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September/October 2003


Is Fiber's Foundation Firm?

A Q&A with three educators on how their fiber programs are faring and how they're approaching
the medium today

The weaving studio at the University of Washington in Seattle.

This spring, I called educators in three very different fiber programs with some questions about fiber education at the degree level. At a time when the medium often seems more mainstream than ever before but when even mainstream arts are suffering from budget cuts, I wanted to talk about philosophy and structure, resources and syllabuses.

Lou Cabeen is a professor in the Fibers Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Maria Tulokas is chair of the Textile Department at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Joan Livingstone is professor and chair of the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Thanks to these three for their time and insights.           - Sunita Patterson

First, I'd like to give our readers a sense of the different types of fiber programs that are out there. So let's start with a little bit of background. How big is your program? What is the emphasis? I would also be interested in a brief history of the program and how it fits into the organizational structure of your institution.

Lou Cabeen of UW, with her piece 2002 Groundwork (a continuous loop of handwoven cotton and twine, 8 inches by 525 feet). Photo: Bill Bachhuber.

Lou Cabeen: The Fibers Program at the University of Washington (UW) has two faculty. We are a small program in some ways - we have between four and six M.F.A. students at any one time, and our B.F.A. program graduates five to eight students a year. The Art Division of the School of Art at UW offers undergraduates the chance to major in one of seven disciplines via the B.F.A. - fibers, ceramics, metals, photography, printmaking, sculpture, or painting. However, we also offer a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Visual Art. The Fibers classes are full to bursting with B.A. students, because we offer, I think, the most clearly articulated approach to mixed-media studio work at our institution. And that pretty much sums up our emphasis - which is to support and develop the students' conceptual and technical ability, not only in weaving and surface design but also in the expanded uses and potentials of those media. Our advanced students have the opportunity to work with computerized looms and textile-design software. But just as many of our students take up the artist's book as their expressive format, drawing on our program's emphasis on mixed-media, conceptually based work and on the substantial book-arts collection housed in the UW library.

Textiles, specifically weaving, has been taught on our campus for many years (we are proud to claim Jack Lenor Larsen as an alumnus). However, it was not a part of the Art curriculum until the 1980s. During a time when UW was undergoing considerable restructuring, weaving equipment from the College of Home Economics and surface-design expertise from the Art Education faculty were brought together in the School of Art, and my colleague Layne Goldsmith was brought in to shape the newly created Fibers Program's studio-art emphasis.

The surface-design studio at UW.

Maria Tulokas: The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Textile Department is now 125 years old; textiles was one of the first areas of study when RISD was established. The program's early emphasis on textile sciences and design eventually gave way to interest in crafts and fiber art, which ran particularly strong in the 1960s and '70s. But beginning in the 1980s, the Textile Department clarified both fine arts work and design as its major directions. The department integrated CAD [computer-aided design] throughout the curriculum in the '80s and started a graduate program, focusing on design, in 1992.

Maria Tulokas, of the Rhode Island School of Design, and her 2002 piece Big Fruit (handmade paper, aluminum, thread).

In the past two years, because of an increased number of freshmen choosing textiles as their major, the department has grown from the optimal number of 65 students, including 13 in the M.F.A. program, to the current 83 students - and next fall, 93 students will be enrolled. There are only two full time faculty members, with a third one joining next fall. Nine part-time faculty members who represent different kinds of expertise are teaching at the department this year.

The Textile Department is part of the Fine Arts division. Even though a strong part of the program's orientation is in design, we see the development of the student's artistic talent as our main objective. This objective connects us to our division and forms a foundation for both fine arts and design work in textiles. Skills are important because they expand creative possibilities. Study of materials and color, drawing, and the mastering of design issues form a foundation for the development of ideas in both design and fine arts work. In design, consideration of end use, production methods, and market must figure in the process.

The work can take many forms, from fabrics designed for interiors or apparel, to two- and three-dimensional pieces. Techniques and materials range from weaving on handlooms or jacquard machine to printing with screens or the digital printer. New techniques are continually being invented and applied to fabric, paper, and synthetic and found materials. Whatever the students' selections, the development of their own visual and material languages becomes a central theme.

Two-thirds of each graduating B.F.A. class go on to become designers of industrially produced fabrics, while others continue working as artists or enter graduate programs.

