Assignment 5 – The Success of Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s Reconciliation Gobelin (Tapestry) Commissioned for the Shrine of St Richard in Chichester Cathedral

Chichester has a history of commissioning religious tapestries: a Lurçat tapestry which hangs in Bishop Otter Chapel and two tapestries, one by John Piper and the other by Ursula Benker-Schirmer, which hang in Chichester Cathedral. In A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and Art Kevin Seasoltz argues that Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s Reconciliation Gobelin (tapestry) in Chichester Cathedral is “[m]uch less successful” than Piper’s when he considers form and space. His reasoning is that the symbols present in Piper’s tapestry “speak for themselves; no explanation is necessary” whereas in Benker-Schirmer’s:

There are numerous symbols, including a chalice, a candle, a fig tree, and a fish, but the symbols are not at all easily recognized, nor are they integrated into a whole; consequently, the tapestry comes across as a fragmented collage. [Seasoltz, 2005:340]

The Shrine of St. Richard in the retrochoir of Chichester Cathedral was a destination for Middle Age pilgrims and was considered by many pilgrims to be the third most important after St Thomas in Canterbury and the Virgin Mary at Walsingham. Robert Holtby (Dean of Chichester 1977-1989) wanted to re-establish the cathedral retrochoir as a focus for pilgrimage which led to the commission of Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s Reconciliation Gobelin(also known as the Anglo-Germanor Benker Tapestry). [Holtby, 1991] Benker-Schirmer’s tapestry hangs on the reverse of the Sherbourne Screen while John Piper’s hangs on the front.

Fig 1. John Piper tapestry in Chichester Cathedral and Fig 2. Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s Reconciliation Gobelin in Chichester Cathedral

The Shrine of St Richard is the place of interment of Bishop George Bell’s ashes. During his life, Bell worked for German reconciliation and according to Holtby ‘the major financial contribution [for the tapestry] came from Germany’. The tapestry was intended to be ‘a sign of Anglo-German reconciliation and friendship. It was also a symbol of Christian unity.’ Ursula Benker-Schirmer was born in Germany but was working at the nearby West Dean Tapestry Studio when the commission was undertaken. In response to the theme of reconciliation, Benker-Schirmer arranged for the central panel of the tapestry to be woven in Marktredwitz, Germany whilst the two side panels were made in West Dean Tapestry Studio. In June 1985 when the tapestry was unveiled, Benker-Schirmer declared ‘[t]he message of the tapestry affirms that there is peace between God and men’. [Holtby, 1991]

The tapestry measures almost 40 square metres and is designed to be viewed from a distance. Made of pure linen, cotton and silk it weighs approximately 80kg, taking three and a half years from conception to completion and requiring 4-6 weavers (men and women) at a time to create. The scale of the tapestry was largely dictated by the size of the Sherbourne Screen, however Benker-Schirmer split the design into three separate panels which could be seen as a reference to the Holy Trinity.

Benker-Schirmer’s design uses traditional Christian symbols together with elements reflecting the life of St. Richard of Chichester. Some of the Christian symbols included in the design are obvious and others require that the viewer spend more time with the work:

  • The chalice is the symbol of Holy Communion and eternal salvation
  • The bowl is a symbol of reconciliation between God and man
  • The central cross is the focus for Christian idea of redemption
  • The lotus-flower is a symbol of sloth which is one of the seven deadly sins and the serpent is seen rising from a lily.
  • A dove is a symbol of Holy Spirit and peace
  • The trinity is represented by the three separate panels and the triangle. The apex looks ‘like a pair of compasses, opening the world, the bright blue aperture pointing into the universe and to eternity beyond’. [Benker-Schirmer 1991:29-30]
  • A compass symbolizes drawing a line around our own desires and passions, keeping within circle of self-restraint and moderation (foundation of morality & wisdom) and is generally a symbol of mankind’s ability to learn about the world. [Freemasonry, Mackey, 1882]
  • The fig tree represents knowledge and fertility. Fig trees are particularly relevant to this site as they were said to have been tended by St. Richard locally when he lived amongst his people having been banished from Chichester Cathedral by Henry III.
  • The fish is a symbol of mankind, a sign of Christ and membership of church. The fish also represent movement, direction and time although they seem to be swimming right to left when convention places the future to the right and past to the left when looking at timelines.

