Exploring the World of Textile Art & Design

Textile Art Hero

Each country and culture embodies a distinct style when it comes to textile art and design.

Artisans’ deft use of thread, fabric and other fibers (including those from local animals) helps tell a story about a community’s traditions, much like the Italian Renaissance painters during the 1400s or 1500s, or Cubist sculptors of the early 1900s. From Egyptians to American Indians, their works reveal what was happening in the background of these artists’ studios, and what drove popular culture, such as spirituality, war or music. There isn’t an art movement out there without a companion movement involving textiles that equally excites collectors. For example, the Arts & Crafts movement (1860s to the 1920s) in America and England dovetailed with William Morris’ embroidery, as well as Gustav Stickley’s furnishings.

Textiles at Auction

At auction, textiles—provided they are in good condition and free of rips, fading or stains—command anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

In 2011, Sotheby’s auctioned off four valuable tapestry panels, including a 17th Century Flemish mythological tapestry depicting Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Estimated to sell for between £40,000 and £70,000, each sold for between £45,650 and £57,650. Then, in 2012, the winning bid at auction for a Navajo textile (the “Chantland Blanket”) was $1.8 million, the second-highest price realized at auction for a Native American artifact.

Where the World’s Most Valuable Textiles are Kept

From Canada to China, museums house some of the world’s most valuable textiles. Some of these are regional in nature—specializing in works created locally or inspired by local traditions—while others have no borders when it comes to collecting. The American Museum & Gardens (near Bath, England) is home to a sizable collection of 250 American quilts and textiles while—back in the States—Shelburne, Vermont’s Shelburne Museum displays American tapestries from the 1800s to the present, such as Molly Nye Tobey’s 50 statehood rugs. Similarly, the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, Canada, explores the works of Inuit artists as well as hooked rugs and quilts across several provinces, including Quebec and Ontario..

World-renowned arts institutions like Victoria & Albert Museum in London; and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have special wings dedicated to textiles that tend to focus heavily on fashions and costumes, considered another form of textile art and design. For example, the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Met features 35,000 costumes and accessories collected from around the world, the wing named in honor of Vogue’s editor-in-chief. In Japan, the Kyoto Costume Institute exhibits examples of Western clothing through the past centuries, as far back as the 17th century.  

Even within the United States are several strong examples of textile collections that are regional in nature. For instance, included in the permanent collection at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., are Northern New Mexican weavings while the Victoria & Albert Museum’s tapestries collection incorporates Devonshire Hunting Tapestries.

How to Properly Care for Antique Textiles

As any collector of fine art on display knows, proper framing and glass is the first line of defense against the harsh rays of sunlight. For wines that are aging, a similar mantra is in place: store in a spot that’s cool, dark and dry. The same goes for textiles. You never want to store a textile in a plastic bag. Instead, wrap it in cloth (such as cotton muslin or sheeting)—and make sure you’ve already removed any dust or debris from the textile before you do so. It’s also imperative that you store the object flat so it stays in the original shape and form. 

Smithsonian even suggests taking a hand-held vacuum and, on its weakest setting and once the textile is behind fiberglass screening, very gently removing loose soil and any dust. Of course, if the item has embroidery or beading, this would not be advised as the vacuum could catch on the fabric and cause it to tear.

If what you are handling is an antique textile, be careful it does not make any contact with wood, tissue or any other wrapping paper. The reason is that paper can become acidic and cause damage to the textile.

And, finally, if you are storing a rug or any large object, avoid folding it in any way as those lines and creases may well become permanent and affect the overall monetary value (in addition to altering its aesthetic). 

Different Types of Textiles Across Cultures

While the world of textiles is very vast, there are a few focuses that have become increasingly important to collectors in recent years. Here is a summary of those hot items. 

American Indian woven blankets

Several news outlets told an almost unbelievable story in 2017: after seeing a similar blanket on the PBS show “Antiques Roadshow,” a broke guy in California sold his family’s 1800s Navajo weaving for $1.5 million. Then, in January of 2021, Christie’s included many Navajo, Rio Grande and Hopi blankets and rugs in its “Important American Indian Art from a Private Western Collection.” The blankets sold for between $240 and $204,000 each.

American Folk Art quilts

Made popular by movements such as Gee’s Bend—a group of female Black quilters in Alabama, many descended from slaves, who have created these quilts since the early 20th century—folk art quilts are regional in nature. Communities across the country frequently host Amish quilt auctions, particularly in Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania as those states are home to Amish populations. In 2007, a mid-19th Century quilt realized £540 at a Christie’s auction, although the estimate was for up to £1,000.

Antique fine costumes

In 2007, Christie’s hosted their “Fine Costume & Textiles: The Collector’s Sale” in London, England. Included in the sale’s 87 lots were everything from early 17th Century pink silk Episcopal gauntlets featuring knitted pink and white marbled hands and cuffs of pink damask to a Swiss embroidered wool panel dating back to 1592. Combined, the lots sold for £370,687.

A double-sided Amish Contained Crazy Pieced Bar quilt

A double-sided Amish Contained Crazy/Pieced Bar quilt, Sold: $3,250 via John Moran Auctioneers, Monrovia, CA (June 30, 2020).

The Continued Popularity of Textiles

As recently as five years ago, a brand-new textile museum opened, proof that this form of artistry and collecting is popular. When the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum debuted in 2015, in Washington, D.C., it allowed 19,000 non-Western rugs and tapestries to be exhibited. The more people can view these items, and become aware of their history and value, the deeper the appreciation and enthusiasm for textile art and design will continue to grow.

More From In Good Taste:

Rug Placement Tips
How to Collect Chinese Robes
The Thangka and Its Significance in Tibetan Buddhism