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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

"A textile duet of tactile empathy" - Threads of Life by Clare Hunter

This book by Clare Hunter was fascinating but I found it difficult to get into its rhythm. It felt quite jolty in terms of abruptly shifting from one case study to another, often with no obvious connection between them nor chronological progression nor collation by theme. Once I got used to the style, I found the content, about the social and political importance of sewing, to be very interesting, and many examples given in the book relate to my research interests; protest art, propaganda, expressions of identity and showing compassion and care through creative acts.

Bayeux Tapestry


The most interesting thing I learnt from her writings on the Bayeux Tapestry was how it was created by women to document the male world of war, violence and politics. This included explicit imagery of male genitalia to communicate sexual scandal – which has made me more confident about exploring the issue of sexual violence through my own textiles work.


Image source.

‘I only know the tapestry one frame at a time. I have no sense of what impact it will have when I see it in its entirety, no real understanding of its scale or its tangible presence.’ (page 2)


‘It was the tapestry’s story rather than its stitching that saved it; its political rather than cultural worth, its propaganda value. Napoleon was its first champion. He commandeered the tapestry as a talisman and used it as a rallying cry when he had his ambitions fixed on England.’ (page 6)


‘Indeed, the tapestry is concerned with the world of men, albeit translated through the feeling hands of women. That world is its stage. It is a drama of war with a male cast – huntsmen, soldiers, kings – and events located at sea, on farms, in foundries. There are no scenes of home, no flowers in the muddied fields, no apparent insight into women’s lives.’ (page 8)


‘It is perfectly possible, through the long years of its making, that there would have been opportunities to slip in a personal testimony of life after invasion, or even to document abuse.’ (page 8)


Female Monarchs


It was interesting to read Hunter’s perspective on this historical tale – I am rarely inspired by history nor have much empathy for monarchs myself, but Hunter’s compassion for Mary Queen of Scots and her cruel and misogynistic treatment was palpable. I was particularly interested in the covert use of embroidery to express herself whilst suffering this torment.


‘Female monarchs had greater need of the advocacy of textiles than their male counterparts. The public display of their hand-crafted emblems and symbols meant that for women, even when physically absent from court through childbirth, banishment or imprisonment, the textiles they had commissioned or sewed remained on display as their representatives’ (page 24)


Mary Queen of Scots, ‘as she entered the city she was confronted with the taunts of jeering crowds crying ‘Burn the witch. Kill the whore’, the banner depicting the murder of her husband leading her humiliation.’ (page 28)


‘Embroidery gave her freedom of expression. Under the guise of innocent motifs, her embroidery became a covert form of communication.’ (page 30)


Erasing Women and Devaluing Women’s Work


The historic devaluation of “women’s work” as “craft” and not “art” is something which I have been aware of for a while and is one of the reasons I have felt uncomfortable with my own work being described as “craftivism”. Nonetheless, it was good to read this in detailed analysis of how this historically happened with embroidery. I was particularly disgusted by the information about how Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (one of the famous Glasgow Four) was denigrated based on her gender, despite her husband’s acknowledgment of her creative talent and influence on his own work. I was also moved by this notion that men have also suffered as a result of the gendered attitudes to sewing – this idea that toxic masculinity is harmful to both genders (in different ways).


‘And so, as with many other pieces of our textile heritage, avoidance is preferable. Embroiderers remain uncelebrated because they are largely anonymous, and while their needlework might be of historical value, donated to and collected by museums, without the necessary provenance, their creators cannot secure a part in its story.’ (page 12)


‘Women’s needlework has incrementally lost economic and cultural value through the centuries. In the thirteenth century, the work of professional women embroiderers was recorded in official documents… But, in the Middle Ages, merchants increasingly took over the negotiation of embroidery commissions and women’s names began to disappear from official order books… By the sixteenth century, women were excluded from official positions within the Guild [of Broderers] altogether…. Without access to professional training, no longer having an equal role in managing the affairs of the guild and lacking the stamp of quality conferred through guild membership, the value of women’s needlework diminished.’ (page 209)


‘Outside the home, a hierarchy was developing between art and craft. With the revocation of the sumptuary laws, embroidery lost its position as a high art, the place it had held since medieval times. It was diminished both economically and culturally. With gender divides more accentuated and the increased feminisation of sewing, men were not interested in compromising their gender identity by associating themselves with needlework.’ (page 211)