In 1538 Henry VIII ordered the destruction of shrines and so there is little evidence of what the original Shrine of St Richard looked like. There are references to a ‘silver-gilt shrine, encrusted with jewels’ and ‘six coffers, a casket and a little box’ were delivered to the Tower of London containing 112 images in silver-gilt, relics and jewels. [Chichester Cathedral] What Seasoltz described as a “fragmented collage” could be seen instead as a reference to the jewel encrusted shrine that was destroyed. Benker-Schirmer used the refraction of light by crystalline structures to represent the four elements earth, air, fire and water by the colours green, white, red and blue. The crystal-like shapes are also reminiscent of stained glass and the colours were chosen to be sympathetic to those of the nearby Chagall window unveiled in October 1978.


Fig 3. Chagall stained glass window in Chichester Cathedral

As a non-religious person, I was surprised to read Seasoltz’s description of the Reconciliation Tapestry. Personally, the complexity of Benker-Shrimer’s tapestry intrigues me far more than the more famous Piper tapestry. The fact that you cannot instantly recognise all the symbols and have to work harder to understand the significance echoes the idea that when life is difficult it can be harder to see the underlying purpose or have faith.

The tapestry was intended to permanently transform a space that was described by Robert Holtby as “dull” into what is a vibrant and thought provoking space. Each time I visit the Reconcilliation GobelinI see something new, arguably a successful fulfilment of Robert Holtby’s aim to bring ‘symbol or colour to stir the imagination or devotion appropriate to a shrine’. [Holtby, 1991]

Word count: 995


Benker-Schirmer, U. (1991) ‘The Benker Tapestry: The Artist Writes’ In: Foster, P. (ed.) Chichester Tapestries Lurçat – Piper – Benker: A Sequence of ExplorationChichester: West Sussex Institute of Higher Education pp26-30

Chichester Cathedral (s.d) on 29 June 2018)

Foster, P. (ed.) (1991) Chichester Tapestries Lurçat – Piper – Benker: A Sequence of ExplorationChichester: West Sussex Institute of Higher Education

Fränkische Gobelin Manufaktur (s.d) on 29 June 2018)

Freemasonry (s.d) on 29 June 2018)

Holtby, R. (1991) ‘The Benker Tapestry: The Commissioning’ In: Foster, P. (ed.) Chichester Tapestries Lurçat – Piper – Benker: A Sequence of ExplorationChichester: West Sussex Institute of Higher Education pp25-26

Mackey, A. (1882) Symbolism of Freemasonry: Illustrating and explaining its science and philosophy, its Legends, Myths, and Symbols. New York: Clark and Maynard

Seasoltz, K. (2005) A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and ArtLondon: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.


Research: Notes from Assignment 1 Feedback Suggested Reading

Following submission of my draft of the essay on Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, my tutor suggested looking at:


Cinéma Vérité Documentary

According to Wolfgang Porter documentaries can be split into three categories: docudrama, observational documentation and cinéma vérité. Cinéma vérité is a filmmaker’s attempt to give an unbiased view of a story.

In the 1960’s French filmmakers were influenced by the newsreels of Russian reporter Dziga Vertov to create cinéma vérité. Immediately there is a paradox in that humans cannot create an ‘unbiased’ story. In observational documentation subjects are often unaware of the camera however in cinéma vérité they are aware of the camera and this can influence their behaviour and opinions. A modern day example is the TV show COPS.

The most important influence is the filmmaker themselves. The film produced will show how the filmmaker’s personality and presence effected events. The filmmaker needs to have a premise or a theme to the intended story. Typically need 10:1 ratio of interviews:supporting shots (coverage or B-roll footage). Often the required careful plan goes out of the window!

Editing is crucial – this is something that I didn’t really consider in my Deller essay. The filmmaker may have had their own preconceived idea of how the story should be portrayed but the story will attempt to ‘tell itself’ which may force the filmmaker to reconsider the direction the finished film will take. May need to get extra shots after to adapt to new direction.

