Textiles & academic writing: Material, process, product


This post, which could also be titled ‘remembering my 1990s feminist self’ is a re-emergence of some thinking I did a long time ago in my early years at university. After leaving school, I completed a Fine Art degree, followed by an Honours year. I’m writing this post as a way into self-inquiry, a way to write myself towards my hunch that my early days as a feminist-textile-artist-writer have underscored my more recent PhD work and academic writing. Big thanks to Katie Collins whose wonderful blog post on subversive material metaphors in academic writing sparked my thinking.

I was a painter from a young age, thanks to my artist mother, but I chose to study textiles as a major in my undergraduate Fine Art degree, rather than painting. This choice was due to the meanings inherent in textile materials, processes and products. A textile artist can weave in metal or print on latex. They can make work in the blacksmith forge or the sculpture studio. They can work with cardboard or furniture or paint or dye or thread or canvas or wire or plastic or found objects. The visceral and sensory experience of working with materials is central to the artistic process.

The materials a textile artist chooses, and the scale at which they magnify or miniaturise those materials, are deliberate meaning-making choices. The artist can choose needlework and hand-dying, or industrial Warhol-esque mass printing. They can applique or cut away. They can build or melt. They can assemble or destroy. They can stitch or slice. They can focus on the macro or the micro, staggering their viewer with enormous size or encouraging the viewer to come in, up close and personal.

Textiles is personal and political. It is also a subversive arena for artists, and often a feminist one. It pushes or rails against the stratification of ‘Art’, which has often meant the dichotomising of cerebral, thinking highbrow Art (upper-case ‘A’, often seen as done by men), and functional or decorative art (lower-case ‘a’, often associated with women and femininity). Historically, women were objects of art: she the body to be gazed at and sculpted. Or objects of art were personified as women: she the landscape to be scrutinised and painted.

The art historical devaluing of textiles pivots on its early treatment by critics, galleries and institutions. Aesthetic disciplines depend on recognised ‘powers that be’ to promote and uphold them. Early galleries and history books excluded textiles. Unlike painting and sculpture, textiles was historically seen as an unimportant discipline, undeserving of discussion, not worth deconstructing for message or meaning. The association of textiles with the devalued domestic space of the home, the opposite of the glorified public space of the art gallery, contributes to its dismissal.

So, why am I back here, thinking about textiles as feminist discourse or subversive act? Because Katie Collins’ post brought memories of my past self bubbling to the surface. And I am wondering to what extent my long-ago thinking and artistic practice, around the meanings inherent in working in and writing about textiles, has influenced my current and recent research and academic writing. On reflection, my PhD incorporated disruptive elements. While fitting largely within an accepted academic paradigm, it quietly challenged the ways that knowledge is traditionally written about. I used narrative method, literary metaphor and created three multimedia illustrations for the thesis, corporeal expressions of my thinking.

Now that I’m back in the eye of this needle, I need to think further about how textiles might provide a metaphor for research and academic writing.

In the meantime, below I will type an extract from a paper that won me the Allport Writing Award in 1998, and was published in Textile Fibre Forum. It was an analysis of Vivienne Binns’ artwork Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat. The piece gives a sense of where my thinking was around textiles as feminist activism in the late 1990s. I have deliberately omitted an image of the artwork as I’m wondering if the text itself can paint the picture for you.

(For non-Australian readers, Captain James Cook was a British explorer who claimed to ‘discover’ the south eastern coast of Australia in 1770.)

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Extract from ‘Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat: Rewriting history through cloth’

by Deborah M. Netolicky (1998), Textile Fibre Forum, Volume 53.

Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat may be read as one woman’s attempt to rewrite and reinterpret human history. Here Vivienne Binns contributes to the discourse on journey, adventure, and historical significance, telling the pain-filled woman’s story of discovery and adventure—the burden of waiting and worrying, as opposed to doing and dying. Through this work she questions platitudes of the day, such as “men work and women weep”. Binns demonstrates that women were not passive, but were actively working contributing, storytelling, and recording their own histories, written in needlework.

Binns uses journey as metaphor, identifying with Mrs Cook’s expedition as expressed through the waistcoat for Mr Cook. She challenges the value placed on women’s histories and women’s work by challenging the notion that Mrs Cook’s journey was insignificant in terms of human history. She has chosen to elevate its significance, giving it voice, implanting it in the discourse of high art.

… Captain Cook’s wife is the “Mrs Cook” referred to by the title of the work which tells the story of her laboring over a waistcoat for her husband while he is away on a long voyage. The waistcoat mapnel is larger-than-life, describing the legendary reputation of Captain Cook in Australian myth-making, and the amplified importance that Binns intends to give to the making of the waistcoat.

