Frayed and Fragmenting: Unravelling Meaning-making in Practice

by: , December 13, 2021

This essay focuses upon means and ways in which knowledge gained through practice can be expressed using language and imagery drawn from within that practice itself. In this it draws upon écriture feminine and fragmented approaches to making and writing, to produce a matrix of knowledge that seeks to dissolve boundaries between theoretical and artistic concerns.

The approach that I want to take here is very much open-ended, a form of methodological exploration and textual articulation around these themes. It stems from an exploratory and practice-led way of working and acts as an invitation to share in exploring the potential of fraying and fragmenting as a concept by which to think across feminist and visual culture through material practices most commonly associated with the feminine.

This is in part a disorderly text that itself will be explored through the breaking down of woven cloth. To think of fraying cloth as language is to envisage its construction revealed: the edges fragment and meaning and understanding cross and slip between structuring elements. From language, I want to move to think through what fraying visual culture might entail, and the ways in which the temporality and provisionality held within the frayed cloth speak into these discourses and dialogues. Alongside language and visual thinking, the fray redefines the spatiality of the cloth at the point of its disruption. This forms the third section of my explorations, focusing upon the fray’s spatial logic, taking mending and Donna Haraway’s notion of care at the periphery and ‘making with’ as points of departure. The final space is given over to thinking through what it might mean to unravel meaning-making in practice, drawing upon my own weaving and textile practice as a response and stimulus for this essay.

When cloth frays, its construction is revealed, offering a metaphor for ways in which language and meaning also cross and slip between users. The fraying edges of both cloth and language present a porous space for exchange between practice and theory, writer and maker. Gayatri Spivak is useful here, specifically her explorations of the creative potential at the raw edges of language, a ‘spacey emptiness’ where ‘meaning hops in’. (1993: 180) She talks of ‘feeling the selvedges of the language-textile giving way’. (Spivak 1993: 180) For Spivak, such fraying is a necessary and important part of translation between languages; it is the space where the agency of the translator is held back. The translator must look into the text and find its limits, its edges and its agency.

Such frayed edges of Spivak’s cloth, when thought of together with Elaine Showalter’s essay ‘Piecing and Writing’ (1988)—in which she likens women’s writing practices, écriture féminine, with patching and piecing practices of quilt making—offer ways to think through the potential of frayed and fraying text. This is to surrender to its loose ends and thinning sections. Further, I want to open this out to think about whether, and where, to darn and mend, to re-hem or to leave the frayed edges free. In this disorderly text, I want to create space for meaning to be made and gaps where slippage of meaning can enable discussion and debate. As a methodological tool, I want to suggest that fraying and fragmenting offer a model for speaking in which understanding emerges through negotiation and conversation—where the frayed and fragmenting sections are identified, explored, negotiated and debated.

Fraying & Writing

Writing holds the potential for, and the realisation of, communication and thus entering into the worlds of others. While some writing needs to be direct and pragmatic, it also can be transgressive and, like the Trojan horse of myth, enter silently to emerge unexpectedly. Such a tactic or strategy allows the writer to choose when to expose themselves, and when absence might be made present. This form of writing could be seen to operate as a tactic of ‘indirection’ where the action or focus is offset from the centre, or where the arc of the narrative is shifted, and peripheral elements become key characters. Rebecca Solnit writes of the tactics of activism that ‘[a]ctivism isn’t reliable. It isn’t fast. It isn’t direct either, most of the time.’ (2016: 64) She reminds us that activism very often involves civil disobedience and disorder, seeking not to take physical space, but the symbolic, political, cultural, and collective imagination. Hearts and minds and faith, perhaps.

To think of writing as acts and actions of indirection is to think of it like fraying cloth: the whole might be observable and recognisable, but the structural elements have become unravelled into smaller units that reveal the thoughts and ideas that the writer brought together. It offers space for the reader to become involved. In this, Showalter’s analysis comes back into the reader, who can explore the fragments, the stitching, the frayed and fraying edges and understand, by parts, the messages, in their multiplicity, from its writer.

