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.

The author claims that it was in the 17th century that embroidery became a way of controlling women within a preconceived image of femininity. It prevented idleness, encouraged perhaps a limited aesthetic sense, gave a superficial acquaintance with conventional imagery and the literary traditions behind it, and could be done in public without embarrassment, displaying gentility and subservience. Some moralists, notably ‘that old bishop in petticoats’ Hannah More, held that it was dangerous for girls to embroider except for the use of others: doing it for yourself encouraged vanity. All stitchwork had the advantage of promoting the idea that a woman’s hands should never be idle. In the 19th century embroidery became a means of raising funds for charity, the only area where women of good family were expected to be concerned with money. Objects, usually useless and often ugly, could be sold for good works. There was also the arduous work done by working-class girls on fabrics for sale, tambouring and flowering, often to the damage of eyesight and health. All these aspects of the craft were used skilfully by the women novelists of the day, who saw the topic as a mechanism for quiet social protest, objecting both to the stultifying of female aspirations in the middle class and to the exploitation of the low-paid.

In the mid-20th century the new sophistication of sewing-machines might be expected to have altered the role of the embroiderer. Masses of ornamentation could now be laid on at high speed. The author does not discuss this development. Instead she describes the recent attempts to make embroidery a vehicle for the assertion of feminism. I am not at all sure that table settings dedicated to Boadaceia (sic) – for whose needlework skills we have no evidence – or a sampler proclaiming ‘wife is a four-letter word’ are likely to be aesthetically pleasing or to seem a valid use of time. If feminism is to enter on this area it should acknowledge that women’s time is valuable.

Living the Fishing is based on the techniques of oral history, on interviews with individuals from fishing communities in Lancashire, East Anglia and Scotland. By the Sweat of their Brow is the record of research about the few thousand women surface workers of the late 19th-century coal industry. Both describe routines of intensely hard physical work, out of doors in all weathers, by people who took a pride in manual and muscular skill.

Oral history is a time-consuming technique, both in the collecting and in the using, and one with definite limitations. You can get information only from within the life-span of the people you interview, and with the natural tendency to want a long story, this means old people; and most people reinterpret their own past to themselves, so that what is acquired may be biased by the experience of later life. In other words, it shares the considerable weaknesses, for source purposes, of all forms of memoir. These can partly be countered by taking stories from various standpoints. The evidence may also be coloured by the loading or leading of questions. Because of this, the interviewer has to develop a repertoire of grunts which encourage the narrator to go on without casting doubts on the narrative or indicating what is hoped for. Lacking access to the tapes of the various interviews, the reader has no means of knowing whether the interviewer has played fair: that is, whether bias or untruth reflects the spontaneous speech, and hence opinion, of the narrator.

Consider the title Living the Fishing: who is it that does this living? Obviously all the men in the fishing fleet. Then also those involved in the various follow-up activities, gutting and preparing the fish or shelling the prawns, smoking or curing fish, selling and transporting to market. Also those who prepare and maintain the equipment, bait lines, mend nets – often they are the wives of the fishermen. Finally those supported by the industry, the wives and children in the fishing villages. Yet the emphasis of this book is on those directly in the earning sector, the fishermen and herring girls. Only in one study, that of Shetland, do we get the full community of fisherfolk described, with a glimpse of what it was like to be baiting long lines and caring for small children at the same time. Perhaps the interviewers found only a small segment of survivors from the great days of fishing. More likely they were not much interested in how you did the subsidiary work, or what it was like waiting for the boats to come back or keeping house on an unstable income. How many hours went on the preparing and selling of Arbroath smokies, for which the women travelled widely in Eastern Scotland? How many wives had to earn on their own to keep the household going? We are not told. Though there is a short chapter on women, the book is male-oriented, not because of sex prejudice but because of a built-in belief that it is the relationships coming out of employment that are of dominant interest. So they probably are to the authors, who are so relentlessly engaged in tracking down class-consciousness that they use the word ‘consciousness’ as if it had no other connotation. Yet consciousness can be of community, sex or religious communion as well as of class. In a study which includes the narrow sect of the Close Brethren of North-East Scotland, reputed today, perhaps untruly, to indulge in contemporary culture only through television-sets installed in cupboards, the doctrinaire Free Presbyterian communities of the Long Island, as well as women gutters who had their own way of life and pattern of travel, there is plenty of room for a study of other variants. But it’s not here.

Even what is here is short on the actual daily life at sea. I would like to know how it differed as between the lone activities of drifters, separated by miles of net from any neighbour, and ring-net boats working in pairs; between day and night fishing, between near and distant fisheries. We hear about the differences in attitude and status between share fishermen and those working for wages, but little about the daily struggle with the sea. The narrow focus leads these writers to omit consideration of the major villainy in the history of the activity: the systematic over-fishing of our waters by more and more powerful harvesting techniques. There was room here for some attention to the absence of a consciousness for conservation.

