Textiles without textiles

I recently started a lecture to a group of textile students by saying that everything I make is textiles but none of it is textiles. It’s an honest assessment when I reflect on what I make because the heritage of the work is textiles but the outcomes rarely are. The title ‘Textiles Without Textiles’ refers to my understanding of this subject area whilst rarely using fabric or textile processes.

My business partner and I both studied textiles at college but also share a love of engineering and working with metal. The story becomes further blurred because having done a few commissions using light we became known for this and new opportunities working with light emerged. We have just returned from exhibiting in the Algarve where stitched neon formed beacons which guided people from place to place through the town of Loule.

Art students often label themselves according to the name of the course that they are studying; They become a ‘fine artist’, ‘photographer’ or ‘textile designer’. That’s okay but we are all adaptable creative thinkers and labels can be restrictive. I encourage students to look at other disciplines to inspire their own; to mix craft skill with wild ideas and to challenge processes by applying mindsets from other creative genres.

Beyond education, where the course rightly demands demonstration of particular processes, we are able to answer any brief using whatever means we feel are most appropriate. There is freedom to move beyond our training and, in many cases, this results in more original outcomes. In my work this usually happens by working with others; Personally I believe that collaboration is a very positive way of developing concepts and allows me to bring in experts from any discipline meaning that a brief can be answered without being limited to my own skill set.

Designers and artists need the constant feed of the unexpected to keep their work fresh. What is made through my collaborative cross pollination of disciplines is not always design and it is not always art – it is always both but in differing proportions. My rationale is that design solves problems and art communicates meaning. It’s a good starting point for conversation and can be extended by suggesting that craft skill is often required to be able to make the work but not always. Processes – unlike ideas – can be sub contracted and yet the work remains personal to the artist.

For some people it is very important that their creative practice revolves around in-depth research of a particular discipline and that is fine – in fact it is very valuable. My point here is that a course title should never be a restriction to anyones ambition. It defines your area of study and not you as a creator. Ask yourself why you do what you do rather than how you do it. I now prefer to define myself by the intentions of my work rather than by its medium or appearance; When people ask what I do, I say “I make physical structures which change social structures.”

Neil’s collaborative practice can be seen here mussonretallick.com


  1. jenny Udale 21 December 2017 at 9:48 pm

    Lovely work Neil and interesting blog .
    Jenny Udale

  2. Nuala Mahon 22 December 2017 at 7:17 am

    Fascinating work. Love it. Some of the thumbnails on the web site did nto show up but when clicked the larger image showed. This might be due to the fact that I installed High Sierra on my MAC yesterday and lots of things are struggling….

  3. Amardeep 19 January 2018 at 8:04 am

    “I make physical structures which change social structures.”

    This is my favorite quote it’s deep I like how the relationship between these two play….moving from the making the physical structures to impacting the social structures. Thought provoking read.
    thank you Neil.


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