Book Review: The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine by Rozsika Parker
It isn’t often that a book changes your life, much less so a book which isn’t a novel or a self-help guide!
The Subversive Stitch, however, genuinely did change mine. This seemingly dry anthropological study of the history of women embroidering helped me place myself in context as a contemporary needlework artist.
I already knew that I came from a long lineage of women who stitched, and indeed I learned to embroider from both my grandmothers. Sharing this craft and skill with them was an important bonding experience during my transition from childhood to womanhood.
However, as a feminist it was sometimes difficult to align myself with a craft which over the course of its history has arguably been used to subdue women, keeping them docile and obedient.
Rozsika Parker doesn’t shy away from exploring this side of embroidery’s history, drawing on the writing of proto-feminists such as Mary Woollstonecraft and Mary Lamb, who were vehement detractors of the craft.
However, even as early as the 17th Century women were subverting the medium in samplers which proclaimed their freedom, individuality and refusal to bow to the status quo. Learning this from The Subversive Stitch really appealed to me as a writer and conceptual artist who employs embroidery as a means of self-expression (and sometimes dissent).
With the rise of the feminist art movement embroidery really came into its own and became truly subversive, and with the birth of craftivism embroidery has arguably become a surprisingly powerful political tool, as the Significant Seams team learnt when we embarked on the GROW project with Oxfam and the Craftivist Collective. (We’re now eager craftivists, and will be running a number of “I’m A Piece” sewing sessions for the Craftivist Collective and Save the Children in January and February). However, this is another lineage, which has its roots in the embroidered banners used in the suffrage movement.
Embroidery and related crafts are rather in vogue at the moment; there’s something of a cupcake and cross stitch revival (which we approve of, especially since our volunteer, Lauren, has pledged to bake us all sweet treats every Saturday!) The Subversive Stitch introduces us to some slightly more surprising uses of embroidery, and sites such as “Mr X Stitch” demonstrate the vast variety of ways, subversive and otherwise, in which the medium may be employed. When I pick up the needle to sew I am now comfortable knowing I am part of a rich and complicated history, which doesn’t exclude my feminism or femininity, and I would hope this comes out in my work. And that is largely thanks to Rozsika Parker’s illuminating and brilliant book.
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