Complete Guide to (57) Almost All Types of Fiber Arts with Photos

This guide covers 57, and counting, types of fiber arts. They are broken down into two major categories:

1) String work, which includes spinning treatments, knotting, lace making, weaving and needlework.

2) Felt work, which includes sculpture, string felt, fur felt, wet felting and dry felting.

Fiber art, in its strictest sense, is fine art made with natural or synthetic fibers, such as wool and cotton, to acrylic and nylon, where the resulting work is valued for aesthetic and artistic expression over utility. You could add that the artisanship and materials used are also an essential part of the creation.

What this definition leaves out is the incredible depth and breadth of fiber art techniques used to construct all types of fiber arts. And in some cases, technique is the defining feature. So if, for example, you were to weave metal, some consider that fiber art.

Fiber art is flexible. As a result, there is a wide variety in fine art created with the different types of historical techniques. And history is important. Fiber art, as opposed to traditional visual art, is rooted in processes which create necessary utilitarian items, from ropes to the repaired duvets of everyday life.

In this article, I will cover the main types of fiber arts. This will not be an exhaustive list, if for no other reason than the variety of fiber crafts used to make decorative art across all cultures has not been fully documented. Nevertheless, as you will soon see, the flexibility and utility of fiber marks it as a material of creative potential that hasn’t come close to being thoroughly tapped.

As a working fiber artist, I have observed that all fiber art breaks down into one of two forms, string work or felt work. 

String work includes every form of fiber creation that begins with spinning. Things like rope making, lace, weaving, sewing, knitting or embroidery to name just a few are all types of string work. 

The basis of all string work involves taking raw fibers and twisting them together to create a ply that is both more durable than the unspun fibers, and covers a vastly longer distance than the original fiber’s staple length. 

What’s staple length? That’s the typical length of one strand of any given fiber. A few things, like silk or synthetics, can cover almost any distance, but for now, let’s focus on string work as disciplines where short fibers are made into much much longer strings, which you can then use in a multitude of ways.

Felt work is created using feltable animal fibers either through wet methods or dry,  that mat the fibers together. This often takes the form of  large sheets but 3D shapes or mounds can be crafted as well. Felt work can include everything from shaped garments, sculpture, paintings, to paper itself.

Because fiber is such a flexible material, it is also possible for string work and felt work to overlap. A fiber artist can felt string work, or incorporate felt into spinning. At the moment this kind of cross over does not lead to a significantly differentiated technique. So  we’ll leave exploring that wrinkle to another post.

From here forward I will give a brief description of the many types of fiber arts divided into either string or felt work.

String Work

Of the two major types of fiber arts, string work has by far the greater variety of techniques. String work is any sort of fiber craft that is made from spinning fiber into either thread, plys, yarn or rope. Once spun a fiber is a string. Those strings are then made into different types of finished works be they textile, yarn, rope, rug or other art form.

Once spun, string based types of fiber arts break down into the following categories: spinning treatments, color work, knot work, lace making, weaving and needlework.

Spinning Treatments

As the foundation to all string work, spinning can be a rather broad topic all on its own. Yet, rather than go through all the different types of spinning, I’m going to focus on those treatments prized by craft people and collectors alike.

Ropes

So let’s talk about rope. Yes, there is debate on where to draw the line between rope and cord. But let’s save that conundrum for another post, and instead look at these three techniques: braiding, lucet, and kumihimo.

Braiding

Braiding is the creation of strong cordage by interlacing three or more plys of fiber staple, textile, or semi-flexible material into a decorative pattern. While most everyone recognizes braids as a hairstyle, it’s also a historic technique to make rope, rugs and now artwork.

Selection from As Above, So Below by Ashlee Mays

Lucet

Asfridhr, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lucet is a historic tool and technique used to create cordage with a single strand in a series of knots. Embellishing with the addition of  contrasting strands adds decorative appeal.

Dating back to the Medieval era, the lucet tool is handheld with two prongs or horns. The final cordage is stretchy, strong, and square. As a technique, lucet cord lends itself to creating long lengths of cord that won’t unravel when cut.

Kumihimo

Kumihimo is an ancient Japanese braiding technique over a thousand years old. It involves weaving strands of silk or other fibers to create beautiful cords. Years ago it was used to secure armor and as decorations on clothing. Today kumihimo has become popular worldwide.

Making kumihimo cordage requires a special stand called a marudai. The strands of silk are threaded through the marudai, creating a base for braiding. By interlacing the threads in a specific order, intricate patterns are formed. These patterns can be simple or complex, depending on the skill and creativity of the artist making them.

Finished work can vary between an almost flat construction to a very rounded shape. In modern Japan kumihimo cords function as ties around obi in the accepted presentation of wearing kimono. Elsewhere these cords are a growing art form with significant potential.

Photos by Ccassan at the Wikipedia project

Art Yarns

Yarn from my stash and some of my handspun.

Now, some folks would say that yarn isn’t art. While I agree you can make that case, I ask that you bear in mind that from the bottom up, all string arts are made with some kind of thread or yarn. Knowing that, a skilled artist will take their yarn seriously. How it’s spun and prepared will have a profound impact on the final artwork. So moving on…..

In today’s fiber market, the creation of yarn is its own art form. Beyond rope making, the creation of art yarns is a spinning treatment which is a growing area of fiber art. Art yarns are handspun skeins made with various color or texture effects. They can include the addition of materials like beads or feathers which add to the interest to the finished hank. It is possible to use these yarns to make further artworks or keep them as a completed work.

The vast majority of fiber comes to market dyed, and fiber dyeing is its own artistic bent. We are going to stick to art yarn applications when it comes to color. There are five main variations of colorwork when it comes to spinning yarn: barber pole, self striping, ombré, speckle and tweed yarns.

Barber Pole Yarn

Barber pole or marl yarns involve two or more plys of different colors spun together to create a contrasting barber pole effect. In recent years barber pole yarns have been more often hand spun. But growing markets are seeing more industrial produced barber pole yarns.

Self Striping Yarn/thread

Self striping yarn, or space dyed yarn, has long blocks of color which make stripes when the yarn is worked. Skilled hand spinning or commercial preparations create this effect. Common uses of self striping yarn are sock knitting, embroidery, crochet, and weaving.

Ombré

Ombré yarn is a type of self striping yarn where the color changes are gradual. It’s common for ombré yarns (or threads) to shift from one color extreme to another. With the subtle shift in tone, these yarns are well suited to garments, weaving, macrame and fine art.

Speckle

Speckle yarns are currently an underused dye style in my estimation. Raw or salted dye sprinkled over yarns leaves small intense flecks of color over a background of contrasting uniform color. The end result is similar to a tweed, but with a greater pixelization to the over all shade.

Tweed

Tweed yarns are made by mixing dyed fibers of different colors together to create a complex hue. Tweed yarn and fabrics have a rich history. Largely associated with Scotland, tweed yarn is also made in Germany and the US. Originally the product of natural dyes that reflect the landscape of Scotland, today tweed comes in many shades, tones and hues.

Color Illusion

Color Illusion yarns are made using a combination of the above techniques. Different color fibers are spun so that the color change frequency changes over short spans of the strand. Barber poled plying break up and blend the colors further. The final effect will give one combined color at a distance. On close inspection the underlying, often different, contrasting colors are obvious. This differs from tweed in that the overall color is much less uniform. And the underlying colors are more pixelated.

Knot Work

Knots have been a fixture of string crafts since the beginning of spinning. When working different types of string crafts, like knitting or embroidery, knots are frowned upon. In other areas, knot making became its own art form. Here we will look at macrame, mizuhiki and quipu. I’m drawing a distinction here from lucet and crochet, which are also forms of knotting, because lucet and crochet need tools to make and the construction forms long chains.

Macramé

Macramé is something of a catch all term for any textile that is created from knots. It traces its history back to Arabic weaving. As traditional hand weaving creates loose ends when the warp is taken off the loom, weavers learned to knot these loose ends. Arabic weavers in the 13th century developed elaborate knotting patterns. These added decorative edgings over time became an art form of their own.