Returning to unreliable writing, Solnit quotes Benjamin’s last letter to a friend before his death, ‘Every time we succeed in publishing today—no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it—is a victory wrenched from the powers of darkness’. (Benjamin in Solnit 2016: 69) In addressing writing as unreliable, Solnit destabilises the word(s), and in this vein I want to shift to think of writing as a form of fraying of worn and used fabric. To do this it to think through the power and pleasure of text-making and text-reading. Words form meaning and act as symbols for material and immaterial matter, but in the syntax and grammar, meaning can be spun and woven. It can be hidden, revealed slowly, quickly, by stealth. The sentence, the paragraph, the book, the volume; these are the structures for words and meanings, but language in pieces, frayed, offers perversity and scope for imagination outside of finality—pleasure. And through pleasure, the self becomes articulated. Susan Hiller writes:

It is always a question of following a thought, first incoherent, later more expressible, through its process of emergence out of and during the inconsistencies of experience, into language. (Hiller in Hao 2019: 53)

HIller continues to talk in terms of ‘moving sideways’ (Hiller in Hao 2019: 52), which Alexandra Kokoli discusses in terms of interventions and wedging meaning into the canon and signposting (Kokoli in Hao 2019) However, I want here to approach this in terms of the capacity and importance of fraying text in meaning-making. Like écriture feminine, frayed cloth is precarious, it spills away from itself and always speaks to the labour of feminine production. It is a call for a kind of writing and thinking, for forming a text and language that is fragmented, decentred and inconsistent. And for this to be meaningful Hiller notes that ‘the greatest self-betrayal for an artist is not in indulging in an anarchic or careless opposition to rational politics, but in fashioning acceptable SEMBLANCE of truth’. (in Hao 2019: 54) By way of example, Cullinan Richards followed Hiller in Hao’s book with the following ‘Annotation’:



   [A narrative for an exhibition before the event]

   What is your model?

   We don’t really have one.

   What is your position?you much have one of those—

   Horizontal, lying down, becoming abstract

   It’s a feminine one or feminist—

   Really, it’s all about stripping—

   Stripping the narrative and stripping the figurative.


   we are not yet abstract—foggy iffy strange and vague


   (Richards in Hao 2019: 55)


The fragmented form and leading annotation serve to emphasise and accentuate the spatial politics at play; to how writing performs the space it occupies. Here the edges of language slip and slide away from themselves, warp and weft disrupted. Words and meaning no longer wind around one another, tacitly sharing the space. Instead, they shift, break and collapse back onto themselves. Their eloquence is found in this disorderly form that is rooted in the woven cloth.

Naoko Yoshimoto, a Japanese textile artist, creates installations from used and found garments through which she imagines and recreates their histories. In her installation for the Through the Surface project in 2004, a collaborative project bringing Japanese and British textile artists together to develop both joint and individual artworks in dialogue, Yoshimoto selected garments from British charity shops she visited. She established a means of coming to know the garments and their stories through careful unravelling of the weft threads, leaving the warp threads intact. The resulting forms remain recognisable, but the eye and mind have to act as weft to fully understand and make sense of them.

Like Richard’s text, Yoshimoto’s frayed works perform the space of the garment without formalising themselves into that space. The works speak of the durational formation of language, cloth and meaning. Their vulnerability comments upon the visibility and obscuring of the labour of production, but equally of rupture and resilience in meaning-making. They enter the lexicon of manufactured matter, culturally freighted signifiers. In their fraying, their former consumption and currency becomes undone and de-centred.

Yoshimoto’s unravelled forms evolve and change from manufactured product through worn product, charity shop donation to artwork. She has invested in them through her labour of undoing. There is an unromanticised play of temporality; a looping back and forth between past and present, but her labour of unravelling also speaks to the labour-intensive, repetitive work of minute motions and close attention needed within factory production and by seemingly ‘unskilled’ workforces.

Such strategic blurring of the lines between handmade and mass-produced textile in Yoshimoto’s frayed garments becomes a methodological space for meaning-making and remind us that textiles, like language, are produced within global power structures and economies of exchange. In the frayed threads and remaining warp, Spivak’s ‘spacey emptiness,’in its disorderly and de-centred ambivalence, brings textile language and practices into focus.

