stress of a constant dialogue. What are these photos doing that others aren’t?

People have been weaving for as long as they have been writing, if not longer. The earliest fibers used to weave cloth date back 34,000 years, a period anthropologists have termed the Old Stone Age. The earliest evidence of writing, as a means to record utterance and communicate it accurately, emerged in the New Stone Age — at most, 10,000 years ago. Appropriately, text comes from the latin textus, which is defined as “tissue” and “woven.” Barthes too calls the text “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture,” noting its multiplicity and our urge to “disentangle” information.

All weaving is reweaving; so too we find our “text,” so often overwritten, or written off

Text, in short, is inextricable from textile. Weaving is a means of storytelling and communication. And at the very least, a form of media. Yet, it is rarely interpreted as such. Weaving is often thought of a functional, automated and feminized practice in our eyes.

Weaving has always almost exclusively been performed by women. In early myth, Penelope, whose husband, Odysseus, has been drafted, unravels and re-weaves a tapestry every day to protect herself from aggressive suitors who have overtaken her home; her tapestry is both a form of self-protection and time-marking, as well as a platform for her other faithful duties. From Ovid, we learn that the shepherd’s daughter Arachne, before she is transformed into a spider, challenges Athena, born from Zeus’ head, to a weaving contest. Arachne overdoes it: She weaves a stunning rendition of the gods’ many abuses of power, and does not spare Zeus. Thus she is condemned to an arachnids’ perpetual labor, spinning masterpieces destined for destruction. All weaving is reweaving; so too we find our “text,” so often overwritten, or written off.

Through the Bronze and Copper Ages, women developed woven cloth as something both functional and communicative. Yet, the purpose of weaving extended beyond simple utility: In Incan civilizations, textile weaving was a sacred act reserved for women, in which they communicated stories and recorded events. Victorian-era women were relegated to sewing circles to uphold virtue and femininity; a woman’s entire day would be structured by different types of needlecraft. The Dogon people of Western Africa equate the act of weaving to human reproduction, fertility and rebirth. It is deeply maternal and wholly female. But that doesn’t mean weaving has always promoted a peaceful coexistence. Many of the techniques artists use today were discovered during violent colonization and exploitation. After being captured and brought to the Americas, African slaves introduced weaving techniques to early American cultures and produced much of the clothing worn by slaveholding families. And recently, Urban Outfitters got into hot water for appropriating a Navajo weaving pattern, a technique preserved by the women of the tribe for thousands of years.

There is no way to know precisely how these ancient women felt about weaving, but we do know that techniques and storytelling dynamics significantly expanded when technology improved. In The Age of Homespun, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich contends that a textile cannot be understood by itself; it must be examined in context to our histories and mythologies. In this way, textiles are inextricable from the heritage of women’s lives. Women created encoded messages, detailing their experiences in a world that silenced them. But because textiles are prone to decay quickly, their work is preserved in a legacy of technique.

After the Industrial Revolution, women found themselves caught between the rigorous demands of machine labor and cult of domesticity. For an emerging middle class, weaving became a symbol of the disproportionate burden women carried in both public and private spheres. Meanwhile, textiles were everywhere, being produced relentlessly: a form of mass media. When the Suffragette movement was born in 1903, white women used embroidery and sewing techniques on their banners, employing traditional motifs, pre-selected colors and a unified, framed design. Second-wave feminists also turned to fiber materials when they elevated textiles to “fine art” in the 1970s. Judy Chicago’s 1979 Dinner Party is one notable example: Chicago’s installation depicts a triangular table, complete with place settings for 39 influential women in history. Table runners under each plate are embroidered in the style of each woman’s era and names are hand-stitched onto each placemat: “As I studied the history of needlework,” wrote Chicago, who often said she could neither sew nor stitch and so enlisted a “needlework gang,” “I realized that the same story I was piecing together about women’s history could be conveyed through needle and textile arts.”

Currently, Chicago’s Dinner Party resides in the Brooklyn Museum, but fiber art has extended far and beyond. With our devices, we bring the fiber art wherever we may be, bookmarking them, adding them to our Pinterest boards, tapping away. We long to decipher their long-labored message of depth and texture, trapped within the slick surfaces of our devices. “Network” is a characteristic diminutive; the internet is a tapestry that would not be possible without centuries of women’s work.

A cursory look at our news stories, entertainment and daily speech reveals textile talk. We tie up loose ends, disentangle ourselves from difficult situations, try to find loopholes, argue about the fabric of society and attempt to piece things together. Our online lives are also haunted by the language of weaving. We are persistently within a web of information. We follow threads, travel through links and are told to be wary of fabrications. There is a woven texture to our online lives: interactions, notifications, clicks and likes overlap in sprawling dialogues. You only have to follow one fibrous string to find a knot of information.

Yet, a sprawling mass of fabric is not what a successful platform looks like. Instead of errant threads, we prefer clean, tidy, and seamless design. No evidence of process or technique, just tightly wound threads that are easy to navigate. No bunching, no snags. This desire for clean lines is rooted in an inherent deception of weaving in itself. Even the most basic plait must move over and under another. It must hide and emerge from view at opportune moments. It is not an option to use these techniques — it is a vital and necessary function of the art. In this sense, the artist can pick and choose what will be seen and what will be tucked away. In utilitarian applications, what is hidden are seams and knots. A seamstress will always know how to knot a button without revealing any thread. A quilter knows how to press the seams just-so.