Authors have to start with a dominant interest, and so long as this does not corrupt the quality of what they decide to present, it may seem as captious, perhaps the result of an undue concern for female consciousness, to gripe that the book does not include much that might come under its comprehensive title. If the writers have not let their preconceived ideas come between the evidence and the reader, the fact that the story concentrates on particular themes may be considered as within the domain of choice. On one occasion at least, however, a contributor can be seen to have gone beyond the evidence collected, and added as fact what is merely supposition. We are told it was the intention of the trawler owners of Fleetwood that employees should not abandon the attitudes that they had held when they worked as self-employed. There may be truth in the assessment of their motives, but it is not based on direct information from the only people who could provide it.

By the Sweat of their Brow is a more scholarly work, which has grown out of a doctoral thesis. It sets out to discover the lives and concerns of a small group of women, the ‘pit brow lasses’ localised mostly in and around Wigan and St Helens, but also to be found in small groups in Fife, South Wales and the Black Country and with a further scatter in Yorkshire, Shropshire, Cumberland and County Durham. These women were under criticism and attack from two sides: from pious members of Parliament and other publicists who saw the work as ‘coarse and degrading’, leading to a loss of modest and womanly virtues as well as likely to accentuate the painful lack of domestic servants, and also from male trade-unionists who saw women either as rivals for the same work or as likely reasons for the payment of low wages. The record of trade unions on the rights of women to hold jobs has been murky, and still is. Angela John discusses the ‘reform’ of 1842, by which women were forbidden to work underground, where they had been employed as bearers or haulers of coal. From this reform, it was calculated three years later, 4000 out of 4200 women coal workers in Scotland were still unemployed or able only to find odd jobs such as the hawking of white clay or the collecting of manure. The theme of the book is the life of those who still stayed in coal but at the surface: who they were, how they worked, lived and, sometimes, were killed, and the renewed efforts to ‘reform’ them out of existence in the 1880s. If there is a basic prejudice informing the book it is one which increasing numbers of people were coming to share at the end of the 19th century: that if women wished to follow a particular pursuit they should be allowed to do so. ‘The evil principle of legislative interference with the liberty of the adult woman’ was what The Women’s Suffrage Journal in 1887 called the campaign against women in the coal industry.

These ‘pit lasses’ were studied by Arthur Munby, who had a curious obsession with the lives of hard-working manual women, and whose sympathetic sketches and photographs of some of the girls illustrate the book. They bring home the fact that Victorians were shocked, not just by the work of these girls, but by the knowledge that, at least round Wigan, they did it in trousers. They usually had aprons over the trousers, and were also dressed in thick fabrics for outdoor life, iron-founded clogs, waistcoats of serge, flannel jackets, bonnets and headscarves. Munby’s sketches of their solid outfits in well-patched serge make it difficult to see them as sex-objects. One can only wonder at the Victorian hang-up over the visibility of women’s legs: but will our own sexual hang-ups look any better in the year 2084? Will it seem reasonable to our great-grandchildren that we should promote the sale of various types of machinery by draping them with scantily clad female buttocks? Trousers were, in fact, much safer than skirts: as also in factory industries and in social life. Dr John describes the type of work the girls did, much of it at the screens cleaning the coal, but also moving tubs and trucks, loading barges, controlling lifts and points, and driving engines. If there were dreadful and unnecessary accidents, these seem to have come from the relative carelessness of management over surface work, particularly over the initial training, perhaps from seeing it as the safer and cheaper part of an industry on the whole dangerous. The girls were conspicuous for their splendid health, and claimed that the work was healthier than that of the factory: but then this was the view of a self-selected sample.

Much of the Victorian fuss sprang from the glorification of home life. The home was to be a refuge to the working man of all classes, and was seen as presided over by a mixture of goddess and caterer. But, as Dr John shows, by the 1880s the quality of wifely care was an irrelevant issue. Rarely were the working women also housewives. Sometimes the colliery had a rule against married women, more often they themselves decided not to go for such work. It was unmarried girls or widows left with children to support who worked in coal, and the position of these widows here as in other activities shows the insincerity of a society which was ready to extol the virtues of the woman in the house while doing nothing to keep in that position those left to support families. And of course the fuss about moral dangers in the work for girls was rubbish. Miners, then as now, belonged to the labour aristocracy: this section of the working class held by standards of respectability and conventionality as high as any entertained by the middle class. The difference was that this respectability was sustained by the women folk of the families themselves and not by servants. These women scrubbed and swept to keep down the dirt their men folk inevitably brought home.

Both these books remind us by how much hard work, and for what small returns, the primary sector of the economy was maintained. We have known this for a long time for the farm labourers. Cheap fuel and cheap food made up the basis of the Victorian economy, and cheapness was achieved by muscle power, long hours and calloused hands.