“To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women.”
Parker 2010 , p. ix.
These words can be found in Rozsika Parker’s classic, The Subversice Stitch, Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. I first read the book while working on the previously discussed Vanitas (Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux) embroidery project. As it often happens, I was overwhelmed and enlightened by the book, but could only apply a few of its ideas on the then current project. Still, it was this book that invited me to the art of embroidery.
That I now took the chance to return to Parker’s book, I was glad to find out that there has been issued a new edition of it, in 2010. Therefore, returning to The Subversive Stitch is like returning to meet an old acquaintance, and the new edition of the book seems like a friendly out-reached hand that encourages to do so.
As the title points out, Parker’s book concentrates on the distinctively feminine aspects that embroidery is connected with; emphasis is put especially on the making of femininity during the Victorian Era. The book offers a vivid, cultural historical look to history of embroidery in the British context. I choose to point out this particular notion about context, because it is good to remind that while many of the topics discussed by Parker apply on a more general, or even on a universal level, historical phenomena hardly reappear in analogous ways through space and time. In other words, I dare to say that history of embroidery in Finland might look rather different in comparison to Parker’s presentation.
But as was said, the basis that Parker set for understanding embroidery is nevertheless salient.
“When women paint, their work is categorised as homogeneously feminine,” Parker wrote, “but it is acknowledged to be art. When women embroider, it is seen not as art, but entirely as the expression of the femininity.” To which she still added: “And, crucially, it is categorised as craft.” (Parker 2010, p. 4‒5.)
The juxtaposition between art and craft is of course a whole topic of argumentation. Parker’s solution was to recognise embroidery belonging to the sphere of art: “I have decided to call embroidery art because it is, undoubtedly, a cultural practice involving iconography, style and a social function” (ibid., p. 6). To my view, on the other hand, art tends to be such a fluid notion that one hopes this kind of demarcation would no more be needed, especially as recent decades have shown an increasing re-negotiation of craft from within to challenge these categorical divisions.
This nevertheless does not empty out the conceptual historical significance that is connected to terms art and craft. For centuries the category of craft has been used for gate-keeping, for belittling and stigmatising some creative making, apparently for the endorsement of art as the dominantly male signifier. And as Parker’s book shows, embroidery has been used systematically ‒ again, for centuries ‒ as a method of inculcating the supposed right kind of femininity and, hence, embroidery has even evolved into a thoroughly feminine notion. The image of an embroidering young woman therefore used to embody the stereotypical attributes of (well-to-do classes’) female behaviour: decency, silence, submission ‒ “docility, obedience, love of home, and a life without work” (ibid., p. 11).
Yet the silence of embroiderer has evoked other notions, where the silence surrounding embroidery has signified maker’s consciousness or self-containment. Parker has applied juicy literature quotations throughout her book to illustrate the different impressions about embroidery through centuries. For example, in the autobiographical description Colette (1873‒1954) considered her daughter’s silent sewing action somewhat frightening:
“But Bel-Gazou is silent when she sews, silent for hours on end, with her mouth firmly closed, concealing her large, new-cut incisors that bite into the moist heart of a fruit like little saw-edged blades. She is silent, and she ‒ why not write down the word that frightens me ‒ she is thinking.” (Colette, Earthly Paradise, p. 214‒216 cited by Parker, p. 9‒10.)
And furthermore, as Parker enlightens us, the image of silently embroidering young woman has also been ‒ but of course ‒ considered a seductive scene.
Still, imagining Victorian middle and upper class young women doomed to languish through silent embroidery in the drawing room of some old, ghastly and moist stone house had an almost suffocating effect on someone raised in the comparatively free and wellbeing circumstances of 1980s’ and 1990s’ Finland. And in the early 2000s ‒ well, who would have contemplated at a piece of embroidery when you could have squeezed your thought or motto into a SMS and could have pretty freely chosen and swapped between the more or less girly or tomboy identities on a daily basis?
Graphic designer Briar Mark’s documentation of her embroidered graphic design project illustrates the internal contradiction of making by hand. Why bother? Why go through so many steps of manual work?
Perhaps one could also ask, why people run city marathons when they could just take the bus.
For my part, I would say it were the painted and embroidered suffrage banners from the early 20th century demonstrations that really impressed me in the first place, both with their form and with their content, shortly, as a medium: ” [- – ] the form and content of the banners depicted femininity not as a frailty but as strength, and embroidery was presented not as women’s only appropriate medium but co-existing with paint” (ibid., 199).
For a variety of these banners, go see the collection of VADS, the online collection of visual arts.
The transformation of embroidery into a medium of political art was further underlined in the practice of embroidered handkerchiefs: to commemorate a special occasion a handkerchief used to be embroidered with a date and signatures. As Parker pointed out, in these pieces of embroidery made by suffragettes there was combined the political tradition of petition with the social tradition of embroidering handkerchiefs. The supporters or the imprisoned suffragettes self stitched their names to commemorate sentences and hunger strikes. One was embroidered by Janie Terrero and it is held in the collections of Museum of London.
Another handkerchief was dedicated to Janie Terrero. Parker explained details of it: “The delicate embroidery declared that the supposed weaker sex was being subjugated to the torture of force-feeding ‒ and resisting. They signed their names in the very medium which was considered proof of their frailty, and justification for their subjugation.” (ibid., 201.) Obviously, these women took over the power that was hidden in the materiality of embroidered textile. And in this way, to recognise this political move in the history of women is actually to know the history of embroidery.
As a medium for expression embroidery is no more dead than those of paint or ink, and to know the history of embroidery can also mean to embrace the power that it carries within. This has been shown especially in embroidery works presenting distinctively feminist statements that Parker’s book exemplify from the late 1970s.Truly, the use of embroidery as a medium for expression is more likely a very conscious choice regarding both distinctively feminist standpoints and other angles and topics that are handled through stitches.
I would also claim that the required craft skills, and even more so the certain protracted action that especially hand embroidery involves, can add to this conscious choice. Parker interviewed artist Kate Walker back in 1981 and she considered that the attributes typically connected to embroidery, femininity and sweetness, could not harm her intentions.
“Passivity and obedience, moreover,” she added, “are the very opposites of the qualities necessary to make sustained effort in needlework. What’s required are physical and mental skills, fine aesthetic judgement in colour, texture and composition; patience during long training; and assertive individuality of design (and consequent disobedience of aesthetic convention). Quiet strength need not be mistaken for useless vulnerability.” (ibid., 207)
There we return to the notion of silence, to the quiet strength that embroidery is rooted in and that translates as contemplative action. That quiet strength takes courage and determination. And a whole lot of stitches.