Today macramé is experiencing a revival as a technique for making unique wall hangings and jewelry. Macramé is most often made with jute, hemp, cotton, or linen, and sometimes leather and yarns. The inclusion of beads, bone, wood or shell can add interest or flavor as well.

Macramé Art by Windy Chien

Windy Chien” by PunkToad is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Mizuhiki

Engagement present: Bonsai from Mizuhiki chords, Exhibition Waza – Traditional Crafts from Kyôto at Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 2011.

Mizuhiki plant” by Clément Bucco-Lechat is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Mizuhiki is a traditional Japanese art form that involves the intricate art of decorative knot tying using a special cord made from washi paper. This centuries-old craft has deep cultural and historical significance in Japan and is often used for special occasions, ceremonies, and gifts.

The word “mizuhiki” itself is derived from two Japanese words: “mizu,” meaning water, and “hiki,” meaning to pull or draw. This art form symbolizes the flow of water and represents the unbreakable bonds of human relationships and connections.

Tracing back to the Edo period (1603-1868), mizuhiki was primarily used for decorative gift ties. Over time, it evolved into a distinct art form with its own techniques and styles. Mizuhiki cords are typically made by twisting long, thin strips of washi paper. These strips are then coated with a thin layer of glue or starch to give them strength and durability.

Mizuhiki knots come in various shapes and designs, each with its own symbolic meaning. Common shapes include butterflies, cranes, flowers, and other natural elements. These knots are sometimes embellished with beads or pearls to enhance their beauty and significance.

Mizuhiki is associated with good luck, prosperity, and well-wishing. It is commonly used in celebratory occasions such as weddings, births, and graduations. Mizuhiki is also present in arts such as tea ceremonies and ikebana (flower arrangement).

Today, its delicate knots serve as a reminder of the importance of human connections and the beauty found in the simplest of gestures.

Quipu

Quipu, an ancient art form used by the Inca civilization. It was a fascinating system of communication and record-keeping through the use of knotted cords. Made from cotton or wool and dyed various colors, quipus served as a visual language, allowing the Inca people to record important information such as census data, historical events, and economic records.

Though the explicit meanings of historic quipu have been lost, we do know that each knot signifyes specific information. The position, color, and type of knot all denote different knowledge.

Quipus also held artistic value. The cords were often dyed in vibrant colors, creating a striking and aesthetically pleasing display. Beside their practical uses, quipus is a form of artistic expression, with different knotting techniques and arrangements creating unique patterns.

Artists like Cecilia Vicuña have brought this ancient practice into the world of modern art.

“Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu” by Dominic’s pics is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Lace Making

Lace is a delicate and intricate decorative fabric formed by intertwining threads or fibers in complex patterns. Lace can be made using various materials, including linen, silk, or even metallic threads.

The process of lace making uses a variety of techniques, including looping, twisting, and braiding threads. Patterns can range from simple and geometric to elaborate and floral, depending on the creativity and talent of the artist.

Agnes Herczeg‘s work is a good example of how old lace making traditions are being spun in new and exciting ways.

Each different type of lace tradition offers its own potential as an art form. While lace making is often broken down into needle laces and bobbin laces, I think that ignores the greater diversity of techniques. There are many ways to make lace beyond needles and bobbins. They include shuttles, sticks and hooks. Here I will cover these major lace types: netting, tatting, bobbin lace, knitted lace, crochet lace and needle lace.

Netting or Filet Lace

Lace netting is a decorative openwork believed to have developed from fishnet. Sometimes called filet lace, it is technically a type of needle lace and also a form of embroidery.

This type of work dates back centuries. It is used in various applications, from decorative textiles to accessories. Crafted on a knotted lace net, needle embroidery creates the complex designs with fine thread.

Traditionally a net-like foundation is created first, by knotting or looping threads in a grid-like pattern. The netting becomes the base for the intricate designs that are built upon it. Embellishments can include decorative elements such as knots, twists, and fillings.

Tatting

Tatting is sometimes called ‘beggars lace’ because it can be made from most scrap threads. Tatting is also thought to be derived from fishnets. Crafted in a series of loops and knots, tatting resembles elaborate rope work done on ships by sailors and fishermen.

It is believed to have been developed as a lace over 200 years ago. And flourished through the early 20th century. It has recently gone through a resurgence in popularity.

A shuttle or a needle guides the thread through a series of loops and knots, forming patterns and motifs. It can be embellished with beads or other decorative elements.

Tatting necklace by maranta- Anna Drwiła – Own work, http://maranta.livenet.pl/bizuteria_frywolitkowa/index.html
CC BY-SA 3.0

Needle Lace

Photo with Agnes Herczeg’s permission.

Sometimes called pillow lace, needle lace is made with needle and thread. The needles are worked through the threads making stitches which together form the lace. A backing pillow can be used as a support while the stitching is done

This style of lace making is thought to date back to Italy. It was initially an adaptation of cutwork, where stitches are used to make a pattern on linen threads and warp or weft yarns are cut and then pulled out leaving behind a grid which could be worked on.

This developed into a technique where a single needle and thread is used to created an interwoven patterned mesh. To create this mesh, stitches are held at different points until the work is completed

There are different approaches to holding the stitches. while the work is in progress. One notable method is to secure heavy guiding thread through a backing paper. Then the lace stitching is worked through those guides with different stitches until the full design is covered.

Today Agnes Herczeg is taking this historic textile craft to some amazing heights, blending color along with the stitching.

Bobbin Lace

Bobbin lace developed in Genoa Italy out of their traditional braid making. It was easier to learn than cutwork lace while also using less expensive tools and materials.

To make bobbin lace, threads of wool, silk, linen, cotton or metal are spooled onto bobbins. A paper pattern is then pinned to a pillow, and the threads are braided and twisted to reproduce the pattern. As work moves along, more pins hold the placement of interlaced threads.

It picked up the names, bone lace and pillow lace, from the tools used to make it. That’s right, bone was used to make bobbins years ago.

Much like other fiber arts, bobbin lace began as a way to embellish garments or protect furniture.

Today artists like Pierre Fouché are breaking new ground in this historic art form.

Photo used with permission of Pierre Fouché

Knitted Lace

One of several knitted lace birds I made, and detail from a lace shawl I made.

Knitting can also be used to create lace. As a structure knitted lace has all the built in flexibility of any knitted textile. Like other laces, knitted lace was preceded by embroidery and net making. This technique is worked on knitting needles which pull loops of yarn into a network of other loops.

Knitting has ancient origins with historic pieces found in Egypt dating back to 1000 A.D. The complexity of these pieces argue that the invention of the craft happened much much earlier. Lace knitting is thought to have first risen to popularity in the late 1500s.

It was common for women to hand knit lace trimmings and local areas frequently developed their own stylized patterns. As reading and writing were not common skills, most patterns were not written down. Samplers became a way to both learn and to record stitch patterns for the future.

A huge staple of knitted garments, and trims, knitted lace is a technique with a lot of artistic potential. I have done some experimental knitted lace, like my lace birds. Unlike some lace making disciplines, knitting allows for sculptural construction, and for finished products with tremendous stretch.

Crochet Lace

Though crochet lace shares similar roots to other laces, it is sometimes derided as not real lace. This is a slander. Crochet lace came to popularity in the 1800’s. In Ireland, where it reached new heights as an art form. It also became a point of politics.

During the Potato Famine, schools were built to instruct needlework to impoverished girls. The resulting lace was then worn by wealthy upper class women. The perception was that often the girls were exploited. This dynamic brewed resentment that lingered for over a century.

While structurally different from other styles of lace, crochet lace is similar in that it doesn’t have much stretch. Made using a crochet hook and chains of stitching, the stitches are interlocked using only a single strand of yarn or thread.

This is an incredibly versatile way to make lace. Not only can it be worked directly onto another finished work as an edging, but it allows for free-form work. This means crochet lace can be easily adapted for sculptural or other different types of art forms.

The work of Rhianne Evans gets at some of those possibilities.

Photo used with permission from Rhianna Evans

Weaving

Weaving is a huge category of fiber art. Not only does it cover all the different types of weaving itself, but it also encompasses rug making, textile art, and sewing.