Fraying Visual Culture

All cultures have a visual aspect that functions on, above, and below the surface. It could be said that its visual aspects—that is, its imagery, signs, styles, symbols, in their complex systems of communication—form the texture of that culture. This implicates not only what is seen, but, at least as importantly, that which is unseen. Visual culture governs both realms along with their systems of meaning-making.

Visual culture, as a result, holds a power that is immediate, often compelling and deeply rooted. The power to render something or someone invisible, not seen, or to be looked at, resides in the structures of visual culture, and can be used to create separation and difference. Thus, visual culture analysis becomes a privileged site for the production and deciphering of the unconscious in culture.

The warp and weft of textiles has often been used as an analogy for civic and political structures, representing the interwoven components of a community and the intersection of cultural signifiers such as class, race and gender. It is also, inversely, used to express the breaking-down of cultural construct. To conceive of fraying visual culture is to draw upon these analogies in reverse. As warp and weft fragment and slip away from one another, the cloth becomes weakened at the same time as the process of its formation becomes revealed.

The social and political implications of textile, but specifically here of woven cloth, while including concerns such as labour, migration and trade, are most commonly linked to ideas surrounding women’s work and thus, by association, women’s art. Such an assumed connection allows textiles to become consciously deployed in the service of feminist practices and feminist visual cultures as a form of refusal. In its ambivalence, textile refuses assimilation and takes on the role of feminist provocateur, queering the lens of looking.

In this sense, to think of fraying visual culture could be said to be doubly unravelling the fabric of culture; it is to apply the production of the cultural unconscious at the same time as provoking the process of its unravelling. In the preface to her book The Poetics and Politics of the Veil in Iran (2019), Azedeh Fatehrad speaks of meeting one of the pioneers of photojournalism in Iran, Hangameh Golestan, and how this encounter led her to learn about her own history: how a photograph opened the door onto a complex history largely inaccessible to Iran’s own citizens.

The photograph in question shows women marching in Tehran on 8th March 1979, following the Ayatollah Khomeini’s edict that women must cover their heads. Fatehrad’s research is not about the hijab, but about the imposition of head covering, and how it speaks into a cultural imaginary, or unconscious, of veiling and unveiling. As such, this discussion holds within it a dimension of beauty and desire. The hijab must be understood, Fatehrad explains, by the Islamic conceptualisation of space that is essentially moral, referring to who is present and occupying the space. This speaks to a notion of space as something socially constructed or produced, but also as something that is perceived. Veiling in this context produces space for the woman wearing it, whilst also being perceived and interpreted by others. Such visual language and production of visual culture become animated, but also unravelled, in Fatehrad’s book through a series of film stills from the film Kandahar (2001). She shows the camera changing position from outside looking onto the veil to within the veiling looking out. The filming brings the viewer within, to share the woman’s breath. The veil blurs the vision, and the veil enfolds a secret space, separated. To think of this veiling in terms of frayed and fragmenting edges of cloth is to give scope for thinking through the movement from protection afforded by the home into the less controllable public sphere. According to Fatehrad, the motivations for women entering public space veiled lie around assurance and access: to employment, respect and protection. In this sense the veil offers freedom to earn and engage in a public life. This frayed edge cloth brings public and private spaces into proximity with one another, not as a liminal space of becoming, but as a layering of one with the other. As the cloth frays at its edges or its centre through use and friction, so it reveals the process of its construction. As veiling allows freedoms, so too it reveals the constructs that allow or disavow those freedoms to certain groups through such a material activity.

Cloth and its production functions in a very particular way in terms of visual culture, and this allows it a form of agency that Alexandra Kokoli (2017) refers to as ‘slippery.’ As raw materials, finished cloths and cloth items travel across the globe connecting people and places, a transnational visual network is formed. This calls to mind the work of Pablo Helguera (2011: 8), who coins the term ‘socially engaged practice,’ which he sets out as ‘a hybrid multi-disciplinary activity that exists somewhere between art and non-art.’ Likewise Grant Kester talks in terms of ‘the co-presence of bodies in real time’. (2011: 114) In both of these concepts of co-creation, the slipperiness of textile space, the edges of language and materiality slip and slide as a frayed and fragmenting edge and the structural elements of both are laid open. These concepts and their materialisation speak into the space of visual culture. Seeing, as Nicholas Mirzoeff reminds us, ‘is something we do’. (2015: 73) This is neither to perpetuate the phrase that seeing is believing, nor indeed enlightenment philosophies, but rather to emphasise that seeing is about what meaning we make from that which we see. This is the formation of visual culture: the construction of understanding the world through its visual cues.

