The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine

‘Rozsika Parker’s re-evaluation of the reciprocal relationship between women and embroidery brought stitchery out of the private world of female domesticity into the public eye, creating a major breakthrough in art history and criticism, and fostering the emergence of today’s dynamic and expanding crafts movement.’

This week I’ve begun reading The Subversive Stitch. Suggested to me by my lecturer, this book can better help me link my textile practises with art history contexts. Rozsika looks at the issues that have surrounded women and embroidery for years. Spanning from 1804 up until the time she wrote the book in 1984; trekking through Victorian embroidery, the Woman Question and the Feminine Ideal, through to Second Wave Feminism, 1970’s feminist approaches to embroidery and the meanings behind modern day artists such as Catherin Riley and Tracey Emin.

Throughout the introduction Rozsika tells us how the 1970’s feminists used traditional method of embroidery, which had been used within household for centuries and has very strong connotations of women, purity, piety and the subservient role previously put upon women, and used it within their work as a political message; changing the view on this age old tradition/technique to mirror the change these women wanted to see in society’s attitude towards themselves and embroidery.

In chapter one, The Creating of the Feminine, Rozsika gives a basic introduction to the stereotypes that have shrouded embroidery and femininity throughout modern history, how the ‘inferiorised psychology’ of women has been shaped by society, and showing examples of how society and societal roles  have been controlled by stereotypes and judgmental attitudes. She takes us through the historical split between the arts and craft and the dismissive/ignored role of women within Art. Interestingly she tells us of the different approaches women took with embroidery, to rid themselves of their overwhelming connotation; some altogether shunned embroidery, thinking that to not partake and to be seen to despise embroidery, they would appear more masculine in their outlooks and would have to be treated as such because they cannot be associated with embroidery and the feminine ideals surrounding. The other route was that women tried to embolden and reclaim embroidery as a recognised art form, hoping to break out of the confining ideals surrounding the ‘craft’ but was met with no success, indeed they’re aims backfired and they were pushed back under the crushing sexual confinements of the time.

The second chapter, Eternalising the Feminine, takes us through Victorian mediaevalism; the revival of mediaeval embroidery architects and imagery within the 19th century, the struggle that women had to make embroidery be seen as a recognised art form, and the struggle women had themselves to be seen, past they’re crushing stereotypes and ideals of the time. During this period both men and women undertook embroidery within workshops, it later became one of the most dominant form of embroidery during the 19th century and afforded women a freedom in which they could express they’re ever growing displeasure and distress with the ever-present portray of their role in society. It was here, in this century, where we see the first of the Woman Question; a phrase within the later part of the 19th Century which has connections to the social change which questioned the fundamental role of women within countries such as the United Kingdom, America, Russia and Canada. Although crushed under the weight of the feminine ideal, which at the time features embroidery heavily, women still tried to show that embroidery was not merely undertaken for the pleasure of doing so, or out their undying faith and piety. Art form that were undertaken by the middle-class or women were downgraded to ‘Crafts’ leaving the ‘Arts’ to the upper-class men who devoted all their time and effort into creating painting and sculptures. Further to this, painting produced by women were said to be undistinguishable from one another, and so they didn’t have a place within Art and art history. Despite all the efforts women employed to make embroidery a recognised art form, the medium was too meshed with the Feminine Ideal; portraying women as weak and frail, unable to take the strains within they’re lives, men sought to dominated these integral experiences, as such they had the power to make strict regulations about childbirth and embroidery, the two main aspects on 19th century women’s lives, and fearful that their femininity would be called into question, they obeyed. Rozsika ends the chapter which a saddening reality, that by the 1905 exhibition on mediaeval embroidery, the work women had been creating were heavily influenced by a heritage pressed onto them by historians of the time, who believed would give the art form the recognition it deserved and which women needed. Far from this, the historians had painted this picture that all ecclesiastical work was undertaken by self-denying nuns and the distinctive qualities of mediaeval work was overtaken by the idea of Victorian notion of courtly love and femininity. ‘Far from fulfilling their intentions to validate embroidery, the Victorian historians devalued it in the eyes of a society which equated great art with masculinity, the public sphere and professional practise.’

So far I’m finding the book thoroughly interesting, the difficulty faced by women and embroidery through the ages is staggering to believe and yet it’s all written here for me. It’s difficult to see how these women rose up from under these crushing confinements to push embroidery to into the light of recognised art forms. I’m hoping that all of this will be explained within this book so that I can have a greater understanding of the battle that embroidery has had to face over the years, which would ultimate, as I said, help me to mesh together my textile practises with historical contexts.