‘Robbed of cultural import, it was no longer deemed a worthy occupation but increasingly it was dismissed, even ridiculed as mindless. Its antecedents were forgotten and the demotion of needlework became increasingly directed and interpreted through a masculine prism.’ (page 212)


‘I have always been amazed by how cheerful it makes some men to stop by the table, survey the group of women embroidering some intricate appliqué in exquisite fabrics and joke ‘I’ve got some trousers that need taking up’, or ‘Can you sew a button on my jacket?’ Many men, particularly older ones love this joke and take astonishing glee in reducing the obvious artistry in front of their eyes to a mundanity.’ (page 214)


Charles Rennie-Mackintosh, ‘He writes of his love of her [his wife Margaret], his debt to her creativity which was, he insists, three-quarters of his own achievement.’ (page 247)


‘The influential London art critic P. Morton Shane dismissed Margaret’s work as being of ‘decidedly inferior artistic calibre’ and accused her of leading Mackintosh into ‘a usurious ornamental vulgarity’. She was not just marginalised, but eradicated. The male world of art and architecture had claimed Mackintosh as their own, untainted by the artistic influence of a woman.’ (page 249)


‘For most men the world of needlework was elusive. They were denied access to its language by dictum of an educational system that deemed it inappropriate fr a constructed myth of masculinity to be tainted by an equally constructed myth of femininity. So men remained, by and large, unexpressed in sensory materiality, not just uncertain but prejudiced against a language which had excluded them.’ (page 290)


Mental Health Benefits


The mental health benefits of sewing is something which I have discussed during textiles workshops with the UAL tutor, Sukhwinder Sagoo-Reddy – and was one of the reasons I decided to use stitching for my workshop and exhibition pieces with my art collective, Dare to Care, who focus on mental health.


‘In recent years, studies into mental health have explored the use of sewing as a panacea for mental distress and proved its efficacy to regulate mood, enhance self-esteem and encourage a rhythm of calmness. While Mary used it to assert her sovereign power and campaign for her reinstatement, perhaps there also lay behind her stitching a more basic human impulse: to maintain self-control, create order and exercise choice among the tumult and humiliation of her life.’ (page 33)


‘for vulnerable people, the elderly, those on medication, people dealing with a high level of stress in their daily lives, sewing on pictures in Leith was perhaps more accessible than other kinds of arts projects… These women discovered a community value that boosted their social confidence and connected them, some for the first time, to a community they thought had no time for them. There was also something unique in sewing together, about disparate members of the community sitting around the same table, sharing scissors, pooling resources, witnessing each others’ efforts. It created a physical proximity that generated good-will and camaraderie in an atmosphere of mutual support, of affection even.’ (pages 178-179)


Banners, Protest Art and Dissent


This topic was particularly relevant to my research having been reading about the Greenham Common banners for peace (which also get mentioned in this book) and started making some of my own feminist protest banners. I was interested to learn about the NAMES project, campaigning around the AIDs crisis, especially after reading the book on Sharon Hayes’ work. As well as the Chilean arpilleras – which I found particularly moving examples of resistance against dictatorship.


‘Most subversive of all was the Japanese flag fluttering from the prison tower, which she entitled The Flag of Tyranny. Discovery of such a cloth would have meant severe punishment and possible execution, but she still stitched out her truth.’ (page 57) – Mary Thomas


‘Palestinian embroidery and dress provided an intricate code of social signalling…. Needlework was a form of detailed geanology – each motif and stitch had a specific name, each detail an ascribed locality. It encapsulated human diversity in an internal system of personal and intercommunity communication.’ (page 67)


‘In the New Living Translation of the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, Isiah is commanded to ‘raise a banner on a barren hilltop: shout to them, beckon them to enter the gates of the nobles’ (13:2). The legions in ancient Rome led their armies into battle with banners at their helm. Banners also adorned Roman city streets, where, emblazoned with coats of arms, they marked out who lived where.’ (page 123)


‘In the first decade of the twentieth century it was the suffragettes who reclaimed the crafted banner as an emotive tool of campaign. Made by and held in women’s hands, their embroidered banners claimed needlework as a way to purposely gender their female presence in their political campaign to win for women the right to vote.’ (page 128)


‘Shout, shout, up with your song!

Cry with the wind for the dawn is breaking.

March, march, swing you along,

Wide blows our banner and hope is waking.’

