The 21st century has witnessed the evolution of our societies and cultures within an increasingly technological world. While we have previously relied on humans to produce certain goods like clothing or rugs, the power has now shifted primarily to the machine. We have replaced hand-stitching garments together for customers with instead opting to use an electric sewing machine. Instead of knitting or crocheting a handful of sweaters via either the knitting needles or the crochet hook in our hands, we have welcomed complex, expensive machines that, with a simple push of a button, can complete row after row of stitches within a matter of minutes—unlike the hours upon hours it would take to do so by hand. Due to the accessibility and ease these machines provide us in terms of getting our hands on the latest trends, a number of textile arts have decreased in popularity over the years. However, now with the rise of TikTok, a popular social media platform, a resurgence of the textile arts has begun.
Historically, textiles have always played an important part in human civilization. By repurposing animal skins or fibers, people were able to fashion articles of clothing, weave baskets to help transport items, or to even create fabric to give their couch some flair. However, the more aesthetics-based usage of textiles tended to apply to those of a wealthier class, ones who could afford to purchase expensive textiles to use for non-important purposes. It was not until the Industrial Revolution, where we witnessed significance and employment of machines across almost all workforces. Creating textiles were no longer laborious, tedious dedications of one’s time—it could now be replicated in a much shorter timeframe and at a faster pace, thus lowering the prices and heightening the availability in which they now were. The most basic textile art is felting. Created from natural fibers (or synthetic nowadays), the craft has a broad variety of uses. From clothing to house decorations, it requires only for the fibers themselves to be pressed and matted together, usually with a needle or brush, in order to achieve the desired product of a heavy duty piece of textile to work with. Despite the technique not having advanced much over the years, felting still exists today—as a fine art, you can find felted sculptures with a quick Google search. This phenomena of textile arts’ not needing complex technologies have lead to its persistence over the years: while it can be replicated at a quicker pace with a machine, it’s still possible to achieve the same product via the same method humans used centuries prior.
As aforementioned, the Industrial Revolution played a vital role in how the world treated the labor behind textiles. Since technologies like the power loom or the cotton gin increased productivity and only required overseers to ensure the work ethics of the machines, there was less need to employ full-time laborers or to spend time perfecting one’s own personal craft. During the 19th century, as the Revolution was taking place, a group of English textile workers known as the Luddites took to protesting laborers’ replacements with machines by destroying the latter. Though this movement arguably had somewhat good intentions—primarily one which advocated for the rights of the workers—it did not cause the Industrial Revolution to cease or even falter much. The decline of employment within textile factories lead to a fall of emphasis to learn these specific skillsets like how to darn clothing, how to weave rugs or baskets, and so on. It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that there began an emergence of revival within both the fiber and textile arts.
When it seemed the world of textile arts had hit its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was used as a means to vocalize people’s political thoughts, it has begun to make another resurgence during the pandemic—in particular, on the apps TikTok and YouTube. Thanks to the internet’s ability to allow for millions of people to communicate effortlessly across the world, photographs and videos of personal crafting projects have connected to larger numbers and minds than previous movements would have been able to, such as the Luddites themselves. Social media platforms such as Tiktok and Instagram, in which basic hashtags like #crochet or #loom are followed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, unlock paths for those in search of a new hobby—or those who want a fun new sweater, pair of shoes, or even a decorative wall rug for their bathroom. Take TikTok user @fanaticalfibers, also known as Sarah, for example: sitting on a follower count of more than half a million, their occupation as a so-called “yarn bender” manages to grasp thousands of views with each video they post, whether it’s a close-up of Sarah crocheting a plush Mothman, giving tips and offering advice to those who inquire in the comments, or even a brief sketch of them attempting to subtly bring inside a large amount of packages from Michael’s. The variety of content no doubt keeps their audience hooked and entertained, but one glance at the comment section will reveal to the vast amount of strangers on the internet coming together under one common interest: crochet. To those who aren’t aware of what’s happening onscreen and thus ask, they are quickly responded to with eager explanations as to the process of crocheting and its simplicity and the fun it may bring! Similar accounts can be found on YouTube, the internet’s audio-video version of a Dummy’s Guide to Whatever You Want. YouTubers like Bernadette Banner (who also possesses a TikTok account) and Sewstine (a.k.a. Christine) not only demonstrate how to sew certain historical clothes or techniques, but they also both implement a feminist, politically-active angle in their works. In one of Sewstine’s videos, published near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she crafts and then tests four different face mask designs, giving her input as a certified doctor as to which pass and which fail the necessary criteria that makes for a hospital-approved mask. Though Banner has a similar video, she instead instead uses her background as a seamstress to unravel the historically complicated relationship between women and corsets in this video, comparing her medical brace for scoliosis to being used in a similar fashion as a Victorian corset. She tears down the myth of corsets being extremely restrictive to the point of causing fainting spells and instead explains how men took this narrative and ran with it, leading to the eventual disregard and distain people still sometimes hold towards corsets today.
Not only does social media provide a means to access tutorials or sew-a-longs and others interested in the same craft as you, but it is this explosion of textile and fiber arts online that has also impacted the explosion of small online businesses. TikTok, with its mere seconds long videos and wide audience reach, has become a centerpiece for those wishing to boost their brands and shops out to the world. TikTok user @fanaticalfibers from earlier provides a number of patterns on their Etsy shop for those curious on how to make a kawaii fox from one of their videos. Hashtags like #smallbusinesscheck on TikTok (which has its own unique audio) have opened up the realm of what it looks like to create finished products, package them, take photos for one’s site, and so much more. Those who might have hesitated in selling their own textile creations are able to search through the hashtag and find tips and tricks in how to start their own small business, whether on Etsy or similar websites. This explosion of those interested in having their own small businesses and those interested in purchasing solely (or mostly) from such brands have resulted in a heightened intrigue and spread of the textile arts. Though used primarily for aesthetics now rather pure utilization, knitting one’s own sweater or needle-punching a miniature rug for their grandmother’s poodle helps create a sense of individualism and uniqueness. No one has this same exact thing as me. It’s personal and special to me only! Having these new outlets to explore, especially with thousands of warm, inviting communities at your disposal, have lead to its persistence throughout the pandemic and now as we ride the slow wave out.
Barnes, Sara. “Art History: Ancient Practice of Textile Art and How It Continues to Reinvent Itself.” My Modern Met, 5 May 2017. mymodernmet.com/contemporary-textile-art-history/ Cortés, Michelle Santiago. “Small Businesses Are Thriving On Social Media & That’s Making People Mad.” Refinery29, 21 April 2021. refinery29.com/en-us/2021/04/10434451/small-business-tiktok-love-hate “Frequently Asked Questions.” FACES: Fiber Arts Center of the Eastern Shore. fiberartscenter.com/about/frequently-asked-questions/