Porter summarises the article by saying “Cinéma vérité in reality is ‘Film Truth’ created as you – the filmmaker – saw it.” It does beg the question whether the ‘truth’ seen by the viewer is the same as that of the filmmaker?

Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism by Hal Foster & Rosalind E. Krauss

Perhaps unusually this book has five introductions:

  1. Psychoanalysis in modernism and as method
  2. The social history of art: models and concepts
  3. Formalism and structuralism
  4. Poststructuralism and deconstruction
  5. Globaliszation, networks, and the aggregate as form

Full notes on each of these methods can be found here.

This book goes through a summary of art produced in each year since 1900. Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave was created in 2001 and the key art events were:

  • By now digital techniques have become important in photographic image-production in various forms of media – Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky
  • Ersatz unities
    • previous decade witnessed transformation in image technologies.
    • Wall observed (1989) “The historical consciousness of the medium [of photography] is altered”: rather than a direct “message without a code” (Roland Barthes (1961) The Photographic Message) a photograph may now be show through with various complicated codes (including computer code).
    • Wall performs with large colour transparencies set in luminous light boxes mimicking advertisement displays or his images suggest historical painting (sometimes composed in reference to neoclassical tableau – staged ensemble of painted figures captured in a significant action or pregnant moment. See Diatribe (1985)
  • Delirious spaces
    • Sam Taylor-Wood also cites historical paintings in some of her work including video and sound installations.
    • Influenced by James Coleman Taylor-Wood draws on precedents in cinema, theatre and tableau vivant and varies mediums (like Tacita Dean) to “offer a ‘provocation’ of meanings”

Teaching about Photography: Photographs and Contexts (Internal and external contexts) by Terry Barrett

Barrett defines the nature of photography as selectivity, instantaneity and credibility. As photographs are frozen instants in time, viewing a photograph causes the viewer to attempt to recreate the flow of time around that image. Understanding what the photographer was experiencing allows the viewer to hypothesise on what the photograph is about. Without considering the role of the photographer, the photograph becomes an object. The viewer also needs to understand the means by which the photographer has created new relationships or associations within the subject.

Internal context

The subject of the photograph itself and is the starting point of interpretation:

  • identification of subject matter (possibly including Barthes’ denotation and connotation)
  • consideration of its form (including focus, depth of field, angle of view, shutter speed, types of illumination, grain size, tonality, contrast range etc)
  • relationships between the two.

Methodologies for analysing photographs have been proposed by Feldman’s (1981) steps of description and analysis, Broudy’s (1983) scanning, and in phenomenological art criticism (Kaelin, 1973; Lankford, 1984).

Original context

Many photographs are inscrutable without information drawn from other sources eg Sherrie Levine. Original contextual information makes photographs meaningful and broadly refers to what was physically and psychologically present to the photographer at the time when the photograph was taken. Things to consider:

  • photographer’s intent
  • biography
  • intellectual, imagistic and stylistic sources of work
  • relation to other contemporary photographs
  • social, political, philosophical and religious character of the times.

External context

External context is the photograph’s presentational environments:

  • how and where it is being presented
  • how and where it has being presented
  • how it has been received
  • how other interpreters have understood it
  • where it has been placed in history of art

Barrett suggests that ‘Photographs, most of which are relatively indeterminate in meaning, are easily overdetermined by how they are presented, especially when accompanied by captions, deadlines, or longer texts.’ If they are accompanied by text, consider who wrote the text.

The Past is a Foreign Country by Natasha Hoare

Andreas Huyssen said ‘[the] past is not simply there in memory…it must be articulated to become memory’ and documentary film is a method to reanimate past events or revisit individual or collective trauma (must like a reconstruction with the intent of processing Post Traumatic Stress). Hoare suggests that ‘Re-enactments also provide the artist with a means of representing the past using a theatricality that through its distancing of the viewer deconstructs history as truth, allowing for fresh interpretation.’ – which is where it links to the idea of whether the filmmaker/director can produce an unbiased account.

