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Felt & Fiber Art

A Brief History of Fiber Arts

FEB15BThe term fiber art came into being in the 1960’s and is derived from the textile arts, which have been practiced globally for millennia. Prior to that time, most “fiber arts” was done not as art, but as part of what was considered “women’s work,” like sewing and knitting. [i]

In the late 1960’s, there was a “craft boom” in fiber arts and crafts in the United States and Europe. This was due in part to the counterculture movement and the desire to express oneself creatively. But a bigger factor was that women had more leisure time, disposable income and education and the subsequent exposure to contemporary art led to a need to express themselves artistically.

Suddenly, there were classes in in textile crafts offered at colleges and universities; fiber supply stores began to open, craft shows were born and local museums and galleries began showing crafts of all media. Crafts were seemingly everywhere. For those not overly creative, kits were available, like the rug latch kits that included a pre-drawn canvas and cut yarn to latch your rug.

In the 1970’s, needlework also was reclaimed by the Feminist Movement. This began the introduction of textiles and fiber into “high art”. Most famous for this was Judy Chicago who founded the first feminist art program in the United States, and coined the term Feminist Art. Chicago created one of the first pieces of “high art” that incorporates and celebrates needlework and fabrics within women’s history and is called The Dinner Party (1979). The Dinner Party is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  [ii]

pillowBy the late 1970’s—just ten years after it began–the craze was over; schools eliminated or downsized textile classes and publishers moved on to the next fad. However, interest in fiber arts remained strong among a select group who continued to work and experiment with new directions in textiles.

Even with the influence of artists like Chicago, contemporary fiber arts has not been valued in the same way other art forms, like painting and sculpture, have been. However, that sentiment is changing. For example, quilting has become a recognized form of fiber art, with major museums like the Museum of American Folk Art in Manhattan that has a permanent collection of 400 quilts and The Newark Museum with about 200. Even more encouraging is the first fiber art show from a major museum in 40 years at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston in October 2014 to January 2015. The show is called Fiber Sculpture: 1960-Present. Following its premiere in Boston, the exhibition went to Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio and Des Moines Art Center, Iowa.

Those fiber artists who continued to create since the “craft boom” had finally been recognized! Early pioneers such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and Claire Zeisler had their work shown at the show, along with 30 other artists. Notable is that these artists have websites for their work, because this is now one of the principal ways artists communicate with the world today.

Today–The Information Age—allows unprecedented access into artists’ work through the Internet. In the past, the vast majority of fiber artists (as well as all artists and craftspeople) only sold and showed their art locally, they now have a world-wide audience through the Internet.

In addition to artists having their own websites, they can choose to sell their art on sites like, and This type of exposure was literally unheard of only a few years ago.

Concurrently, being a creator and an entrepreneur is now considered hip and a new wave of young people, often referred to as “hipsters”, are making crafts and refer to themselves as “Makers.” Craft shows are again on the rise, including “Fleas” in cities like Brooklyn and Los Angeles, where handmade foods, beers, crafts, clothing and art abounds.

Fiber Art is part of this trend and the result is continual experimentation with textiles, with exciting new work emerging. For example, events like the Rhinebeck Wool and Sheep Festival attract thousands, and people of all ages are buying supplies to create and to purchase handmade textiles.

Schools offering classes in crafts are again on the rise. Classes and tutorials abound on the Internet. There are many online and brick and mortar stores in which to buy fiber art, DIY and other art and craft supplies.

It is somewhat ironic that during the Industrial Revolution, consumers were made to feel that handmade goods were inferior to manufactured products and that in our Information Age, there is a tide of change occurring where the reverse is seen as true.

[i] Jefferies, Janice. “Text and textiles: weaving across the borderlines’.’ In New Feminist Art Criticism: Critical Strategies. Manchester University Press. 1995. Print. Page 164.

[ii] Viki D. Thompson Wylder and Lucy R. Lippard. Judy Chicago. Watson-Guptill Publications. June 2002. Print. Page 9.

More information

Fiber Art:

Fiber Art Now Magazine:

Textile Art Center:


Copyright © 2021 Norma Lehmeier Hartie