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Art and Textile Politics

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

In 1974, women in a feminist consciousness-raising group in Eugene, Oregon, formed a mock organization called the Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society. Emblazoning its logo onto t-shirts, the group wryly envisioned female collective textile making as a practice that could upend conventions, threaten state structures, and wreak political havoc. Elaborating on this example as a prehistory to the more recent phenomenon of “craftivism”—the politics and social practices associated with handmaking—Fray explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.

Closely examining how amateurs and fine artists in the United States and Chile turned to sewing, braiding, knotting, and quilting amid the rise of global manufacturing, Julia Bryan-Wilson argues that textiles unravel the high/low divide and urges us to think flexibly about what the politics of textiles might be. Her case studies from the 1970s through the 1990s—including the improvised costumes of the theater troupe the Cockettes, the braided rag rugs of US artist Harmony Hammond, the thread-based sculptures of Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, the small hand-sewn tapestries depicting Pinochet’s torture, and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt—are often taken as evidence of the inherently progressive nature of handcrafted textiles. Fray, however, shows that such methods are recruited to often ambivalent ends, leaving textiles very much “in the fray” of debates about feminized labor, protest cultures, and queer identities; the malleability of cloth and fiber means that textiles can be activated, or stretched, in many ideological directions.

The first contemporary art history book to discuss both fine art and amateur registers of handmaking at such an expansive scale, Fray unveils crucial insights into how textiles inhabit the broad space between artistic and political poles—high and low, untrained and highly skilled, conformist and disobedient, craft and art.

326 pages | 90 color plates, 62 halftones | 7 1/2 x 10 | © 2017

Art: American Art, Art Criticism, Art--General Studies

Latin American Studies

Women's Studies


"Combining history and criticism, this study of textile crafting highlights its social and political aspects. . . . Discussing current crafting trends within the context of globalized mass production, Julia Bryan-Wilson examines art—such as the unravelled-velvet 'blacklets' of Angela Hennessy—that physically deconstructs fabric as a means of commenting on the meaning craft practices have for black women and other marginalized groups."

New Yorker

"Julia Bryan-Wilson's book goes beyond arguing for fiber’s aesthetic legitimacy to demonstrating its political agency. And she does so by considering an enthralling range of hitherto untapped material: fantastic costumes designed by the 1970s queer theater troupe, the Cockettes; hand-sewn tapestries produced by Chilean artists depicting torture under the Pinochet regime; and the still-growing NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Ms. Bryan-Wilson’s research is more than substantial, but her propulsive style makes the book a page-turner."

The New York Times (The Best Art Books of 2017)

"Adding to the critical dialogue in a number of fields, this book will be an invaluable resource for programs serious about incorporating fiber, craft, feminism, and queer theory into their coursework. . . the material examples and contemporary artists examined in the case studies strengthen her arguments. . . .Essential.”


“Bryan-Wilson works hard to piece together a broader thesis about neglected histories (often queer, non-white and feminine) and the thin seam that divides conventional handicrafts from the fine arts. . . . Bryan-Wilson asks: ‘What does it mean to imagine the sewing needle as a dangerous tool and… female collective textile making as a process that might upend conventions, threaten state structures or wreak political havoc?’ It is itself a brilliantly surprising question and one that she pursues with great seriousness. . . .One of the book’s strengths is how capably it braids together these different theorisations. . . . Of the title of this unusual and interesting book, Bryan-Wilson notes that ‘nerves and tempers fray.’ We even like to ‘rise above the fray,’ but this is a book that immerses itself in the material expression of political and cultural life, examining the things we make and the ideas that they unravel.”

Times Higher Education

"A vividly written, cleverly designed, and conceptually challenging examination of textile arts. Julia Bryan-Wilson is brilliant at the close reading of objects as well as characterizing work and her experience of it. Her many threads of argument include efforts to escape the binaries of high and low, professional and amateur. Taking on a medium outside the usual realm of art history, she asserts that textiles are contingent and shifting, and that they extend from bodily knowledge and require alternative forms of discussion."

American Craft Council Magazine

Bryan-Wilson's method of close reading produces numerous points of contact and intersection between otherwise vastly different fibre-based objects, processes, objectives, and social and political contexts, allowing the reader to see beyond entrenched categories and divisions. Unexpected overlaps between conceptual art and materiality, feminism and queer craftiness, folk art and fine art, soft diplomacy and activist resistance, frivolity and seriousness, to name a few, punctuate the text, prompting the reader to question why we buy into the hierarchical distinctions between things, people, and practices in the first place.

Elissa Auther | Oxford Art Journal

"Academically well-researched, critically insightful, and bolstered by dozens of historic photos, from braided floor pieces to Chilean arpillera tapestries to the AIDS quilt, the case for using handwork to illustrate and raise consciousness about oppression is well documented in Fray. What often comes to the fore is the power of people sewing and crafting together to draw attention to common concerns."