(page 130)


‘The artist Mary Lowndes was the architect of the visual impact of these rallies…. She became the suffragette’s artistic champion, dedicated to ensuring that suffragette rallies were platforms for the display of women's distinctive creative energy. For the rallies she penned in 1910 a guide for participants, Banners & Banner-Making. In it she decried the debasement of banner art in the hands of commercial manufacturers like Tutil and exhorted women to make something extraordinary that harnessed their own heritage and needlework:


A banner is a thing to float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze, to flirt its colours for your pleasure, to half show and half conceal a device you long to unravel: you do not want to read it, you want to worship it. Choose purple and gold for ambition, red for courage, green for long-cherished hopes… it is a declaration.

(pages 130-131)


‘The suffragette banners that were offered to Scotland’s museums were, she told me, rejected by male curators at the time who saw no value in their history. The National Museum had only one stitched banner on display. It is for the federation of Male Suffrage.’ (page 132)


‘The women at Greenham repurposed textiles to highlight the domestic world they had responsibility for, the homes they had left. It strengthened the emotional pull of their protest. In the same way the suffragettes had used embroidery to signal their femininity, these women deployed the clothes of their children, the sheets from their beds, the tea-towels and clusters of housework to exploit the images of wives, mothers and homemakers and redeploy them as the raw materials for protest.’ (page 135)


‘I asked Thalia why she chose banners as her form of political attack: ‘Because you can fold them up, roll them up in a kit bag, take them wherever you want, send them across the world if you like. They are portable.’ And she sews them because she likes the creative mix of embroidery and appliqué: ‘With appliqué you can shout in big bold words but with embroidery you can whisper, make small suggestions in chain stitch’.’ (page 136)


Washington 1987, ‘The Mall became a tactile garden of remembrance, with the panels purposefully designed to lie on the ground so that people had to kneel to explore each sewn biography. The panels, dedicated to both the famous and unknown, lay side by side in material democracy. In predominantly male hands, men who were largely inexperienced stitchers, the techniques and materials were improvised. Many of the panels used the clothes of those who had died, sometimes stitched down in their entirety: -shirts, football stripes, ties and jeans, designer labels lapel badges, zips and buttons were used as adornments… The NAMES Memorial Quilt Project was not merely a creative and public way to voice grief. It was a way to challenge the anonymity of the dead, their reduction and statistics. This was emphasised in future displays of the quilt when the names of those represented were read aloud, sometimes with celebrities taking part… Not everyone, however, was convinced of the efficacy of the NAMES Memorial Quilt as a campaigning tool. There were those who saw it as a sanitisation and sentimentalisation of gay culture, who thought the fund-raising merchandise that accompanied it – books, T-shirts, ornaments, calendars, postcards, a songbook – trivialised a tragedy and made it into a commodity, encouraging people to support a brand rather than a cause.’ (page 153)


‘the arpilleras – layered with emotional meaning – became tactile cloths of resistance and symbols of reunion: the joining together of fabric remnants as a metaphor for the reclamation of family. With their jaunty colours and, rudimentary stitching and worn cloth the arpilleras appeared innocuous and were overlooked first by the regime’s officials as tools of subversion, dismissed as women’s sewing. They weren’t circulated within Chilé but exported to other countries as evidence with which to expose the infringements of human rights that were being perpetrated by Pinochet's regime… Purchasing an arpillera became an act of solidarity.’ (page156)


‘I asked one of Scotland’s national co-ordinators of Processions, what she felt the project had achieved. She cited the vast presence of women in public space, the democracy of the project being open to anyone who wanted to take part.’ (page 297)


Identity and Its Attempted Erasure


I think these examples are possibly most relevant to the topic I want to write about for my research paper, as it relates to identity and the use of psychological and political manipulation to control and erode individuality – which has pre-occupied my interest most recently.


‘Embroidery is often the last remnant of identity to be salvaged by the dispossessed. Emerging from the fray of war, women often take up a needle and thread as a practical occupation.’ (page 68)


‘For a while, kilts were banned after the Jacobite rising of 1746,5 and its defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746, through a Dress Act that year… English King George II … was determined to destroy Highland culture and its clan system forever.’ (pages 69-70)


‘If traditional dress is not erased by the breaking apart of community traditions, its use can be disbanded through fear and force. Opressors’ assertion of power has frequently been enforced through the suppression of traditional dress.’ (page 71)


‘When the Soviet Union was created there was no place for the diversity of languages and cultures of what had been, until then, independent nations. Any lurking expressions of national identity could fast unrest and encourage uprisings. In Ukraine the wearing of national costume was forbidden, denounced as a provocation of anti-Soviet feeling. It’s wearers could be, and were, imprisoned.’ (page 74)


’China was more decisive. Its Cultural Revolution banned what it termed the four old things: old customs, old culture, old ideas and old habits. Western dress was confiscated and people were instructed to destroy their traditional cheongsam dresses’. (page 77)


Bolstering Community


Community is a really important element in my creative practice, so I was interested to read these examples which I hope will inform my workshop planning and ideas in the future.


