Are You a Fiber Artist...Probably Not

Good Monday to you blogaroos and blogettes. I have yet to rant here, but today, for you, I will. Lately I've been searching the term fiber artist on Etsy and Crafting magazines. Buckle up for this, because I may unintentionally irk you. Maybe I'm being territorial, but as a person holding a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fibers, I get annoyed when I see someone promoting his or herself as a fiber artist, when they sell knitted scarves and hats. Now, I don't want to downplay those things. They are well crafted. They sell well on Etsy. Plus, I love wearing them. At the same time, I would never refer to those items as art. So are the ones who make them artists? Clothing and accessory designers, yes, but artists...?

To me, art goes beyond the utilitarian purpose of clothing the body and keeping it warm. I also feel that it goes beyond an acute sense of fashion and style. The work of a fiber artist has a message, an art historical commentary or an elevation to crafted perfection, a watershed technique perhaps. Call me catty, but I think the whole "everyone's an artist" motto undermines the value of art, especially the Fiber Arts, where artists have struggled to gain credibility among the traditional big guns of painting and sculpture. My mom mas made quilts for new brides and babies for 30 years and never introduces herself as an artist to new acquaintances. A.) because she uses traditional and contemporary published patterns and B.) because she openly professes her lack of innate or educated understanding of the elements and principles of art and design.

It's a very touchy dialogue and one that is handled in depth in The Invention of Art by Larry Shiner. If this discussion is up your alley, read it as soon as you can. In my personal opinion any technique or material can have a craft solution or an art solution depending on what you do with it. Here are three examples of how I see the breakdown. I chose three people whose items I would love to own from Etsy. All are talented with fiber materials or techniques, but fit different categories. Again, in my opinion.

The Crafter: curiouspug

The Designer: kanokwalee

The Artist: joettamaue

The first is utilitarian, made with commercial materials and speedy to reproduce, though super cute. The second ups the ante on aesthetics and mastery of craft, with a sophisticated color palette and a fashion "story" so to speak, but is still utilitarian. The last item appropriates a historical textile format, uses embroidery as a mark making tool that contrasts with that format, and is meant to be appreciated on its own with no other particular use.

Can we and should we make clearer boundaries? I make fiber art for show, sell upcycled crafts on Etsy ...and I like it that way.


  1. Here is a sample of some of the comments on this post, during the time my comment function was down:

    Michelle of The Quilted House:

    "We are a victim of our language though. The Webster definition of artist is 1. One who practices an art. and 2. One who creates objects of beauty. If we go strictly on that definition, I'd have to say that my step-mom who used a Knifty Knitter to make 12 scarves for me, which are very beautiful, is a fiber artist. But I don't think that's accurate.

    Is the distinction between utility and non-utility? The third image that you showed you determined to be art, but what if it was then sewn onto muslin and made into a bag or a quilt? Would it still be art or would it become just a pretty work by a crafter? I have no idea, but it's so interesting to think about.

    And now to me. Do I consider myself an artist? I do. I don't think I create art all the time and I don't sell only art on Etsy (or even ANY art on Etsy), but I think with my utilization of color, design, and creativity, I create art even when I'm not creating art - if that makes any sense. And when I am making what I would consider a work of art it's totally from within my heart and soul that the design and inspiration comes (and they are usually not "useful" items, so maybe it is about utility??) What an interesting dialog you've started. I am definitely going to get that book. I want to grow as an artist and as a crafter and since I've started on Etsy I think that I've focused more on the craft and the creation than the art and the soul-searching and that's very sad.

    I found your post very refreshing - a wake up call for me, so thank you! You have a wonderful habit of writing about the things that often don't get said, but that many of us think.
    I give this to you as food for thought: What about self-definition? What about looking at yourself and defining (labeling) yourself as you see yourself? This, I'll admit, I have always struggled with. I've been on both sides of the fence: I HATE it when people define me as femme because I don't self-define that way. But I also hate it when people self-define as "vegetarian" when they eat chicken or fish even occasionally. Is it the same with the self-definition of artist?"

    "I don't think we'll ever overcome people rating art, design, and craft in levels of worth. Though there doesn't seem to be a passionate debate (quilters are often a passive lot), but it's definitely the topic of discussion and discomfort. Quilting is often divided into craft, which includes pretty much every kind of quilt and bedding, or art quilts, which are mostly wall hangings. But there's no clear definition of an art quilt. If you make a large "art quilt" and put it on your bed, is it no longer art? I guess the questions of can art be useful and self-definition are the ones that are keeping me thinking."

  2. I love the question about the third piece becoming craft if it was made into a bag. It certainly does change it's function. Context and concept have everything to do with something becoming art. It doesn't necessarily mean that an art item takes more time to make or has more value.

    I helped take down the Gee's Bend quilt show at the Cleveland Museum of Art during an internship there. The women who made these quilts in Gee's Bend Alabama over the past 100 years used whatever scraps they had to keep their families warm. This practicality led to quilts which look very much like modern, abstract paintings. Some curators decided because they looked like dead white dudes paintings, that these women must have made art. They missed the point. Those quilts weren't valuable for their design ingenuity, but for the loving use of resources to care for family through hardship. One of the CMA curators wanted to take an especially worn piece out of the show because it was "weak". I feel it was the strongest piece because it had the most use and touched the most lives under it's warmth.