Rebecca O’Dwyer reads reenactment ‘as an active form of remembering through which we can establish a new relationship to the past, a past understood as being in a constant state of flux.’

Hoare says of Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave that it ‘brought this piece of working class near-history to the attention of viewers for whom the confrontation had yet to be memorialised’ and that ‘The documentary film – directed by Mike Figgis – reveals both the scale of the undertaking and the poignancy of both sides revisiting the intense emotions of the day.’ – Again this is something that I didn’t think about, the documentary film will be influenced by Figgis and is an interpretation of Deller’s original artwork.


Books: Art since 1900: Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism

This book contains five introductions which each cover different conventions and methods of analysis. The topics of these essays are:

  1. Psychoanalysis in modernism and as method
  2. The social history of art: models and concepts
  3. Formalism and structuralism
  4. Poststructuralism and deconstruction
  5. Globalization, networks, and the aggregate as form

Psychoanalysis in modernism and as method

Psychoanalysis was developed by Sigmund Freud at the same time that modernist art arose and are many relationships between the two:

  • Artists have directly drawn on psychoanalysis
    • Surrealism explores its ideas visually.
    • Feminism critiqued ideas theoretically and politically.
  • Psychoanalysis and modernism share many interests
    • origins
    • dreams and fantasies
    • “the primitive”
    • the child
    • the insane
    • workings of subjectively
    • sexuality
  • Psychoanalytical terms have entered vocabulary of art and criticism (eg. repression, sublimation, fetishism, the gaze)

There are problems with eg Surrealism as a “psychic automatism”, either:

  • the connection between psyche and art is posited as too direct – the specificity of the work is lost
  • the connection is too conscious/calculated – the psyche is simply illustrated by the work.

The association between modernism and “primitives”/children/insane made the artists a target of Nazism.

Much art of the 60s was a reaction against Abstract Expressionism:

  • staunchly antipsychological
  • concerned with ready-made cultural images – Pop art
  • given geometric forms – minimalism
  • rise of feminist art (Freud associated femininity with passivity)

Levels of Freudian criticism (Who/what is to occupy the position of the patient? The work, artist, viewer, critic, or combination of all?) reduces to three levels:

  • symbolic – art work needs to be decoded in terms of latent message hidden behind the content. Similar to iconography. Here artist is ultimate source.
  • accounts of process – interested in the dynamics of process with understanding of “sexual energies and unconscious forces that operate in the making and viewing of art”
  • analogies in rhetoric – analysis of artwork in analogy with art visual productions of psyche such as dreams and fantasies.

The social history of art: models and concepts

Models were formulated to displace humanist (subjective) approach to criticism and interpretation.

