Book Review: Texts and Textiles: Affect, Synæsthesia and Metaphor in Fiction

Deciding what to include in this review has been difficult, the breath and depth of Diana Mary Eva Thomas’s research is rewarding, challenging, and just plain fascinating (as denoted by the plethora of stickie-notes that adorn each chapter of my copy of the book). However if you like to read beautiful immersive fiction, have ever wondered how some authors are able to create detailed environments and complex characters more effectively than others, or thought that perhaps the standard textile metaphor has the potential to be so much more, Thomas’s research provides a thorough, contemporary approach to these questions and much, much more.

9781443800792In the first chapters of her research, Thomas provides an expanded view of the notion of the metaphor “textile and other,” linking it with synæsthesia, defined as the use of multiple senses at one time. She then undertakes a meticulous analysis of affect theory (as explored in the work of Brian Massumi and Silvan Tomkins in particular) and considers the possibility that when a synæsthetic metaphor is used in a narrative, a multifaceted affect may be produced in the reader of the said narrative. These quite complex areas of research are also effectively connected to the first chapter, which introduces the notion of the expanded reader experience through investigating touch, especially in relation to textiles. Thomas suggests that the reader taps into memories of tactility when synæsthetic metaphors are contained within a narrative.

In the remaining chapters, Thomas applies her hypothesis that the use of synæsthetic metaphor in fiction writing has the ability to combine with previous tactile experiences and enhance the reader’s involvement with an extensive array of fiction. Each collection of fiction is gathered under the separate headings: “Quilts and Quilt-Making,” “Knitting,” and “Embroidery.” In each chapter, before commencing the analysis of the chosen fiction, Thomas provides an historic and contemporary view of each process and suggests connections between these processes and the written word.

In chapter five, “Knitting,” for example, after a definition of knitting (successive rows of “running” open loops), she discusses nalbinding, a pre-form of knitting and a variety of very early knitted items including stockings, caps and a tomb cushion. She continues by connecting knitting and text through the use of six definitions of the word knit, provided by David Minugh. Each definition of knit is explored in relation to a work of fiction or compared to the process of writing itself. I was particularly taken with the fragment included by author Anne Bartlett, which describes her process of writing and knitting, on page 119. “Knitting and writing. Knit one, purl one, write two, edit one, start a new line. If you practice patiently, you achieve certain elegance; if you persist, you end up with a dishcloth, a composition, a pair of socks, an article, a jumper, a novel.” Later in the same chapter, Thomas applies her hypothesis in detail to Bartlett’s novel Knitting, documenting further connections between knitting and writing and the presence and potential affects of synæsthetic metaphor on the reader.

The format of situating the detailed research in an historical and contemporary environment is also used in the chapters “Quilts and Quilt-making” and “Embroidery,” which may be particularly useful for readers unfamiliar with one or all of the textile techniques. Thomas consolidates the results of her research to provide an appendix of metaphors gleaned from each of the textile headed chapters. As expected from this level of research, there is also an extensive bibliography.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, this is detailed and innovative research that deserves close reading. As an emerging artist who is also at the beginning of a research degree, this work has expanded my view of textile research and has provided me many areas of diverse investigation for future consideration. I have also enjoyed discovering the deeper connections between text and textiles, a combination I explore in my art making, and look forward to exploring the new list of novels investigated in Diana Mary Eva Thomas’s text.

About the reviewer

Christine Wiltshier is a Sydney-based conceptual artist, whose process-directed practice explores the textile elements of making, unmaking, and remaking. She has a BFA Hons from UNSW Art and Design, Sydney, and presented part of her honors research, “From Function to Fashion to a Contemporary Art Practice, Journeys within a Fisherman’s Rib Jumper” at the TSA Savannah Symposium in 2016.

Review first published in the Spring 2017 newsletter of the Textile Society of America (p18)

To find out more about Texts and Textiles: Affect, Synaesthesia and Metaphor in Fiction and to purchase a copy, click here.

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