About the appreciation of textiles and textile techniques and their disappearance

Textiles stand for humanification. Braided and woven fabrics are among the earliest hand-made products of Homo sapiens on his way to becoming a cultured human being.

The focus of my paper is on the process of the continuous increase in textile knowledge and craftsmanship for the production and decoration of fabrics[1] that accompanied the history of civilisation, and the increasing loss of this expertise and its consequences in the course of industrialisation.

In Europe, the knowledge of fibres suitable for thread production and the very time-consuming and often difficult processing procedures for fabric production were common knowledge until the 19th century.[2]  Many people were directly involved in the production of fabrics for everyday use. Impressively complex textile techniques for decorating everyday objects were developed during the weaving of patterns and borders, but above all in the further processing of clothing, blankets, cushions, bags, etc. These skills, which were often used to make everyday objects more valuable, were often used in the production of fabrics for everyday use. These skills, which often stood for a particular region, were passed on and refined from generation to generation over centuries.

In local history museums, museums of European cultures or ethnological collections, we can marvel at a colourful palette of decorative edging, filigree ribbon weaving, figurative cross-stitch patterns and sequin embroidery on bonnets, bodices or decorative cloths, while textile treasures from the possession of the nobility or the church often leave us speechless because of their splendour and their luxurious, artistic and extremely valuable decoration. Applied precious stones, pearls in various sizes and embroideries of gold and silver linen or filigree lace trimmings demonstrate worldly power and sacral presentation. In fact, at that time the fabrics themselves were of immeasurable value. Silk fabrics such as multicoloured silk damask, lampas or pressed or chased velvet based on pictures cost a fortune: in the 16th century, a pound of gold was equivalent to about a pound of silk.

Designing and executing patterns was also highly regarded. Before 1800, the craftsmanship and artistry involved in making silk and velvet fabrics and decorating them was equated with works of fine art - paintings and sculptures. Artfully crafted appliqués and embroideries, also known as "needle painting" because of their pictorial quality, were recognised as high art and were honoured as such.[3]

With the invention of mechanical looms, knitting and embroidery machines, which became more and more perfect in the course of the 19th century and finally surpassed the work done by hand, no matter how skilfully it was done, not only because it took much less time, but even in the result, the high esteem in which textile arts had been held for thousands of years faded. "Textile gold" became an affordable mass product for many.

Precious textile, reproduced in marble, with gilded border and fringes of stone, Rome. Photo: G. Wolter, Archiv Wolter.
Precious textile, reproduced in marble, with gilded border and fringes of stone, Rome. Photo: G. Wolter, Archiv Wolter.

The guild of gold and silk embroiderers, one of the most prestigious in Europe since the 13th century and since the 17th century almost exclusively reserved for men because of its high reputation, dissolved - like all guilds - at the end of the Ancien Régime. Machines successively took over all processes of textile production and also surface decoration, including the elaborate surface, trimming and hem embroidery practised by professionally trained textile craftsmen. Embroidery, weaving, knitting, crocheting, sewing by hand became a purely "women's thing" in European culture after 1800, and it has remained so de facto until today. This assignment is paradigmatic for the new social reality in the 19th century, which propagated for bourgeois women a restriction to the home, hearth and children. Young girls, wives and widows demonstrated discipline, diligence and virtue in the Biedermeier and Wilhelminian periods through skill and perseverance in making textile objects. Textile arts became  merely a pastime for idle women or poorly paid wage labour.[4]

In contrast, textiles initially played a prominent role in the new Arts and Crafts museums that had been founded throughout Europe since 1850. Originating in royal, princely or ecclesiastical treasuries and private collections, their task was to provide models for the artistically sophisticated design of industrial goods.[5]  The illustrative material, usually offered in the context of educational institutions, was intended to raise the artistic level of machine-produced textiles and drive the development of new standards in production.[6]  It was not until the end of historicism around 1900 that interest in perfecting the machine-generated imitation of historical fabrics waned and new avenues opened up for the production of contemporary items.[7]  Since then, machine-made goods have dominated the market; only in the luxury sector of haute couture and textile art they are still made by hand.

Textiles are a central segment of our cultural heritage, not only in Europe but worldwide. However, knowledge of the sometimes very complex and often extremely time-consuming textile manufacturing processes has recently developed into expert knowledge,[8] with incalculable consequences for the appreciation and preservation of traditional textiles and textile traditions. For seeing is always " knowledgeable seeing". If textile knowledge is lost, we lose access to these oldest and most astonishing products of human history.

[1]  For example, Hans Sachs' "Book of Estates" from 1568 lists fourteen professions with a textile connection, many of which no longer exist today: Seydensticker, Beutler, Gürtler, Nestler, Schneider, Kürschner, Schwartzferber, Weber, Hüter, Schuhmacher, Fingerhüter, Thuchschärer, Nadler and Teppichmacher.

[2] In other cultures they remain so to this day, even though globally there is a clear trend towards the weakening of textile skills.

[3] For example, the embroiderers of Antwerp belonged to the highly respected St Luke's Guild, which also included painters and sculptors. See M. Stradal and U. Brommer: Mit Nadel und Faden (With Needle and Thread), Freiburg 1990, p. 55. Everywhere, court embroiderers and professional embroiderers were regarded as artisans and thus counted as fine artists.

[4] In the 19th century, for example, embroiderers carried out low-paid commissioned work for the military as a means of earning a living.

[5] The first world exhibitions in Paris and London in 1851 had revealed the shortcoming of machine-made fabrics: their lack of design quality. Cf. Textile Treasures from the Renaissance and Baroque, Inventory Catalogue Bavarian National Museum Munich 2002, pp. 13f. For centuries, textile treasures have had a permanent place in treasure chambers alongside other precious objects.

[6] A particularly good example of the intertwining of technical progress and sophisticated design is the development of the cashmere shawl. See Hackspiel-Mikosch Elisabeth: Der Kashmirschal und der Jacquardwebstuhl - Ein technischer und interkultureller Modewettstreit zur Zeit der Industriellen Revolution (lecture) and Lotz, Astrid: Gewebte Juwelen: The History of the Cashmere Shawl, o. O. 2015.

[7] Interfaces for breaking new ground were the Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau movements.

[8] Even textile restorers today are often confronted with historical fabrics whose 'DNA' they cannot decipher.