Beauty Therapy - Why the brain likes handmade textiles

Posted by Cigdem Baker on

This is an article that was published in issue 46, May/June 2012 in Selvedge Magazine, author is Caroline Barry. It analyses why the brain likes handmade textiles.

What properties do handmade textiles possess that make them such a thing of beauty to makers and connoisseurs alike? What is it about the combination of the visual and the tactile that makes interacting with them such a rich and complex aesthetic experience? Over the past few years a dialogue has started between aesthetic philosophers and psychologists as to what underpins human responses to beauty. Why is it that some things please the brain? The relationship between a beholder and a thing if beauty is a personal one, but some ideas are under discussion that textile lovers may identify with when thinking about their own own judgements relating to beauty.

Psychologists are aware that human beings prefer environments that make sense, that they like to be able to 'read' their surroundings and draw security from predictability. At the same time, they are primed to seek interest in detail and enjoy exploration. Recent interpretation of the regularity of the natural world in terms of mathematical fractals seems to support theories that the brain looks for natural patterns within which it seeks to interpret variation. It enjoys order, but wants stimulation from unevenness within that order. Indeed survival is based on extracting the significance of non-conformity and of the unexpected.

Most textiles are based on the principle of repeating patterns. These repetitions happen on more than one level, the stitch and the fibre level and often also at the pattern level. Given that human beings enjoy interaction between familiarity of pattern and the occurrence of irregularity, textiles are, in many senses, the perfect aesthetic vehicle.

All around us, repeating patterns allow for familiarity, which creates psychological comfort. We are surrounded by stitch-like patterning in our environments that attests to the perceptual satisfaction of repetitive structure - roof tiles, cast-iron railings, brick work, terraced housing, rows of crops, etc. However, what we also appreciate is variation or unevenness within that repetition. Most prized are handmade bricks or roof tiles that are similar, yet different and give the eye something to investigate. We enjoy detailed analysis of variations in conformity, picking out tiny differences at cellular level. We automatically observe the relationship between non-conformity and order - and enjoy it.

The brain's ability to discern the relationship between repetition and variation may be the basis our love affair with textiles. We recruit the brain's highly developed perceptual and discriminative abilities to help us evaluate the detailed substance of both everyday textiles and textile art.

Those who appreciate textiles spontaneously investigate the structure of a fabric at the stitch or fibre level. Then, in order to form a perception of the whole work, they integrate this with an appreciation of the higher-level detail such as colour, pattern, embroidery or printed design. They then evaluate the overall success of this combination un aesthetic terms. With handmade textiles, this will always be a unique combination, even where the maker has made several apparently similar pieces. Slight variations in stitch tension, a fleck here and there, tiny irregularities of dye or fibre all give pleasure in their non-conformity, at the same time being brought under control at another level in the repetition of weave, tapestry, knitted or embroidered stitch.

Textile lovers have their own opinions as to what sets their neurons alight, but it is likely that, as a group, they bring a level of visual analysis to their perception of textiles that those who are not interested do not. It is possible that this visual dissection is more detailed again in makers, who spend hours in contemplation of thread, wool, or twine and whose powers of detail discrimination will be even more highly developed.

We enjoy the order of a piece of hand-crafted garter stitch or tapestry, but at the same time we know that life is breathed into the structure by the minute differences in the stitches. It exercises our powers of observation to interpret the microstructure and to see the human reflected in its microscopic variation. Some scientists think humans have developed these specialist cognitive abilities to detect information about living thins (which would, of course, have huge evolutionary significance). Our ability to detect when something has been touched by or created by a human hand may well be a reflection of thus adaptive ability and this detection may well confer satisfaction.

We can't always have hand made items, but textile aficionados are so keen to enjoy the imprint of variation that pleases the brain, they are often attracted ti woven fabrics that have grittier, more complex texture, such as raw silks or linens where the spun fibre is irregular. Here again we gave a general conformity of the regular weave of the fabric combined with something unpredictable that arouses the visual systems, that triggers further investigation. Neurologically we are working harder when looking a textile that's inconsistencies, but statisfaction is derived at a deep psychological level from 'reading' it in all its quirky detail.

This is probably what we call beauty. In it we see the expected and the unexpected and the brain enjoys the challenge of interpretation.

Caroline Barry 

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