Binns connects the historical representation and exploration of Cook’s journey with issues of women’s value, women’s history, and the construction of gender. In her version of this story, the ocean water is a metaphor for a bewitching, intoxicating vacillating, unpredictable femininity and female identity … Cook, the white, middle-class male, is discovering, navigating, defining, and fixing the limits of the Pacific Ocean. He is writing the experiences, histories, and memories of and for the water, which has no voice. It is formless, restless, intuitive, irrational, and passive, in need of taming, subjugating, explaining and defining by the rational, scientific logic of male discourse.

Nature is tamed by culture. Binns places herself in the middle ground. She associates herself as water, as a woman employing subconscious, intuitive processes – her own emotions, remembrances, and ideas about certain colours, materials, and ways of working. On the other hand, she calmly calculates, selects, and constructs her images, associating herself with the heroic explorer, just as the artist does on a continuous intellectual journey to discover new meanings. This marriage of antithetical metaphors reflects Binns’ concerns with shaping perceptions of women’s ways of knowing, living, researching, remembering, experiencing, and making. By yoking the two ways of working, she gives equal value to each.

…The waistcoat can be seen as a woman’s way of writing and recording history. Women write history in fabric, men write history in text. Binns makes Mrs Cook’s journey of waiting, sewing, and weeping, as valid as Captain Cook’s journey. The labour and time involved in making this waistcoat explain the wife’s dedication and devotion to her far-away husband. Binns questions the trivialisation of women’s roles surrounding issues of the domestic and ‘crafty’. … She uses the processes, materials, and experiences of women—traditional metaphors of women’s work—to weave a myth about women’s forgotten places in history.

Penetrated openings are created by slicing, cutting, and scarring the fabric, fabric that represents flesh as well a material. … Rolled up papers (the stuff of men’s work) penetrate exposed fabric (the stuff of women’s work); paper penetrates fabric; men’s work penetrates women’s work; culture penetrates nature. The slits in the fabric are peeled back like open sores, mirroring the multiple stab wounds that were the cause of Cook’s death. The ultimate satire of the story is that while Mrs Cook is lovingly creating the waistcoat for her husband, he is already dead, his stab wounds mirrored in her handiwork. This is reflected in the typed and hand-written text, which permeates through a layer of white paint: “Mrs Cook embroidered… this time the Captain did not return and the waistcoat remains unfinished”. This irony elevates her personal anguish, and points to the difference in men’s discourses and women’s ways of speaking through needlework.

…Binns … uses traditionally female and domestic techniques of women’s work: embroidery, pattern-cutting, and sewing. There is a sense of Mrs Cook’s physical involvement in this garment, her time, effort, and care. It is stitched, cut, glued. Elements, images, textures, and metaphors are exposed, denied, revealed, concealed, constructed, deconstructed, veiled, disguised, patterned, decorated slashed, sliced, torn, ripped, reconstructed. The piece is layered with the corporeal stuff of memory.

… Binns does not create a new reality, but reflects and reinterprets the existing one in a way that gives it new meaning. She puts one moment in one woman’s life under the microscope until it boils, making her audience reconsider women’s lives, women’s history and women’s art.

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Work-family fulfilment: The elusive sweet spot

I have never met a woman, or man, who stated emphatically, “Yes, I have it all.” Because no matter what any of us has—and how grateful we are for what we have—no one has it all. ~ Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Usually this édu flâneuse blog is focused on teaching, education, school leadership and research, although I have written about self, travel and gratitude. This post, which was incited by reading Annabel Crabb’s 2014 book The Wife Drought, is about partners, parents and families grappling to find collective fulfilment. What does it mean to be a partner and parent in a world where everyone is leaning in?

my two boys adventuring

my two boys adventuring

Recently, as the mother of a two and a four year old, I went on a work trip, my first solo travel since the birth of my eldest. Apart from the very occasional overnight (drop-off-at-bedtime pick-up-at-breakfast) sleepover, I had never been away from my children. My husband had travelled consistently since they were born, but this experience was new to me. As I strode at a grown-up pace through the airport, wheeling a single teeny carry-on, it struck me: this was the first time in five years, since first falling pregnant, that I had conceived of myself as a singular entity, a human being in my own right. Of course, there was still the invisible umbilical pull, but this experience of thinking-only-of-myself was both foreign and like slipping on my softest old comfies.

It got me thinking: What makes our lives whole? How do we prioritise family time, husband-wife time, career time, self-care time and home time? Can we be whole or can we only be compartmentalised parts? Is there a work-life-family-self sweet spot?

lean in to sandcastle building

lean in to sandcastle building

I like Jennifer Dulski’s concept of the Work-Life Mashup. Be with people you love and do the work that matters, she says. Focus on what’s important. I also resonated with Rosa Brooks’s response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: lean out! More is not always better. How about also leaning in to family, happiness and wellbeing?

A good friend recently leant me Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives. Crabb’s message is that, in order to achieve any semblance of work-family happiness, women need support in the home and men need more flexibility to step out of a traditional work model.