Mies Boissevain-van Lennep (non-Jewish citizen) resistance fighter. After the war ‘She called on women to make what she called the ‘skirt of life’ and others named the ‘liberation skirt’ or the ‘magic skirt of reconstruction:’ a patchwork skirt with its separate pieces made meaningful by a personal connection to a past event or person… Mies intended these skirts to be therapeutic as well as symbolic, a way to heal past pain and record present effort and future joys. She suggested they could be made in the company of other women so that stories could be shared, solidarity found and confidence strengthened. Their making would be as much a political and patriotic act as the wearing of the skirts themselves. And women wore them as declarations of their readiness and capacity to share in the reconstruction of their country, as reminders of the sacrifices they too had made and overcome.’ (pages 80-81)


‘Sewing pieces of fabric together was believed to endow the pieced cloth with spiritual power, the needle’s magical strength permeating every join, the more joins, the greater the potency. This is the traditional source of the allure of patchwork and of quilting: sewn acts of resurrection, reconstitution, re-connection.’ (page 90)


‘Community sewing projects have emotional an metaphorical currency. Much like the Chinese and Japanese idea of creating protective textiles by joining up donated cloth or collecting stitches from many different people, so community textiles are imbued with spirits of the disparate people who create them, witnessed by others, as unique investments in and registers of, community worth. (page 182)


‘Across continents the story is the same: displacement bringing a loss of self and the disorientation of a community. But the sense of connection persists. The banners were a dialogue between two groups of women distanced by geography but bound together by a common experience, a textile duet of tactile empathy.’ (page 198)




The exploration of symbolism was particularly relevant to my research project on identities and relationships with flags, as I have been asking my research participants to consider symbols and colour schemes which have symbolic importance to their identity. So these insights were useful to note.


‘Until the invention of aniline dyes in 1856, all the colours for cloth and thread were coaxed from nature… The deep red extracted from pomegranates provided a remedy for dysentery as well as a talisman for fertility; the blue of indigo controlled bleeding and encouraged intuition; the bright yellow of turmeric was an antiseptic and spiritual purifier. Each colour was imbued with the earth’s literal and symbolic bounty.’ (page 185)


‘Needlework has duality: the ability to show one thing and tell of another. The seemingly joyous, brightly-coloured patchwork pictures made by women in Chilé during Pinochet’s dictatorship sent word to the outside world of deprivation and the suppression of human rights’ (page 278)




I was appalled by the story of Singer (the infamous sewing machine inventor) especially how he treated women in his personal life. He sounds like a truly foul human being and totally unsuccessful (at least by my personal measure of success) even though he became incredibly wealthy and his invention will be known forever. I was curious to read Hunter’s take on the technological advancement though, and the denigration of the technology due to its erosion of community engagement. As a supporter of technological advancement (I just recorded a podcast series on the topic of AI) and quite a solitary person, I consider the invention of the sewing machine to be a predominantly positive force for progress, but I appreciate her reservations. Finally, a rather sombre but important case study to finish on – the way the Nazis weaponised sewing in order to exploit and abuse the Jewish community. This, along with the examples of modern textiles slave labour, emphasises a reflection I have previously made that sewing and textiles are not inherently caring and compassionate activities - they are merely communication or production tools which can be used for good or weaponised for cruelty.


‘Until the invention of the sewing machine, sewing had been companiable. Whether grouped with other women or sitting with the family, a woman could sew and still converse. The advent of the sewing machine changed how and where sewing was done. It became a solitary occupation at home, the silent chore of home workers or the toil of factory workers sewing in places where, amid the clang and clatter of machinery, conversation was impossible.’ (page 263)


‘Sewing machines were requisitioned from plundered Jewish properties and despatched to Lodz where they were stamped with a metal Star of David, the word ‘ghetto’ engraved at its centre. The Jews in Lodz worked from 7 in the morning until 7 at night in overcrowded and scarcely ventilated rooms, sewing German uniforms, corsets and luxury textile goods for German stores.’ (page 277)


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