In the strictest sense, weaving is a method of producing textiles made through the interlacing of a working thread (weft) through a large grouping of long threads held under tension (warp). There are a couple of techniques that fall slightly outside of those parameters, but we will get that.

The most basic weaving patterns are satin, plain and twill, and these make up the majority of the fabric we use everyday. Weaving is an involved process that happens in a series of steps and most often requires a loom of some sort.

Weaving predates recorded history. The assumption is that weaving developed from basketry which may have sprung from observation of bird’s nest building. The earliest known artifacts of weaving only date back to the Neolithic period. But, there is some evidence of woven textiles as old as 25,000BC.

Ancient Egypt has the earliest recorded depictions of weaving, which have enough detail to understand how their looms functioned. There are also vast amounts of ancient linen from this time in the form of mummy wrappings. In general, Egyptian images of weaving feature women. Throughout history weaving has been considered women’s work.

This long history helps to account for the significant variation in styles and functions. Because weaving is an area of such monster variety, I’ll be discussing it in these four types: weaving techniques, rug making, textile art and sewing.

Weaving Techniques

While weaving itself is straightforward enough, threads are interlaced making a (mostly) non-elastic sheet of finished fabric, through the ages people have discovered many ways to do this.

All forms of weaving at the least need some form of frame or loom. Even backstrap weaving, which can be traced back to 2500 BC, is done using sticks to separate the warp into a functioning loom.

What differs in different types of weaving is how the strings are interlaced. While most weaving is created with a warp and a weft, there are some notable exceptions. Different interlacing techniques do create observable differences in the finished fabric.

Because the process of weaving is often similar, I’m not going to focus too much on different types of looms, of which there are many. Instead I’m going to cover the following different types: basic weaving, cinch weaving, tapestry, jacquard, pin loom, and sprang.

Basic Weaving

Overshot weaving by master weaver Sallie Guy

As you might assume from the title, basic weaving covers the vast majority of work that creates the familiar textiles we recognize as fabric. Basic weaving is done on any of several different kinds of looms and examples of basic weaving are found worldwide.

This type of weaving will create fabric with little to no elasticity, but it can be very colorful. Plain, twill and satin are all basic weaving patterns. Basic types of weaving can be pushed to the limits as you’d see in overshot work by adding extra wefts.

The woven work of Sallie Guy encompasses the more challenging patterns created with basic weaving.

Cinch Weaving

Cinch weaving is a relatively new form of weaving. An adaptation of the Navajo tradition, cinch weaving was developed to make the girth for saddles. Like many equine related things, it disappeared as cars replaced horses for transportation.

In the late twentieth century, Roy Kady and Jay Begay began to resurrect the art form from remaining samples and the descriptions and memories of their grandparents.

Cinch weaving is worked directly onto the metal components of the girth. Warp strands are heavy mohair and part of the decorative design. Weft strands interlace the warp in regular and irregular intervals, leaving a large area of the warp unworked and open. It combines tapestry techniques with the exposed warp to create a unique style of construction.

While this style of weaving is primarily seen in the horse world, artistic pieces command a high price. This style of construction allows for many possibilities in the future.

Photo from the collection at Quarter Turn Ranch

Tapestry

Tapestry was one of the first fiber crafts that was specifically created as an art form. While it is generally worked in a plain weave, the weft is worked in a variety of colors to create images instead of patterns. Most tapestries are wall hanging art pieces.

In tapestry weaving, the weft threads are interlaced and worked as separate areas of color. These color areas come together creating the image. In this style of weaving the weft generally hides the warp threads in the finished piece.

Historically there is some confusion over what qualifies as “tapestry”. The Bayeux Tapestry, for example, is a work of embroidery. To make the distinction clear going forward, in this article tapestry will be used only to describe artwork woven using tapestry techniques.

Because each color shape has to be interlaced relative to other areas, tapestry weaving can be time consuming and difficult to make. Due to these factors, tapestry work was highly valued through the Renaissance before falling out of fashion in the late 1700s.

Like many other fiber crafts, tapestry weaving experienced a revival in the late 1800s that continues today. While tapestry has been prized as a status symbol, its origin in the world of craft, left it overlooked as an art form. That’s changing with many tapestry artists now recognized for their work.

Today Elizabeth Buckley, a second generation tapestry artist, brings together the craftsmanship and artistry for the contemporary audience.

Jacquard Weaving

The Jacquard loom was a revolutionary device that streamlined the creation of highly complex fabrics like brocade, damask and matelasse. While it was possible to make these fabrics with a simple loom, the process was very labor-intensive. This put hard limits on the complexity of the finished textiles.

Using punch cards, Jacquard looms made the production of highly complex designs fast. So naturally designs became even more complex.

The nature of the punch card system was so groundbreaking that it ultimately led to the invention of the computer. Today Jacquard fabrics have fallen out of favor for clothing. Upholstery is currently the biggest use of these legendary textiles.

As a fiber art, Jacquard weaving is on the cusp of a new Renaissance. Companies like Digital Weaving Norway have developed digital Jacquard looms for artists. Weavers like Robin Muller represent the forefront of Jacquard woven fiber art.

jacquard woven; gold on black” is marked with CC0 1.0.

Pin Loom weaving

Dragon coat detail used with permission of Raeus Cannon

Pin loom weaving is the youngest of the bunch in terms of weaving traditions. Developed in the 1930s, pin looms were marketed to housewives as a way to reuse yarn and repair garments.

Pin loom weaving differs from other forms of weaving in that it is worked with a single strand of yarn or thread. This strand acts as both warp and weft yarns with the final tail woven back into the finished square. The finished fabric is in the form of a square that corresponds to the size of the loom. Finished squares can be pieced together to make garments or any larger work.

Despite their small size, pin looms are capable of supporting complex weaving patterns like overshot or Bronson lace. While many fiber artists use pin looms to test woven patterns for larger work that is beginning to change.

Artists like John Mullarkey, who helped create the Zoom Loom, and Raeus Cannon, whose pin loom work was displayed at Vogue Knitting Live, are at the forefront of pin loom art.

Sprang

As pin looms represent new areas of weaving, sprang is a return to the old. Sprang dates back to at least 1400 B.C., with early samples preserved in Danish bog burials. Unlike other weaving techniques, cloth made by sprang is very elastic. So elastic that most sprang was mistaken for knitting until the 19th century.

Sprang also differs from most weaving in that it does not use a weft strand. All sprang is made by interlacing the warp threads, much like in the string game “cat’s cradle” to which it is linked. A stick positioned through the strands holds the work in place as the threads are twisted around each other.

When the work is complete a central cord is woven in to keep the finished fabric from unraveling. With this style of weaving the final cloth produces a mirror image pattern on either side of the central finishing cord.

As a practical technique, sprang was largely replaced by knitting. A notable exception being Punjab attire in India and Pakistan.

In modern fiber art, sprang is being rediscovered. The Handweaver’s Convergence in Knoxville 2022 had sprang as did the 2016 convergence in Milwaukee.

Fragment of Sprang Work” is marked with CC0 1.0.

By Photographed by User:Lillyundfreya – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Saori Weaving
A Person Weaving Fabric by Hand

Photo by Karolina Grabowska:

Saori weaving was founded by Misao Jo (1913-2018, Japan) in 1969. At 57 years old, she intended for this style of weaving to be an art form free of the traditional rules of weaving.

Partly informed by Zen Buddhism, the intent with Saori weaving is to open up to creativity and forget about technique being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The aim of Saori weaving is purely artistic.

Since being developed, Saori weaving has spread world wide. It is practiced in over 50 countries and on every continent save Antartica.

Rug/Carpet Making

First the language. While the terms ‘rug’ and ‘carpet’ are often used interchangeably, the advent of wall to wall carpeting in the 1930s brought a new definition to the scene. Though ‘carpet’ as a word goes back to ancient Latin, today it’s more often associated with something you’d have installed, than an artistic work. So for clarity we will use the term rug, for now.

Rug making as a craft goes back thousands of years.  Initially, rugs were created for functional purposes, providing warmth, insulation, and a soft surface to walk on. Over time, rug making evolved into a form of artistic expression, with weavers incorporating intricate designs, motifs, and storytelling elements into their creations.