To think of visual culture as fraying is to think of Kokoli’s slippery textile. When it frays and fragments the invisible, hidden and not seen spill out and over, burgeoning forth. In 2013 at the Craft and Folk Museum in Los Angeles, Anuradha Vikram curated the exhibition Social Fabric, exploring the intersection of gender, money and power, drawing on the literal and cultural use of the title words. Across the exhibition cloth and textile became deployed in the service of these themes. Carol Frances Lung (AKA Frau Fiber), a self-described fibre activist, used her workshops and bicycle-powered sewing machine in and around the exhibition to draw attention to the abuses of the global garment industry, together with instructions for mending and making clothes. In disrupting the space between art practice and activist, gallery and street, Lung frayed the social fabric, drawing attention to the labour and power structures that are hidden within the fabrication of the clothes that we wear to create and denote our visual presence. In this fraying of that visual presence, or spilling out and over what constitutes the clothing we wear, Lung draws out the skill, planning, time and labour caught up in garments, whilst also making connections between what we buy and the global textile industry that relies on sweatshops and low paid labour.

Writing in Performance Research Journal, Myron Beasley (2008: 99–104) suggests Lung’s work as an example of dance as critical theory and action, from an understanding of choreography as a conceptual link between agency and history. Here, I want to extend this in terms of the frayed and fragmenting cloth as a means for revealing the structural properties of visual culture.

Held within each garment that is worn as the external symbols and signs of identity are the absent bodies of those who brought it into existence and, given common textile production models, the deaths of some of those absent bodies. What we see in Lung’s work is an insistence on making those bodies present, demanding reflexivity in the wearer and an honouring of those bodies in valuing the garments, committing to mending and repairing in solidarity with the producers she calls them (us) to act into the agency and history of contemporary production. At the start of a durational performance, The Sewing Rebellion (2006 to date), Frau Fiber set a labour trade show in The Mess Hall, Chicago adorning the walls with garments each with labels attached. The labels displayed the cost of the fabric used, the time and labour taken to construct it, each label mimicking the usual price and care labels attached to shop-bought garments. These and other works by Lung extend an understanding of the visual culture of clothing and fashion, not to vilify, but to bring political consciousness and critical enquiry together to inspire social change. This materialises Solnit’s warning that activism is disorderly and often indirect.

Visual culture functions as an area of social and political critique, and fashion and clothing sit within this arena, producing identity for both the self and others through the garments worn. As Susie Lau, fashion blogger and journalist, notes ‘[t]he self as brand is such an important form of currency today’ (Aronowsky Cronberg 2019: 221), with the clothing of that self central to that economy.

These observations of the role and production of the self in the contemporary context are precisely the reason clothing, and its signifying use in producing the self (and its own production), are so central to visual culture. It feeds into market-driven concepts of competitiveness, status, obedience, and authority. Psychologist Niobe Way describes a tendency to create ‘hierarchies of humanness’ or ‘ideologies … in which the needs of some people are positioned as more important than the needs of others’. (Way et al. 2018: 4)

Returning to Lung and Fatehrad’s work as spaces where visual culture is formed, and the concept of seeing as something we that do, Mirzoeff points out that we need to continue to learn how to see. This is where Fatehrad, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘indirection’ to express the effect of an event rather than the event itself, echoes the notion of fraying visual culture. In breaking down the structures of the visual, making their processes visible, their construction processes are revealed. We learn how we see. This is the perspective that both Fatehrad and Lung adopt in relation to visual culture, through veiling and mending. Chapter Two of Fatehrad’s monograph (2019) is titled ‘On Veiling and Writing,’ and in this chapter she discusses how ‘one gives the woman’s voice a body, the other gives her body a voice’. (2019: 25) In Iranian society, where the inner self is supposed to be private, stable and reliable, the outer/public self is perceived as unstable and unreliable, subject to worldly influences. This separation is revealed by the fraying of visual culture that the veil invokes in Iran. Likewise, Lung’s bicycle-operated sewing machine workshops-cum-performances reveal and extend notions surrounding the production of the self, drawing attention to the construction and production of the garments used in this, and setting them as warp and weft slipping and sliding away from one another.

