“Folded Life: Talking Textile Politics” is a research project conceived by curator Grant Watson. It is developed in collaboration with editor Jill Winder and supported by the Johann Jacobs Museum, Zürich. It includes documentation of interviews conducted in-person and remotely by Grant Watson with a diverse group of interviewees, whose personal and political engagements with textiles are explored through a discussion of a single textile object of their choosing.

The online research home of the project presents our research trajectory over the course of 2021, making public a set of approximately twelve interviews alongside contextual material. A second research phase, slated for the end of 2021, aims to reconfigure the research materials into a new iteration—an online exhibition—that reinterprets and configures the existing materials into new forms.

Conceptually and curatorially “Folded Life: Talking Textile Politics” starts from the understanding that textiles function as a field of social meaning, temporally and spatially ubiquitous but flexible and contingent in terms of use and setting. At the same time textiles can be alive with subjective attachments and personalized references. Often the origin of the individual textile is elsewhere. It is made by unknown hands through obscured chains of production, determined by factors including race, gender, and class, through global hierarchies of exploitation, and market distribution. Even if textiles are made locally, the fibers and dyes are likely to have been harvested or extracted at a distance. And colors and patterns reflect contacts made centuries ago, implicating histories of trade and violence, cultural exchange, and appropriation that produce new readings and affects in the present. Through this the textile object interpolates us into a relation with distant processes as well as questions of social justice and ecology, which demand an attention that goes beyond ethical consumption.

“Folded Life: Talking Textile Politics” explores this inter-scaler character of textiles and brings out the often-overlooked way that textiles position us in an intimate relation with the life world. Anchored in a particular time and place, textiles become folded into a life, as a valued possession or for daily use. Through different combinations of chance or choice, they are individuated but not privatized because connections to an external field of reference remain. But living with textiles is not something passive, only about necessity or consumption (ethical or otherwise). As cultural artifacts textiles also have the potential to express values, to disrupt and to dissent through meaning, making, and style. This has been very much the case with feminist, gay liberation, and queer sensibilities, where the micro has found its mobilization in a movement. As art historian Lucy Lippard has pointed out, textiles have had an important role to play in feminist art practices, where making for pleasure (hobbies), making collectively (sewing bees), or making for politics (banners) have all been incorporated in order to upturn existing hierarchies.[1] Likewise queer cultures have self-identified with a “feminine” perception of textiles as a way to subvert expectations about gender, and have used textiles for the purpose of masquerade or to enhance sexual practices, as in the intricate bondage techniques developed from Japanese knotting. In this way, as art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson has written, a “textile politics” not only refers to “how textiles have been used to advance political agendas;” it also points to how textiles can be used to make the political “material.”[2]


[1] Lucy Lippard, Making Something from Nothing, in Get the Message, A Decade of Art for Social Change (New York: EP Dutton, 1984), 98.
[2] Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 7.