The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine – UPDATE

In chapter four we travel to the sixteenth century, which was a transitional time for art, including embroidery. The differences between men and women became more highlighted, both socially, theologically, ethically, politically and artistically. Throughout the chapter Rozsika takes us through the changes from the mediaeval view of women to the Humanist idea that men and women complement each other, and that one could not exists without the other. She takes is through the increasing divisions between the sexes, how women were expected to display softness and femininity, whereas men were expected to be hard and worldly. Embroidery was becoming seen more and more as the pursuit of the noble, delicate, chaste lady that everyman required.

Over the course of the century, the art of embroidery fell more and more into the hands of the women as it became more and more linked with their virtue and chastity. At this time, painters were becoming more acknowledged for their ability to create sketches and drawings quickly, which became to change the dynamics of the art world, and in particular the prestige of the painter over the embroider. Embroidery itself becoming further divided into the public craft and domestic art, art which became a vehicle for women to express their femininity, so much so that male embroiders felt unable to compete in this arena without using their own sexuality.

Rozsika explores these difference between the sexes and embroider within the next chapter, where the main theme was that to embroider was to be feminine, which seemed to be the rule throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Embroidery became a big part in women’s education and was used to create distinct divisions between males and females. Embroidery was used from an early ages to subjugate and dominate girls into knowing their place within the man’s world. It was used to install obedience, patience and stillness, which men believed was a prerequisite of being a woman. However, femininity did not come naturally to women and so it was the job of society to repeatedly re-enforce this idea of women.

However, over the course of the centuries, women, whilst embracing embroidery as part of their lot in life, became increasingly mindful of hat subjects they chose to embroider, and as the 17th century wore on, more and more women became to embroidery imagery of heroic biblical women. This allowed the embroiders to comply with societies demands, whilst at the same time giving expression to their own ideas of what it want to be a woman.

Rozsika tells us of the divisions between women in different classes, how religious and economical influences affected society, therefore working-class women were hired as labourers while middle-class women where left o embroider at their luxury, creating aristocratic pieces of art.  As society changed, the role of men and women became ever more rigidly distinguished with embroidery falling most definitely into the feminine sphere.

We then move forward in the sixth chapter to the 18th and 19th century where even more changes where happening for women, in both society and embroidery. During this time we see a decline of religious iconography within embroidery, instead the influence of Nature come to the fore. In the 18th century embroidery still reflected femininity, and as such was used as a tool to keep women in their perceived places.  Women were excluded from the best art education in the schools and academies and turned to other craft materials such as collage as well as embroidery. These other materials, however, were considered second class to the male dominated painting.

Rozsika makes clear links throughout the centuries, showing us how the divisions of classes carried on from the earlier centuries through to the 18th, where aristocratic embroidery was looked upon favourable by society, whereas working class embroidery/needlework was considered a necessary evil. Middle class families became obsessed with mother/daughter relationships and used embroidery both as a means of expressing this love and as a means of obedience and submission. Motherhood itself became a popular subject in all art, including embroidery. However, as women began to find their voices, concern was raised about the effects of embroidery on the health of those pursing it. From some girls, embroidery was becoming akin to punishment.

On the heels of the French Revolution, women were quick to assert a different from of femininity that included political and legal equality with men. Embroidery presented something of a problem for reformers, as women continued to view embroidery as an admirable occupation, especially towards to end of the 19th century hen women embroidered in the subject of love as a way to reflect their own personality and understanding of the importance of love in society and family life.

As Rozsika shows us, the changes with women and embroidery were slow going through the centuries covered in these three chapters. But what is evident is the use of embroidery to hold women in their perceived position, making sure that they were as subservient as ever within this male dominated society. The fact that embroidery was still not acknowledged as an art form is astounding, yet understandable considering the role it has played within the lives of women thus far.

I’m looking forwards to reading the much faster and more explosive way in which femininity and embroidery becomes empowered during the 20th century, and the changes this had on the lives of many women, and the art from itself.


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