Spatial Logic of the Fray

When cloth frays, its warp and weft slip and slide away from one another, and the spatial arrangement so carefully created on the loom is disrupted and brought into disarray. These new spatial arrangements are disorderly, and take on a dynamic that is partially or wholly unpredictable. At the edge of the fabric, this involves the selvedge, that literal and material ‘self-edging’ where weft exits the warps, and returns, binding the structure together as it does. The selvedge then is the orchestrator of the cloth as a whole. In the relatively simple act of exiting the warps held tight on the loom, and returning, so the structure of the cloth is formed: this is its spatial logic.

The selvedge of the woven cloth draws etymologically upon the Dutch ‘sefegghe,’ and means self-edge. In this sense it also turns back on itself: self-same, a space created inter-subjectively. In the self-self space, the selvedge both holds the whole cloth’s integrity and becomes the site of its potential weakness, where incursion by friction and wear can cause the structure to break down. At the selvedge, fraying and fragmenting take place. Very often, the selvedge can be seen as woven of stronger threads to retain the integrity of the cloth for this reason.

At the edge of woven cloth, an intense and integral relationship between warp and weft is necessary, an intensity that can be more readily relaxed within the body of the cloth once the closely bound threads at the edge are doing their work. Notice how satin’s structure holds the wefts across the front of several warps, to allow the lustre of the fibres to catch the light. Notice the loose and open weave of muslin, which allows it to be used both as a strainer in the kitchen and a softly draping fabric in hot climates. Neither of these performative behaviours would be possible without the selvedge holding and setting the warp-weft relationships in place on the loom.

As the selvedge comes under pressure, through friction or tension, the self-self space takes on a radically different topology. Glenn Adamson writes that ‘the idea that making is its own particular sort of thinking is an appealing one. But it also constitutes a major challenge for anyone who wants to do justice to making through the seemingly inadequate tools of words and ideas’. (2009: 1) Here he draws attention to the particularity of knowing through making, often referred to as ‘tacit’ knowledge, and spoken about in hushed tones as something beyond or outwith words and writing. How does one put into words the feeling of doing? To some extent, that is the territory here in the spatial logic of the fray, when cloth is woven spun, and plied threads are transformed into multidimensional planes, in a reflection of the global trade of which cloth is the central figure. In its production, social and cultural relations are built and transformed. In this sense, making becomes an expanded practice that encompasses the promise and process of what can become as a product, or cloth, that is made. Ben Anderson refers to this in terms of the micropolitical: involving ‘a temporal reorientation of knowledge practices to the emergent and prospective (what has not-yet become)’. (2017: 594)

As the cloth frays, so its spatial re-arrangement reopens the not-yet of its making, once more speaking into the human and non-human encounters. Where making brings objects, matter and material together with skills, bodies and makers, its fraying and fragmented edge (and worn centre) re-visits and re-imagines that series of intimate material encounters, and sets up an inherent unpredictability. In the spatial topology of the fray, Anderson’s attentiveness and openness to the emergent and prospective, rather than the already known, becomes the guiding logic.

To think of the spatial logic of the fray in this way is to set the materials involved in cloth as agentive: they act back in the human encounter, and through the multiple senses. Fraying cloth misbehaves, it is disorderly, it resists narrative experiences of cloth. Even in mending or darning frayed cloth, the need to accommodate each thread’s newfound independence is always at play. In the act of mending, a set of skills and dispositions need to be cultivated that are built out of the not-yet become and the agential nature of the materials to hand. The selvedge repair is never the same as the selvedge created on the loom; it cannot trace through the original movements of production, but it can extend and evolve that self-self interplay. It brings new texture and resistance to transactional notions of obsolescence, but also, in the mend and repair a logic of becoming-more or becoming care-full is set in place.

Into the space of re-construction, the fray offers scope for practicing care. Here I want to set out that practice and connection between care and mending in and of the fray in three ways: precision, objects of care and affective relationships of care.