There is definitely more than one way to make a rug. Braided, embroidered and felted rugs are types of non-woven varieties. As these techniques are covered in other places, in this section we will focus on the woven techniques of rug making which are being incorporated into contemporary fiber art.

Woven rugs are made either as a complete weaving project, as you’d famously find in Arabia, India, Iran, Pakistan or Turkey, or they are made by applying pile to a finished woven fabric. These categories break down into woven, knotted, hooked and tufted (punch) rugs.

Woven Rugs

Woven rugs are produced on a loom, and they can either be finished with a plush (cut) pile or they can be left with a loop pile. In today’s market rugs with a combination of loop and cut pile are increasingly common.

Weaving rugs is laborious, requiring many color changes to produce complex patterns. This style of rug making is most associated with the Middle East. Naturally dyed silk and wool are among the fibers traditionally favored for this style of rug making.

The craftsmanship required in the construction and the complex designs developed into an artistic appreciation, with the finest examples commanding a high price.

Knotted rugs

The construction of knotted rugs differs from woven rugs, in that the pile yarns are tied directly onto the warp threads. The types of knots, their tightness and the dimensions of the yarn come together to make the knot count. A high knot count is a marker of a high quality rug.

Very high end rugs can have upwards of 1000 knots per inch and can take years to make. Fragments of historic knotted rugs have as many as 4000 knots per inch.

The two main styles of knotting are symmetrical and asymmetrical, and this type of work is more common in Pakistan and India.

Fiber artist Deirdred Dyson is at the forefront of the contemporary application of this style of rug making.

Hooked Rugs

While many rugs are constructed as part of the weaving process, hooked rugs are made by taking an existing piece of fabric, like burlap, for a backing and hooking loops of colored yarn into it.

It is thought that this rug making process developed as a way to use waste materials from weaving mills. Fiber slubs cast off from machine weaving were collected and worked into backing fabric. But Jen Stuart-Anderson writes “…the technique of hooking woolen loops through a base fabric was used by the Vikings, whose families probably brought it to Scotland.”

Hooking rugs may have initially been a poor man’s way to stretch resources, today the work of Lucy Trask Barnard is preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Punch (tufted) rugs

As carpet making became industrial, developments like the tufting gun revolutionized the field. Using a hollow needle, a tufting gun pushes yarn through a backing fabric base. Leaving uncut loops as pile it quickly creates a full carpet.

As a textile art form, tufting took off in 2018 when Tieman Alexander and Tim Eads established Tuft the World.

Popularized on Instagram and Tiktok, tufting is a rapidly growing art form.

Textile Craft Art

Without wading too deep into the particulars of textile vs fabric, for this article, a textile is a material made of interlacing fibers. This includes woven and knitted fabric made from thread, yarn, wire, elastic and other fibers.

Here we are going to focus on material made from string and which is not felt. Textile art, as used here, is more about the surface treatment of the cloth itself.

Included in this category are disciplines such as stitch resist indigo dyeing, silk painting, silk screen printing, batik, tie-dying and shibori. This is a truncated list, to be sure, but it’s intended to provide a sampling of surface treatments as other nuances are covered elsewhere.

Stitch Resist Indigo Dyeing

Photo Courtesy of Indio Arts Gallery

Stitch resist indigo dyeing is a traditional fiber craft technique from west to central Africa. Notable pieces coming from Cameroon to Senegal, this was a cloth of elite women.

Like shibori, stitch resist is a labor intensive and tricky process. The woven material is stitched tightly in a decorative pattern and then dyed in indigo. When the surrounding cloth is a rich midnight blue, the stitching is picked out revealing the underlying design.

Historic pieces are held in the Metropolitan Museum of art.

Silk Painting

Painting on silk has been around a long time. Examples in China date back over 2000 years, and it was a well known art form through most of East Asia. It was even a common backing for watercolorist J.M.W. Turner.

In the context of fiber art, I’m going to focus on the use of resists and dye as opposed to textile paints. One of the notable historic techniques of this type is Yuzen dyeing.

Developed in Japan, yuzen employs a rice paste that is piped out like cake frosting onto the cloth which is then painted with dye using a brush.

There are some spectacular kimonos which have been decorated in this way. This style of embellishment is especially popular in kurotomesode.

Today yuzen dyeing is still primarily used in the creation of kimono, but this and similar techniques are a leading area of development in fiber art.

This belonged to my Grandmother.

Batik

This is a detail from a skirt I made back in college

Batik is also a resist dyeing technique. First developed in Indonesia, batik dyeing is done over an entire piece of fabric. Wax acts as the resist, applied to areas the artist wants to remain un-dyed. The cloth is then placed in the dye bath, where it absorbs the colorant.

Fabrics will go through this process several times, layering the color until the artist reaches the desired result. When the fabric is dry and the wax removed, the pattern stands out in stark relief.

You can generally distinguish batik dyeing from other forms of cloth surface treatments by the crackling effect caused by small breaks in the wax.

As a technique, batik has spread far and wide, becoming a traditional art form in Africa, India and even South America.

Today artist’s like Rosi Robinson, and the folks at The Batik Guild are showing just how far this art form can go.

Tie Dyeing

Many people will think of long haired, rainbow dressed young people from the 1960’s at the mention of tie-dyeing. While it is often thought in concert with hallucinogenic drugs, early examples date to 5th century China and Peru.

Common throughout East Asia, tie dyeing is a resist dyeing technique that relies on a pattern of twisting, folding or crumpling cloth which is then tied in place and then dyed. The combination of the ties and the folds form resists, where the dye won’t reach.

Dye is then applied either by full submersion or with controlled application over the tied area. Depending on the combination of folds, ties, and dyed colors, the resulting pattern will show the partial application typical of the process.

While in the US, tie dye remains associated with youth counterculture, artists like Matthew Nix are pushing the art form to new heights.

Shibori

Shibori is a Japanese version of tie dyeing that involves folding and even sewing to create designs of great precision.

While early artifacts date back to the 8th century, the complexity of these pieces suggests the technique was much older. There are several different styles of shibori, some involving wrapping cloth around a pole, others where fabric is pleated, and one type that is stitched.

The flexibility of these techniques along with the vibrancy of the dye has led to a surge in its popularity as an art form.

Artists like Carter Smith, Yvonne Wakabayashi, and Yuh Okano are bringing shibori into 21th century museums and galleries.

Sewing

Sewing may be the oldest of fiber crafts. The skills of lashing things together, either for shelter or clothing reach back into the Paleolithic Era. Sinew and strips of leather would have been the precursors to actual fiber used in needles made from bone.

For this article, sewing will refer to the structural use of stitching to join pieces of fabric together. This can include both seaming, topstitching, hemming, or blanket stitch. The focus is on elements of construction as opposed to decoration.

Sewing can be done by hand with a thread and needle or with a machine. One of the things that is special about sewing is that it allows for sculptural construction and collage.

While sewing by itself is an element of fiber art, it can also be broken down into these major forms, quilting, mending and appliqué.

In the world of fiber and textile art, these artists are leaning into sewing as a part of their process, Leisa Rich, Bryony Rose Jennings, and Kinga Foldi.

Quilting

Anyone who has dipped a toe into quilting knows that this area of fiber art is enormous. With conventions and shows across the world, it’s difficult to overestimate the importance of quilting in contemporary fiber arts.

With the labor and  expense of creating any cloth, reuse of fabric through patchwork goes back at least to early prehistory. Pictographic evidence suggests the incorporating of layers of padding with fabric, as we might see in a modern quilt, was alive and well at the time of the Pharaohs in 3400 B. C.

The patchwork quilt has been a staple of hard times. But it was also common to make quilts of fabric purchased just for that purpose even in the past. Industrialization made printed fabric much more affordable. By the Victorian era quilt making had become a pastime for many women.

Contemporary quilt art is being promoted by organizations like Studio Art Quilt Associates. Some of the many artists in this area are DAMSS (Daniela Arnoldi & Marco Sarzi-Satori), Jenny Bowker, Chiaki Dosho, and Susan Webb Lee.

Mending

thick, cotton patchwork coat with various” is marked with CC0 1.

Sashiko sample from Eastern TN quilting guild.