UW student work. Top: Camille Narayan (weaver) / Kerrie Howell (designer), Coat Collaboration #2, 2001; silk warp with weft of strips of overdyed silk saris. Photo: Nancy Hines. Middle: Laura Wright, Survival Blanket. Bottom: Karla Freiheit, Magic Carpet, 2000; found rug, grass, fishing line, installed with fishing line attached to tree branches above; 48 by 72 inches (rug). Photo by the artist.

Joan Livingstone: Fiber has been taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) since the late 1930s, originally under the direction of Else Regensteiner. In the 1970s, Park Chambers formally organized it into its own department (1 of 19 studio departments at SAIC). It is currently one of this country's largest fiber programs, with five full-time and seven part-time faculty. In 2000, after much discussion, the department took the name "Fiber and Material Studies" to better reflect the nature of the curriculum and the kind of students served.

Portrait (and detail) of Joan Livingstone, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, by a 2001 M.F.A. graduate, Satoru Aoyama. Joan, 2001; embroidery on polyester; 22 by 22 inches.

Although we offer a B.F. A. and an M.F. A. degree, there are no "majors" at SAIC. Students develop their own course of study, most of them pursuing interdisciplinary and multimedia pathways, with a strong emphasis on conceptual development. Approximately 200 undergraduate students take classes each semester in Fiber and Material Studies, and the department supports 20 graduate and 2 postbaccalaureate students each year. This year, an area of interdisciplinary study, Sculptural Practices, has been developed to provide a conceptual coalition of the Ceramics, Fashion, Fiber and Material Studies, and Sculpture departments. Sculptural Practices provides curricular opportunities for collaboration and shared discourse.

Textiles by students and recent graduates of RISD:
Clay McLaurin, woven prototype for a furnishing fabric.
Victor De La Rosa, design for interior fabric (CAD).
Cara Campagnoli, printed fabric prototype for interiors.
Sandra Negron, design for printed fabric (gouache on paper).
Heather Wells, digitally printed fabric for interiors.
Junghee Yoon, woven (with added resin) prototype for fabric for partitions.
Eve Singer, jacquard-woven fabric.
Lauren Tremaine, jacquard-woven fabric.
Philip Iosca, printed and painted piece.

The courses in Fiber and Material Studies loosely fall into four main areas: mixed-media structural exploration; embellishment; woven structures; and dye, paint, and print on fabric. A computer lab is used by all classes and supports repeat pattern design, woven structure development, computer assisted weaving, photo-silk screening, and three-dimensional modeling. Advanced classes are conceptually driven and include such concerns as "Propaganda and Decoration," "Time, Material and the Everyday," "Studio Stuff: The Paradigm of Collecting," "Installation: Context and Materiality," and "Material Humor." New classes are continually developed to stay abreast with both faculty and student concerns; examples are "Permeable Membranes," "Sustainable Forms," and "Drawn to Print." Additionally, through the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, classes on textile history and contemporary critical issues are offered for both undergraduate and graduate students.

Do you have to continually justify or fight for resources for your fiber program within your institution? I'm particularly curious about the UW program, considering the relative newness of the textiles-as-art program. From time to time, rumors circulate about weaving programs being cut or closed. Do you all feel fiber education has a secure status in this time of tight budgets?

LC: Fighting for resources is just the name of the game in any bureaucracy, and universities are no exception. But it is true that the Fibers Program has had to face more specific threats than other programs at the UW School of Art. We had to mount a serious defense of the program in 1994 in the face of severe budget cuts. And more recently, we had to reorganize our teaching and graduate studios to make room for the School of Art computer lab. Both situations were emotionally trying and hideously time consuming. However, the end result has been positive. In both cases, our efforts raised the profile of the program both on campus and within the School of Art, generated more opportunities for our students to exhibit their work, and built cohesion and a certain esprit de corps between alumnae and current students.

A textile by a 2002 RISD B.F.A. graduate, Becky Beahm (prototype for jacquard, dobby weaving and resist dyeing).

Surviving these events has led me to a couple of observations about the specific threats to fibers programs in some institutions - especially public universities.

The first threat is perception. The common set of questions we encountered in 1994 can be paraphrased as: "What is Fibers exactly, and why does it need to be taught at a university? Can't you learn to weave at the yarn store down the street?" Our administration, during the 1994 budget cuts, learned that far from being a backwater program composed of "two girls knitting," the UW Fibers Program has fielded illustrious alumnae, provides quality education, and is linked to an international network of colleagues and sister institutions. But they didn't learn that by themselves - Layne and I articulated our philosophy, purpose, and mission through slide talks, leaflets, student exhibitions. ... Universal acceptance of Fibers as an art form will probably not happen in our lifetime, and so that task of education is an ongoing one.