To take care of the fray, whether through mending as discussed above, or through embracing its disorderly realignment of warp, weft and selvedge, is to engage in close observation of the original and new materials alliances emerging. It involves precision and close looking to track each thread’s journey into the whole cloth and back out into the thinned and worn ends slipping and sliding around, over and away from one another. This is a particular kind of attentiveness that appears at first to be a contradiction to the technological activities of weaving, but remains predominantly about elemental and successive relationships between each warp and each weft.

Israeli artist Gali Cnaani approaches factory produced woven cloth from the perspective of admiration: recognising its efficiency and productivity. As she explains, ‘I love factories and machines; I know the human aspect’. (Cnaani in Hemmings 2013: 12) This line of human-machine interplay forms the starting point for a collection of working practices by Cnaani. Like Yoshimoto, her work involves unweaving, or fraying, and then re-weaving into differing configurations. In Jeans Trousers (2011) the hem now folds and refolds; Sleeves (2011) brings two cuffs together: one a floral woman’s blouse, the other a striped man’s shirt, now forever joined in muted congress.

This work verges on the forensic, according to Jessica Hemmings [1], and the focus upon retrieving the frayed edges as a form of re-imagining of the garments sets up an expanded trajectory for them. Garments are selected for their symbolic value and sourced from markets and second-hand shops in Tivon and Tel Aviv. These reformulated constructions sometimes re-introduce a selvedge, and sometimes fringed edges remain. Images of the re-weaving process are wrought with energy and precarity; it is almost as if Cnaani is taming the fray in this precision work of reweaving the part-garments together.

Cnaani’s pieces very often make a feature of the edge elements: cuffs, hems, collars, epaulettes. Symbolically, like the selvedge, these elements mark the border between one’s body and other bodies. In fraying, these sensitive symbolic markers of that body become fragmented. The edge, frayed and re-woven, now reads as both surface and textural presence. A trace or history is implied and evoked but is in fact an imprint of an abstraction. In this ambiguity or indexical turn, Cnaani disrupts the familiar and calls for a critical consciousness of what is held before us. In the precision of her re-weaving, she demands we look again at the unravelled and unruly threads, and at how they come together to articulate a contradictory unity in which each retains a degree of relative autonomy.

In Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (2007), Noami Schor writes about detail and ‘bad objects,’ which she traces ‘to any number of causes: their aesthetic inappropriateness, their subversive possibilities, their pettiness’. (2007: xv) She continues to argue that detail reveals, or discloses, its close relationship to the ornamental which, like craft, stands in opposition to art. It is in its excess, its burgeoning out and its unrestrained nature that detail becomes subversive. In Cnaani’s unravelled and re-woven pieces we see an attention to detail that appears to bring that unrestraint under control, but in fact intentionally does not completely do so. In this the excess of detail, precision is revealed and, like all excess, outspeaks that which it exceeds. In Cnaani’s work, the norm of the cloth is exceeded and the self-self edge is breached to reveal its formation.

In practicing care, something is needed to become the object of that care, and, in the excess spatiality of the fray, the broken edge and its constituent parts take on that role. Where Cnaani frays in order to re-weave, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles takes up the material concerns of the corpse, most specifically the female victims of violent crime. Margolles’ material choices are all too human, and literally carry blood and death within them, but it is this proximity to death and bodily waste that brings artist, victim and viewer to the border or frayed edge of their condition as a human being. In a work staged at the Venice Biennale, What Else Could We Talk About/De qué otra cosa pod´riamos habler? (2009) Margolles stitched messages with gold thread into soiled cloth, replicating 19th century mourning samplers. The carefully stitched messages are those left on the bodies of female murder victims in Mexico. As Margolles orchestrates the stitching, a conversation is evoked between blood-and-earth-soiled cloth and gold thread, as she closes the distance between bodies, countries, living and dead.

