Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women

Media - 2019.15 - SAAM-2019.15_1 - 137377

Emma Amos, Winning1982, acrylic on linen with hand-woven fabric, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Cotton, wool, polyester, silk — fiber is felt in nearly every aspect of our lives. The artists in Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women mastered and subverted the everyday material throughout the twentieth century.

The thirty-four selected artworks piece together an alternative history of American art. Accessible and familiar, fiber handicrafts have long provided a source of inspiration for women. Their ingenuity with cloth, threads, and yarn was dismissed by many art critics as menial labor. The artists in this exhibition took up fiber to complicate this historic marginalization and also revolutionize its import to contemporary art. They drew on personal experiences, particularly their vantage points as women, and intergenerational skills to transform humble threads into resonant and intricate artworks.


Several themes place artworks in conversation with an emphasis on the artist’s own words: the complex (often contradictory) influence of domestic life; feminist strategies for upending the art world status quo; shared knowledge of traditional and experimental techniques; and pushing boundaries of the perception and possibilities of fiber art. A dedicated gallery space of archival materials provides a window into the artist’s studio, deepening insight into their creative processes with sketches, mail art, and photographs. Together, these categories illuminate how artists have invited moments of contemplation about the interplay between material and message.

The artworks are as diverse as the women who made them. Among the artists included in this exhibition are Adela Akers, Neda Al-Hilali, Emma Amos, Lia Cook, Olga de Amaral, Consuelo Jiménez Underwood, Sheila Hicks, Agueda Martínez, Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Scott, Judith Scott, Kay Sekimachi, Lenore Tawney, Katherine Westphal, Claire Zeisler, and Marguerite Zorach. The artists expressed themselves in the form of sewn quilts, woven tapestries and rugs, beaded and embroidered ornamentation, twisted and bound sculptures, and multi-media assemblages. Each artwork carries the story of its maker, manifesting—stitch by stitch—the profound and personal politics of the hand.

All of the artworks are drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection; archival materials and interviews are selected from collections of the Archives of American Art. To further amplify the voices of the artists, SAAM will produce a narrative podcast. The audio program will highlight some of the most compelling backstories that are woven into the exhibition. The project is curated by Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator; Mary Savig, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft; and Laura Augustin, curatorial assistant.

Visiting Information

May 31, 2024 January 5, 2025
Temporarily Closed
Free Admission


Free | Registration encouraged


Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. Generous support has been provided by:

  • Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative
  • The Coby Foundation, Ltd.
  • The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation
  • Lenore G. Tawney Foundation
A logo for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative
A black brush script logo reads "Colby"