The second threat is more concrete. Weaving specifically can be at risk because of the nature of the practice. Looms take up space, and they make the space they are in "single use"; that is, it takes considerable effort to move them out of the way to use the room for anything else. In addition, they are usually used by one or, at most, two students per quarter or semester, making that square footage in the studio dedicated to a relatively small number of students. I am teaching a full class of weavers this quarter, every loom is in use, and there are 16 students in the class. The weaving room serves 16 students and only 16 students for the whole quarter. This is great, as far as the students and I are concerned. But I teach 25 students 3-D design in a classroom that serves 150 students this quarter (my class is one of six classes that rotate through the room). So from an administrative perspective, weaving classes are going to represent a luxury of space. We have been encouraged by the administration to find ways to teach more students weaving without using looms. Last quarter I arrived for my weaving class to find exactly twice the number of students registered for the class as I had looms, forcing us to double up.

And lastly, a more subtle threat to fibers programs can be their very strength. The mixed-media approaches that the field is known for can become the very justification used by an administration to eliminate fibers as a specialty, folding it into another field such as sculpture. I think this is the fate of many of the closed fibers programs. The faculty are absorbed into the most sympathetic remaining program - sculpture, printmaking, design. In that case, the philosophy can perhaps live on in that individual faculty member's approach - an emphasis on material, process, and structure, for instance - but the sense of textiles as a specific field of endeavor within art is lost.

A work by an SAIC M.F.A. student, Noe Kidder. Lower East Side, 2002; canvas, clothing, ink, beeswax; 6 by 5 feet.

MT: I like to think that the validity of one's artistic expression is not dependent on materials or techniques. This is the way, in my opinion, that RISD looks at the Textile Department: as one of 18 different areas, pursuing the same goals as other departments. Our current, much larger, size - the Textile Department is now one of RISD's larger mid-size departments - helps bring us more notice. But we are fighting for space, as other areas are at the school; there has not yet been an art school that I have visited that has not had a space problem.

JL: SAIC is refreshingly nonhierarchical, and Fiber and Material Studies is well respected and considered one of the strongest departments in the school. Although the entire school is currently facing fiscal challenges, Fiber and Material Studies is very secure and looks forward to continued development, especially in relation to new technologies and combined resources with the Sculptural Practices program. There is consistent institutional support for the creation of a "smart textile lab" that will expand the facilities of computer-assisted weaving, embroidery, knitting, and printing technologies.

I'd like to ask you more specifically about the blurring of boundaries between fiber work and the mainstream contemporary art world. Is this blurring of boundaries all good? How does your department approach this question? I'm curious about the attitudes toward "fiber art" that you see in your students.

LC: This is a tough question; I have very mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the increasing embrace of fiber, fabric, and related processes by contemporary artists of all stripes is evidence of what many of us have been saying all along: that these materials and methods are potent, evocative means of communicating visually. They can be strong supporting metaphors. I show my students strong work in relevant materials no matter who has produced the work. On the other hand, this same phenomenon seems to reinforce a very traditional view of art and artists working within the fiber discipline. While crochet in the hands of a sculptor is seen as transgressive and creative, for example, it is assumed to be a safe and conservative choice for someone identified with fiber.

I can't really comment on the attitude towards "fiber art" that I see in my students because it is a phrase I never use, except to refer to the magazine - and of course, my students pick up my discomfort/dislike of the word. Whether they are drawn to the Fibers Program by the traditional processes or by our approach to mixed media, they do seem universally enthusiastic about the particular point of view fibers offers - a demand that the materials and processes used in making art be considered as essential aspects of the content of the work.

MT: This past winter, an interesting thing happened in the art world; quilts from Gee's Bend, an isolated black community of 700 people in rural Louisiana, were shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Now the pieces continue to be shown on a national tour in major museums. Art critics hailed the work, made over the last 50 years, as modernist masterpieces. The quilts, made of used clothing and Sears corduroy fabrics, are products of lifelong activity learned in childhood and practiced out of necessity. The work is so strong in its artistic expression that it enters the realm of art. [See FIBERARTS March/April '03 for a review and images from the exhibition.]

To me, this exhibition shows not only the blurring of borders between different categories of art but also the blurring of boundaries between design and fine art. These quilts were made as utilitarian textiles, but the form allowed the makers to bring forth their spirit with the help of an intuitive grasp of the composition of color, pattern, and material.

