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This is Fibre! From the threads we wear to the textiles beneath our feet, we often interact with fibres in ways we hardly notice.

Fibres make up threads, which make up textiles, which make up our clothes, carpets and curtains. Even tech uses fibres, connecting us across the world via telephone and internet cables. This material has been used in all sorts of creative ways for a very long time. The oldest needle dates back 50,000 years and was made by a long extinct human species called the Denisovans. We’ve gone from using plants like flax to make fibres to inventing our own, like nylon. The Victorians even made art from human hair! Fibres have played an important role in our history - Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen and Suffragettes used fabric banners to demand votes for women. 

Victorian Hair Art, CC-BY-4.0 Wellcome Trust
Bayeux Tapestry 11th century © Bayeux Museum

Weaving has been used to create some of our greatest artworks. Iran has a history of weaving incredibly detailed carpets, such as the 17th century “Wagner Garden Carpet”, named after a former owner. The carpet is over 4x5 metres and may once have been even bigger. It shows animals, insects, bird and fish in a blooming garden with water channels running through it. 

In medieval and Renaissance Europe, woven tapestries decorated and insulated castles and churches. They often came in sets which together told a story. The 11th century Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the conquest of England in 1066 by the Duke of Normandy. The artwork is 70 metres in length, comprises of nine panels of linen cloth joined together and features ten different colours of wool thread. The tapestry is on display in the Bayeux Museum in France. Another set made in France in the 15th century tells the story of the Trojan War. Together they would stretch over 100m long. In the 20th century, Anni Albers used weaving to make thoroughly modern masterpieces and Louis le Brocquy designed a series of tapestries depicting The Táin legend - the tale of an epic war between the kingdoms of Connacht and Ulster over a prize bull.

Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. The boy Cúchulainn hurling, 1969, Aubusson Tapestry, Atelier René Duché, 1998, 184 x 129 cm, Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art, Heritage Gift by Brian Timmons, 2001 © The Estate of Louis le Brocquy.
Fiji Wedding Tapa, Photo credit:
Katsushika Ōi Silk Painting, Photo credit: Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

Tapa, or barkcloth, is cloth made in Polynesia exclusively by women. The cloth isn’t woven, it is made by soaking, pasting and beating bark from inside particular trees, usually the paper mulberry tree. In Fiji, barkcloth is called masi and has been used throughout daily and ceremonial life, from room dividers to gifts. Sometimes the cloth is decorated and the use of stencils made from leaves to make patterns is unique to Fiji.  

Katsushika Ōi was the daughter of the famous Japanese artist Hokusai. She had been brought up helping her father and became a brilliant artist in her own right. She created woodblock prints, illustrated books and paintings on silk. One of her paintings on silk from the 1840s depicts a famous warrior called Guanyu who has been poisoned by an arrow and is having blood let from his arm. One figure can’t bear to look at the operation, another is weighed down by a bowl of the blood flowing from Guanyu’s arm but the warrior himself is busy playing a board game! The use of silk for this painting is a sign that it must have been for a wealthy patron.

Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt 1898

Harriet Powers was an extremely talented applique quilt maker from the USA. She was born into slavery in the state of Georgia in 1837 and we know very little about her early life. We do know that she was making quilts by 1886 as that was when one of her two surviving works was spotted at a cotton fair. Both quilts are divided into squares and in each square Harriet tells a story by sewing colourful fabric scenes, including Jonah being swallowed by the whale and a night in 1833 when the night sky was filled with shooting stars and many thought it was the end of days. 

Words by Helena Hunt

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Backstrap Weaving

Make your own backstrap loom using this ancient technique to become a weaver and make your own textile pattern!

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Highlights from Fibre!

Join us as we take a deep dive into Fibre and discover
why people all over the world have been creating
incredible art for centuries with this amazing material.

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This is Art! 2022

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