Margolles’ cloths are part of a fuller installation of seven pieces that subtly occupied the Venetian palace. Margolles is perhaps best known for confronting violence, death and loss as a provocative and overwhelming act, but also for using human remains as her artistic and conceptual material. Referencing the wave of violence generated by the war against drugs in Mexico and at its borders as the context, Margolles created necro-geographic journeys, making visual and sound recordings of the territories wounded by death. She collected waste in these areas: mud, blood and pieces of glass, which she later used for the creation of seven installations that perform and articulate abjection: blood-impregnated fabrics, glass replicas of the jewellery worn by the perpetrators, and sound recordings playing in an empty hall. In this transitional space, Margolles cares for the frayed edges and the spatial dealignment of the structural forms. As warp and weft slip away from each other to reveal gaps and spaces, so Margolles pays attention, and cares about what is taking place.

To take care of the frayed edges of the fabric of life in this way is to bring these cloths and the bodies they remember into a space of mutuality and solidarity. It proposes an alternative structural principle that challenges dominant value systems. Care, as performed in Margolles’ piece, could be read through Donna Haraway’s (2016) concept of ‘making with.’ To ‘make with’ frayed cloth, frayed bodies, or frayed culture, is to de-emphasise human power relations and exceptionalism. It is to foreground vulnerability and discomfort; it frays borders, edges and zones. In this pace of the fray, with the spatial logic disrupted and disordered, gaps and distances are formed that reference the logic of the woven cloth, but are outwith it. They swerve and slip away from that orderliness.

Margolles does not shy away from the politics and realities of discomfort and vulnerability: she causes her viewer to be mobilised into these difficult themes. In the performance and materiality that directly and physically links viewers in Venice to brutal murders and drug wars in Mexico, she disrupts the spatial order, making the materials and the bodies they address affective agents for vulnerability. In this, she could be said to reference Judith Butler’s (2016) understanding of the potential of vulnerability when in relational interplay with resistance. This is not vulnerability predicated upon terms of weakness, but as a co-producing site of agency. Thus, to care about the fray in the way Margolles demonstrates is to make that matter and those bodies vulnerable, and to ‘make with’ them. Margolles’ stitched cloths, with their frayed and fragmented edges, soaked in the soil upon which the bodies were murdered and the accompanying performance of washing the floors in the Venetian palazzo with that same soiled water, co-produces a site of vulnerability and resistance. The work rearranges the spatial logic of power and geographies of place, allowing the viewer to re-locate themselves within the frayed cloths and frayed bodies, with/in the material encounter.

To think of the spatial logic of the fray and its mending in terms of the objects of care is to expose the ways in which mending becomes a creative set of practices in themselves. Such practices are often relegated to the periphery of productive economic activity, forced into the margins by the sheer scale and dominance of mass consumer culture and built-in obsolescence. Over the last two decades social movements and trends amongst the relatively privileged socio-economic groups have initiated ‘upcycling.’ However rather than dismiss mending practices as simply a fetishisation of the handmade as a trend that will pass, I want here to focus upon the objects of care in terms of both Haroway’s ‘making with,’ in which she calls for a re-evaluation of human exceptionalism and its relationship with the non-human in particular. Caitlin DeSilvey and James R. Ryan, in their text ‘Everyday Kintsukuroi’ (in Price and Hawkins 2018: 195–212) include a series of photographs by Stephen Bond for an exhibition they curated named ‘Small is Beautiful’ (2011) [2]. This collaborative project aimed to record the material cultures associated with the practice of mending ordinary objects, but also to set out a language for thinking about objects of care. The series of photographs speak of the detailed, precise attention required to mend, but also of what could be construed of as the care-full relationships between mender, tools and damaged object.

The mender’s tools, as DeSilvey and Ryan note, ‘highlight the sense of ‘fluidity.’ They are ‘appropriate technologies pressed into service of a range of requirements’. ( DeSilvey & Ryan in Price & Hawkins 2018: 202–3) In mending, the frayed and worn edges of the material, its elements are re-worked and re-aligned. Mending is not so much about making new, but rehabilitating; it is a creative space for ‘makers, inventors and creators who specialise in the skilful manipulation of materials’. (2018: 205) As a language of care and care-fullness, DeSilvey and Ryan’s research project speaks of communities and value that cannot be reduced to commodities and metrics, because they focus upon creating a space for these to emerge afresh. In this sense, the spatial logic of the frayed edge enables a re-evaluation of the whole from the vantage point of that worn and frayed edge. It is about the skilful manipulation of the frayed threads to preserve the whole, whilst recognising and knowing about its constituent parts and what their interplay implies. This is the spatial logic of the fray.