Mending is one of the fiber arts which is often done but seldom talked about. Yet many of the ancient examples of clothing and textiles recovered also have evidence of ancient mending. The bog body known as Gunnister Man is a time capsule of 17th century clothing and mending. To make repairs he used tucks, patches and cords for buttons.

More adept menders might use darning or small tight stitches to pull torn fabric back together.

Yet in some cultures mending has a tradition as an art form. Japanese sashiko and boro are techniques born out of necessity that have come to be revered.

In recent times, especially through the pandemic, mending saw a surge in popularity. With some groups questioning the ethics of the fast fashion industry, and with lots of time in quarantine, mending sprouted up in videos on YouTube, Instagram and Tiktok.

Today fiber artist Celia Pym is at the forefront of this growing type of fiber art.

Appliqué

Appliqué is a type of fiber art that bridges the gap between sewing as construction and sewing as decoration. You could easily categorize appliqué as a type of embroidery. But for the fact that it does involve sewing two pieces of fabric together, I would have here.

Appliqué is the OG of decorative mending. While the word is French, examples of patching go back to ancient Egypt. Folk traditions of decorative patching can be found from Scandinavia to Pakistan. Reverse appliqué , or Mola, is even found in South America.

Contemporary appliqué is prevalent in quilting. There is a lot of overlap between the sewing techinques for quilts and those of appliqué. The combination of decoration and function makes for rich symbolism for artists who chose to explore that narrative.

Louise Gardiner is an artist who uses appliqué extensively in her embroidered textile work.

Rock Upon the Waves by Herb Rieth

Needlework

The term needlework pertains to any fiber craft that relies on the use of needles for construction. It includes everything from hand sewing to knitting and often includes tatting and crochet, and could include all types of sewing if you wanted to get specific about it.

For our purposes we will include crochet, but for information on tatting and sewing, check out the previous sections on those disciplines. Needlework is a huge category of string work and depending on how you slice it, is second only to weaving in the variety of techniques available. It is the first fiber craft I learned and is still my go-to when I want to add a touch of detail.

The first needles were a tool of survival for prehistoric peoples. Examples date back to 60,000 years ago and were used to sew fur and animal skins into clothing. Needles made of bone and ivory survived through time. Other materials like wood or plant spikes were likely used for needles but less evidence remains of those materials. The earliest needles did not have eyes and functioned much like awls.

The fiber artist of today has their pick of needles, some identical to the bone tools of our distant past and some so advanced they are made of carbon fiber. They vary in length, and diameter. Needles can be sharps, blunts, betweens or for knitting.

To further break down needlework into digestible chunks, I’m splitting needlework into two categories. Since I’ve already addressed sewing, my primary focus will be on embroidery in this area. The other basic category is string and stick work which includes, knitting, crochet, and nålebinding. Close observers may also recall there is needle lace. Since I already discussed that under lace, I won’t rehash that here.

String and Stick Work

Needlework considered string and stick work largely involves using some collection of needles or hooks to turn a single yarn into a fabric by making repeated interlocking stitches.

Because fiber, be it from plants or animals, is so likely to deteriorate when not well kept, it’s hard to know exactly when string and stick work developed.

Earliest evidence for nålebinding goes back to  6500 B.C. Israel. Considered to be a progenitorive form of both knitting and crochet, many early nålebinding artifacts were mistaken for the others.

Today string and stick work is hugely popular and going through something of a renaissance. Springing from a revival in hand crafts in the late 1960’s and 70’s, sheep and fiber shows have popped up across the country. This helped extend the reach of these historic crafts.

For further exploration of strings and sticks we will discuss nålebinding, knitting and crochet.

Nålebinding

Nalbinding sock” by AnnaKika is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The oldest of the string and stick work disciplines, it’s practiced worldwide. Early fragments have been found in Israel, Denmark, Egypt and Peru.

Nålebinding involves using a short length of yarn and a short yarn needle with an eye. With the yarn threaded through the needle, it is passed through a series of loops that form a long chain. You can then interconnect more stitch loops into prior loops creating complex shapes like mittens or socks. You can make any sort of shape with nålebinding that you can with knitting or crochet.

Nålebinding differs from knitting in that you use a short length of single ply yarn rather than a continuous length. Technically a knot work, unlike knitting or crochet, nålebinding will not unravel. This eliminates the need for more finishings.

Nålebinding fell out of fashion after World War II and almost disappeared. The work of reenactors and historians resurrected the craft from near oblivion by careful study of museum specimens.

Sigrid Briansdotter, who taught me how to nålebind, has done extensive work studying ancient textiles. She has been able to recreate many stitch patterns that had been lost to time. She is a leading authority on the craft in the US.

Nålebinding is currently a woefully underused art form, but is in process of making a comeback.

Knitting

Coming from the Old English word for knot, knitting is a method of fabric making that is created with two or more needles. A series of interconnected loops of yarn are created on the needles, and then a working needle is used to create more loops by pulling the working yarn through the existing loops.

While the earliest evidence of knitting comes from 11th century Egypt, the fine gauge of the stitches and colorwork strongly suggest that the craft is much older. It is thought to have been developed by nomadic people in North Africa, as it is more portable than a loom. Knitting is practiced worldwide with many areas having unique styles as stitch patterns.

Unlike weaving, knitting can be worked in 3D, making it possible to make sleeves, socks and other shapes without wasted fabric. The flexibility of the technique also allows for unusual materials. Metal wire, wax and even glass has been knitted.

Knitting has by and large been used to make knitted garments. When handmade, knitted garments can be exceptionally well fitted. Knitting artists have taken advantage of the precision knitting allows to start trends like amigurumi.

Contemporary knitting is thriving with exciting new work happening on the regular. Current exciting knitting artists include Mulyana, Faith Humphrey Hill, Jake Henzler, and Kate Jenkins.

Crochet

Photo used with permission of Rhiartsy

Crochet is a method of fabric construction that involves using a hook to interlock loops of yarn. With the appropriate hook, you can work any number of thread like materials including wire and plastic.

Unlike knitting, each crochet stitch is finished before the next stitch starts. Though Tunisian crochet and broomstick lace are exceptions, for most forms of crochet, the hook only holds a single working stitch. Considerable dexterity is required to make crochet as the stitches flow freely. Because of this, of all the fiber arts, crochet CANNOT be made by machines.

Due to how the yarn twists while being crocheted, it’s common to have untwisting yarn problems. Yarn spun widdershins can prevent this untwisting. Completed crochet is a connected chain structure in the stitches. Like knitting, crochet can be worked flat or in 3D. Skilled fiber craft people can easily distinguish crochet from knitting by this structure of the stitches.

Crochet is the newest stick and string discipline, with the first examples dating to 19th century Europe. Early patterns appeared in Dutch in 1823. It continued as a pastime and as an occupation until the early 20th century. After the first world war crochet blossomed as a hobby.

Because of its free flowing structure, and sculptural potential, crochet easily becomes art. Contemporary crochet artists include Rhiartsy, Ernesto Neto, Jo Hamilton, and Joana Vasconcelos.

Embroidery

The last of our string work pursuits, embroidery was made to embellish. This needlework type is almost as simple as hand stitching. It is the decorative potential that leads it to be so much more.

Like so many other techniques, embroidery is a worldwide affair. Developed from the same sewing stitches as garment making and mending, it was an avenue for expression. The oldest examples of embroidery come from China and Sweden. Mostly in the form of trimming and buttonhole stabilizing, it is basic. Though some question if it’s decorative, it is a start.

Embroidery was an anomaly in fiber crafts in that it was practiced by both the aristocracy and common folks. Of all fiber crafts, it may be the one most associated with women’s work. Samplers were a tradition in some families, like mine. These works were not only practice for stitching, but they often included the alphabet. In this way stitch patterns and bits of history were passed down the generations.

Today the variety in embroidery is vast and wide. With different traditions covering the globe, each area has developed different motifs and stitch styles. For this to be exhaustive, it could easily be its own separate article, and maybe I’ll do that later. For now, I will briefly cover these traditional styles, cross stitch, huck weaving, Indian Shisha mirror work, Kalaga, crewelwork, open work, whitework, blackwork, sashiko, stumpwork, doodling and needlepoint.

