The Textile Studies Graduate Research Cluster
Written by Kaitlyn Boulding
What is a textile? Anything made of fibers that are connected through processes like weaving, knitting, or knotting. Textiles can be clothing and household goods, rugs, tents, and sometimes even houses. You are wearing them now. Maybe you are sitting on them or looking at them. They’ve infiltrated language. We talk about following threads or how things seem to unravel around us.
In the past two pandemic years, I noticed that many people have turned to craft practices to hold on to some scrap (see?) of mental health. People on the internet knit and embroider. They get into quilting, crocheting balaclavas, and watching other people transform fibers into clothing.
But this isn’t new. In fact, textiles are among the oldest forms of technology.
As a PhD candidate in Classics at The University of Washington, I study textiles in the world of Ancient Greece and Rome. I’m particularly fascinated by the way that philosophers use textile metaphors to spin meaning. Plato uses weaving to explain what language is or how to form the best political leader. The Presocratic philosopher, Anaximenes, uses the process of felting to show how air changes into earth. These thinkers observed and participated in daily craft practices. In my experience, there’s nothing quite like being in a philosophy seminar when everyone turns to you to explain how a loom works so they can understand a passage in Plato.
My favorite research projects develop from the hands-on experience that I have with textiles. I have dipped my fingers into a number of different textile practices. As a kid, I would sew costumes for my beanie babies; as a teenager, I obsessed over t-shirt modification surgery communities on the then-popular blogsite, Livejournal; as a study abroad student in rural Greece, I took a course on organic dyeing and tapestry weaving.
And still, I am not an expert. My mom and aunts are the experts. On one visit home my mom told me that she had hand-pieced a large double wedding ring quilt and cathedral window quilt by hand by the time she graduated college at age 21. One of my aunts has an alpaca farm where she spins alpaca fiber into yarn, which several of my aunts then use to knit wonderful scarves. Another of my aunts has been sewing bathing suits for the past twenty years and can make one for you just by viewing a photo.
Textiles offer a unique junction for researchers and community practitioners to collaborate on the production of artistic and scholarly knowledge. The Textile Studies Graduate Research Cluster (GRC) weaves these forms of practice and research together, offering meaningful and reciprocal conversations.
What is the Textile Studies Graduate Research Cluster (GRC)?
Textiles are an ideal subject for public scholarship because they are both ubiquitous and unique. The aim of the Textile Studies GRC is to build networks not only across the university but beyond it. What kind of innovative work can spark when graduate students build relationships with artists and curators working in Seattle? How can we build reciprocal relationships with craft practitioners with a variety of cultural knowledge bases?
The Textile Studies GRC is an experiment in public scholarship and interdisciplinary community building. During the ongoing pandemic, one side of remote operations is a loss of uniquely in-person communities that cohere when meeting in campus buildings. It has become more difficult for graduate students with shared interests to connect over informal hallway or post-lecture chats.
With the support of the Simpson Center in the Summer of 2021, Lauryn Hanley and I founded the Textile Studies GRC to connect researchers and artists across and beyond the UW campus. As part of the inaugural Barclay Simpson Scholars in Public cohort, I was inspired by my fellow colleague, Caitlin Postal, and her project to recreate a medieval hood based on a piece of literature and using historic techniques. During the summer fellowship, I traced the threads of textile artists, researchers, curators, and collections at and beyond the University of Washington. There is no one department at the University of Washington for the study of textiles. But there are scholars studying fabric and fashion in the English department, the labor and lifecycles of materials in Environmental Studies and History, slow fashion culture in Anthropology, wearable technology in Human Centered Design and Engineering, and knitting machines in Computer Science.
The Textile Studies GRC convenes researchers and artists across the above disciplines who think about, curate, consider, and make textiles. We explore the rich array of textile collections at the University of Washington and throughout Seattle and, in this strange hybrid world, we aim to make our events as hands-on as possible. Together we approach questions such as:
● What new methods and projects can we cross-pollinate when we come together?
● What can culturally specific ways of creating, wearing, and living with fabrics teach us about what makes human beings both unique and similar?
● How do contemporary and ancient cultures value the labor, materials, and time that go into the production of textiles?
● Why are some textile objects identified as art and others as artifacts? How do constructions of gender, race, and class contribute to these categorizations?
● How can discourses on Fashion inform and change the History of Science and Technology?
● How does the perishable materiality of textiles change the way that they are studied and created? How do textile textures leave their impressions on the literary and material cultures?
● How do makers construct communities for themselves?
In Fall 2021, the Textile Studies GRC visited the National Nordic Museum in Ballard for a night of fiber arts, textile research, pickled herring, and M(other) Tongues: Bodhild and Las Hermanas Iglesias, an exhibit featuring collaboratively knit paintings. We also hosted the first session of our “Object Lessons” lightning talks. In the inaugural Object Lessons lightning talk session, researchers from Humanities, Social Sciences, and STEM fields shared how one object can reveal the history, materials, labor, and relationships involved in textiles. From the threads of each talk emerged a discussion on the variable meanings of “materiality” that cross disciplinary boundaries. By materiality, I mean that with each object discussed, the fact that it is a textile impacts its cultural and historical relevance. For the linen Etruscan book, its woven material rather than parchment allowed it to be folded and repeatedly reused — much like a map. At the same time, most textile forms of knowledge are ephemeral because they depend on materials that have not always been preserved, but also because they require labor practices frequently made invisible by contemporary institutions due to their gendered, raced, and classed natures.
For Winter 2022, we are hosting a workshop on crafting a dataset with Dr. Daniela Rosner (HCDE) and Dr. Afroditi Psarra (DXARTS) on February 25th. Find out more about this free interactive Zoom workshop and sign up on the UW Textiles website. On March 10th, Kathy Dougherty, the Collections Manager of Oceanic and Asian Culture, and Dr. Holly M. Barker (UW Anthropology and Curator of Oceanic and Asian Culture) will lead us on a tour of textile objects, dyes, and tools in the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture’s collections. Find out more the UW Textiles schedule and sign up for a spot starting on February 25th! Stay tuned for more information on upcoming events in Spring 2022.
If you would like to get involved, sign up for our events or get in touch with Kaitlyn Boulding at email@example.com.