Unravelling Meaning-Making

Making, as Price and Hawkins note, ‘appears to be firmly part of the zeitgeist’ (2018: 1), and as such re-making or repairing the worn and broken elements of made objects takes on a new currency, both culturally and economically. Where DeSilvey and Ryan speak of a sense of fluidity in the menders’ tools, Margolles, Lung and Cnaani approach the act of fraying and reparation through the lens of absent bodies, and thus speak into the frayed space of culture itself.

My textile practice takes the interplay between warp and weft as its point of focus to think through and with ways in which a feminist visual culture can be conceived. I weave and I stitch, both actions that provoke and evoke relational interplay between body, matter and self at the surface of the cloth. Cloth’s meaning and capacity for meaning-making evolves from its overlapping and changing histories of class, race, popular culture, fashion, academia, subcultures, anthropology, craft industrialisation and the global textile industries. It thus offers a space for discursive formation that converts individual experience into culturally constructed understandings. To take weaving and stitch as starting points for such thinking is to start at cloth’s structural roots.

As I warp up my loom to begin to make a piece of cloth, the careful and time-consuming act of measuring, counting, and controlling the predetermined number of threads invites the mind and body to engage in a pared back material vocabulary. To-and-fro the body and thread move, until the required number is achieved. These lengths are then painstakingly threaded through the elements of the loom, again with a pre-determined arrangement that will dictate the variability available for the final cloth.

The warp sits at the heart of the woven cloth, and must be laid into the loom, secured, and tensioned by the loom’s mechanisms to allow shafts and heddles to raise and lower in sequence as the shuttle, bearing the weft thread, passes to-and-fro. Any error in the warping is carried throughout the length of the woven cloth, persistently alerting the weaver to its presence.

As I weave, the weft threads move from left to right, right to left, and the shafts raise the heddles and their nestled warp threads. Up and down, left and right, according to the patterns I choose, and slowly a new cloth emerges in the horizontal plane. Depending on the pressures and tensions applied with read and shuttle, the threads selected and the patterning of the heddles, this new cloth will be more or less open weave with gaps and spaces or close-pressed threads tight against one another. I find myself caught up in the interplay between the elements as they enter into relationship with one another, and shift and move to navigate the space collectively within the weave. This is the spatial logic of the weave that fraying and fragmenting disrupt on the one hand, but open out the cloth to new considerations on the other.

I am intrigued by Spivak’s explorations of frayed and fraying language and the ways in which cultural understanding and meaning operate and are formed in these spaces. The fray, thus conceived, becomes an agential space for meaning-making, rather than a limiting point of the cloth. This returns me to Susan Hiller’s narrative of following a through whose coherence emerges through the inconsistencies of experience and language (Hiller in Hao 2019: 54)

In Shimmer (2012), the handwoven cloth and its selvedge were woven with fraying and fragmenting at this edge to create a material and visual language of the edge. This draws together with the works discussed here, the double-layering offering ambivalence of meaning, refusing singular readings, but provoking the viewer within its obfuscation.

Here handweaving and the edge of the cloth are presented as a counterbalance to stereotypical images of these activities, and material presentations as passive and benign. In making a cloth whose self-self selvedge is foregrounded as frayed, the basic premise of the cloth-selvedge relationship is undermined and refuted. It confuses the sequential order and suggests the dissipation of events in relation to origins and productive order.

To think through the selvedge in this way is to emphasise temporality within the spatial logic at the edge, but this is a temporality that can be re-ordered, re-arranged and disrupted. In this sense Shimmer, and other of my works, offer woven cloth as a disorderly set of practices that define a spatial logic within visual culture that is agential in its weakness, articulate in its breaking down and whose bodies are present in their absence. As cloth frays and fragments at its edges, so it reveals the process of its construction; and it is here, at the frayed edges, that a ‘spacey emptiness’ emerges where ‘meaning hops in’. (Spivak 1993: 180)



[1] (last accessed 7 December 2021).

[2] Exhibitions were held in several locations in the South West of the UK: Plymouth, Bridport, Exeter, St Austell. June 2011-Jul7 2012. See (last accessed 7 December 2021).


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