Cross Stitch

Cross stitch embroidery involves using a needle and thread to make X stitches. Using different colors and grouping the stitches together, the stitcher makes a full design.

Cross stitch is most often worked on even-weave fabrics. The regularity of the weave makes it easy to have uniform stitches. Even-weave fabric also allows for counting the stitch area which makes it easier to follow a pattern chart.

Well worked cross stitch does not use knots, and the X’s are all aligned in the same direction. Finished cross stitch can be framed or worked into another fiber piece. An example of that would be a cross stitched border on a tea towel.

Contemporary cross-stitch is wildly complex. Modern designs include portraits, landscapes and blends of traditional motifs. Jordan Nassar, is one of the many cross-stitch artists blending the traditional and the new.

I embroidered this in the late 1990s. It’s from a kit

Huck Weaving

Huck weaving is a Swedish technique that bears a few similarities to cross stitch, in that it is worked on a similar even weave fabric. In the past specialty woven huck toweling was common, but today monk cloth is easier to find. The even grid of the fabric allows for the geometric styling of huck weaving.

While this used to be a very popular form of embellishment, it declined in popularity following World War II.

Huck weaving, like well done cross stitch, has no knots. The needle is woven through the grid of the fabric without ever being drawn to the back of the work. So much so, you will see no evidence of stitching when looking at the back of the work.

Tom Knisely of Red Stone Glen, and my teacher at the Mannings, is known for his huck weaving adaptations.

Indian Shisha Mirror Work

Shisha mirror embroidery got its start in India around the 17th century. Originally a way for lower class women to mimic the jeweled clothes of the wealthy, beetle wings or mica were sewn in place to create sparkle. When mirror discs became mass produced, stitchers shifted away from those earlier materials. Shisha is the Persian word for ‘glass’ and came to refer to the embroidery style.

This style of embroidery spread over most of Asia with notable forms developing in Afghanistan, Balochistan, Sindh and Gujarat. While there is significant traditional shisha work available, it remains a little used technique outside those areas.

Kalaga

Kalaga fits into an odd space, being part tapestry and part embroidery. As it is the embroidery that brings all the embellishment and there isn’t significant tapestry weaving, I’ve organized Kalaga here.

Often made of linen, silk, velvet, or cotton, Kalaga comes from Myanmar. This style of embroidery is very intricate. Sequins, beads, braids, pearls, semi-precious gemstones and coral are essential elements of this technique. These items are worked into the fabric with couching made with metallic threads.

The scenes depicted are often Buddhist tales, or sometimes Hindu. One more distinguishing feature is the raised appliqué. These elements are internally padded and then covered in metallic sequins.

There is not much information about this style of embroidery outside of Myanmar, but I have observed that contemporary work has moved beyond tapestries. The photos included are of a vest I was gifted in the 1990s.

Crewel work

Crewel embroidery is a technique where a variety of stitches are worked onto a fabric in various colors of wool yarn. It is the wool threads that define the style.

Crewelwork is also done on linen twill and moves freely over the surface of the fabric. It does not require counting, or the grid structure of even-weave fabric. Designs are often drawn on the fabric and then stitched. Floral motifs with vines, stems and flowers are common.

The earliest surviving example of crewelwork is The Bayeux Tapestry. This style is often associated with England, though it is also practiced in the United States with a major revival beginning in Deerfield Massachusetts. This was the style of embroidery I learned first.

Historic crewelwork can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. Phillipa Turnbull is a leading designer of this historic style.

Crewel fabric” by ingermaaike2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Open work

For this article, open work is any style of embroidery that alters the under fabric in a way that creates an opening. It can make for a lacy appearance, or for a larger buttonhole style opening.

There are two types of openwork that fit the bill, drawn thread embroidery and cutwork.

Drawn thread work is thought to be the inspiration for lace making. It is a grid style embroidery that relies on using an even-weave fabric and counting the warp and weft. It is traditionally done in white and could be classified as a whitework.

The distinctive technique involves counting and carefully cutting away strands of the warp or weft in an even-weave fabric. The remaining threads are then overworked with a needle and floss that interlaces and stabilizes the open areas.

Cutwork involves using running stitch and buttonhole stitch to create large irregular openings in the worked fabric. It is often done on linen or cotton. The design is drawn in place and then worked in stitches. When the target area is well stabilized with supporting stitches, the fabric can be cut away with scissors.

Once mastered, cutwork allows for much more flexibility in crafting a lacy appearance to a fabric.

Whitework

Whitework is the term for any style of embroidery where the stitching is the same color as the fabric. Originating in India and China, it became popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. In the 1700s it spread westward to the Americas as a budget alternative to lace.

An apt embellishment in religious ceremonies, the white suggests purity while the delicate stitch work could be a textural tour de force which was invisible at a distance. A study in contradictions, worked into thin spun embroidered muslin gowns it helped create garments that were near transparent, and revealing.  The implied difficulty of keeping white fabric white, further made it an understated expression of social status.

Many styles of whitework have been developed around the world. As discussed above, many types of open work were also white work. For this section I’ll focus on candlewicking and pulled thread work.

Candlewicking gets its name from the cotton thread which was used to make wicks for candles. A new world style of embroidery, it developed from wicking fiber as that was more available than sewing supplies. Thrift being an important factor, colonial knots were worked to create outlines. Satin fill stitches were avoided, and the colonial knots used less thread than French knots.

This style of new world embroidery almost disappeared, but is making a small comeback. Today it’s seen mixed with crewel work and on cushion covers.

Pulled thread embroidery is an even-weave, counted thread style of work. Tension is used to pull fabric threads together and create lacy openings. Sometimes confused with drawn thread work, as the names historically overlapped, no cutting is involved.

There are several basic stitch types which combine creating texture with the thread and openings with pulled tension in the work. Eyelets are among the most well known stitch types. Technically pulled thread embroidery is also an openwork. As the opening doesn’t involve cutting and is much smaller, I put it here.

First seen in Arabic countries, pulled thread work made its way to Spain and Italy. Common motifs were monograms, figures, flowers, symbols and leaves.

Mats, table” by Unknown authorUnknown author is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Candlewick Spread, c. 1825, Eastern United States (cropped)” by Billvolckening is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Candlewicking Pillows” by revjett is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Blackwork Embroidery

Blackwork Embroidery” is marked with CC0 1.0.

Blackwork embroidery is an even-weave, counted thread style of stitching where the stitches are a contrasting color to the fabric. It can also be free-stitched rather than counted, but this has been less common.

Popular in Tudor England, it was called “Spanish work” based on an association with Catherine of Aragon. Used on smocks, chemises, and shirts, it could be a trim or cover an entire garment.

It is almost impossible to find examples of historic blackwork as the iron dyes used for making black threads were corrosive. No technique can stop the deterioration. Painted portraits provide the best record of period stitch patterns and motifs.

Rare surviving samples are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gimena Romero is a contemporary artist that uses blackwork embroidery in her stitch art.

Needle point

Needle point is an even-weave counted form of embroidery where the yarn is stitched through the canvas and designs completely cover the stitch area. Historically a variety of stitches were used creating figures or patterns. Most modern needle point uses just the tent stitch. Color changes in the yarn create the design.

The density of stitches and the sturdy canvas make most needle point too stiff for clothing. It’s most often used to embellish upholstery or embroider tapestry-like wall hangings.

Needle point is among the older forms of embroidery needlework. The earliest evidence goes back to 1500 B.C., found in the tomb of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Through the ages it was the pastime of many great women including Martha Washington, Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.

Contemporary artists Margaret Murton, Charley Harper, and Karen Hennessey at Zecca are just a few of the many talented people developing this craft today.

This is the work of my Great Grandmother

Stumpwork

Stumpwork embroidery involves stitching design elements which are elevated above the fabric for a 3D effect. This type of raised work was first popular between 1650 and 1700. Then called embossed work, it developed in England at the same time as democratic government.

Stitches worked around wire can create elements that sit above the backing fabric. Padding with felt serves to make welted stitches. Gold and silver thread make for popular embellishments. Gimp cord, ribbon, wire, silk thread, beads, feathers, wax and leather are among the variety of materials common to stumpwork.

