Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 9780226077819 Published October 2017
E-book $10.00 to $55.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226369822 Published October 2017 Also Available From
E-book Retailers: Google Play Library Vendors: EBSCO


Art and Textile Politics

Julia Bryan-Wilson


Julia Bryan-Wilson

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

326 pages | 90 color plates, 62 halftones | 7 1/2 x 10 | © 2017
Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 9780226077819 Published October 2017
E-book $10.00 to $55.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226369822 Published October 2017
In 1974, women in a feminist consciousness-raising group in Eugene, Oregon, formed a mock organization called the Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society. Emblazoning its logo onto t-shirts, the group wryly envisioned female collective textile making as a practice that could upend conventions, threaten state structures, and wreak political havoc. Elaborating on this example as a prehistory to the more recent phenomenon of “craftivism”—the politics and social practices associated with handmaking—Fray explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.

Closely examining how amateurs and fine artists in the United States and Chile turned to sewing, braiding, knotting, and quilting amid the rise of global manufacturing, Julia Bryan-Wilson argues that textiles unravel the high/low divide and urges us to think flexibly about what the politics of textiles might be. Her case studies from the 1970s through the 1990s—including the improvised costumes of the theater troupe the Cockettes, the braided rag rugs of US artist Harmony Hammond, the thread-based sculptures of Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, the small hand-sewn tapestries depicting Pinochet’s torture, and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt—are often taken as evidence of the inherently progressive nature of handcrafted textiles. Fray, however, shows that such methods are recruited to often ambivalent ends, leaving textiles very much “in the fray” of debates about feminized labor, protest cultures, and queer identities; the malleability of cloth and fiber means that textiles can be activated, or stretched, in many ideological directions.

The first contemporary art history book to discuss both fine art and amateur registers of handmaking at such an expansive scale, Fray unveils crucial insights into how textiles inhabit the broad space between artistic and political poles—high and low, untrained and highly skilled, conformist and disobedient, craft and art.
Review Quotes
Daedelus Foundation
Winner of the Robert Motherwell Book Award
The New York Times (The Best Art Books of 2017)
"Julia Bryan-Wilson's book goes beyond arguing for fiber’s aesthetic legitimacy to demonstrating its political agency. And she does so by considering an enthralling range of hitherto untapped material: fantastic costumes designed by the 1970s queer theater troupe, the Cockettes; hand-sewn tapestries produced by Chilean artists depicting torture under the Pinochet regime; and the still-growing NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Ms. Bryan-Wilson’s research is more than substantial, but her propulsive style makes the book a page-turner."
"Adding to the critical dialogue in a number of fields, this book will be an invaluable resource for programs serious about incorporating fiber, craft, feminism, and queer theory into their coursework. . . the material examples and contemporary artists examined in the case studies strengthen her arguments. . . .Essential.”
Times Higher Education
“Bryan-Wilson works hard to piece together a broader thesis about neglected histories (often queer, non-white and feminine) and the thin seam that divides conventional handicrafts from the fine arts. . . . Bryan-Wilson asks: ‘What does it mean to imagine the sewing needle as a dangerous tool and… female collective textile making as a process that might upend conventions, threaten state structures or wreak political havoc?’ It is itself a brilliantly surprising question and one that she pursues with great seriousness. . . .One of the book’s strengths is how capably it braids together these different theorisations. . . . Of the title of this unusual and interesting book, Bryan-Wilson notes that ‘nerves and tempers fray.’ We even like to ‘rise above the fray,’ but this is a book that immerses itself in the material expression of political and cultural life, examining the things we make and the ideas that they unravel.”
Contemporary and America Latina

“Julia Bryan-Wilson sees us all as experts in the field of textiles—they are with us throughout our lives; ‘we all have,’ she writes, ‘a profound relationship to them.’ . . . .The political impact that textiles have on us is strongly felt in Bryan-Wilson’s examination of the AIDS quilt. This section is an immersive insight into the socio-economic impact that the American political system had on people living with AIDS in the 1980s.”

Elissa Auther | Oxford Art Journal
Bryan-Wilson's method of close reading produces numerous points of contact and intersection between otherwise vastly different fibre-based objects, processes, objectives, and social and political contexts, allowing the reader to see beyond entrenched categories and divisions. Unexpected overlaps between conceptual art and materiality, feminism and queer craftiness, folk art and fine art, soft diplomacy and activist resistance, frivolity and seriousness, to name a few, punctuate the text, prompting the reader to question why we buy into the hierarchical distinctions between things, people, and practices in the first place.
Leonard Folgarait, Vanderbilt University
"It is difficult to characterize this vast and ambitious book, but not its achievement, which is magnificent. In short, it will be received as a model of rigorous research, seamless organization, clarity of exposition, and utter persuasiveness.   It will set standards of quality for topics beyond craft and textile studies.  Indeed, within its pages are examples for art and cultural historians of all periods and media of how to articulate the ever-challenging project of revealing the ideological dimensions of art in terms of very specific historical and political contexts."
Johanna Burton, Director and Curator, Education and Public Engagement, New Museum, New York
"Bryan-Wilson’s groundbreaking approach is rigorously attentive to the moment in which she is writing, considering recent literature and artistic practices, while describing the broader, often overlooked historical and cultural backdrop against which these more current examples operate. If her topic is ‘craft,’ or more precisely, ‘craftivism’—a demarcation that allows the author greater reflexivity—Bryan-Wilson brilliantly utilizes this subject to zoom both way out (examining, for instance, urgent questions around the politics of representation) and way in (offering remarkably close readings of particular objects).... Whether Bryan-Wilson is researching in an archive, conducting a personal interview, or utilizing the unstable space of the web, she articulates how her findings are affected through the means by which she obtains them."
Macarena Gomez-Barris, Pratt Institute
"Fray, Julia Bryan-Wilson's brilliant and compelling new book, explores how political worlds are made and unmade through craft. Her research and analysis of the 'hand-made' objects of feminist, queer, trans, and Global South artists and activists reveals alternative forms of knowing, imagining and crafting in exquisite detail. Astonishing!"

Association for the Study of Arts of the Present: ASAP Book Prize
Short Listed

Dedalus Foundation: Robert Motherwell Book Award

View Recent Awards page for more award winning books.
For more information, or to order this book, please visit
Google preview here

Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago Blog: Art and Architecture

Events in Art and Architecture

Keep Informed