That question ‘what is art?’ has been vexing people for centuries, many of whom don’t even produce art – and I’ve tried to listen patiently and politely to people’s opinions.  Not anymore.

There’s a point when, as an artist, I need to draw a line in the sand to understand that what I’m creating and offering is my vision of art.

Because art means different things to different people – and always will, but it will also mean different things at different points in time.  We simply have to accept both those parameters.  And that’s something I take on board when writing for my Stitch Safari podcast, especially about work from a different period, for example – it’s of its time and has to be judged accordingly.  OK, fine.

But it’s vital I understand precisely what my art represents to me because if I don’t comprehend that, how can others?  And, how can I then have the confidence to exhibit and sell my work or even write about it?

We all think our work is pretty special – but why?  What are the elements that I think makes my work art?   And what makes it different, or stand-out-from-the-crowd worthy?  I’m going to list them, so at least there’s a visual starting point:

  • original designs
  • influences, from other artists, are made my own
  • strong use of colour
  • complexity of design
  • thorough understanding of technique
  • well finished and presented
  • meaningful design

So I don’t go to a workshop and simply copy someone else’s design work and I appreciate and acknowledge influences from other artists – and goodness, where would we all be without that golden pool of inspiration?  I thrive on using bold colour combos in a design full of lines snaking under and over other elements – that’s a favourite design device, plus, I understand how to apply and extend the simple technique I use to create the design work which has meaning for me.

I suppose what I’m really trying to get at here in a softly-softly, round-about way, is that especially as textile artists, we must have confidence in ourselves and in the work we produce and exhibit.

What is not needed, is some arbitrary, self-acknowledged ‘arty’ type referencing textile work as ‘craft’ – still!

In medieval times, being a Crafstman or woman was an honourable occupation, highly esteemed by royalty, nobility and the church, but now sadly, the word is used as a put-down – as a means of derision, often by those with little real understanding of the term.  Read the updated Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker, tracing the history of the separation of the craft of embroidery from the fine arts, leading to the marginalisation of women’s work.  It’s a fascinating read.

Working with textiles is age-old – some 20,000 years old.  And yes, it was – and still is, a vital, mostly female occupation worldwide, although men were portrayed weaving in Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings.

Just research the stunning woven silk fabrics from the medieval Byzantine or the early tapestry weavings of the Vikings – and my all-time favourite the Bayeux Tapestry from the 11th century – the most magnificent piece of textile art in existence, to see and appreciate the evolution of textiles as an art form.  Even the term ‘textile art’ was used by Lady Marion Alford in her book, Needlework As Art, published in 1886. I’d love to know if there was an earlier reference.

Yet with such a rich heritage supporting textiles in the 21st century, the conundrum of what constitutes art still abounds.  Who’s making that decision?  Who?

And the only answer that makes any sense to me, is that it’s up to us as creators to take control.  We need to become champions of our own art and the genre of textile art as a whole –  and to do that, it must be with full knowledge of what we do and why.  Only with that understanding will come the confidence to see and promote our textile work as art.

Take a deep breath – and draw that line in the sand.  I have.

cathy jack coupland