Textiles carry a personal and political weight through which I understand the world, and in turn, myself. For me, the medium represents labour practices, class, nationality, the domestic and the industrial, gender expectations, queerness, desire, human experience, hungry capitalism, and its exact opposite.
The commonality of textiles in our lives may have led to it being somewhat overlooked in art historical contexts. The labour that is responsible for textiles production is almost categorically invisible. We are surrounded by and inundated with garments, textiles, bedlinen, sportswear, home-furnishings that are created by human hands, without signs of the humans who created them. Textiles exist uniquely across disciplines – an embroidery is a drawing, fabric has form, stitch and weave are both action and performance, a painting is often on woven canvas. It’s this very transience and lack of formal categorisation that consistently engages me. Textiles are both expansive and overlooked.
Material has a way of situating me in the world with certainty – a direct link to where I’m from, and the lived experiences and environments I discovered myself in. It can also ‘other’ me entirely, expressing queerness through dress, or working-class identity through material and process choices. I utilise textiles, I realise now, for their humanity and complexity. It is these same multiplicities that I believe every human to be made of. A body of work can exist outside of traditional categorisation, as a person can.
Textiles communicate the labour I have understood from a very young age. In Wexford, we lived opposite Pierces Foundry that once employed my grandfather, while the Max Mauch factory employed my father. My grandmother was a seamstress at the local hospital who later worked out of her home making cushions, curtains, upholstering, altered clothes, created various ribbons for horse shows, and plaited wool bands in Wexford colours. I was always fascinated by the materiality in each of these spaces, the sways between warmth, care, compassion and the industrial, functional, metallic. Each represents graft and labour, ritual, action, and community, but these processes have lost value in our culture. They’re not fast enough, not cheap enough, not automated enough.
I have witnessed a very real decline in employment in my lifetime. Factories closing down, conglomerates moving in, jobs being lost, and the very real culture that surrounds this labour being eradicated. These skills are culturally significant; however, it is a sincere lack of value and respect for these working-class cultures that has led to their dismissal. The work that I make carries that same labour – whether metal bent around my own body that I’ve welded, or the thousands of invisible stitches that can render a sculpture weightless. Seeing this labour occupy space in galleries, museums, and art institutions gives me a sense of pride, and a conceptual manifestation of the identity politics it stems from.
After completing a FETAC Art and Design course in Waterford, I studied Womenswear at Central Saint Martins, mainly because I understood a certain class pressure to graduate with real, employable skills. However, helping my grandmother with a cross-stitch or witnessing her skill and love for sewing was equally significant, and I learned as much about colour, working on building sites with my dad, as I did in art school. Learning is embedded in my work, and without the formality of education, the link to the place I’m from might still be the same. The material language that I know hasn’t changed.
Textiles have been significant in my experience of identity. They carry ideas of sentimentality and nostalgia – a smell, the closeness to our skin, intimacy of touch, or flags, which can communicate national or regional identities without language. They also represent the gendered roles and opposing materials of working-class environments. Men worked with concrete, wood, plaster, or metal, in factories or on building sites; whereas women’s labour centred on the domestic, where I witnessed the care and craft of mending or stitching – a linoleum tablecloth, the texture of a tea towel, the hum of a sewing machine.
As a child, and more so as an adult, I find this difference fascinating and confusing, likely because I haven’t found a place in either world. My own gender identity is not something I consider definitive, so I lean on these multifaceted experiences in my own work. In all its complexity, I have a certain refusal to rely on the visual tropes associated with the intersections of my identity. I’ve witnessed scores of extremely privileged and wealthy people commodify ideas of uniform, utility, labour, and class, as a way to communicate that one is more grounded, or perhaps that we live in a meritocracy, which of course is untrue. It baffles me to watch the culture I’m from become fetishised, which is not the same as honouring or respecting it.
I sincerely believe that our lived experiences, labour, and cultural realities – as queer or gender fluid people, immigrants, or the working class – to be valuable. It is my intention to develop a language that recognises the transience and the overlaps in our identities, refusing categorisation. This is a quiet act of resistance. In many ways, my research exists to make sense of something that is invisible and complex. Hopefully it illustrates the important culture of textiles, its inherent labour and humanity, as well as the medium’s very real connection to identity and the lived experience of otherness.
Richard Malone is an Irish multi-disciplinary artist working between London and Wexford.