SAIC student Cariana/Carianne, Action Response III (performance stills), 2001; 7-minute video.
In my daily reading of the New York Times, I have become aware of reviews of textile work by Michael Kimmelman and others, and think that the art world is ready to consider this area. The question that remains is: Are those counting themselves as textile artists ready to pursue their vision and rigorously bring their work to formal resolution? I feel the field is open for a reinvention of form and image in textile pieces.

Faced with the reality of having to start paying back student loans soon after graduation, many students, including some who are focusing on fine arts work, prepare design portfolios. In their design work, we encourage students to integrate their own vision. Recently there has been news of textile companies wanting to place a new emphasis on design, and students have been taking part in projects and competitions organized by fabric producers interested in a fresh look. We are trying to expose students to the parameters of design that, in the end, make the work challenging and exciting.

JL: SAIC's Department of Fiber and Material Studies is interested in investigating the relationship between concept, materiality, and process in contemporary art. While it honors the history of fiber, textile construction, and fabric painting and printing, the department encourages students to develop interdisciplinary approaches emphasizing contemporary concepts and new technologies. As many forms of cloth and fabric making were once a social or communal undertaking (and remain so in some cultures), the department stresses the importance of community-based, collaborative, and environmental projects. Terrains of deconstruction, pattern, personal and autobiographical imagery, sculptural forms, and installation are explored in conjunction with theoretical and aesthetic concepts, as well as experimentation and research. Investigations into the structure of the Internet and its potential for lateral, embedded, interlaced research; networking; and contemporary forms of communication and time are developed in relation to textile processes. Interventions into the public sphere in the form of architectural proposals and actions, critiques of commodification and materialism, and, again, collaborative community projects are explored. Students and faculty are equally excited about the ways in which an expanded approach to fiber, cloth, textile, and cultural artifact can provide meaningful reflection on contemporary concerns.

Have you noticed changes in the demographics of your student population? Are students more career oriented? Is gender an issue any more? Are you seeing trends in terms of interest in particular media?

LC: Our students are still predominantly women. So gender does still seem to be a factor. At one time, we seemed to also have a large number of returning or nontraditional students. That seems to be on the wane, but I suspect it is because of university policies rather than a shift in the field of fiber. Because of statewide budget cuts, it is becoming more and more difficult for the nontraditional student to be admitted to our university, sad to say.

Weaving is enjoying an upsurge of interest among our students.
The university in general has placed an emphasis on career issues, but I don't see the students themselves pursuing art in order to get specific career training.

MT: The Textile Department's demographics seem largely unchanged; minority enrollment is low (in spite of available scholarships); most of the foreign students (around 6%) come from Asian countries, primarily South Korea; and males are a very small part of the student body. Interestingly enough, the M.F.A. program in textiles attracts more males - currently 4 out of 13 students - than the B.F.A. program. Interest in knitted and printed fabrics for apparel has been on the rise over the past few years. In this regard, we have hired a full-time faculty member in this area. Interest in weave design has been strong. In their final year, students are moving from handweaving to jacquard, taking advantage of the department's electronic loom.

JL: Students who attend SAIC have chosen to go to a private art school devoted to developing practicing artists and scholars. In Fiber and Material Studies, the students tend to be ambitious and are frequently mature, if not older. Most are female, with a few male students in each class; many are foreign; and many are transfer students. The students tend to seek careers in a variety of studio and art-related practices that frequently include creative combinations of full- and part-time work, exhibition, and community projects.

SAIC student Saya Woolfalk, Performing Desire (detail), 2003; 1-hour performance; cloth, thread, soap bubbles.

Much of the work in Fiber & Material Studies is multimedia, including forms that frequently embrace a material construction in relation to time-based imagery and phenomena, be that photography, video, film, light, or sound. Language - spoken and textual, installation and performance - are also frequently integrated into student work.

From talking to young artists, I get the impression that when they leave school, they enter a challenging period in terms of finding their place in the marketplace and earning a living from their artwork. What advice do you give your students for after they leave the school setting? Does the system support emerging artists well enough?

LC: Graduation from school means freedom to the fledgling art student, but also a loss of structure. It can be a very hard jolt to realize that the assignments and deadlines you chafed under were, in fact, the very framework required to make yourself make art.

