From delicate paper-stitching to bold tapestry work, a variety of textile practices have flourished over the past 30 years. Yet there have been relatively few opportunities for major exhibitions or for critical debate. Now two valuable touring shows present an overview of the current state of the art.
Though their approach is different, possibly reflecting two different attitudes among practitioners, both boast high-calibre technical skills alongside a wide diversity of approaches. In some cases only a few stitches bring the pieces into the category of textiles, with the corollary that many mainstream fine artists have also turned to cloth and costume as a vehicle for their ideas.
Intended as a survey of current practice in Britain, Art Textiles includes work by 31 artists selected from an open submission of 481 entries. The three selectors are all practitioners who are also involved in teaching. At Watermans Arts Centre, in Brentford, where I saw the show, the display seemed to emphasise the traditional aspect of textiles as decoration.
In the words of Dr Judith Ellen Duffey in the catalogue's introduction: "The making of the object, its structure, tactility and imagery seemed paramount concerns", an attitude which emphasises the value of the human hand and eye in the face of increased reliance on technology.
Two of the most striking pieces are sculptures. Janet Ledsham's work - a beautiful suspended structure of translucent felt incorporating leaves, seeds and branches - holds up an effective mirror to nature.
Barbara Taylor, on the other hand, presents an intriguing installation of half-finished garments - a metaphor for shifting identity and insecure relationships.
While there are also some smaller-scale experiments with sculptural forms, most of the work is two-dimensional. In Rama IV, for example, Jean Daveywinter filters memories of Thailand through an imaginative use of recycled and laminated cloth, thus invoking the "fabric" of the nation.
An interesting strand to the exhibition is the way some pieces focus on the processes involved in textile production, whether by hand or in the factory, in Britain or in India.
In this respect Maxine Bristow has produced two particularly innovative wall reliefs, Vertical Row and Centre Seam. On the one hand, they remind us of the domestic origins of textiles as "women's work"; on the other, they present an impeccable "minimalist" front, thus restoring both women and textiles in 20th-century art history.
Art Textiles is an enjoyable and lively exhibition whose value is enhanced by its comprehensive catalogue, education handbook and explanatory videos.
The second show, Revelation, has a more ambitious and challenging agenda. Excellently presented at its current Barbican venue, in London, Revelation features the work of 15 artists, many from abroad, who are concerned with issue-based art.
"From the cradle to the grave," says curator Lesley Millar, "we all have a relationship with textiles. This makes it an especially appropriate and accessible medium for raising issues."
The main themes are identity, the body, gender and the environment, theory-based issues that can often be handled with disappointing aridity. Here, however, the exhibits have a full-blooded resonance that is fuelled by a personal response to the issues - a strength that comes from using the textiles as a means to an end.
As you pass along the work, from high-hanging robes and wall-pieces via floor installations to sculptural forms on plinths, there is a real sense of visual drama. Many of the individual pieces, moreover, while being exciting and innovative in their use of material, were also thought-provoking.
Frances Geesin, for instance, has taken a doll, wrapped it in knitted fabric, electroplated and patinated it, thus creating a beautiful but distressed metallic form, in parts worn to holes. What exactly it means is imprecise, but certainly something precious has been lost and is perhaps refracted through memory.
Similarly, the American Shirley Samberg shows a floor piece made up of a series of dark, coarse-grained, burlap dresses. Child-size. Refugees, victims of abuse, outsiders of some kind or another, the sense of disorientation is palpable.
Revelation takes textiles into the 21st century, without forgetting their rich history. Tass Mavrogodato, for example, plays on the apocalyptic tapestries of Angers to create a strident narrative for today. Using pictogram imagery that could be inspired by Basquiat, she conflates the dysfunctional world of Bart Simpson with that of an Aids victim. An ironic graffiti heart along with the blood-red text "It's thicker than water" says it all.
From a garish giant bra to delicate corset and bustle constructions, from rich medieval robes to dresses made from knitted human hair, clothes are used to highlight gender issues. Sexual object, social prisoner, heart of the family - with their baggage of feminine associations, textiles are a peculiarly apt medium.
So it is interesting to see the gender question raised from the male point of view as well. Looking for a male location in the field of textiles, Clyde Olliver saw house-building activities as a parallel to women's making and mending. This led him to work with slates, which he first associated with roofing then with wall-building.
Here he mimics the Cumbrian landscape in a wonderfully tactile wall construction composed of fleece, felt and thick slate stitched onto canvas. In previous centuries sailors spent considerable time embroidering sailcloths - the reason Olliver chose canvas for the backing of his own pieces.
The thrust of Olliver's landscapes is to win us over to the pro-environment debate. Other artists take a more confrontational approach. Michele Walker, for instance, brings the patchwork quilt dramatically up-to-date. Using plastic bags and bin liners textured with tyre treads, she creates a dark, oily-looking surface to signify pollution. The eventual result of pollution, she implies in a companion piece, will be a denuded lifeless space.
Text, plastics, photography, real hair and fake teeth, the exhibition reveals its serious intentions through a frisson of drama. For more serious study, the display is accompanied by printed sheets containing in-depth interviews with each artist by art historian Jaqueline Herald of the Chelsea School of Art and Design.
From training to techniques, from artistic influences to aims and intentions, all aspects of the production of the work are covered. There is also a boxed catalogue costing Pounds 6, with postcards of the exhibits and an introduction by Pennina Barnett, lecturer in textiles at Goldsmith's College, London.
Revelation transcends the boring old debate of whether textiles are art or craft and deserves to be shown at major venues such as Oxford's Moma, where the Raw and Cooked exhibition raised the profile of ceramics. It will get due recognition when the full exhibition transfers to the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan, next summer - on their national tour of Britain both shows have to be reduced in size.
* Art Textiles is at Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until April 13. Then at Braintree District Museum, Essex, from April 26 to June 6; at Artsway, Hampshire, from June 23 to July 27; at Bonington Gallery, Nottingham, from September 1 to 27; at Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham, from October 4 to November 9; at MAC, Birmingham, from November 22 to January 4 1998; at Durham Art Gallery from February 7 to March 8 1998 and at Leighton House Museum from April to May 1998.
* Educational handbook available at Pounds 3.50. u Revelation is a Kent County Council exhibition at the Barbican Concourse Gallery until April 6. Then to Dean Clough Galleries, Halifax, from May 3 to June 29; at Wrexham Arts Centre from July 26 to September 13; at Howard Gardens Gallery, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, from October 11 to November 12; at Pitshanger Manor, Ealing, London, from November 22 to December 24; at the Herbert Read Gallery, Kent Institute of Art and Design, Canterbury, from January 8 to February 6 1998 and at Aberystwyth Arts Centre from March to April 1998.
* There will be free guided tours of the show at the Barbican, London, led by curator Lesley Millar and exhibitors Jenny Ford and Clyde Olliver respectively on Sundays March 30, April 6 and 13.