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Portrait of a Textile Worker

Terese Agnew

Look closely at this work from MAD’s permanent collection to learn about the harsh working conditions for textile workers all over the world, talk about the significance of the artist’s choice of materials, and create a collage from recycled materials in honor of those whose labor frequently goes unacknowledged in this object lesson for learners of all ages.

Fiber artist Terese Agnew’s monumental quilt raises awareness of the harsh and unsustainable labor conditions faced by textile workers all over the world.

Look

Look closely at the quilt:

  • What is going on in this picture?
  • Focus on the figure in the foreground: What is she doing? How would you interpret her facial expression? What else can you tell about her?
  • Look at the surroundings and the people in the background. Where do you think this scene is taking place?
  • What title would you give this picture?

Agnew entitled the work Portrait of a Textile Worker. A portrait is a picture of a person that tells a story about who they are and what they might be thinking and feeling.

  • Imagine what it would be like to enter this room? What might you hear, feel, smell?
  • What clues can you find that give you more information about the life of this textile worker?
  • The picture is a close-up on one individual. What might we see if we were able to zoom out beyond the borders of the image?

explore

Agnew was inspired to create this work when she heard a radio interview describing the inhumane conditions under which many textile workers from Central America to South Asia labor every day. To make it, the artist asked people to give her the materials, collecting 30,000 donated textile labels from well-known fashion brands. She sewed them together in a painstaking, two-year process.

  • How do you think the artist managed to collect such a huge number of labels? How would you go about such a challenge?
  • What were some of the considerations she had to keep in mind when assembling the labels into a mosaic that would result in this almost photographic looking image?

Watch an interview with the artist to learn more about her process and see close-ups of the quilt.

discuss

  • In what way does the artist’s choice of material relate to the scene she represents?
  • In your opinion, does the fact that the Agnew “crowdsourced” the labels for this quilt change its meaning? Please explain.
  • If asked to contribute to a project like this, would you cut out the label from your clothing? Why or why not?
  • Does a piece of clothing lose its value when its label is removed?

Portrait of a Textile Worker is about giving a face to nameless workers all over the world. By picking a specific image of one real-life individual, the artist raises awareness of the conditions under which our clothing is produced and highlights the immense inequalities between those of us who value the latest fashion and those who produce it for very little in return.

The fashion industry is full of such contradictions, not just with regard to labor conditions but also with regard to sustainability and the environment. You can find out more by researching global organizations like the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion or non-profits like Remake who raise awareness and suggest solutions.

Make

  • Think about something you value in your every life (food, toys, electronics, fashion). Identify who makes these items possible—such as migrant farm workers, restaurant employees, workers in the factories producing everything from cellphones to basketballs.
  • Search for an image online that depicts such a worker.
  • Using cut-outs from magazines and images, create a collage in their honor. This could be a very rough depiction or a photorealistic paper mosaic like Terese Agnew’s portrait.

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