What Is A Textile? My Attempt At A Definition

My Definition of Textiles

I started off by making a mind-map with all the applications where I thought textiles might be used, and I added what I think of as a textile and what I would not class as a textile.


I think a textile is most commonly a fibre that has been knitted, felted or woven into a flexible, two-dimensional material. The common factor seeming to be that it has in some way been manipulated or manufactured by humans. The fibres coming from:-

  • plants (bamboo, jute, cotton, flax etc);
  • animals (animal wools, silk, hairs);
  • man-made sources (processed chemical combinations such as elastane, faux leather, nylon, vinyl, etc);
  • recycled sources, which may be a combination of any of these sources (for example, the company Patagonia makes clothing from recycled plastic bottles; R A Horner of Linton Falls in Yorkshire makes socks on an antique knitting machine using mixed recycled yarns).

There does not seem to be much of a limit on what could be made into a textile (for example, found items such as leaves, old packaging or feathers sewn together – again a human intervention seems to be required to make the transformation from object to textile).

There seems to be another group of textiles: composite fabrics such as those made by artists, or manufacturers, eg, rubber coated fabrics; or ‘futuristic’ ones, for example, Suzanne Lee’s Ted Talk “Grow Your Own Clothing” talks about her experiments with making fabrics from kombucha – a fermented tea, and other bacterial-cellulose combinations).

Not Textiles

Some bird (weaver bird) and animal nests (harvest mouse) or protective coverings (caddis fly larva casings, silk worm cocoons) might be said to resemble textiles. Leather and fur (fish and animal skins, seal/mink/bear/fox fur, etc) seem more like ‘found’ textiles that could be processed and made into a textile-like material, but I think I would not class them as textiles in themselves.

The things that I would definitely not class as textiles (unless they were processed in some way) are things like pure elements, minerals, gases, living flora and fauna, metals, chemicals, objects made from wood, plastic, glass, paper etc. Although, I’m sure that all of them could be processed in some way to become a textile or have textile-like qualities. Quite an exciting prospect!

Possible Applications For Textiles

  • Construction (waterproof membranes, insulation fabrics etc)
  • Industry/Commerce (Tyvek for protective clothing/packaging, nets for fishing, etc)
  • Food Processing and Delivery (Cheesecloth, sacking, fruit nets, protective sleeves etc)
  • Agriculture/Gardening (hessian for plant protection, fleece, netting, weed suppressant etc)
  • Clothing (and accessories)
  • Furnishing (household linen, furniture covers, rugs, curtains, blankets etc)
  • Decorative (art works, crafts, quilts)
  • Medical (bandages, plasters, uses in surgery etc)
  • Science (protective clothing, filters, scaffolds for growing tissues etc)

There must be many overlaps between categories, such as rugs that are functional and decorative; clothing that is fashionable, yet protective; food packaging that advertises as well as preserving, describing and transporting its contents.

Stories and Narratives

The story behind the manufacture of a textile may be of interest (for example, the manufacture of Harris Tweed tells the story of the place, the animals and the people who make it and the tradition).

The source of the raw material for making a textile may be of interest (a jumper knitted from someone’s pet dog’s hair; yarn from a particular breed of sheep found only in one area; a hand dyed piece of fabric that is unique; dye sourced from a particular plant).

The story of the making process of the textile (for example a quilt made in a sewing bee may feature the signatures of all who made it; or a rag rug made by a family may evoke memories of those making experiences when the item is handled in the future. Jenni Stuart-Anderson’s book “Rag Rug Making” has many quoted memories that have been stirred, by people watching her demonstrate her craft).

A piece may be made to commemorate a particular event or occasion, a cross stitch picture made as a Christening gift, for example; or a tapestry made to commemorate a military event, such as this one made in Belgium and shown on the V&A website, is part of a series called The Art of War.

Lesley Millar in the introduction to “Hand Stitch: Perspectives” By Alice Kettle and Jane McKeating, talks about the Hmong people of China, who’s language was outlawed, but they sublimated their alphabet into their embroidery work, where it was passed down the generations. This speaks of the story of a people, their culture and history. Another example of textiles embodying a social history, is the Boro clothing made and worn in Japan. Each garment, or textile object, is patched and treasured, and may hold many layers of fabrics from past generations.

A textile object or piece of clothing may hold memories of the individual that has worn it or owned it – smell, shape, wear and repairs, clues to their lives (job, status in society, period in history in which they lived, their politics), possibly even DNA if hairs, blood or skin cells adhere. The latter may be important to the police in crime solving.

An item may become synonymous with one individual: Marilyn Monroe’s white ‘subway’ dress is so emblematic of the actress, that it sold for $5.6 million at auction in 2011.

Suffragettes made textiles while in Holloway prison, to record their experiences, these pieces have political and historical importance.

The maker leaves their mark on each piece: individual choices as to the colours, form, size, decoration, style, etc. (The Great British Sewing Bee contestants show their individuality in the variety of their creations made for the same task). The stitches made, whether by hand or machine reflect the individual’s skill and personality; their preferences; and the time taken to make the piece.


I concluded (although this opinion may change as the course unfolds!) that a textile is primarily a knitted, woven or felted fibre, but that almost any type of raw material could be manipulated to become a textile-like fabric.

Textiles seem to touch almost every aspect of our lives: at home, on our person, in industry and commerce, in the arts and sciences.

Textiles can have many stories to tell, from the raw materials used to make the textile, to the story of the maker(s), to the historical and personal associations, and meanings imbued in it.


Oxforddictionaries.com defines textile as “A type of cloth or woven fabric” Originating in the Early 17th Century: from the Latin Textilis, from text- meaning ‘woven’ from the verb texere.



Millar, L “Embroidery, Memory and Narrative” in Kettle, A and McKeating, J “Hand Stitch: Perspectives” (2012) Bloomsbury, London (pp 12-14)

Stuart-Anderson, J “Rag Rug Making” (2003) Traplet, Worcestershire


Warde-Aldam, G “Boro: A Practice Born Out Of Necessity” in Selvedge Issue 70

Wheeler, E “The Political Stitch:Voicing Resistance in a Suffrage Textile” (2012) accessed through http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1757&context=tsaconf consulted 29/06/16


http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/textile consulted 28/06/16

https://www.scotweb.co.uk/info/how-is-harris-tweed-produced consulted 29/06/16

http://edition.cnn.com/2011/SHOWBIZ/celebrity.news.gossip/06/19/hollywood.auction/ consulted 29/06/16

consulted 28/06/16

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O248828/the-march-the-art-of-tapestry-judocus-de-vos/ consulted 29/06/16

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