Weaving With Words: The Long-lasting Relationship Between Text and Textiles

The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in the 11th Century. It is amongst the most famous of storytelling textile pieces, but words and textiles have consistently been bound together through traditional crafts, with both ‘text’ and ‘textile’ coming from the Latin word ‘texere’, meaning ‘to weave’. The ideas of ‘spinning a yarn’ and ‘weaving a story’ are familiar idioms to most people, and artists today still use traditional techniques to communicate modern messages through their work.

Storytelling Fabrics As Historical Documents

The Bayeux Tapestry is just one example from a rich history of storytelling through needlework. Many famous tapestries document stories of displacement and war, and much of our understanding of the myths of the ancient world comes from the stories told in textiles. ‘The War of Troy,’ for example, shows scenes of the Trojan War in great detail. As recently as the 1970s, Hmong women in refugee camps during the Vietnam War created story cloths to chronicle their experiences, demonstrating that craft still has an important role to play in social history.

Contemporary Artists Who Weave With Words

There are a number of artists currently working with both words and textiles to create engaging and evocative work. American conceptual artist, Jenny Holzer, is known for her text-based artworks, which encourage the viewer to consider the messages around us. She mixes language with a variety of media, including fabric, and is well known for her T-Shirts, which she used to communicate messages that would not be confined to a gallery. Bhakti Ziek’s work, ‘Alphabet Samplers’, meanwhile, pays homage to the women who practiced their embroidery skills while learning to write, while ‘The Daughters Speak Right’ by Leslie Golomb and Louise Silk showcases passages of the Old Testament on garments. The long traditions linking text and textiles are woven into each of these pieces, but are designed to speak to the modern audience.

From Text To Textile

The idea of translating words to fabric is intimidating to many wordsmiths, but a little can communicate a lot, and whether through images or text, textiles can be a powerful way to tell a story. Although sewing is a skill that has declined over the years, modern tools and sewing machines mean that neat and professional stitching can be achieved by anyone with the inclination. Poets and storytellers who want to convey their message from a different perspective have the potential to widen their audience by mixing the mediums. As Bhakti Ziek’s work so well illustrates, there are stories already bound up in textile crafts that an audience brings with them when they view the work, and the most successful works convey meaning through the use of textiles as much as from the words themselves.

While storytelling on the scale of The Bayeux Tapestry is not a project many artists or writers in the modern world choose to embark on, words and textiles continue to combine in contemporary art, enabling artists to communicate a message richer than they could in words alone.

Lewis Mitchell

Lewis Mitchell is a freelance writer from the U.K. who specializes in technology and Internet niches.