Sewing furiously

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine by Rozsika Parker
    Women’s Press, 256 pp, £14.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2842 9
  • Living the Fishing by Paul Thompson, Tony Wailey and Trevor Lummis
    Routledge, 398 pp, £13.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9508 2
  • By the Sweat of their Brow: Women Workers at Victorian Coal Mines by Angela John
    Routledge, 247 pp, £4.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0142 7

Why should embroidery exist? Its aim is the enhancement of fabrics, and so it might be expected to flourish only when the manufacture of such fabrics is confined to plain products. Would there need to be embroidery on the best fabrics of the Persian world, or on the wonderful silks displayed in the Japanese exhibition of a few years back? Perhaps there would: personal or religious symbols might be demanded by persons of special status, and anyone likely to be able to afford the basic fabric would probably consider themselves special. Embroidery can be an art form, a younger sister to tapestry, using textures and colours for their interacting effects. And of course it became a form of juvenile discipline, a pre-puberty rite. Girls of good family worked over their samplers as their brothers did over Latin verse, to produce objects which indicated a social setting of relative leisure. Rozsika Parker’s book, which sets out to show how feminine expression was channelled by the stereotype of the girl with her needle, never actually asks what the artistic purpose of the work was, but has much to say about how it came to be a demonstration of upper-class femininity.

There are various strands to the subject, as in any good work of art. Embroidery could be an enrichment or enhancement: it tended, at least in England, to concentrate on particular images, the symbolism of which was well-known. In the 17th century there developed stump work, a method of solidifying the images by building up the fabric. Stump-work pictures stand totally free of any subservience to perspective or scale, but are of limited aesthetic value. They seem to have suffered from a horror of unadorned space, and also from visual clichés. Another retreat from aesthetic considerations was involved in Berlin wool work, the provision of printed canvases ready for the almost mechanical application of stitching. And the traditional sampler evokes more sympathy for the child who worked it than aesthetic pleasure in the achievement. After all, it has only been in the last hundred years that women could easily get to art school and train as designers. This may explain the relatively late development of the type of fabric pictures produced nowadays by, for instance, the Glasgow School of Art: delightful mixtures of colours and textures combining fabric, beads and stitchwork.

Rozsika Parker wishes to emphasise that only in the Early Modern world did embroidery become a purely female activity. In the Middle Ages, she asserts, both sexes worked in embroidery workshops. These centres produced goods for rich lay people and elaborate vestments for the Church. The organisation of such businesses seems to have been mostly in male hands, but there is evidence of one female entrepreneur, Mabel of Bury St Edmunds, who worked on orders from Henry III. There is also evidence of nuns doing ‘silkwork’ as the labour input required by the Rule, and some of this was not for ecclesiastical purposes. The motifs and the shaping of religious fabrics were highly suitable for manufacture by a group of workers, and the illustrations in this book give an idea of the sophistication and beauty of some of the products. It is claimed that there was a special emphasis on the roles of female saints, especially of the Virgin and St Margaret, but without quantification this statement has to be taken with caution.

Embroidery has always been for the rich and the powerful because it is an expensive addition to a basic fabric. Sometimes it is useful, as in the painfully acquired lettering which enabled a young girl to mark the ownership of goods. Perhaps one of the most conspicuous pieces of handwork, the embroidered arms of the alliance which won the battle of Lepanto – still to be seen on the great pale blue banner for Don John of Austria’s flagship, now in Toledo – could be regarded as a practical way of encouraging solidarity, and perhaps it took no longer to complete than it took for the alliance to prepare its navy.

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