  • Autonomy
    • Jürgen Habermas suggested that the bourgeois identity required the subject’s capacity to experience the autonomy of the aesthetic, to experience pleasure without interest.
    • Artist as self-determining and self-governing subject.
    • Aestheticism conceiving work of art as purely self-sufficient and self-reflexive experience.
    • Aesthetic autonomy fits into overarching philosophical framework of Enlightenment philosophy.
    • Liberated linguistic/artistic practices from mythical and religious thought. Emancipated artists from aristocratic/religious patronage.
    • Contributed to fundamental transformation from cult-value to exhibition-value. Paradox that artistic independence and aesthetic autonomy guaranteed only within commodity structure.
  • Antiaesthetic
    • Peter Bürger (Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974)) believed antiaesthetics inspired emergence of:
      • Cubism
      • Dadaism
      • Russian Constructivism
      • French Surrealism
    • Avant-garde strategies:
      • initiate fundamental changes in conception of audience
      • reverse bourgeois heirarchy of aesthetic exchange-value and use-value
      • conceive of cultural practices for proletarian public sphere within advanced industrial nation states.
    • Replaces originality with technological reproduction.
    • John Heartfield defines its artistic practices as:
      • temporary
      • geopolitically specific
      • participatory
      • utilitarian – assumes a variety of functions such as information, education or political enlightenment
  • Class, agency and activism
    • Marxism political theory – classes served as agents of historical, social and political change. (Marx defined class as a subject’s situation in relation to the means of production)
    • Hemogenic culture acts to sustain ruling class through cultural representation.
    • Oppositional cultural practices articulate
      • resistance to hierarchical thought
      • subvert privileged forms of experience
      • destabilise ruling regimes of vision and perception
    • Problem: should exclude all artists and production which lack commitment, class-consciousness and political correctness?
  • Ideology: reflection and mediation
    • Ideology has important role in aesthetics of György Lukács.
      • key concept was of reflection – mechanistic relationship between economic and political forces and ideological and institutional superstructure.
      • phenomena of cultural representation were secondary to phenomena of class politics and ideological interests of particular historical moment.
    •  Louis Althusser created a distinction between the totality of the ideological state apparatus and explicit exemption of artistic representations (and scientific knowledge) from totality of ideological representations.
  • Popular culture vs mass culture
    • Stuart Hall argued same dialectical movement detected in gradual shift of stylistic phenomenal from revolutionary and emancipatory to regressive and politically reactionary could be detected in production of mass culture
    • Specificity of audience address and experience should be posited above all claims.
  • Sublimation and desublimation
    • Desublimation for Adorno is “to dismantle the processes of self-determination and resistance, and ultimately to annihilate experience itself in order to become totally controlled by the demands of late capitalism.”
    • Herbert Marcuse conceived of desublimation by “arguing that the structure of aesthetic experience consisted of the desire to undermine the apparatus libidinal repression and to generate an anticipatory moment of an existence liberated from needs and instrumentalizing demands.”
  • The neo-avant-garde
    • American critics were eager to establish the first hegemonic avant-garde culture of the 20th century post World War II
    • Adorno claimed that politicized art would only serve as an alibi and prohibit actual political change.
    • Peter Bürger called American neomodernism neo-avant-garde and claimed they attempted to write history from the perspective of victorious interests, systematically disavowing the major transformations that had occurred within the conception of high art and avant-garde culture.

Formalism and structuralism

  • Roland Barthes – leading voice in structuralism
  • In 1971 Barthes pointed to the historical link between modernism and the awareness that language is a structure of signs.
  • Brecht believed a formalist was someone who “could not see that form was inseparable from content, who believed that form was a mere carrier”.
  • Lukács believed that “form even affected content”.
  • Antiformalism was prevalent in the 70s but can be explained by confusion between two kinds of formalism
    • one concerns itself with morphology (“restricted” formalism)
    • one envisions form as structural
  • Structuralism and art history
    • linguistic/semiological model (Saussure) inspired structuralist movement (1950-60) but art history had already developed structural methods by this time.
    • Cubism allowed Russian Formalists to develop their theories by underscoring gap between reference and meaning – required more sophisticated understanding of nature of signs.
    • Heinrich Wölfflin (1915) posited an anonymous art history which established a set of binary oppositions with a smooth transition between each:
      • linear/painterly
      • plane/recession
      • closed/open form
      • multiplicity/unity
      • clearness/unclearness
    • Riegel advanced this theory and he understood every artistic document as a monument to be analysed in relationship to others.
    • Riegel understood meaning as structured by set of oppositions.
  • A crisis of reference
    • Viktor Shklovsky
      • the main function of art is to defamiliarise our perception.
      • what characterised any work of art was set of “devices” through which it was reorganising “material” (referent), making it strange.
  • The arbitrary nature of the sign
    • For Saussure the arbitrariness of sign involved not only the relation between the sign (the word “tree”) and its referent (any actual tree) but also between the signifier (the sound when we say “tree”) and the signified (the concept of a tree).
  • Structuralism and the analysis of signs can be scaled from a single work to all works by and artist or all work within a style.
  • It is limited by presupposing the internal coherence of the corpus.

Poststructuralism and deconstruction

Throughout the 60s there was a backlash to those in authority, partly towards universities which were seen as an interested party in social engineering. This caused a reevaluation of the premises and suppositions of various academic disciplines (human sciences) and was termed post structuralism.

