Revealed: the fruits of Andy Warhol’s lost years as a brilliant, witty textile designer

    The acceptance of textiles as an important and lofty art form, rather than a lowly pastime with a domestic whiff to it, has been one of the big successes of the new art history, the one being rewritten by women. Textiles used to be out. Now they are in. Why?

    It’s all about opportunities. While the cockerels of art strutted about the studio, making history theirs, the women of the time were stuck at home looking after the kids and sewing things. It created circumstances in which feminine creativity took a different path from the masculine variety. Different — but not worse.

    The new art history has been pointing this out. The beautiful quilts made at Gee’s Bend in Alabama are recognised, today, as prescient pieces of pictorial abstraction. Important artists working with textiles, such as Louise Bourgeois and Magdalena Abakanowicz, have been getting the recognition and attention they deserve. Bulgy, billowy, blobby aesthetics — the aesthetics of the hand-knitted sock — are being celebrated enthusiastically in Unravel at the Barbican. Cotton to the left. Wool to the right. Everyone has gone textile crazy.

    All of which makes a visit to Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh feel especially pertinent. Founded in 1912, it is Britain’s leading maker of artistic tapestries and rugs. Over the past century it has worked with scores of creative notables, from Stanley Spencer to Yinka Shonibare, turning painted designs into woven masterpieces.

    Part of the fun here is witnessing the difference that occurs when an artistic vision moves from the desk to the loom. Usually, it improves. There’s something moving and truthful about the relationship between human hands and woven fabrics. A beautiful rug or an ambitiously coloured tapestry will inevitably feature the joy of effort. Someone has devoted months of detailed care to its manufacture, and you can feel it.

    The present reason for visiting Dovecot Studios is to experience the textile art of Andy Warhol. If you did not know he made any, forgive yourself. Few of us did. In all the Warhol shows I have seen in my spell as an art critic, and there have been a lot of them, never before has it been revealed that he created hundreds of textiles and that in 1950s America countless suburban housewives were swishing around the kitchen in his fabrics.

    Warhol was born in 1928. He graduated from art school in 1949 and became a famous pop artist early in the 1960s. That leaves an entire decade, the 1950s, more or less unaccounted for.

    He spent it working as a commercial artist in New York, illustrating magazines, making adverts, drawing album covers and designing fabrics. His work for the shoe company I Miller & Sons — “Shoes for Movie Stars” — has already been widely noticed and led to him being styled “the Leonardo of shoes”. But his fabrics are unknown. An exciting selection has been brought together at Dovecot Studios.

    Most are designs for what were called at the time “conversational prints” — happy patterns featuring birds, bugs and butterflies that would brighten your day and work equally well on a swishing summer skirt or some modest poolside bathing wear. The clothes themselves feel very 1950s and Doris Day, prim and conservative. But in those places where you see the fabric on its own, uncut by couturiers, the unmistakable Warhol touch magics away the date and takes us somewhere timeless.

    Uncomplicated, unproblematic, bright, light and airy, Warhol’s textiles search for simple pleasures. As we move deeper into the show he gets cheekier, swapping the birds and butterflies for unlikely pieces of gardening equipment or weird types of writing implement. Everything is drawn with that blotchy trademark line of his and, usually, set against a white background, like illustrations in a kids’ encyclopaedia.

    One busy fabric is devoted to socks. Another to hats. A third to clocks. A fourth to ice creams. It’s happy daywear, untouched by the pretensions of haute couture, celebrating, instead, the modest pleasures of American life.

    Warhol, at this stage of his career, is all shallows and no depths. The deadpan humour that is so often missed in his work, and always underestimated, is twinkling here in the fabrics he decorated absurdly with brooms, or the cloth covered with pretend buttons.

    As the show progresses it grows posher. By the end of the journey he’s working with silk and evening gowns. From a distance you assume he has gone straight and given up the gags. Then you lean in and realise that what you took to be brightly flowering blooms are actually giant candy apples from Coney Island, and that the complex weave of interlacing circles is actually a tribute to the Manhattan pretzel.

    All this is pleasing in its own right. The new art history’s interest in textiles has triggered the delightful discovery of a lost bit of Warhol. Where the show grows more profound is in laying the groundwork for his pop art.

    Some of the disclosure is obvious. His taste for repetition is unmissable. The journey from a hundred pretzels to a hundred cans of Campbell’s Soup is but a sidestep. Also obvious is the impact that a change of colours can have on an image. The early butterflies, done in shades of blue, are cool and delicate. The ones in red, green and yellow are as joyous as a spring day. Later, the differently coloured Elvises and Marilyns would jump to different moods in exactly this fashion.

    But the most important thing we gain here is a deeper understanding of Warhol’s relationship to his subject matter. From the start, his fabrics display a plebeian fondness for shopfront America: its atmosphere, its textures, its produce. Warhol wasn’t just a lover of everyday Americana. He was also a staunch defender.

    Warhol: The Textiles, at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, until May 18