Textiles in Tilburg
2020-01-22 | By Lorne Holyoak
I wasn’t sure what I would find at the TextielMuseum in Tilburg, but I definitely did not expect to discover a functioning steam engine. If you think that a textile museum would be endless bolts of cloth displayed in low light conditions, think again.
Housed in a former mill built in 1861, the TextielMuseum hums with energy and purpose. Exhibitions have historic and contemporary interest, with a focus on art and design and industrialisation, at the heart of which is the TextielLab, where artists, designers, and architects realise beautiful designs.
That steam engine, built in Utrecht in 1901 and brought to Tilburg to power the mill, is no longer the museum’s power plant, but has been lovingly conserved, demonstrating the staff ’s devotion to maintaining their collection. The building, a former factory, is spacious and brightly lit, housing a variety of looms and historical equipment, along with a remarkable collection of punch cards that once programmed looms. Beyond textiles, the museum is a window on the industrial era in the Netherlands during the 19th and early 20th centuries that will be of interest to all visitors.
For those interested in all kinds of fabric arts, the museum, and particularly the TextielLab, does not disappoint. The TextielLab is open to use by artists, designers, architects, schools and other creators providing them access to the museum’s modern looms and equipment. The Lab is open during regular opening hours, so visitors can not only see the equipment but watch and talk to designers and product-developers working together to create remarkable materials. Production in the Lab includes embroidery, laser cutting, weaving, and passementerie (elaborate trimmings, embroideries and braids–helpfully explained by one of the designers). There is a tufting room where tapestries and carpets are made to design by experts who shoot the yarn into a fabric base with an electric tufting gun. Long gone are the days of armies of needlecrafters labouring by hand over massive works. A special exhibit on the Bauhaus movement includes a complex, 10-metre wide Bauhaus-inspired tapestry that was produced in the Lab in just a few months. Even so, the process of tufting is exacting work that requires patience and good technique, in addition to creative visual design.
The TextielLab has an international reputation attracting artists, designers and architects from around the world, where they can produce new works, or experiment with different materials, techniques and designs. A recent project involved creating a solar curtain using conductive yarns and built-in solar panels that could provide electricity to rural communities in developing countries. The Lab also produces contemporary artwork for other museums, such as Amsterdam’s Stedelijk.
Designers are attracted to the Lab to work with skilled product developers to convert ideas into reality, and to use the three state-of-the-art computer guided looms. The Lab’s product developers are all highly skilled, some with a university fine arts background, while others are factory-trained technical and production experts. They all revel in the challenges of translating an artistic vision into a tangible object. The Lab’s collaborative nature of work means that this museum doesn’t just preserves the past, but is a forward-looking centre for ongoing technical innovation.
The Lab works with more than 200 artists every year, which means there is a waiting list of applicants. Proposals from applications should demonstrate innovation and artistry and will be more likely accepted if they challenge the skills and capacity of the TextielLab staff. Artists or designers should have a strong record of creating works that demonstrate a knowledge of the various forms of textiles, and proposed projects also need to appeal to museum visitors, as the Lab aims to demonstrate how textiles are made and encourage the appreciation of textile arts. Only projects that will be exhibited in a museum, gallery, public building or other exhibition space are accepted by the Lab.
The Lab also invites visiting artists to produce works for the museum, to be shown in the Sample Studio where visitors can touch and examine the textiles closely before they move on to be exhibited in the main museum.
Many of the artists who work in the Lab are also invited to design textiles for sale in the museum gift shop under the museum’s own label. Visitors can take home gorgeous towels, napkins, tablecloths, rugs, bags and other items. Many items are limited production and high-end, but for those looking not to buy, the gift shop is another part of the museum where you can experience the textiles hands-on.
While the Lab’s modern looms and functioning 1960s vintage punch card-operated loom are metal behemoths that give the Lab a strong industrial feeling, there is also a kid’s corner where younger visitors can experiment working with yarn. Perhaps the most fun to be had is messing around with the bicycle-powered loom installed at one end of the Lab next to the new looms. This is a smaller wooden loom that is started by human power and allows visitors to try their hand at weaving by throwing the shuttle back and forth. For those more timid about operating a real loom, the museum also has a computer simulation of the weaving process to try instead. A much safer alternative.
The historic and contemporary combination of the TextielMuseum makes it well worth a visit for all ages.
The TextielMuseum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and offers free and informative 30-minute guided tours at set times throughout the day. There is a café on site, and the museum is easily reached by bus or a 15-minute walk from Tilburg Centraal Station.
About the author
Lorne Holyoak is a development anthropologist and aspiring writer who hails from Canada. He has worked as a volunteer with ACCESS in Utrecht.