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Poetic Textiles Tell a History Woven by Women

Francesca Capone looks at textiles as a poetic language that tells a version of history from a female perspective.

by Andrew Salomone
26 November 2016, 1:00pm

Woven works on display in Writing in Threads. Images courtesy of Francesca Capone

After discovering similarities between language and weaving patterns, one artist is exploring the poetry that’s woven into fabric. Francesca Capone works with yarn and words to construct statements that can be translated from text to textile and textile to text. Capone tells The Creators Project, “I see textile as a forbearer of linguistic traditions. Throughout history textiles have been used as a place for recording information and for telling stories.”

Raised in a family that has worked with textiles for generations as seamstresses, upholsterers, textile designers, Capone has spent her whole life around textiles. “I grew up with a cross stitch embroidery of the Italian alphabet framed prominently in the kitchen, made by my Sicilian great-grandmother in the late 19th century.” As an undergraduate at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Capone studied textile design and writing. This included working with a jacquard loom, a device that played an important role in the development of computer programming because of the punchcards it uses to read weaving patterns. “The repeat limitations of the jacquard loom felt just like poetic meter, and this was the beginning of a rich space for intellectual inquiry.”

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A page from Capone’s Weaving Language project.

After her time at RISD, Capone says “something clicked” in the development of her work when she was researching as an assistant teacher for a poetry class by reading Eugen Gomringer’s Anthology of Concrete Poetry, and Anni Albers' On Weaving. “Gomringer uses this ingenious way of translating visual poems from a variety of languages, where he simply includes a key that lists English translations of all the individual words in the poem. This way, the viewer may quickly learn the language and then translate the poem in their mind upon viewing it. It occurred to me, as I looked back to Anni Albers' dictionary of weaves, all the grids of woven drafts, that textile could be translated into English this same way.”

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This aha moment was the beginning of a four-year project, Weaving Language, which Capone worked on during her MFA in Interdisciplinary Writing at Brown University. Last year, Capone turned portions of Weaving Language into Writing in Threads, a group exhibition at Brooklyn’s 99¢ Plus Gallery. The exhibition featured illustrations of Capone’s concepts manifested by various artists and materials. “This project focused on the thread as part of digital culture, though not at the outset. I invited a group of writers to translate my weavings through the use of my translation dictionary, Lexicon, and eventually I realized that we were already writing in 'threads,' as our email chains grew longer and longer over months of correspondence.”

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Poetry and woven fabric in Capone’s exhibition Writing in Threads

Capone’s next project, Text means Tissue, looks at the written history in textiles that have historically been produced by women. “It’s troubling to me that these aren’t included in most historical recounts of literary and typographical history. There also is a tremendous oversight of women’s expression due to the disclusion and discouragement of women from writing traditions until the 19th century.  Work made in cloth is largely detached from literary history.” Capone notes that perhaps one of the reasons that textiles are so often overlooked as a storytelling medium is because of they are useful for so many other applications other than language. “This is why objects like my great-grandmother’s Italian alphabet are so inspiring. She didn’t learn how to write, but she did learn how to embroider lettering onto samplers.”

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A preview of Capone’s Text means Tissue.

See more of Francesca Capone’s work on her website and look out for her upcoming project, Text means Tissue, at Nationale in Portland, Oregon.

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