Take one look at Bisa Butler’s or Anni Albers’s work, and you’ll never again wonder: “Is sewing considered art?” These textile artists count among the many who bring attention to sewing as art. However, while the attention on Butler and Albers might be a relatively recent thing, the art of sewing goes back millenia.
What Is Art?
In its purest form, art conveys meaning using different art materials. Art expresses a number of ideas, including cultural and historical events.
Part of the reason why there is a question of sewing being an art has to do with the crafts side of it. Fine arts like paintings or sculpture typically exist solely for the purpose of exchanging ideas. Crafts, on the other hand, also serve a practical function.
Sewing serves a practical function. It allows us to create clothing, blankets, and upholstery. That’s one of the reasons why there is some question about its role as an art form.
However, as we will explain, the line between art and craft gets blurred with sewing. This makes it more difficult to categorize.
Sewing’s Ancient History
Sewing is one of the oldest forms of art. According to Sotheby’s, people have been sewing for at least 100,000 years. Some estimates even suggest it has been around for 500,000 years. It’s one of the textile arts, along with embroidery, cross stitch, and weaving to name but a few.
In ancient times, people preserved their thoughts in a number of ways. Cave paintings, like those in France or Spain, were one way people recorded their thoughts.
Woven textiles were another way that ancient people expressed their thoughts and ideas. In around 4,000 BCE, cloth makers started adding designs to their work. These workers, usually women, conveyed a great deal about their culture through symbols and color.
Sewing and Fashion to Express Social Rank
It’s not possible to talk about the question “is sewing considered art” without mentioning the role of fashion. Fashion has allowed people to convey their personality, their style, and even their social rank through textiles and sewing.
For centuries, people without a written language passed on their stories and history through fiber arts. For example, in Ghana, adinkra cloth preserves cultural symbols through fiber arts and sewing. More than 700 wise sayings, historical events, and other parts of Ghanian culture find expression in this cloth, according to Synonym.com.
Now, consider what other forms of art, like painting, tell us about sewing as an art form. Take historical paintings as an example. We know something about the subject’s life because of the clothes they wear.
An accurate historical painting records details of the clothing’s materials, its stitching, and more. The more elaborate the clothing, the higher the person’s station in life.
That is, in paintings, someone like Queen Elizabeth wore different clothing than the subjects of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings.
Typically, the people in van Gogh’s paintings wore the tattered clothes of peasants. They worked in the fields. Their clothing reflected this. On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth wore gowns. These gowns had rich embroidered details and fine materials.
By studying the clothing we see in old paintings, we learn something about how people lived. We also learn who was considered worthy of being painted. In a painting, a person’s fashion and surroundings reveal this. We take meaning and information from these paintings.
Thus, if art is about creating meaning, then fashion and, by extension, sewing is an art.
The History of Costuming
Costuming for plays and movies represents another indication that sewing is an art form. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an entire collection of theatrical costumes.
Every year, the museum holds the Met Gala to raise money for the collection. It also highlights the history of costumes, sewing, and fashion.
Costumes represent a special branch of fashion and art. They’re connected to theater and film, and both theater and film are forms of art. That is, they convey meaning and ideas.
But costumes don’t just put clothing on a character. By using elements of design and specific sewing techniques, we learn something about that character.
Superhero movies offer an obvious example. The clothing that Clark Kent wears differs from the clothing Superman wears. In this way, we see how the character’s costume conveys an idea or meaning.
Embroidery, Quilting, and Other Sewing Crafts
When you consider embroidery or needlework, you start to see how sewing has become more associated with art. In the 19th century, the Pre-Raphaelites delved deeply into artistic needlework.
With needles and thread, they created elaborate designs. These often took the shape of plants and flowers. In this case, the artists didn’t use oil paint to create the pictures. They created them from needles and thread.
Preserving Culture Through Sewing and Quilts
Quilts offer another example of sewing that has been turned into art. Bisa Butler’s or Anni Albers’s work represent modern examples of this. Butler’s work in particular does so because she creates elaborate portraits from her quilting projects.
A recent turn of events in the art world has changed how people see sewing. The line has blurred between craft arts and fine arts. This blurring of the lines encourages people to look at sewing differently.
Some of this influence comes from an acknowledgement that the sewing arts in America have their roots in slavery. Here again you see the influence of African culture. Just as the Ghanians told their stories through adinkra cloth, their ancestors in America told their stories through quilts.
By putting these creations in museums, the art world shows its recognition of sewing as an art. For fiber artists today, the needle, thread, and sometimes, a sewing machine replace pencil and paper. Thread is the textile artist’s medium.
These recent events truly answer the question: “Is sewing considered art?” The answer to that is yes, it is.