Fifty Years of Textile History: Reflections on the Field

A couple of weeks ago the Pasold Research Fund held its annual conference. This year’s event marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Pasold’s journal, Textile History, and was a chance to reflect on how the discipline of textile history has changed and developed over the last few decades. The conference was made up of two panels of short papers, with extended time for questions and discussion. The first panel examined some of the main approaches or ideas that have been examined in textile history, as both a journal and a field. Mary Brooks looked at the inclusion of works on textile conservation in the journal, Philip Sykas at the issue of design, Miki Sugihura at the notion of value, and Beverly Lemire at the journal’s intersection with material culture studies. The second panel was on new directions in textile history, and featured PhD students and ECRs giving introductions to their research. I presented on men’s fashion news in early modern Europe, Rudy Jos Beerens discussed seventeenth-century tapestry production from a socio-economic angle, Rosanne Waine looked at the revival of Highland dress in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jo Tierney talked about the design and trade of British textiles to West Africa, and Magali An Berthon examined silk weaving in contemporary Cambodia.

            One thing the conference showed was just how interdisciplinary the field of textile history is. The speakers and audience came from a variety of different backgrounds and disciplines, including: social and cultural history, design history, economic history, conservation, and practice-based research. There were people there who teach in history departments, who are based in fashion and art schools, and who work in museums. However it was emphasised in the discussions that this interdisciplinarity didn’t occur naturally and shouldn’t be taken for granted – it was something that the journal actively worked on developing. One thing I really liked that Beverly Lemire said is that textiles take scholars in a variety of different directions, and Textile History narrates those journeys.

            The ‘material turn’ was one of the topics that received a great deal of attention during the conference, although many attendees pointed out that they dislike this way of referring to the rise of material culture in recent historiography, as a ‘turn’ implies something that can be reversed. When it was asked whether the ‘material turn’ has really affected textile studies – with the assumption being that such a topic of inquiry naturally encourages a material approach or the study of objects – it was pointed out that things could so easily have gone the other way, with the journal Fashion Theory, which takes a much more theoretical approach to the study of dress and textiles, being a case in point. Lemire argued that Textile History had played an important role in building bridges between museums and academia, and she highlighted the inclusion of Object Lessons in the journal for providing a space in which materiality could be more readily incorporated and addressed.

            The conference also revealed how much structural factors have influenced what kinds of research get published in the journal. Mary Brooks pointed out that the existence of a cluster of articles on textile conservation in Textile History in the 1980s in particular was due in part to the priorities and interests of the company which was publishing the journal at the time. Lemire noted the importance of the journal’s move to printing in colour for encouraging scholars who focused on objects to publish their work in Textile History. The rise and fall of particular strands within textile history can also be related to external factors. The growth of online museum catalogues has made it much easier for scholars to access and analyse objects, and so take a material culture approach to the study of textile history. Conversely, it was suggested that the relative lack of articles on machinery now in Textile History compared to fifty years ago may be due to the fact that the kinds of museums that hold examples of such machinery are either closing down or housing them in their stores in pieces, making their study more difficult. It was also proposed that the decline of studies from a business history perspective is because business history itself has moved away from the study of production, and even out of humanities departments, rather than because of any deliberate policy or actions of the journal.

            As a panellist, I had been sent some possible questions for the discussion after our papers by the chair. One of these, which we didn’t address specifically during the day itself, was what we thought the major changes in the discipline had been and where we thought it was going. In musing on this issue in advance of the conference, I realised that I’m excited by the fact that textile history has both embraced and been embraced by global history, with textiles and the exchange of ideas, motifs, raw materials, finished products, and production processes and technologies a key way of demonstrating the interconnectedness of the world throughout history. I’m excited by the fact that the fields of textile, fashion and dress history are increasingly gaining legitimacy and being taken more seriously. But most of all, I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing where the field goes in the next few years. Because I know of a number of brilliant scholars who are working on dress, textile and fashion history, most of whom have recently finished or are currently working on their PhDs, and I can’t wait to read their forthcoming publications and hear more about their exciting and innovative research.

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