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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.
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.
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 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
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 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
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 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 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 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 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.
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 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.
Engagement present: Bonsai from Mizuhiki chords, Exhibition Waza – Traditional Crafts from Kyôto at Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 2011.
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, 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.
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 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
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 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
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.
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
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“File:Silk Hereke rug. Over 1200 knots per square inch.jpg” by Cllane4 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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
String and Stick Work
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
“Woman’s Wrapped Garment (Sari) LACMA M.83.105.27 (19 of 21)” by Fæ is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.
“Woman’s Wrapped Garment (Sari) LACMA M.83.105.27 (15 of 21)” by Fæ is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.
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 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.
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.
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.
This is the work of my Great Grandmother
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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?
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?
Types of Fiber Arts References
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