  • There is no “disinterest”
    • Structuralism had viewed any human activity as a rule-governed system.
    • Poststructuralism grew out of a refusal to grant structuralism its premise that each system is autonomous, with rules and operations that begin and end within the boundaries of that system.
  • Challenging the frame
    • Émile Benveniste divided verbal exchange into:
      • narrative – 3rd person past tense
      • discourse – present tense 1st and 2nd person (active transmission)
    • Benveniste applied the term “discourse” to what had always been understood as neutral communication of scholarly information contained within a given departmental discipline and confined to the transmission of “objective” information. Michel Foucault took up the position that “discourses” were always charged from within power relations.
    • French artist Daniel Buren exhibited his work Within and beyond the frame to challenge the value of the work asserted by the space of the gallery – rarity, authenticity, originality and uniqueness. See also Robert Smithson’s Non-sites for other acts of reframing.
    • Derrida’s double session
      • Structuralist model suggests that language is made up of uneven opposing binary pairs such as “young/old”. This inequality is between a marked and unmarked pair eg “John is as young as Mary” implies youth whereas “John is as old as Mary” does not imply anything about age. Unmarked terms have greater generality and it gives the term implicit power.
      • Derrida termed “deconstruction” as the marking of unmarked terms eg replacing he with she or says with writes (as more specific hence marked). simulacrum – a copy without an original “a false appearance of the present”
      • Art in the age of the simulacrum
        • See Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler
        • Argued representations, instead of imitating reality, preceded and constructed it.
        • Artists questioned the mechanics of image-culture
        • Led to questions on ‘appropriation’.

Globalization, networks, and the aggregate as form

  • Developed around 1980s when financial markets were deregulated – neoliberalism
  • Culturally led to two opposed conditions:
    • homogenization of life
    • greater diversity and heightened awareness of cultural difference due to increased contact between geographically distant regions.
  • Global chronology of modern art:
    • European avant-garde (early 20th century) – introduced in areas of Asia and Africa as belated, hegemonic neocolonial language rather than protest.
      • Cubism
      • Constructivism
      • Surrealism
  • Not one but many histories
    • eg Japan Meiji Dynasty (1868-1912) developed two opposing types of painting:
      • nihonga (Japanese-style painting) – sought to preserve Japanese materials and themes whilst adapting to contemporary conditions.
      • yōga (Western-style painting influenced by Impressionism and Postimpressionism) – Japanese artists at mid-century expressed different attitudes towards matter and art than American contemporaries.
    • Works from each country will have their own history.
  • A global art world?
    • Since late 60s artists from all continents have adapted the lexicon of Conceptual art.
    • Does a global art market require that art conforms for saleability rather than proliferation of ideas?
    • Some scholars prefer the term “translocal” rather than “global”
  • New networks, new models
    • Shift in global politics around 1989 eg collapse of the Cold War, Tiananmen Square protests etc
    • Rejection of histories based on the idea of the West transmitting its aesthetic forms, institutions and values.
    • Third Havana Biennial introduced three innovations:
      • new structure no longer based on competitive model of discrete nations as organising principle and prizes were abolished to reduce competitiveness
      • inclusion of folk/traditional arts
      • emphasis on live interaction between artists and between them and the general public (lectures, conferences, workshops).
    • The aggregate as idea and form
      • traditionally art history attempts to discover whether a particular timeframe generates its own aesthetic forms and practices.
      • David Joselit proposes “the aggregate” rather than being based on a unifying identity.
        • aggregate is filtered by shared social demand – is this just commercialisation of art?
        • Contemporary Art Daily and e-flux are major sources of art-world information
        • aggregates question how common ground can be established within discontinuous field.
        • example is work of Slavs and Tatars who are between Berlin Wall and Wall of China, Communism and Islam.


Foster, H., Krauss, R., Bois, Y.-A., Buchloh, B. H. D. and Joselit, D. (2016) Art since 1900: modernism anti modernism postmodernism  Third edition China:C&S Offset Printing Co. Ltd

Research: Sustainability in Textiles

Notes from Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change by Kate Fletcher & Lynda Grose:

An interesting comment from the beginning of this book is:

Sometimes… the biggest change comes from a series of small, individual actions rather than from big international declarations – a realization that brings change within the reach of us all. [p10]

This is stark contrast to a textile artist I contacted via email who commented:

I am afraid I have never got involved in the matter of sustainability, as I tend to use very small quantities of material.