Men: supercharged by wives but missing out on lives

“Men’s careers rattle along uninterrupted,” says Crabb. Their wives are the “invisible power-pellet” which makes them more able to succeed in their own careers. “For fathers, having a family gave them a competitive edge,” while for women children make her, “less likely to be employed.” Men don’t tend to take time out from their careers when they have a family. As their children are born and grow, their work lives rocket forward on unbroken trajectories.

The downside of man as breadwinner and woman as homemaker is that fathers are excluded from “a universe of experience … and that’s a sad thing.” Why is a dad looking after his own children called being “Mr Mum” or “Daddy Daycare”, instead of just ‘being a parent’?

My husband recently went to the weekday parent induction for our eldest son’s new school, and he was one of three dads there; the other forty-plus parents were mums. Hopefully he was seen as neither a hero nor a novelty; just a proud, interested and loving parent.

Half-crazed superwomen: doing it all not having it all

Crabb cites studies and statistics which show that women are the ones who tend to adjust their schedules and take on the lioness’s share of the caring and housework responsibilities. She describes this as the age of the “half crazed ‘superwoman’” who attempts to ‘do’ work and family in equal measure, all while having “that feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one does not have a job. To do any less feels like failing at both.” Women tend to step back, step out, or figure out acrobatically-flexible ways to scratch together a work life while their children are small, or pay others to care for their kids.

I have heard an employer say, “if you want efficiency, hire a part-time mum” and Crabb asserts that she uses “every scrap of the day like an Italian farmer uses all of the pig.” We all have our multi-tasking, time-saving routines. I wrote here about the way I approach my PhD schedule. And there are always circumstances under which the delicate ecosystem of childcare, work, family and self, tips on its axis and sends us sprawling.

Social media: help or hindrance?

Social media allows us all to connect to others and share our lives. While my professional social media is focused on my intellectual interests and cultivating professional conversations, I use my personal social media to share moments of beauty or delight which I’ve carved out or stumbled upon: a sunrise at the beach, my children playing happily, a wonky birthday cake I made from scratch. My aim is not to craft an image of work-life-mashup perfection, or to suggest that this social media output is my complete reality. This is the highlights reel, not the whole picture! Crabb warns, though, that women who try to make work-family-life juggling appear easy can’t complain when the world doesn’t notice how much they are struggling to maintain their appearance of effortless togetherness.

For some, social media posts are an additional pressure. Apparently there is a thing called ‘Facebook life envy’. The mother who sees others’ decontextualised posts might wonder: How will I assemble a perfect outfit, while making grain-free dairy-free sugar-free recipes from whole foods grown in my own garden, mixing my own eco-organic-fairtrade face scrub, engineering creative craft activities, hand making personalised Christmas cards, and take a ‘no filter’ photo of a house sparklingly clean from all-natural chemical-free cleaning products?

We need to remember that social media is not life. And our lives are our own to live. 

social media is not reality

the highlight reel: social media is not reality

Finding the Work-Family Fulfilment sweet spot

Crabb concludes The Wife Drought by suggesting that we become accepting of men taking time for family or working more flexibly to achieve their own work-life-family contentment. Men should be able to lean out, she says, without being the subject of ridicule or novelty.

I’m lucky enough to have the kind of mutually supportive relationship that Tanya Plibersek talks about in Crabb’s The Wife Drought. My husband and I support each other professionally and share what we do at home. My husband believes in me as a mother, a wife, a researcher and a professional. He supports me in my dreams: to nurture a happy, connected family; earn a PhD; build a satisfying career; have a love-filled joyful adventurous life. And I support him in his: to be a present, treasured father to our boys; build a family legacy with them; grow his own businesses; develop his reach and impact; nurture professional connections and make a difference to the industries in which he is immersed.

We need to believe in each other’s capacities for awesome, and in each other’s dreams.

It may not be easy or perfect, and my husband and I may live our weekday lives by the ding of an Outlook calendar, but we both want to actively parent our children and be – really be – in their lives. We both work a semi-flexible working week. We share housework. We both have times when one of us is parenting our children and the other is working or traveling. We have lots of time when we are all together. Our boys see us, I think, as equally their parents. They experience us as a whole family unit in which we all work together to support each other as we seek individual and collective happiness. These choices are based on our beliefs. I know many happy families who make different, equally fulfilling choices for their own circumstances and principles. Each family needs to find its own changing recipe for the sweet spot of ‘this works for us, for now’ and ‘this makes us happy’.

Perhaps discussions about work-family-life fulfilment should be less debates in which we tally the percentage of housework done or hours worked or dollars earned by each partner. Can we focus more on talking with our partners and our employers about how we can support each other in our dreams for our selves and our families? What might that look like for our particular family, based on our visions, dreams, opportunities and resources?

There is no “invisible power pellet” or perfect one-size-fits-all recipe for finding the work-family-life-happiness sweet spot. We can only make choices which work for each family at any given time, riding the ebb and flow of life’s messy randomness together, and with a view to serving each individual (parents and children) and the whole.

carve out time & space for joy & simple pleasures

carve out time & space for joy & simple pleasures