Louise Bourgeois’s connection to fabric goes back to her childhood years when she helped out in her family’s tapestry restoration workshop. As an adult, she long associated the act of sewing with repairing on a symbolic level, as she attempted to fix the damage she caused in personal relationships. She even held a special regard for spools of thread and needles as tools that served this purpose.
Fabric took center stage as a sculptural element in Bourgeois’s work in the 1990s, as she began to mine material from clothes accumulated over a lifetime. She hung old dresses, slips, and nightwear in installations, and then manipulated timeworn terry cloth into nearly life-size figures or eerie portrait-like heads. In 1999, she hired a seamstress, Mercedes Katz, to help with this work and set her up in a workshop-like area on the lower level of her house, where she also installed two small printing presses. By 2000, Bourgeois had turned to printing on old handkerchiefs, and then other fabrics. She also constructed books of fabric collages.
Printing on fabric was a major preoccupation of Bourgeois’s later years and she highly valued her collaboration with Katz and the various printers with whom she worked. The old fabrics she selected resonated with memories yet, on occasion, she ran out of material when making an edition and had to seek out matching fabrics. To this same end, she sometimes took advantage of digital possibilities for duplicating aging or fading effects. In contrast to her prints and books on paper, Bourgeois’s fabric works have a tactile presence that gives them a decidedly sculptural dimension.