Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles

By Leanne Prain
Arsenal Pulp Press, November 30, 2013, $24.95

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From old Blockbuster video receipts to embroidered pillows to crocheted fabric squares, Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles by Leanne Prain showcases artists who work with textiles you’d expect to see in a living room, not an art gallery.

Yet, these artists churn out pieces that you’d expect to see in an art gallery, not a living room!

Strange Material is an intimate overview of a diverse selection of modern artists working with textiles, highlighting these artists through short interviews alongside photos of their pieces.

The artists use techniques that have been passed down through generations of women — like quilting, knitting, patching, felting, embroidering and sewing — and not only challenge mainstream narratives, but tell and create completely different narratives through this work.

Ten sections grouped by narrative themes, ranging from personal histories to wearable art to revolutionary crafts, categorize these artists. Yet, they all remain interconnected through their desire to share a relationship between their art, their story and their audience.

And that seems to be the balance in this new take on an old craft: how to stay approachable while remaining deeply engaging and relevant.

The artists all accomplish this in different ways.

Andrea Dezso uses humour, embroidering cotton squares full of silly superstitions her mother taught her, while Marion Coleman quilts photo transfers and gauze bandages to memorialize the too often untold history of black women in nursing.

Indigenous artist Jennifer Annais Pighin uses stark symbolism, making a beaver button blanket in the style of traditional ceremonial Northwest Coast First Nations robes — but using nickels instead of buttons. Her piece challenges notions of value, from the colonial trade of beaver pelts to the modern five cent coins made from mined resources from Indigenous land.

Many artists spoke of not confining their work to a gallery and the importance of the functionality of their pieces.

This idea was beautifully illustrated by the ImBLEACHment of George W. Bush, where artist Diane Bush invited onlookers to help her throw small vials of diluted bleach on to a photo of George W. Bush. She transferred the photo to woven blankets and gave them out to Occupiers and folks living on the street in need.

Many artists spoke of embracing the gap between their traditional artisanal work and new intangible technologies like social media.

Iviva Olenick explored the fleetingness of connection through her twitter account @EmbroideryPoems, where she stitched out tweets from strangers on scrap pieces of fabric.

“Poetry Bomber” Agustina Woodgate went viral after she printed snippets of poems and hurriedly sewed them into the lining of thrift store clothes before she could get caught. She noted that many shoppers who discovered the poems bought the garment because of them, believing it was a personalized sign from the universe.

As much as Strange Material is an overview of modern textile art, it is also a guidebook. The reader is invited to participate in textile art of their own, through writing prompts and actual step-by-step projects with varying levels of difficulty.

Those not ready to plunge into knitting or embroidery can choose one of the less labour intensive projects, such as using a bleach pen to write on a piece of fabric to create a wearable poetry scarf.

Scattered throughout the book are also short blurbs on noteworthy works, regional textile art groups and social networking sites for crafters. The underlying message is not just to engage with the art presented but to attempt to tell your own story as well.

Whether the artists are being irreverent, capturing memories, speaking truths, creating political tools or building community, Strange Material makes a strong case that some stories are best told through craft.


Steffanie Pinch is rabble’s former activist toolkit coordinator.

Steffanie Pinch

Steffanie Pinch

Steffanie Pinch is former Activist Toolkit Coordinator at rabble.ca. With a long history of causing a rukus, Steff has been active in third wave feminist organizing, solidarity work and peer support....