Online Gallery

Media - 1996.88 - SAAM-1996.88_2 - 136204
acrylic, fabric and plastic beads on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1970.65.12 - SAAM-1970.65.12_1 - 70459
My Home in Fresno around the Year 1900
wool embroidered on linen
Not on view
Media - 1989.78.2 - SAAM-1989.78.2_1 - 10815
Embroidered Garment
Dateca. 1949
embroidered muslin, cotton crochet; pencil; cotton rick-rack trim
Not on view
Media - 1996.31 - SAAM-1996.31_1 - 53525
beads, fabric, and thread
Not on view
Media - 2014.5 - SAAM-2014.5_1 - 96209
Melrose Quilt
Dateca. 1960
Not on view
Media - 1997.124.189 - SAAM-1997.124.189_1-000001 - 54984
Reservation Scene
commercial yarn
Not on view
Media - 1985.52 - SAAM-1985.52_1 - 118249
Untitled (Embroidered Bedspread)
Dateca. 1918
linen fiber: tabby weave with plied wool yarn and chain stitch embroidery
Not on view
Media - 1997.18 - SAAM-1997.18_1-000001 - 52014
The Bitter Nest, Part II: The Harlem Renaissance Party
acrylic on canvas with printed, dyed and pieced fabric
Not on view
Media - 2002.41 - SAAM-2002.41_2-000001 - 137283
From a Birmingham Jail: MLK
silk, photo transfer, gel medium, dyes, and beads
Not on view
Media - 1996.77 - SAAM-1996.77_1 - 12709
Virgen de los Caminos
embroidered and quilted cotton and silk with graphite
Not on view
Media - 1998.153 - SAAM-1998.153_1 - 68800
The French Were Here (Quebec, Port-au-Prince, Fez)
sequins, beads, fabric, tracing paper, glitter, watercolor, collage, colored pencil, lithographs, etchings on paper
Not on view
Media - 1984.163 - SAAM-1984.163_1 - 62667
Coil Series III – A Celebration
natural hemp and wool
Not on view
Media - 2003.23A-C - SAAM-2003.23A-C_1 - 72566
Ancient Burial IV – Night
wool on linen warp
Not on view
Media - 2002.40 - SAAM-2002.40_1 - 75348
Rites of Passage II
machine-pieced, machine-quilted, and embroidered cotton, indigo, batik, silk, and shells
Not on view
Media - 2002.20 - SAAM-2002.20_1 - 140947
The Family Embraces
machine reverse appliqued, hand-stitched, and quilted cotton
Not on view
Media - 1997.124.186 - SAAM-1997.124.186_1 - 75071
Protected in Bliss
handspun wool with native and vegetable dyes
Not on view
Media - 1995.46 - 1995.46_1a.jpg - 76534
Tapestry Weave Rag Jerga
woven cotton cloth on cotton yarn warp
Not on view
Media - 1968.87.28 - SAAM-1968.87.28_2-000001 - 137232
Dateca. 1923
Not on view
Media - 1991.199 - SAAM-1991.199_1 - 11350
Crazy Too Quilt
dyed rayon; acrylic on woven and pressed abaca paper
Not on view
Media - 2006.29.2 - SAAM-2006.29.2_1 - 68632
Red and Blue
wool and other fibers
Not on view
Media - 2016.38.67 - SAAM-2016.38.67_1 - 127021
mixed media and string
Not on view
Media - 1977.118.2A-F - SAAM-1977.118.2_1 - 62410
The Principal Wife Goes On
linen, silk, wool and synthetic fibers
Not on view
Media - 1991.109 - SAAM-1991.109_1 - 72553
Cal y Canto
Dateca. 1979
linen and gesso
Not on view
Media - 1985.29A-D - SAAM-1985.29A-D_1 - 62669
woven and bound resist-dyed cotton and dyed rayon
Not on view
Media - 1991.132.1 - SAAM-1991.132.1_1 - 73022
Dateca. 1958
embroidered linen, plastic and mixed fibers
Not on view
Media - 1992.90 - SAAM-1992.90_1 - 62317
In the Dark Forest
Dateca. 1959
woven linen, wool, and silk
Not on view
Media - 1992.83 - SAAM-1992.83_1 - 68598
Box of Falling Stars
cotton canvas, linen thread, acrylic paint, and ink
Not on view
Media - 1993.54.1 - SAAM-1993.54.1_2-000001 - 137265
By the Sea
sewn and woven sisal, linen, and wool
Not on view
Media - 1995.21 - SAAM-1995.21_1 - 12532
A Matter of Trust
paper on fiberglass screen with cotton thread
Not on view
Media - 1972.183 - SAAM-1972.183_1 - 62666
Nagare VII
woven nylon monofilament
Not on view
Media - 2002.54 - SAAM-2002.54_1 - 62415
mixed fibers
Not on view
Media - 2019.15 - SAAM-2019.15_1 - 137377
acrylic on linen with hand-woven fabric
Not on view


Adela Akers
born Santiago de Compostela, Spain 1933

In 1965 Adela Akers traveled to Peru as a weaving adviser to the Alliance for Progress Program. In South America, she was deeply influenced by the innovative textiles of pre-Columbian Peruvian weavers, and researched ancient fiber traditions.

Neda Al-Hilali
born Cheb, Czechoslovakia 1938
Emma Amos
born Atlanta, GA 1938-Bedford, NH 2020
Lia Cook
born Ventura, CA 1942

Born in Ventura, California, Lia Cook studied theater at San Francisco State Universtiy before receiving her B.A. and M.A. degrees (1965 and 1973 respectively) at the Universtiy of California, Berkeley.