This style of embroidery is still popular today. Foam is a new material used to pad stitching. Needlework artist Kate Tume uses stumpwork in the creation of her embroidered pieces.

Ribbon embroidery

A similar effect to stumpwork, ribbon embroidery uses ribbon in place of thread. The ribbon stands out from the fabric, creating considerable texture.

First evidence of this technique comes from China and Japan. Torn silk fabric was used in place of ribbon. More recently silk ribbons were used in Italy and France especially during the reign of Louis XV.

A relatively new technique, Di van Niekerk both teaches and creates in this style.

Doodling and Stitch Painting

Detail from Rock Upon the Waves by Herb Rieth.

To my research both doodling and stitch painting are relatively new forms of embroidery.

Also called thread painting, stitch painting uses color changes and stitch variation to make life-like scenes with embroidery. Stitch painting focuses on realism. Crewelwork techniques are part of the foundation for this style.

Doodling is a free form style of stitching that has also become popular very recently. Something of a meditative technique, it is similar to Zentangle drawing.

Both techniques work to blend lessons from drawing and painting to fiber arts. These are areas to watch in the coming years.

Felt work

Though string work dominates in the number of different techniques created over millennia, fiber also lends itself to felting. Felting is a way to create a textile where fibers are forced to mat together either forming a sheet or lump of any size. This can be done using hot water, soap and agitation (wet felting) or with barbed needles (dry felting.)

The felting process bears some similarity to paper making. And in fact some papers are made with cotton fibers. Felt can be made with natural fibers or synthetic. Only animal fibers can be wet felted, and of animal fibers, only some of those will wet felt. Dry felting on the other hand can be done with almost any material the barbed needles can punch through.

Felt is one of the oldest forms of fabric making. Early evidence for felting dates to first century Mongolia. I suspect that felting is much much older, as felted fibers are not as sturdy as spun fiber. That makes them less likely to be preserved.

Either way, felt making was well distributed through Central Asia where colored fiber and various stitch techniques were in use. In this area felt was used for housing, bedding, clothing and coverings.

The propensity to felt is so basic, animal fibers can be wet felted even after they have been spun. This gives rise to both woven and knitted felt work.

Felting crafts can be broken down into three forms: sculpture, string felt, fur felt. Beyond that you can further break down felting techniques into wet felting type, nuno and upwolfing, and dry felting which includes wool painting. I will cover all of those here.

Sculpture

Photo used with the permission of the artist  Geri Forkner

Felting is a process that lends itself to dimensionality. While most felt is made in flat sheets, it’s quite easy to work into lumps that can be shaped into forms.

The vast majority of felt sculpture is dry felted. The needles provide significant control over shaping and it is quite easy to add fiber to build up an area. Sculpted felt can be further embellished with careful color work.

Marjolein Dallinga makes extensive use of felt for sculpture with a focus on organic inspired forms. Geri Forkner, an award winning weaver and felter, has also done significant sculptural work.

String Felt

String felts are any finished items that were spun prior to being felted. This category is under-represented in today’s fiber art world. It includes anything that was either a woven or knitted fabric and prior to felting.

The practice of felting spun products is not new. New England boiled wool mittens are a good example of the utility of the technique. A favorite of fishermen, garments that were spun prior to felting made a dense study fabric that was very insulating even when wet.

Any spun felt made to a purpose is initially shaped to be a third bigger than the final size desired. Through the felting process any woven or knitted fabric construction becomes much tighter than could be  made otherwise.

Currently woven felts are more used industrially than as fiber art. Yet the rich history and combination of strength and flexibility would easily lend itself to other applications.

Fur felt

Fur felt is most commonly used in hat making. Beaver and rabbit fur was most often associated with this type of felting. This type of felt was highly prized for hats from 1550 through the 1800s. Fur felt was resilient, soft, and easy to shape in a variety of styles.

Fur felt hats fell out of favor in the mid 1800s when silk overtook the market for hat making. There was a concurrent toxicity problem in fur felting. The introduction of mercury as a fiber treatment led to the widespread poisoning of hatters.

Fur felting is more of historical interest than current art technique. The combination of the poisoning history, and the necessity of killing the animals to use their fur preclude any motivation for revival.

Wet Felting Techniques

Two wet felting fiber art techniques of note are nuno felting and upwolfing.

Nuno felting involves felting wool into sheer fabric to create a lightweight gathered combine cloth. A very new fiber art technique, it was developed by Polly Stirling around 1992.

The process involves cold water and controlled agitation to allow for the loose fibers to work themselves into the woven fabric. It can be worked in a diverse range of weights which makes it very versatile. The structure provided by the woven fabric limits stretching which keeps garments from losing shape.

Geri Forkner has done extensive work with nuno felting.

Upwolfing is another very new cluster of fiber art techniques. Developed by Irene Van der Wolf, these felting processes involve using foam forms and specialized mats to create dramatically textured felt.

Upwolfing can be done to maximize swirling color patterns, or knobby lumps that are felted directly into a backing fabric. This technique is working its way out of the Netherlands and across the globe.

Nuno felted shawl I made at the Mannings.

One of my early felted hats wet felted then embellished with dry felting.

Dry Felting (needle felting)

My wool paintings are all needle felted.

Dry felting is a term for work done using barbed needles. Today this is called needle felting. There are a variety of different felting needles with sizes and shapes made for different purposes. Triangular shaped needles are most common, but star and spiral shaped needles are also used.

Needle felting started as an industrial process in the 1800’s. The first felting machines made batting from slaughterhouse fibers and military barber shop leftovers. In the 1950’s needle felting moved beyond the factory setting and began it’s life as a fiber art.

I’ve already discussed sculptural felting, which is often done with felting needles. Now I’ll discuss another form of needle felting, wool painting.

I first started wool painting in 2014 without an awareness of the work of other artists. I have since been delighted to learn that there are other artists who use the term for similar techniques. I’ll discuss their work first.

One group of wool painters use loose wool which they carefully layer to make lovely watercolor like scenes. These pictures are not felted, but are placed under glass to prevent movement. There is a semi-transparent and relaxed quality to this style.

The work of Oksana Ball is an excellent example of this approach. According to her website, this style was developed by Rudolf Steiner.

While that style of wool painting is not felted, the style of wool painting I have been developing is. I do my work by building up small layers of dyed wool to make various scenes. Because I use needles for felting I can add in other materials that don’t naturally felt. Feathers, paper, moss and cheese cloth are all things I’ve added to my wool paintings.

I am not the only one either. A quick search on instagram will turn up a number of needle felting artists.

Frequently Asked Fiber Art Questions

What is Fiber Art?

This is always such a hard question to answer because any decorative art is such a subjective thing. If it feels like art to you then it is probably art. Now what I think people are really asking is how do I tell if this is ‘good’ art. I’m going to be writing another article to explore that question further.

For the purpose of this article, fiber art is any object that is artistically rendered using either traditional clothing fibers, or using the same techniques used for clothing fibers. So in practical terms that means you could weave wire and that could fit the definition.

I’m going for a broad brush, but I will say that I reserve the right to refine my definition in the future, should attitudes change.

What are some types of fiber arts techniques?

Well, in this article I went over several types of fiber arts and techniques. While I didn’t discuss any of them in great detail, as this article is not intended to be a How-to, this should be a good beginning point. And I would say that a fiber art technique is any sort of method by which people have discovered to manipulate fiber into a more complex work.

What is the difference between Fiber Arts type vs Technique?

A technique is a method by which you work fibers, like weaving, felting, embroidery. A fiber art type refers more to the finished work. So think sculpture, tapestry, wall hanging, couture garment, you get the idea.

What tools do you need for fiber arts?

It really depends on what types of fiber arts you want to do. A quick skim of this article should give an idea of what you need to get started for most fiber working styles. If you’d like to hear about something in particular, drop me a line on my contact form.

Does fiber art need to be functional?

If you’re asking me personally I say no. It doesn’t need to be functional. However, what’s cool about fiber art is that it can be. There are definitely some garments that enter the realm of art in my opinion.

Is Basketry a fiber art?

