What are textiles?


A definition of textiles in the broadest sense:

A textile is a material made of fibres.

Micro-structure: fibres
The first pre-requisite of my definition requires that a textile be made of fibres. Fibres is meant to encompass small threads or elongated pieces of any material. This can range from the traditional sources of fibre: linen, cotton, wool, silk, plant fibres, to modern, synthetic alternatives: petro-chemically derived fibres, such as plastics, rayon, nylon, polyester, etc.

In the very broadest context, I have defined fibres as elongated pieces of material. In theory, a macro-scale fibre could be something like a toothpick, if it were joined together to make a pliable cloth.

I did not specify that they must be twisted into threads, as this is not necessary. I have also not specified that the fibres be woven or knitted, as that would exclude processes like felting, and paper-making, or beating, as used in Pacific Island barkcloth.

Macro-structure: two-dimensions
I considered adding two-dimensionality to my definition of a textile. I chose the word ‘cloth’ for this, as it has connotations of this two-dimensionality (although a ‘cloth’ does have three-dimensions, but the height of the material is much smaller than the other dimensions).

This doesn’t preclude an object or sculpture being made from that textile, and taking on three-dimensionality.

In the end, I deleted this idea from the definition, as a textile could be anything made of fibres, including a thread, which is ostensibly one-dimensional.

Macro-structure: pliability
I started by including pliability in my definition. A sense of being able to drape, fold, or manipulate is therefore included, even if the amount of movement, compression, or elasticity is tiny.

I wanted to test the boundaries of this inclusion definition. A test-case: a woven lattice made of stiff wood. Is this to be excluded this from being a true textile, as it does not have the pliability; or is there enough movement possible if it is made on a very large scale.

Another thought experiment was considering ceramics. An un-fired ceramic can be made into a sheet and manipulated, much like a cloth. However, this can be excluded on two grounds: the final form of the material lacks pliability, and the base material is not a fibre, but a fine grain.

What about a woven basket, that is then coated with something to make it completely rigid? Is it a textile right up to the point of applying the coating? I think it remains a textile, because of the base fibres.

So, the main component seems to be that it is made of fibres, more so than its pliability. I removed pliability from the definition.


Stories or narratives behind, or told by, the textile. Textiles that are used in clothing, or households, or industry, have a strong narrative in every aspect of lives.

The fibre itself gives the item provenance, and suggests its era. The cloths wrapping Egyptian mummies may reveal how the linen fibres were threshed by hand; the inclusion of seeds in the cotton batting of an early American quilt reveals that it was inserted in small pieces by hand. While mass-produced new materials like Orlon and Terylene revolutionised the 50’s and 60’s, materials like rayon, lycra, acrylic, polyester and polypropylene are the mainstay or today’s industry, preempting futuristic materials like carbon-fibre.

The origin of dye stuffs and how the fibres have bonded to them tells of the processes used, and reveal the era, fashion, and technology. Madder and indigo have different properties, production methods, and application than the amazing colour-fast synthetic dyes of today that are applied in factories. Hues themselves are the subject of fashion. Whether the fibre itself was dyed, or the final object reveals its manufacturing history. What other treatments are applied? Is the silk coated with metals to make 19th century gowns rustle, or scoured and sized.

How the fibres and threads are made into cloth is a story of its origin. Is it woven, knitted, or felted, by hand or machine. Is it canvas sailcloth, made by hand on a loom last century, granny’s hand-crotcheted afgan, a mass-produced cotton-polyester composite, or adorned with beads sewed in developing country? Each is a rich account of the people, the epoch, the driving forces of society.

The pattern applied by weaving, or printing tells a story of the provenance and purpose of the textile. Compare a netting curtain with a border of chickens, an 18th Century dobbie print, a 70’s paisley synthetic, white damask, wool tartan, poly-cotton flannelette emblazoned with super-heroes, towelling.

The design of the article reveals volumes about its wearer, and their intent when wearing it. A a superbly tailored Chanel jacket narrates a different history than a heavy wool coat. Bright pink hot-pants have different connotations to baggy jeans; a race-day fascinator differs fundamentally from a sunhat. A wedding gown that is a ‘Sunday best dress’ is a world away from a purpose made confection worth tens of thousands. The presence of zips, or shell-buttons, or velcro fasteners tell the story of the era and current fashion and the item’s utility.

How the textile is assembled is also its tale. Is it sewn on an industrial machine, a home machine, by hand? Is it exquisitely tailored? Or a last-minute costume? Is it embellished with embroidery or beads?

The most intimate details are revealed in how a textile has worn. It might be stained with food like a neck-tie, or covered in paint droplets, grayed from copious washing, or faded from drying in the sun. It might be frayed at the neckline, worn thin in the backside, or ripped. It might miss a button. Or, it might be carefully stored away after a single wearing; starched and ironed. It may be patched, like the boro of Japan, or an old tarpaulin.

At the end of the life of a textile, does it have another life? Is it re-purposed as a cleaning rag, or the unworn parts cut into squares to make a quilt, or woven into a bath mat?