This month, we highlight the second of our Summer Lab Pitch Session attendees, Heather Schulte, an interdisciplinary artist based in Colorado. As we gear up for October’s colloquium, (re)Imagining Futures: Shifting Methodologies, TSA talks with Heather about traditional textile techniques in an era of digital design, her ongoing collaborative projects and the tangled history of gender and textiles.
On her background and influences…
I grew up with an engineer father and a mother who loves all things textiles, both of whom love to read. These two influences, plus the swift transition from primarily analog to digital technologies during my lifetime have deeply shaped my work.
On her practice…
I combine handmade textile materials, techniques, and patterning systems with digital fabrication and design processes, analyzing the intersection of personal and public forms of language and communication. I am interested in the dynamic ways we inherit and create meaning over the course of time. Utilizing text and textiles, two ancient and evolving forms of human technology, I engage the reciprocal relationship between individual and cultural perception and expression—how they inform and shape each other— for good and ill.
On textiles as a medium…
I aim to make work that sparks conversation, raises questions, and encourages viewers to interact with, rather than simply look at, a piece. I also see textiles as a form of text, as they hold within them the stories of both the animals or plants that are the material, and the humans who create new items with said material. Across history, they have also been used as storytelling devices; from quipu knotting systems to medieval tapestries, subversive samplers to contemporary quilts. I draw upon this rich history, and utilize modern forms of coding to embed my stitches with messages and commentary on the issues of our day.
My ongoing series “The Times” reflects on current events through embroidering on/through the front page of newspapers. The images are pixelated with stitches, the text of each article partially covered with patterns of binary code messages (yes, they could be decoded), leaving some of the original articles visible. These are presented in custom-made frames which are hung from the wall on custom hinges, allowing viewers to “turn” the page and see the verso.
On textiles as tech…
Textiles ARE technology, an ancient form that we have grown so accustomed to that we now mainly consider only the machines that make them technological. Textiles, text (or some form of communication), and technology are foundational to human culture, and have always been with us in some form. With the unprecedented speed of our current machines and systems, we tend to think of hand made as passé (or at least the predominant culture regards it as such, textile communities know otherwise), I strongly believe the slower pace and embodied practice of making and touching textiles an essential, human-centered counterpoint.
When we engage new technology, it is important to consider the costs—something is being traded, whether it’s faster production for more physical resources, precision for the human touch, or higher profits traded for living wages for the laborers. Slowing the process down and understanding what goes into the textile making technology we use is a great way to bring these issues to the surface, and hold time to make choices that align better with our values. Textiles used to be one of the most valuable possessions people had because of the time and labor they require to make. If we made these steps more readily visible, perhaps that knowledge would encourage better care for the people making materials, as well as better stewardship of our environment and physical resources. It is my hope that we can regain the cultural appreciation we once held for textiles and those engaged in their making.
On community and legacy…
I am indebted to the textile communities with which I have always been
surrounded. Initially, because the processes required so much labor and time, making textiles had long been a communal effort. Now that we utilize far more machinery to create materials, this has transformed into more of a socially-based community, where we can share our love of textiles and share knowledge, passing skills from generation to generation. I am proud to be the third generation (that I know of) to pass on my love of textiles to my children, and hope it will continue into the future.
On textiles meeting the moment…
In light of the COVID pandemic, the community-building aspect [of textiles] has become even more central to my work. This has manifested into an ongoing collaborative project that I started during lockdown called Stitching the Situation. Utilizing the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Center’s database, we are creating a large, cross-stitched embroidered tapestry that documents each case and death reported in the United States in blue and red threads, respectively. Now numbering over 400 people, and counting, each individual stitcher can create imagery of their choosing, utilizing a variety of hues and shades, based on their experience of the pandemic. It is a data visualization, memorial, archive, space for healing and connection, and so much more. I host community stitching sessions in public spaces, collaborate with organizations across disciplines to help their staff and clients consider their experiences, provide stitching kits to individual stitchers (each represents one day of data), and am developing a storytelling network to expand accessibility beyond folks interested in stitching. I am committed to centering the experiences of those most deeply affected by the pandemic—both the virus itself and the rippling ramifications of a global disaster.
The simple structure of the COVID project (a data set represented by two different colors) is one example of my interest in simple initial rules that can become infinitely complex (algorithmic thinking). In a recent series, ”What we feel; we cannot say,” color fields of embroidered cross stitch look like mere rectangles, until you more around a bit. Subtle changes in the stitches shift the light as it falls on the threads, revealing a word.
On gender roles and textiles…
One lesser tended to aspect of textile history that I would love to dive in to more deeply is the gendered nature of its larger social context. I am adamant that textiles are NOT a female form of labor, bur rather it has been feminized as part of the overarching patriarchal nature of capitalism. I don’t have space in this feature to expound my thoughts on this, so suffice to say that while I DO appreciate and honor the women who have passed this knowledge down to me. I fully acknowledge and am deeply indebted to many previous female artists who utilized textiles in their work as a protest against patriarchal norms and inequity and am of the opinion that we risk unintentionally reinforcing these norms when framing textiles as a “feminine art.” Across the full expanse of history and cultures, textile making has been communally practiced by all genders, especially when you consider the full process from raising animals/plants. It requires a huge amount of labor, and I believe the devaluing of this labor within a capitalist culture benefitted immensely from gendering it as female, thus condensing the profits and power generated toward the (largely) men in power. This is a vast oversimplification, but it’s a connection and history I plan to explore in depth.
And finally, on recommended reading…
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack by Tiya Miles is a profound amalgamation of textile history, material history, and socio-political history, all woven through an incredible story of one lineage of Black women in the US.
Fray by Julia Bryan-Wilson Bryan-Wilson is someone who thinks deeply about the above mentioned intersections in Miles’ work, and considers this a form of “queering” or complicating narratives and ideologies. Both these women write in accessible yet academically sound ways, based on deep and extensive research, and centered on the real and complex humans that are involved in their subject matter.
Heather Schulte is an interdisciplinary artist based in Colorado. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2003. Supported by numerous grants and private donations, her community-based projects include Stitching the Situation, a collectively embroidered tapestry in response to COVID-19, and The Denver Principles Flagpole Project, in collaboration with PLWHIV and the CO Health Network. Her work has been exhibited throughout Colorado, including RedLine Contemporary, the Arvada Center, and the Denver Art Museum, as well as numerous galleries and
contemporary art museums nationally. Press features include the “Surface Design Journal,” The Denver Post, WIRED magazine, various newspapers, and independent publications and podcasts. In 2022 she received an Arts and Creative Placemaking award from the University of Florida Center for Arts & Medicine. In the spring of 2024, she will be a resident artist with Platte Forum in Denver.
(re)Imagining Futures: Shifting Methodologies
Textile Society of America Colloquium Series
October 30, 2023
10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. EDT
The Textile Society of America is delighted to announce its 2023 colloquium (re)Imagining Futures: Shifting Methodologies. This event will highlight collaborative and equitable modes of research, art-making, and community building within museums and academic spaces.
(re)Imagining Futures: Shifting Methodologies is intended to serve as a catalyst for establishing and articulating professional ethics for textiles scholarships grounded in anti-racism, equity, and accessibility.
Join us for an exciting program featuring a keynote conversation, invited presentations and peer-juried emerging work by members.