This neatly pruned idea of textiles is what we project on others in Instagram. For every single photo posted, there are many more that did not make the cut. Every moment is carefully curated, personalized and retouched — a constant negotiation of ourselves to the world.

Yet, those unposted photos still represent a ripple in a smoothly ironed seam. Their existence is part of the creative process, which fiber art openly exposes. It celebrates the colossal knots, frayed corners and dangling threads. It displays both connection and disconnection without hiding.

Web, wires, threads, nets, links — these are all ways to describe the way we try, fail and succeed in connecting to others. It’s a spectacular mess. Textile images, with their threads and seams laid bare, provides relief. We see our own chains of self-awareness in a non-uniformed manner. We see the chaos of connection and disconnection that have become currents in our lives.

Instagram embodies aesthetics, commonly known as “art for art’s sake.” It transforms our experiences of the world into something visually attractive and artsy. Yet, the participatory aspect of the platform suggests a more personalized aesthetics. The images we like and engage with are a direct reflection of what we find beautiful.

Curiously, the aesthetic depth of textile images is in direct contradiction to the physical experience of the photo. There is an explicit aesthetic chaos in many of the pieces: In addition to the fluidity of color and adornment, the photos are often taken in bright, natural light, whereby you can discern the smaller threads that make up the larger threads. Spun wool is more than just fuzzy, the detail of the photos reveals a wildness whipped and spiraled into an ethereal object. No filter is necessary. But tapping a slick glass surface is not the same as rolling freshly dyed wool between your fingers. The experience of Textile Insta is quite literally caressing an object, as is our experience with most images on our phones. The tapping and sliding is hardly a deliberate act, it actually feels rather natural. Our hands, it would seem, are eager to create.

“Network” is a characteristic diminutive; the internet is a tapestry that would not be possible without centuries of women’s work

With textile art, there is an inherent trust in the process of creation. The repetitive motions, the precise lines, they all require a certain degree of stillness and motor control. Louise Bourgeois refers to it, in The Fabric Works, with poetic specificity: “The repetitive motion of a line, to caress an object, the licking of wounds, the back and forth of a shuttle, the endless repetition of waves, rocking a person to sleep, cleaning someone you like, an endless gesture of love.”

We repeat the same fine motor movements in a way that knots, loops, stitches and braids. The web we navigate, and the web we spin, is perpetually embroidering itself, adding new shape and texture to the representation of our being. Perhaps this is why we are so impulsive on Instagram. We place trust not only in our devices to guide us, but we trust our intuition to confirm our tastes and personalized aesthetics.

In On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote: “All photographs are momento mori … Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” To Sontag, photography is a means to capture time and to sneak away a souvenir in a high-speed world. Currently, our devices hold both our camera and our souvenirs. “Photography,” Sontag writes, “has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” On Instagram, we exchange snapshot experiences as social currency and create value judgments based on their likability. In our devices, we possess both our own experiences and those of others as souvenirs.

If a photo strives to possess, then weaving strives to retrace and remember. When Bourgeois spoke about her process, she said: “I want to re-experience the past, I try to reconstruct it. Sudden recollections that are awakened by the senses tell you more than emotions.” For Bourgeois, the tactile, sensory act of weaving invokes a specific past of maternal intimacy. She writes that her fabric art is an “homage to the mother” and that she “cannot, do not want to forget it.”

For many fiber artists, the act of weaving is used not only to evoke feminine nostalgia, but also to reference the trauma of colonization and social expectations of women. Artist Satpreet Kahlon recently exhibited a wire and weaving piece that reads: “There exist too many things you have not said in defense of my humanity.” In pop culture, pussy hats were knitted nationwide as a means of solidarity and resistance to Trump’s anti-woman stance, an evocation of the knitted history of suffragettes and the abolitionists that preceded them. The medium is notoriously political, if only because it is exclusively female.

And it is true, you can see — and feel — the homage to womanness in many textile pieces on Instagram. Embroiderers often feature traditional flower motifs, a call back to a Victorian obsession with foliage and femininity. With woven wall hangings, there is a persistent appearance of orbs and circles, harkening perhaps both the roundness of pregnancy and the form of the sewing hoop. Memorialstitches is one of many artists that surrounds their work with a primal feminine mystique: cycles of the moon, crystals, and wiccan motifs. Her freehand needlework features feminist slogans: “sleep” and “still alive.”

Using the medium of fiber art, Textile Insta remembers the craft and its heritage. Using photography, we remember to never forget it or let it go. As a result, we mold our digital spaces to be a place in which women’s heritage is no longer silent or invisible.

In an age flooded with information and media, the words and images we use to visualize our online experience matter. The way we interact in the digital age is anything but seamless. Our interactions and connectivity are multidimensional and erratic.

At its core, Textile Insta employs an aesthetic that challenges women to remember our past and our present. We get to see the stitches, the folds, the rips and the seams. We get to see every technique that generations of women have learned, practiced and perfected. With fiber art’s seams open and exposed, it is, as Bourgeois would say, “a means of laying bare.” Every stitch is a visible confirmation of the woman artist who pulled a needle through, who tied off a knot or embroidered a symbol. Their signature lies in the texture and complexity of every image. Look closely and you’ll see: Our stories are, quite literally, in our hands.

Leslie L. Bowman is a writer and recovering academic whose interests include women’s voices, television, pop culture and language. Her work has appeared on HuffPost. She currently lives in Boston with her sweet fur babies, Pippin and Toast.