Transforming Fashion Products

Sustainability issues:

  • climate change
  • adverse effects on water and its cycles
  • chemical pollution
  • loss of biodiversity
  • overuse and misuse of non-renewable resources
  • waste production
  • negative impacts on human health
  • damaging social effects on producer communities

This list creates a complex trade off of characteristics for each fibre. Sustainability-led innovation roughly divided into:

  • increased interest in renewable source materials
  • Materials with reduced levels of processing ‘inputs’ eg water, energy
  • fibres produced under improved working conditions for growers and processors (Fair-trade fibres)
  • materials produced with reduced waste eg biodegradable, recyclable fibres. Note: biodegradability/ decomposition inhibited if synthetic and natural fibres combined. Facings and trims also need to be considered.

In their book Cradle to Cradle William McDonough & Michael Braungart propose two cycles acceptable in sustainable industrial economy:

  1. composting – waste from one part of economy becomes raw material for another
  2. industrial recycling – materials perpetually reused

Significant challenges to a fibre’s biodegradability:

  1. Design of completely biodegradable garments where all fibres and component parts compost fully and safely.
  2. Development of suitable infrastructure to collect and process compostable fibres
  3. Better information and labelling for biodegradable fibres, specifying composting routes and differences from oil-based degradable or non-degradable synthetics.

People-friendly fibre issues:

  • health and safety issues
  • better working conditions
  • access to unions and living wages
  • larger questions on business models, domestic & global trading practices

Fairtrade is market-based response that emerged from need to maintain industrial production within safe limits – organisational fix. Challenge is for designers to develop relationships themselves.

If virgin fibres are compared on energy profile:

natural fibres < regenerated natural fibres eg viscose < synthetics


Goal -> Action

  • make wise use of natural resources -> minimise # processing steps
  • reduce risk of pollution -> minimise # & toxicity of chemicals
  • minimise energy consumption -> use low temp and/or combine processes
  • minimise water consumption -> eliminate water-intense processes
  • reduce landfill -> minimise waste at all stages

Interesting ideas to incorporate at design stage:

  • utilise natural variation in colour of fibre
  • utilise natural dyes
  • design patterns to minimise/eliminate waste – Sam Forno, Timo Rissanen, MATERIALBYPRODUCT
  • avoid usage of electroplated trims


Designers need to think about both where products are produced as well as how they are transported.

Consumer Care

Focus on cooler temperatures and line drying.


Almost 75% of textiles end up in landfill in UK.

Reuse < Reconditioning < Recycling < virgin fibre production

Take-back schemes oblige manufacturers to accept products for reuse/recycling

Transforming Fashion Systems


  • in a business context
  • trans- and multiple functions
  • trans-seasonal
  • modular
  • changing shapes

Optimised Lifetimes

“A discarded product is not an indicator of poor product quality, but rather of a failed relationship between the product and the wearer” – focus on building emotional response in wearer

Low-impact Use

  • low launder
  • no wash
  • design to stain
  • low iron

Services and Sharing

  • design for repair
  • leasing systems
  • design services


  • locally produced materials
  • utilising skills/heritage/culture local to material production


  • nature as a model – imitation
  • nature as measure – standard of comparison
  • nature as mentor – what can we learn from it?


  • steady state economics
  • rethink concept of fast fashion
  • slow fashion – small-scale production, traditional craft techniques, local materials etc. Focus on diversity


Max-Neef’s taxonomy of fundamental human needs:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

Little brown dress project – Seattle mum wore one brown dress for an entire year.