Not exactly. I tend to change my mind about this one. While it doesn’t use materials in fiber form, ie, bull rushes aren’t broken down to fiber, but are used whole, it does use the same techniques. I have said in the past that it is a fiber art. Today I’m leaning toward No. Not a fiber art. But it is like a really close, beloved cousin.

What about fiber art in other countries?

Fiber art is a world wide pursuit. Follow some of the links. I’ve connected to folks making decorative art from all over.

Where do beads fit in?

I consider them an embroidery embellishment most of the time. I’ve done some bead weaving and that is also a thing, but I think beads could use their own article at some point.

What is the Future of Fiber Art?

Whew, predicting that future, that sounds like a dangerous business. I know one thing, I can’t know for sure what the future will look like. But I do see some interesting challenges and materials ahead that could prove fruitful. And who doesn’t want to see new types of fiber arts?

One of the biggest hurdles in designing spacesuits that are form fitting and easier to maneuver is finding a construction that provides the pressure of an earth-like atmosphere while also allowing a full range of movement. At the moment we don’t know if this will even be possible. What will be inspiring is the new elastics that must be developed to answer that question.

Carbon fiber, fiber optics, color changing fiber, kyorene graphene, these are all new frontiers ready to develop into new types of fiber arts. As are some unique directions happening now that I didn’t quite know how to place, like the work of Benjamin Shine. He irons tulle into decorative art.

As for the rest, let’s go find out!

Would you like to see more of my writing? Try a story snack or a poem. Both are low calorie and good for the heart. Coming to the Eastern TN area? Check out my directory of fiber art attractions.

Types of Fiber Arts References

Bolton, J. (2015). Fabric Pictures. Aurum Press Ltd.

The book of wool. (1951). International Wool Secretariat.

Brown, Susan (2009). Fashioning Felt. New York City: Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. 

ISBN 978-0-910503-89-1.Coatsworth, Elizabeth: “Stitches in Time: Establishing a History of Anglo-Saxon Embroidery”, in Netherton & Owen-Crocker 2005, p. 2.

Dean, J., & Casselman, K. L. (2010). Wild color: The complete guide to making and using natural dyes. Watson-Guptill.

digest, R. (2002). Complete Guide to Needlework. Reader’s Digest Assoc., Inc.

DRAPER, J. (2014). Stitch and structure: Design and technique in two-and three-dimensional textiles. B t batsford ltd.

Field, A. (2010). Spinning wool: Beyond the basics. David Bateman.

Fukatsu-Fukuoka, Yuko (2004). “The Evolution of yūzen-dyeing Techniques and Designs after the Meiji Restoration”. Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

Gross, Nancy; Fontana, Frank (1981). Shisha embroidery: traditional Indian mirror work. New York: Dover Publications. pp. 1–9

Henshall, Audrey S.; Stuart Maxwell (1954). “Clothing and Other Articles from a Late 17th-century grave at Gunnister, Shetland” (PDF). Proceedings of the Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) 1951–1952. 86: 30–42.

Hiatt, J., & Hiatt, J. (2012). The principles of knitting: Methods and techniques of hand knitting. Touchstone Books.

Hughes, V. (2015). Felt & Fibre Art: A practical guide to making beautiful felted artworks. Search Press.

Kent, William Winthrop (1971). The Hooked Rug. Tower Books.

Lewis, S. E. (2009). Knitting lace: A workshop with patterns and projects. Schoolhouse Press. 

Leslie, Catherine Amoroso (2007). Needlework Through History: An Encyclopedia. p. 7. ISBN 0-313-33548-6.

Lloyd, L. (2008). A fine fleece: Knitting with Handspun Yarns. Potter Craft.

Mackay, M. (2013). Art in felt & stitch: Creating beautiful works of art using fleece, fibres and threads. Search Press Limited.

MacKenzie, J., & Anderson, S. (2013). The spinner’s book of Yarn designs: Techniques for creating 80 yarns. Storey Pub.

Morimoto, T. (2014). New tatting: Modern lace motifs & projects. Interweave, a division of F+W Media, Inc.

Nargi, L. (2014). Knitting around the world: A multistranded history of a time-honored tradition. Voyageur.

Needlework School. (1984). Windward.

Oberon, F. (2016). The natural world of needle felting. Aurum Press.

PALLISER, B. (2016). History of lace. READ Books. 

Paludan, Lis (1995) Crochet: History & Technique. Interweave Press

Parkes, C. (2009). The knitter’s book of wool: The ultimate guide to understanding, using, and loving this most fabulous fiber. Potter Craft.

Parkes, C. (2011). The knitters book of yarn: The ultimate guide to choosing, using, and enjoying yarn. Crown Publishing Group.

Redmond, W. (2016). Wen Redmond’s Digital Fiber Art: Combine Photos & Fabric create your own mixed-media masterpiece. C&T Publishing, Inc.

Reid, A. (2014). Stitch magic: A compendium of techniques for stitching fabric into exciting new forms and fashions. STC Craft.

Resource on the history of art in South Asia. MAP Academy. (2022, October 31). https://mapacademy.io/ 

Righetti, M., & Shaw, T. (2011). Sweater design in Plain English. Thomas Dunne.

Robson, D., & Ekarius, C. (2011). Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More than 200 fibers from animal to spun yarn. Storey Publishing.

Shao, X. (2018). Chinese embroidery: An Illustrated Stitch Guide. Better Link Press.

Silvester, H. W. (2010). Natural fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa. Thames & Hudson.

Solis-Cohen, Lita; Solis-Cohen, Sally (9 May 1993). “Quilting’s story started with the pharaohs”. The Baltimore Sun.

Smith, B. (2014). Spinners book of fleece. Storey Publishing Llc.

Smith, S. (2014). Embellish, stitch, felt: Using the Embellisher Machine and needle punch. Batsford.

Smith, S. (n.d.). Felt fabric designs: A recipe book for Textile Artists.

Soroka, J. (2022). Tapestry weaving: Design and technique. The Crowood Press.

Stove, M. (2010). Wrapped in lace: Knitted heirloom designs from around the world. Interweave Press.

Strawn, S. (2011). Knitting America: A glorious heritage from warm socks to high art. Voyageur.

Stuart-Anderson, Jen (2007). Rag Rug Making. Search Press

Swansen, M. (2000). Gathering of lace. Xenakis.

Team, Selvedge. “White on White Embroidery.” Selvedge Magazine, 6 Mar. 2022, www.selvedge.org/blogs/selvedge/white-on-white-embroidery. 

The art of Chinese painting – Page 17 (2006) “Another important silk painting was unearthed from the Mawangdui Han tombs near Chanshan. It is estimated to belong to the period around 165 BC. The painting is in a T-shape. Archaeologists call it “non-dress” painting as it looks like a dress but…”

Thérèse de Dillmont, Encyclopedia of Needlework

Tracy, G., & Levin, S. (2000). Crochet your way. Taunton Press.

TutorialsBlog, P. in A., Julia, P. byby, AnimalsBlog, P. in, BlogRound-Ups, P. in, & Patterns, P. in B. (2022, February 10). Little World of whimsy. Little World of Whimsy. https://littleworldofwhimsy.com/ 

Wada, Yoshiko Iwamoto; Rice, Mary Kellogg; Barton, Jane (2011). Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing (3rd ed.). New York: Kodansha USA. pp. 11–13.

Walker, M. (2011, May 5). Weaving of the day: Saddle Cinches by Jay Begay make your horse look good. Weaving in Beauty. https://weavinginbeauty.com/rug-of-the-day/weaving-of-the-day-saddle-cinches-by-jay-begay-make-your-horse-look-good 

W., B. E. J. (1992). Prehistoric textiles: The development of cloth in the Neolithic and bronze ages with special reference to the Aegean. Princeton University Press.

What is Bobbin Lace?. The Craft Atlas. (2023, May 5). https://craftatlas.co/crafts/bobbin-lace 

White, C. (2007). Uniquely felt. Storey Pub.

Wolff, C., Fanning, R., & Cooke, R. (2019). The art of manipulating fabric. Interweave.Zimmermann, E., & Swansen, M. (2011). The opinionated knitter: Elizabeth Zimmermann Newsletters 1958-1968. Schoolhouse Press.

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