In our senior projects seminar, the students must determine what their work will be about, they must arrange or develop studio space of their own to accomplish it, and they are responsible for their own materials. To support these efforts, the seminar meets every two weeks to discuss issues that are arising for the students, troubleshoot technical problems for each other, and discuss readings - which provides a model of community. Generally, in the fall quarter, a student will struggle with identifying his or her own voice and developing a visual vocabulary with which to manifest it. Winter quarter is spent developing a series of finished works, and in the Spring quarter, the B.F.A. thesis exhibitions are held. Our hope is that in this way, our students grapple with some of the problems facing the emerging artist while still supported by the structure of school. In addition, we discuss basic career skills of the artist - writing an artist statement, documenting work, how to find and select exhibitions, what options exist for ongoing education, and how to apply to graduate school. We have an interdisciplinary seminar for the graduate students, involving students from a number of disciplines within the School of Art. One focus of the seminar is professional practices, and we concentrate on specific career skills such as gallery representation, grant writing, residencies, the procurement and maintenance of studios, etc. The seminar also builds skills in the writing of artist statements, the documentation of work, and resumé development.

The goals of these seminars are the same for both sets of students - building skills with which to continue to pursue their art outside of school. You will note that I have not said that we prepare them to "make a living from their art." These seminars prepare students to continue making their art, exhibiting their art, and deepening their art whether or not they draw income from it.

As to the issue of support for emerging artists - when has this ever been a priority for American society? We emphasize self-empowerment for our students by visiting artist-run co-op studios, galleries, and living spaces. We encourage the development of ad hoc critique groups, which emerge among the students and often continue past graduation. While we seek to demystify the institutional art world, via visits and discussions with gallery directors and curators, we and our students know that emerging art and artists often flourish best in a noninstitutional setting in which experimentation and risk are prized and the rent is being paid with a day job.

MT: Of course, artists are seriously underfunded in this country. ... It is a tough and competitive world out there, and in the design world there is a lot to learn about the market and the end use of textiles. A strong foundation, an awareness of the world around oneself, and an ability to learn quickly are necessary qualities for anybody to avoid being swallowed up by the commercial world. One needs to understand the requirements of production and market and within these parameters create designs that work and, at their best, bring something new to the field. Those making their way out to the world as fine artists need to have a real faith in their own view in order to persist in their work and find opportunities to show it.

JL: Chicago is a great city for emerging artists, with a large alternative gallery scene, exhibition and collaborative projects, art centers, and museums. The students are encouraged to take full advantage of the many opportunities and venues - both traditional and nontraditional - available in the school and the city, providing a variety of models for negotiating the complexity of the art world. Students are exposed to the multiplicity of possible roles that practicing artists frequently embody - maker, exhibitor, educator, advocate, critical thinker, researcher - and encouraged to invent their own most appropriate path.

School Contact Information

University of Washington, Fibers Department, Box 353440, Seattle, WA 98195-3440, (206) 543-0999,

Rhode Island School of Design, 2 College St., Providence, RI 02903, (401) 454-6136,

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 37 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL 60603, (312) 899-5163,

Additional images of student works

Judith Leeman, Untitled (below; detail above), 2003;
blackout cloth; 5 by 4 feet. Leeman is an SAIC M.F.A. student.
Detail of a "living sausage" with seven people inside the
casing, by SAIC student Chelsea Wagner.
Memorial to the
Meat-Packing Industry; photo screen print on nylon; 15
feet long, 3 feet in diameter.
A pattern prototype by SAIC student Lisa Slominski,
Guns or Butter.
Erin Danforth, fabric prototypes for outdoor furniture;
woven with plastic. Danforth is a B.F.A. student at RISD.
Deb Sokolow, Attempted Taxonomy for Glue #1 (detail),
2002; glue, ink, shelves; 8 by 40 by 8 inches. Sokolow is
an M.F.A. student at SAIC.
An installation, incorporating iron rods and nylon, by
2002 RISD B.F.A. graduate Dena Molnar.
A handwoven wool blanket by UW student Laura MacCary.
Color Study after Richard Landis, 2002; 105 by 68 inches.
Photo by the artist.
Michelle Milne, untitled installation, 2001; zippers.
Milne is a 2001 B.F.A. graduate of SAIC.
Knitted apparel fabric by RISD M.F.A. student Haewon Shin.
Dianna Frid, Flying Machines, 2002; cloth,
aluminum foil, adhesive, pins; 7 by 30 by 22
inches. Frid is an SAIC M.F.A. student.
A resist-dyed and felted piece by 2001 RISD M.F.A.
graduate Carol Lebaron.
Apparel by RISD B.F.A. graduate Sarah Hudson, 2001.
Photo: Howard Huang.

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Sept/Oct 2003

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