  • co-design – with users
  • craft
  • fashion hacking

Transforming Fashion Design Practice

Designer as communicator-educator

“A society that talks about creating jobs as if that is something only companies can do, will not inspire the great majority of its people to create jobs for themselves or anyone else” Donella Meadows

Designer as facilitator

  • enabling action and change
  • co-design
  • clothes swaps
  • ready-to-wear vs readiness-to-make
  • act as intensifier – eg use of craft

Designer as activist

working independently, with NGOs or government

Designer as entrepreneur

changing ways of thinking and acting, using new media

possibilities for fashion in a sustainable future:

  • impact rather than trend led
  • pluralistic aesthetic – regionally available materials etc
  • raw materials become scarcer -> other aspects of fashion dominate?
  • products and services adapt to regional/seasonal variation
  • optimise energy/water use
  • work alongside economists, policy makers, ecologists, business etc
  • reference psychology, sociology etc to develop new business models
  • business success measure in social, cultural and environmental value
  • scale of production will be proportional to community
  • scale of production will be defined by ecosystem
  • educational establishments involved in new business models

Organisations and certifications:

Fletcher, K. & Grose, L. (2012) Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd

Research: Christian Boltanski’s Personnes

Christian Boltanski’s Personnes (2010) at Grand Palais







Personnes was an installation consisting of an enormous pile of clothing and a large red mechanical grabber which would periodically descend and pick up a selection of the clothing and lift it up high before dropping it back onto the pile.

The clothing forms a large scale pile that dominates the room even from a distance. The repetition of individual items of clothing gives a sense of scale as it encourages the viewer to imagine how many items must make up the pile and by extension the number of people in the world. The red of the mechanical grabber is often used in warning signs and as it picks up a selection of clothing, the viewer is lead to think of how many people are dying at that moment. It could not be predicted in which order the items are picked up in and so there is an element of chance, perhaps reflecting the chance evident when a death occurs

The soundtrack of a heartbeat can be heard at the same time and this seems to add to an element of fear or suspense as it is reminiscent of being able to hear your own heartbeat.

Christian Boltanski can be seen here discussing how his idea was to represent the hand of God selecting people for death. The textiles are an appropriate representation of death as once someone dies, their clothing is left behind and must be disposed of.

What did the critics have to say?

Laura Cumming says in her review that ‘The austerity of the scene is overwhelming, compounded by the booming heartbeats that seem to emit from nowhere and yet all around – time being measured out by human life.’ This interpretation is emphasised when she explains that at the end Boltanski asks each visitor to record their own heartbeat saying ‘All the world’s heartbeats stretching out until the last syllable of recorded time: that should stand against oblivion.’ Cumming also comments that each viewer interprets the work differently, whether fearfully or as something uplifting. Describing the surroundings of the main pile, Cumming explains that there are ‘Sixty-nine camps, but there are no tents and no living people, only thousands of old clothes lying face down on the floor’. Again the viewer’s temperament and perspective are relevant as there are many interpretations of this configuration. Are they ‘mass graves, or corpses arrayed for identification in the school gym’ or perhaps ‘they also constitute a kind of cemetery’?

Adrian Searle’s review emphasises the extreme cold of the installation and how Boltanski postponed the installation to take advantage of the colder weather and the temperature’s association with the dead. Although this installation at first glance appears to be intended to be viewed from a distance rather than immersive, Searle comments that Boltanski stresses ‘the importance and place of the ­spectator, and their ­relation to objects and spaces’ and how the artist is ‘also ­preoccupied by repetition and ­difference, a sensitivity to the ­conditions of place and time’.

Devika Singh notes that ‘The work’s title, Personnes, is a play on words: it means ‘people’ in French but is pronounced the same way as ‘nobody’.’ Singh comments that ‘Personnes was about survival, as are all memorials’ and in this way, visiting a memorial in effect collapses time by reminding the viewer of events of the past whilst viewer and memorial will move on through time. The installation itself was only temporary in its physical form however the recording of heartbeats was intended to endure.


Boltanski, C. Personnes (2010)

Cumming, Laura (2010) The Guardian ‘Christian Boltanski: Personnes’

Searle, A. (2010) The Guardian ‘Christian Boltanski: It’s a jumble out there’

Singh, D. (2010) Frieze ‘Christian Boltanski’

Christian Boltanski discussing his motivation for Personnes (2013) YouTube

Video of the Personnes installation (2010) YouTube

[All links accessed 6/4/18]