Geometric and floral textiles: symbolism in design

A Buddhist-inspired comforter at Target.

Have you ever found yourself straining to read a caption, or make out the image, on someone’s tee-shirt as they pass by? Everything from pop music bands to health food stores, and from spiritual practices to artists seem to be on tee-shirts these days.

But the humble tee is only the most obvious way in which textiles is used to convey a message to those around.

In fact, textiles has a very long history of being a medium for expressing some of the most profound and complicated ideas.

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry.

In the remnants of some historical textiles we even have records of earlier cultures. The medieval French Bayeux Tapestry depicts the invasion of England by French forces, for example. And at nearly 230ft long, it tells an entire story, unfolding images like pages in a book.

Many historical textiles are still inspiring designers today, especially in the fields of fashion and home furnishings. A little while ago, for example, hip chain store Target was selling a Buddhism-inspired comforter.

Geometric: modern textiles with ancient inspiration.

Mostly, of course, textiles designers focus on less overt images, perhaps using lotuses or the lily flower from Buddhist art, or the long-stemmed, almost grassy flower from Japanese flower arranging (Ikibana).

Coptic textiles, 4th-6th century AD.

Vogue: Sweater by French designer Christian Lacroix.

The simple objects of nature have become imbued with enormous symbolic value over the course of human history.

Most people will consider carefully what kind of flowers to buy for others, depending on whether they are meant as a “get well” gift, to celebrate a wedding anniversary, or are brought to a first date.

We know also that red roses signify passion, pink roses love. Lilies purity. In ancient Egyptian Christian textiles, “The harvest of ripe fruit symbolized the gathering of completed human lives” notes Jimmy Dunn on Coptic textiles.

In textiles it is often simple things, like flowers, that are used not only as patterns but as expressions of life, sentiments, ideas, or feelings. We are aware of this whenever we go to our wardrobe to pick out something to wear. Most of us have been struck at some time or another by some item of clothing that we have bought, but which seems completely unlike us at a particular moment. Simply our mood has changed, not our style. We don’t want the bright floral dress or the bold, colorful tie when we are in a serious mood, or the gray suit when we are about to relax. We want to wear clothing that represents our mood or our situation.

Celebrating the season: kimonos with floral patterns.

A modern purse made from vintage kimono fabric.

Although we can find plainer fabrics used, the Japanese kimono often employs very rich and bold patterns, mixing florals and geometrics. Usually these are intended to reflect the season, whether spring, summer, autumn or winter.

Nevertheless, although flowers were appreciated for their beauty, they were also used and appreciated as symbols in traditional Japanese culture.

In Japan the chrysanthemum — with its long slim petals spreading out from the center — represented the sun, as well as an orderly unfoldment of things. For this reason it came to be the symbol of the Japanese emperor, and was used in all art, textiles, and crafts associated with the Japanese royal family (the “Chrysanthemum Throne”).

Tee-shirt with lotus by Aum clothing, a yoga clothing specialist.

Although we may not be conscious of their meaning, today we can find many traditional symbols and motifs in contemporary fashion. nevertheless, we are often aware of the meaning of textiles motifs at an intuitive or more emotional level, especially when we are wearing them in our clothing or have them in our home decor. The consumer may not be able to articulate the meaning of the color yellow or the color black, the chrysanthemum versus the red rose, but the vast majority of people will have a sense of what they mean.

The job of the designer (perhaps including over the last several hundred years) is to create something not only of beauty, but something of meaning, so that, whatever we design, it represents a timeless beauty. As such, it is very much about refining the symbolic vocabulary transmitted from history so that it speaks to people today.

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