“Julia Bryan-Wilson sees us all as experts in the field of textiles—they are with us throughout our lives; ‘we all have,’ she writes, ‘a profound relationship to them.’ . . . .The political impact that textiles have on us is strongly felt in Bryan-Wilson’s examination of the AIDS quilt. This section is an immersive insight into the socio-economic impact that the American political system had on people living with AIDS in the 1980s.”

Contemporary and America Latina

"In Fray, Julia Bryan-Wilson explores how political worlds are made and unmade through craft. She patches together the neglected histories of the ‘handmade’ objects of feminist, queer, trans, and Latin American artists and activists and reveals alternative forms of making in exciting and focused detail. It is a vast and ambitious book with rigorous research promising to expand conceptions of textiles and identity politics both geographically and thematically."


"Fray is a compelling study that is a pleasure to read, as Bryan-Wilson deftly weaves her rigorous research findings into a clearly articulated account of the ways textiles hold in tension the categories of art and craft while lending texture to the political concerns they reference"

Winterthur Portfolio

"It is difficult to characterize this vast and ambitious book, but not its achievement, which is magnificent. In short, it will be received as a model of rigorous research, seamless organization, clarity of exposition, and utter persuasiveness.   It will set standards of quality for topics beyond craft and textile studies.  Indeed, within its pages are examples for art and cultural historians of all periods and media of how to articulate the ever-challenging project of revealing the ideological dimensions of art in terms of very specific historical and political contexts."

Leonard Folgarait, Vanderbilt University

"Bryan-Wilson’s groundbreaking approach is rigorously attentive to the moment in which she is writing, considering recent literature and artistic practices, while describing the broader, often overlooked historical and cultural backdrop against which these more current examples operate. If her topic is ‘craft,’ or more precisely, ‘craftivism’—a demarcation that allows the author greater reflexivity—Bryan-Wilson brilliantly utilizes this subject to zoom both way out (examining, for instance, urgent questions around the politics of representation) and way in (offering remarkably close readings of particular objects).... Whether Bryan-Wilson is researching in an archive, conducting a personal interview, or utilizing the unstable space of the web, she articulates how her findings are affected through the means by which she obtains them."

Johanna Burton, Director and Curator, Education and Public Engagement, New Museum, New York

"Fray, Julia Bryan-Wilson's brilliant and compelling new book, explores how political worlds are made and unmade through craft. Her research and analysis of the 'hand-made' objects of feminist, queer, trans, and Global South artists and activists reveals alternative forms of knowing, imagining and crafting in exquisite detail. Astonishing!"

Macarena Gomez-Barris, Pratt Institute

"Bryan-Wilson nimbly unravels enduring assumptions about textile practices and the proper subjects of art-historical analysis."

Burlington Magazine

“A clear and specific historian, she charts the ways in which art can ignite social change through its political and humanitarian commitments. . . . Bryan-Wilson’s book is especially timely, a critical primer on the exigencies and urgencies of artistic resistance and community building.”

Art Journal

“Discussions of textiles and politics are generally infused with passion and urgency but rarely receive the serious analytic thought they deserve. Bryan-Wilson does both, and the field is in her debt for the remarkable research and wonderful writing that make Fray a special and rewarding read and a prize-winning contribution to the history of modernism.”

Art Bulletin

"At its heart, Fray is an examination of the sorts of political insights gained, quite literally, from setting your hands to work. More than a book about textiles, Fray is a varied survey of what it feels like to try one’s hand at making another world possible—a critical project that focuses on a set of undeniably haptic works of art and material culture, aided by the author’s personal commitment to continually 'measure her own reach,' as a critic. . . . Bryan-Wilson challenges herself, and her readers, to consider the kinds of political entanglements that the situated work of making, handling, wearing, and caring for fabrics can activate."


"Bryan-Wilson’s Fray: Art and Textile Politics serves as a potent reminder that the centrality of textile—and textile techniques—to creative practice, whether art or design, is not new, nor is it restricted to ‘high’ art and culture. . . .  this volume makes a profound contribution to studies of craft, art, gender and sexuality, and the inherent politics of making. It provides a powerful case for a further critique of the conventional high/low binary that structures many discussions of both art and craft."

Journal of Design History

"In the virtuosity of its reading practice and archive, Fray intervenes in fields of several stripes. Readers interested in the history and politics of craft, in contemporary art, in institutional histories of galleries and artistic production, in histories of globalization and neoliberal marketplaces, in the relationships between Chile and the U.S. in the late 20 century, in queer culture and counter-cultures, in art’s relationship to governance and international politics, and in contemporary ‘craftivism’ will all find much to think with in this important book."

InVisible Culture


Association for the Study of Arts of the Present: ASAP Book Prize

College Art Association: Frank Jewett Mather Prize

Dedalus Foundation: Robert Motherwell Book Award

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