The continuum of participatory textile making

Another Friday blog post! This one is by the Stitching Together Co-Investigator, Amy Twigger Holroyd:

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It was amazing to see the Case Study Workshop unfold, after so many months of imagining and bid-writing and planning. It led to rich discussions … and a big pile of notes! While there is much still to digest, I thought I would share a few reflections that I scribbled down on my return home.

In planning the invitees for the Case Study Workshop, Emma and I thought long and hard about how to represent the wide diversity of approaches to participatory textile making that exist in research contexts. My analytical knitter’s brain is always keen to categorise in order to connect and compare – but it’s incredibly difficult to do so when projects differ in so many ways (participant group, project length, textile process, career stage of researcher, social/cultural context, disciplinary background, research questions, and mode of data collection, just for starters.) Despite this difficulty, we did succeed in bringing together a fantastic group of researchers with diverse backgrounds and approaches to discuss their experiences. In doing so, we found new connections and points of difference.

For me, a critical moment was realising that ‘participatory textile making’ is a continuum that could encompass, at one extreme, research that examines the interactions and experiences that unfold within in the participatory textile making projects that are run by artists and makers in a wide range of contexts; and, at the other, research that uses participatory textile making projects to examine ‘external’ topics/questions – that is, topics that are entirely unrelated to textiles or the experience of making. In between, we could place that research which uses participatory making to study the process of making; and that which uses participatory textile making projects to examine issues, practices and behaviours that loosely relate to textiles (such as fashion and sustainability) – but not necessarily to the particular act of making being carried out.

(My doctoral research sits somewhere in the middle – I used participatory making workshops to understand the experiences of making clothes at home, both immediately, in terms of the frustrations and joys of manipulating materials with our hands, and in much broader terms, thinking about the cultural meanings of wearing homemade clothes in a system dominated by shop-bought items.)

This leads me to wonder how challenges, opportunities and priorities might differ for projects at different points along this continuum. It’s important that we keep the diversity in mind – that when finding points of connection between projects, that we also recognise the significant differences between them, too.

Another factor that I find interesting is the differences between different types of making: the experience of hand stitching, for example, differs greatly from the experience of screen printing. Both are textile making activities, but beyond the shared use of cloth they have little in common. What is the experience of mending your own clothes versus making a component for a community artwork? Or hand knitting versus machine knitting? And what about if we include (as I am keen to do) activities which do not directly construct or decorate textiles – such as deconstructing, sorting or even just handling garments – within our banner of ‘textile making’? What are the affordances of each of these activities in terms of generating discussion, reflection and knowledge?

There is much to think about as we prepare for the second workshop! Many thanks to all of the participants for working together so openly to raise and investigate these issues.

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