Making textiles with others as a means of research
Our AHRC-funded network, Stitching Together, connects researchers who use participatory textile making in their work to develop a critical dialogue around their experiences. Our members come from a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds and use textile-making activities in very different ways. Recognising the overlap between research and practice in this context, we also welcome and learn from practitioners, commissioners and participants who are involved in community and artist-led textile projects.
In this post, we outline seven key characteristics of participatory textile making activities and identify seven challenges that researchers may encounter when using these activities as a means of inquiry. We conclude by signposting Stitching Together resources for those keen to have a go at making textiles with others.
What are the characteristics of participatory textile making activities
Through the network, we have identified seven key characteristics that combine to shape the potential for participatory textile making in research contexts:
1. Accessible and flexible
While some textile processes require a high level of expertise, the basics can be easily shared. Tools and materials for making textiles, especially processes such as hand sewing, hand knitting and crochet, are readily available. Such projects are also portable, meaning that textile craft activities can be flexibly accommodated in many different contexts.
2. Variable in format and outcomes
Textile making projects can be set up in very different ways, from a drop-in ‘have a go’ workshop to an extended initiative, co-created in partnership with a community group. Furthermore, outcomes can range from the functional to the expressive, the speculative to the necessary, and the individual to the communal.
3. Therapeutic benefits
Much has been written, by Stitchlinks and others, about the therapeutic benefits of textile making. The quiet, meditative rhythms of stitching and knitting can provide a focused activity of manageable proportions in times of insecurity and offer solace in times of distress.
4. (Cross-)cultural relevance
The ubiquity of textiles in everyday life means that stitch-craft skills are widespread within and across cultures. Textile-making projects can provide a platform to bring together individuals who might not otherwise meet, or who might find social and education opportunities hard to access, due to cultural, age or language barriers.
5. Political platform
Although textiles may seem innocuous, they have long been a powerful vehicle for political expression – from the suffragette banners of the early twentieth century to the Chilean arpilleras made to preserve the collective memory of those ‘disappeared’ during times of conflict, and the hand-knitted pink ‘pussy hats’ created in solidarity for women’s rights.
6. Diverse forms of data
Participatory textile making activities generate diverse forms of data – visual, tactile, textual, oral, aural, emotional, experiential, temporal – allowing the researcher to draw on much more than just words. Gathering data during the making activity means that connections between doing, thinking and talking can be captured simultaneously, ‘in the moment’ of making.
7. Multi-layered experiences
The slow pace of hands-on making in the company of other people creates space for rich and multi-layered experiences: strands of conversation and moments of isolated contemplation overlap with the rhythms of stitching. The relative intimacy provided by textile making seems to help people to open up, supporting sensitive investigation of participants’ lived experiences.
What challenges might participatory textile making methods present?
It is of course crucial to maintain the integrity of the research enquiry as well as the textile making project. And although we are convinced of the value of stitching together, we are well aware of challenges faced by researchers seeking to use textile making methods as a means of investigation. In the interests of balance, here are seven of them:
1. Facilitation skills
Behind the scenes there are many skills needed to organise and facilitate a participatory textile making project, from the selection of appropriate tools and materials to the design of an inclusive yet engaging activity, and meeting the expectations of participants on the day.
2. Roles and relationships
The researcher’s role is often multifaceted, involving the need to simultaneously act as facilitator, instructor, host, maker and/or participant. Occupying these multiple roles is not only potentially exhausting; it can also complicate researcher–participant relationships. Add a partner organisation into the mix, and things get even more complex.
Despite the accessibility of textile activities, we must be alert to issues of authority and power which may be lurking beneath the surface. For example, in collective textile making initiatives conceived with a desire for aesthetic unity, who decides what kind of stitching is acceptable? Could projects unintentionally entrench stereotypical assumptions about who is ‘allowed’ to make textiles? How can participants who find fine motor activities difficult or impossible due to disability be meaningfully included?
4. Methodological rigour
The everyday familiarity that gives textiles such a wide reach can mean that textile making activities are not always designed into research initiatives with methodological rigour in mind. They can also be taken for granted or even treated as a frivolity, rather than being given due attention as a valid means of research.
5. Documentation and communication
Finding ways to document and analyse the diverse kinds of knowledge practised in participatory textile making activities can be a headache. Likewise, researchers need to think creatively in order to articulate and disseminate the insights generated.
6. Impact on participants
While positive outcomes for participants in textile projects are often observed by researchers, these cannot be taken for granted. Greater critical examination of the impacts that these approaches have on participants is needed.
7. Not everyone likes making textiles
It’s easy to get carried away with the idea of textile-making as a universally pleasurable and therefore inclusive activity. But stitching doesn’t float everyone’s boat – and this fact could impact the viability and value of any research based on its use.
Want to find out more?
If you’re keen to find out more about participatory textile making as a means of research, we invite you to browse through the Stitching Together double special issue of Journal of Arts & Communities, which offers 15 highly diverse case studies.
When you’re ready to jump in and get started, we encourage you to read the new Stitching Together Good Practice Guidelines, a document that provides advice for workshop and project facilitators.
You are also invited to join the Stitching Together network to connect with a supportive and growing international community of researchers and practitioners.
AUTHOR BIOS: Dr Emma Shercliff is a stitcher, researcher and writer who has been involved with creative, community-based, textile-making activities as both workshop leader and participant for over 20 years. She is a Senior Lecturer in Textiles at the Arts University Bournemouth. Emma is interested in the values of hand-making within post-industrial digital cultures and exploring the impact and value of creative and collaborative workshops as tools for doing research.
Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd is a designer, maker, researcher and writer who has explored the emerging field of fashion and sustainability via practice and research since 2004. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Art & Design at Nottingham Trent University. Amy’s latest project, Fashion Fictions, brings people together to generate, experience and reflect on engaging fictional visions of alternative fashion cultures and systems.
‘Stitching Together’ is funded by a research networking grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council: grant reference AH/R007497/1.