Outside: Activating Cloth to Enhance the Way We Live


Last week I went to a wonderful one-day conference at the University of Huddersfield about, as the header says, activating cloth to enhance the way we live.  I was put onto this by my Grate Frend Beatriz and send my thanks to her.  Essentially, the day looked at how cloth can make our lives better and more meaningful and how it can create communities. What I loved about it was being with enthusiasts for cloth.  I have to spend a lot of time explaining how I research in my own community of Organisation Studies, but with this group it was taken for granted that cloth is just plain important.

I am not sure where to start in talking about the conference, and I don’t especially want to point things out like school prizegiving because the whole thing was so good and engaging and inspirational.  I really wanted to do some community work like the first keynote Jennifer Marsh, and sat wracking my brain for insipiration.  What would engage my community?  White middle class, middle-aged, menopausal women? I couldn’t see them wanting to wrap up buildings like Jennifer does, but to say that they weren’t interesting enough to involve in such a project was to betray them and their invisibleness all over again.  I will continue to think about this.  I loved one quotation from Jennifer, though, ‘textiles have found me.  I don’t think I have found textiles per se.’  I know exactly how that feels.  The quilting chose me.  If I were a painter people would take me a lot more seriously (if I were a good one), because textiles are so ordinary and so everyday they aren’t taken seriously.  They are not sufficiently elite.  And that is one of the reasons we love them.  They are democratic.  They are for everyone.  All the time.  Again, Jennifer: ‘Textiles connect people far more than I could or any one individual could.’  Jennifer was great because besides being a sculptor who works in community textile projects, she is pretty much a full-time project manager dealing with a massive amount of planning and administration.  It would make a great teaching case – if only it were more informed by the spirit of capitalism not community!  Anyway, you have to admire someone whose latest quilting project is to wrap a Saturn rocket, and who has to solve the problem of how to line a quilt to cover what is essentially a massive lightening conductor.  If lightening hits there is a good chance that the heat will bond the lining to the rocket and that would require constructing scaffolding so that she could go up with a team of people and scrape it off.  Not your run of the mill problem.  The website for her project (which needs volunteers to make two foot square quilts to add to the wrapping) is at: www.thedreamrocket.com/.

There were a couple of speakers talking about a great project to recycle the textiles left behind at music festivals for use with homeless people.  This is a real case of cloth making a difference.  There is an element of craftivism in this in the work volunteers do to put a hand-stitched and embroidered pocket in each sleeping bag.  But what I really loved about this was the way that the volunteers in the shelters sometimes take such care: choosing textiles that match and tone, and turning down the corner of the bag, in the way that swanky hotels provide a turning down service.  I know you could see that as a parody of five-star luxury but I think it’s about generosity and respect.  I am not particularly sentimental about the homeless, having done the occasional stint in a shelter in my youth, but I love the idea of textiles, of cloth providing some dignity to people who have very little and are routinely ignored and dehumanised on our streets.  The first speaker on this project, June Hill, had a lovely image for this saying that we live separately and together like warps without a weft.

The final speaker of the day was Betsy Greer who is the person who coined the term ‘craftivism’.  Her website is at //craftivism.com/.  The idea is that craft+activism=craftivism.  So, as I understand it, this is about making the world a better place through handwork.  It is about rejecting the mass-produced and the homogenised nature of so much of our ‘shopping experience’; it is about protesting through public displays of craft.  Although I dislike yarnbombing (wrapping trees in knitted scarves, for example) on aesthetic grounds, I like the idea of providing an alternative set of things to look at other than mass advertising devices – particularly those large LED advertising hoardings which are becoming so common.  As I say, I don’t much care for nasty acrylic lamp post cosies, but I loved it when someone in my neighbourhood painted all the post boxes lilac for a month.  It made me smile.  I practise what I call aesthetic activism in my work – being critical of what big organisations do through the production of quilts.  I have blogged about this before, but essentially quilts invite people in.  They are warm and tactile and friendly.  They draw attention.  Screaming and shouting and being outrageous feels great for the people doing it, but tends to alienate everyone else.  But I want to draw people in to get them to think about what organisations do, rather than smacking them in the face and alienating them with outrage.

Probably the thing I loved best, though, was the talk by Lesley Millar, who is a Professor at the University for the Creative Arts.  Her website is www.transitionandinfluence.com/, and is an inspirational site.  Her strapline quotation is:


Cloth is the universal free element.  It doesn’t have to explain itself.  It performs.


Tom Lubbock, ‘The Secret Life of Cloth’, Independent, 18/6/02


She specialises in Japanese textiles and regularly curates exhibitions including ‘Lost in Lace’, which is currently on in Birmingham.  What I loved about her presentation was the seriousness with which she takes cloth and the range and breadth of her interests.  She described, for example, two films, In the mood for love and Hero, in which the textiles almost become characters in the action.  But she also presented in a really poetic evocative way and I am sure that I will be engaing with her work for some time to come.  Her ideas about how we imprint ourselves and our identities in the textiles we wear is particularly interesting with regard to my Laura Ashley project, for example.

The only problem that I had with this lovely trip to another discipline – like going to a foreign country – is that they are much cagier about letting you have the paper before they are published.  This is fair enough.  But the contrast with my discipline where we would hand deliver a paper to anyone interested enough to want to read it, did make me smile.  Berg may publish the papers, so that would be worth waiting for.

I think that the influence of this conference will stay with me for a long time, and I am indebted to Bea for putting me onto it.



One thought on “Outside: Activating Cloth to Enhance the Way We Live

  1. Thanks for this Ann – as ever, thought provoking and fun too. My personal passion is glass – and just like you described the personal nature of your creations – my items come with a physical touch of me too – the odd skin cell, blood drop and hair have made their way accidentally into the kiln. But I have never seen it as a community craft or a craftivism option before – even as I sit with my lovely new friends in the Creative Glass workshop off Feeder Road. But then of course (and sitting cutting and shaping does give time to think as you have pointed out) glass has created images that have shaped our thinking and defined us, through stained glass windows of churches and public buildings and the hand crafted items that adorn our houses. Yet again you set me off thinking, and I can guarantee this train of thought will be with me all day and I’ll drift off tonight still musing. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s