Jill Magi

A textile poetics

Touching words

Advocating for the downplayed, epistemologically outcast sense of touch in her essay “Textiles, Text and Techne,” collected in Hemmings’ The Textile Reader, Victoria Mitchell writes: “It is clear that textiles are not words and the differences between them benefit the conceptual apparatus of thought at the expense of its sensory equivalent. Thus when an activity is labelled as textiles it ceases to be a substance and becomes instead a ‘material of thought,’ and as such enters into the internal logic of a system which tends to privilege the autonomy of the mind.” 

I would like to complexify Mitchell’s claim by extending two of her subjects: words and the senses. 

Victoria Mitchell’s essay begins by recounting Charlotte’s Web and that clever spider weaving words into her web in order to warn her friend the pig. Mitchell articulates that of course the story is a fiction, and a spider’s ability to make webs “is understood in terms of the mechanics of the nervous system; it therefore falls short of the kind of language experience typically associated with the written word.”

The sample book, a catalogue of influences

This grid in shades of red is from the recipe journal of the Merton Abbey dyers of England circa 1800. It is from Elena Phipps’ very useful Looking at Textiles: A Guide to Technical Terms. Textile sample books and dye recipe books are intensely beautiful objects, often stained and over-stuffed, and I believe they provide a way for me to comment on two things archeological, genealogical: the notebook, and influences. 

The notebook is surely a tool for what M. C. Richards is talking about when she writes, “All the arts we practice are apprenticeship. The big art is our life.” I found this quote written on a blue card slipped into an old notebook of mine. I do not know which book of hers it came from; presumably it came from Centering, a book I have read and re-read even though I have never thrown pots on a wheel.

The float weave

Toward a textile poetics

Why am I drawn to abstraction in images and quite dubious of this gesture in writing, wary of a writer’s intentional subterfuge, and the privilege, perhaps, of a writer who does not need to comment on the world with narrative clarity, with a point, with a discernible stance, evidence, argument? In an attempt to bring this personally persistent mix of desire and wariness into dialogue, I have begun to unpack the word “abstraction,” and though I voluntarily stepped away from a PhD program more than twenty years ago, I am still exploring “argument” and its forms. Researching textiles — in order to teach a course on expository writing through textiles and to imagine a poetry workshop via textiles — the words “geometry” and “pattern” began to take hold, not necessarily eclipsing abstraction, but emerging from a word more various than I thought.