Matilda Damon
born Ganado, AZ 1962-died Las Vegas, NM 2005
Olga De Amaral
born Bogota, Colombia 1932
Maria Faedo
born Havana, Cuba 1946

Painter and conceptual artist. Castagliola came to the United States from Cuba in 1961. She has B.A. (sociology), B.F.A., and M.F.A.degrees from the University of South Florida in Tampa and has taught art as an assistant professor at the university.

L’Merchie Frazier
born Jacksonville, FL 1951
Sheila Hicks
born Hastings, NE 1934
Media - Hunter_Clementine.jpg - 144033
Clementine Hunter
born near Cloutierville, LA 1886/7-died near Natchitoches, LA 1988
On a Louisiana plantation built on the labor of enslaved workers and reinvented, in the twentieth century, as an artists’ and writers’ retreat, Clementine Hunter painted everyday scenes she felt historians overlooked.
Susan L. Iverson
born Madison, WI 1951
Mariska Karasz
born Budapest, Hungary 1898-died Danbury, CT 1960

Self-taught embroiderer Mariska Karasz arrived in the United States from her native Hungary at the age of sixteen. The influence of Hungary's rich folk-art tradition is reflected in her early work.

Joyce Kozloff
born Somerville, NJ 1942
Alice Eugenia Ligon
born Boone County, MO 1886-died Fulton, MO 1959
Agueda Martínez
born Chamita, NM 1898-died Española, NM 2000

Weaver, born in 1898 in Chamita, New Mexico. Attending primary school until 1913, Martinez first began to weave rag rugs at the age of twelve. In 1916 she married a weaver and schoolteacher and by 1937 had given birth to ten children.

Ed Johnetta Miller
born Spartanburg, SC 1945
Louise Nez
born ca. 1942
Else Regensteiner
born Munich, Germany 1906-died Chicago, IL 2003
Faith Ringgold
born New York City 1930
Media - portrait_image_113255.jpg - 90179
Miriam Schapiro
born Toronto, ON, Canada 1923-died Hampton Bays, NY 2015

Miriam Schapiro earned her master of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa in 1949 and in 1952 moved to New York City with her husband, the artist Paul Brach.

Cynthia Schira
born Pittsfield, MA 1934

Born in Providence, Cynthia Schira earned a B.FA. degree at the Rhode Island School of Design an an M.F.A. degree at the University of Kansas, where she has been on the faculty since 1976.

Media - portrait_image_113750.jpg - 90419
Joyce Scott
born Baltimore, MD 1948

Joyce Scott relates her work as an artist to her family's craft traditions and to her African American heritage. In her jewelry and sculpture, she employs humor and irony to address cultural stereotypes and issues of racism and sexism.

Judith Scott
born Cincinnati, OH 1943-died Dutch Flat, CA 2005

Against the odds, Judith Scott became an artist of great renown, making fiber and mixed-media sculptures that encase forever-softened objects. Scott and her twin sister were born in Ohio.

Media - portrait_image_113259.jpg - 90183
Kay Sekimachi
born San Francisco, CA 1926

Born in San Francisco, Kay Sekimachi studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland from 1946 to 1949.

Lenore Tawney
born Lorain, OH 1907-died New York City 2007

In 1954 Lenore Tawney abandoned sculpture for weaving and in the process, transformed the ancient craft of the weaver into a new vocation—fiber art.

Media - portrait_image_113275.jpg - 90195
Consuelo Jimenez Underwood
born Sacramento, CA 1949

Fiber artist and weaver Consuelo Jimenez Underwood is the daughter of migrant agricultural workers, a Chicana mother and a father of Huichol Indian descent.

Katherine Westphal
born Los Angeles, CA 1919-died Berkeley, CA 2018
Claire Zeisler
born Cincinnati, OH 1903-died Chicago, IL 1991

Born in Cincinnati, in the mid-1940's Claire Zeisler attended the Institute of Design in Chicago (now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), where she studied sculpture with emigre artist Alexander Archipenko.

Media - J0029484_1b.jpg - 89673
Marguerite Zorach
born Santa Rosa, CA 1887-died New York City 1968

Painter, weaver, graphic artist. Along with her husband, sculptor William Zorach, she was an innovator in the modernist movement in the United States. With her embroidered tapestries, she distinguished herself as an outstanding designer.