When one imagines a needlewoman from the early twentieth century, one is likely to envisage a pale and subservient figure, skirts sweeping the floor as she sits beside the fire, needle in hand, forging upon her lap another testament of her love for the husband she awaits so patiently. One will not see a smashed window, a stone wielding suffragette, her dedication to the cause (note – not her husband) plied upon the deceptively delicate folds of a silken handkerchief created within the confines of the infamous Holloway Prison.

However, women have plied their needles in a variety of circumstances and for a variety of reasons for hundreds of years: from Mary Queen of Scots, who sewed to send secret messages, affirm marriage proposals and plan escapes, to the female British civilians incarcerated in Changi Prison (Singapore) during the Second World War, who created quilts in order to anchor and express an identity eroded by the anonymity of prison life. The needle has long been a tool of subversion, used to stitch dissent into the very practice intended to eradicate it.

The suffrage cause, which used textiles as a key weapon in their campaign against the establishment, is a prime example of this: ‘far from desiring to disentangle embroidery and femininity, they wanted embroidery to evoke femininity – but femininity represented as a source of strength, not as evidence of women’s weakness’[i] thereby asserting and embodying their mission through their needles. They marched under meticulously stitched banners, proclaiming their demands in silk and wool, each one an embodiment of female courage and resolve, conveyed within a medium purposefully selected for its public palatability.

Suffragettes with banners

Nowhere is the suffragette’s subversive utilisation of textiles more evident than in the figure of Janie Terrero, the window-smashing suffragette who greeted the reader, hand aloft, at the opening of this piece. Janie Terrero, who was incarcerated and subjected to force-feeding for four-months in Holloway Prison due to her participation in the window smashing campaign of March 1st, 1912, memorialised her experience through the embroidering of a handkerchief.

Janie Terrero wearing her Hunger Strike Medal and Holloway Brooch

She wished both to record the vicious treatment of suffragettes within the prison, and celebrate their resolve in the face of this brutality. However, as the female inmates were prohibited from accessing pen or paper, the most obvious means of communication were off-limits. Perhaps surprisingly, alternative materials for Janie Terrero’s creation were remarkably accessible within the prison’s walls; ‘neither the “hankie” nor the tools of embroidery were denied the prisoner as, in the context of tradition, they evoke the feminine’[ii]. These, therefore, were at her disposal, while the traditionally masculine implements of communication were not. Needlework was, in fact, encouraged: Once women had passed one month of imprisonment they were invited to ‘take their needlework…to the hall downstairs…and sit side by side, although talking was still forbidden’[iii], a regulation which  evidences the needle’s ability to offer women a voice where traditional means of communication are barred. And so, force-fed and silenced, determined and furious, Janie Terrero picked up her needle, and began to sew.

From her stitches materialised a textile tangibly at odds with the violence which placed her within the prison: the handkerchief is pale and delicate, wrought on a cream, woollen piece of material. It is enclosed within the tri-coloured Women’s Social and Political Union ribbon, and embroidered with silk thread, ‘stitched in the WSPU colours: green for hope, white for purity and violet for dignity,’[iv]. Encased by a circular wreathe of floral embroidery sits the unambiguous textual facts of her imprisonment, and at the centre of this, the assertion of her authorship.

Janie Terrero’s decision to declare her identity at the centre of the work is a gesture of defiance towards the Prison’s attempt to anonymise inmates in an effort to prevent solidarity from forming. Through her needle she thereby challenges and overcomes the prison’s authoritarian system. She does this not only for herself, but for all those imprisoned with her; surrounding the vine-like pattern that encloses Janie Terrero’s name are the signatures of her fellow imprisoned suffragettes. By including these signatures, she forges a testament of solidarity which unequivocally embodies the suffragette’s resilience in their battle for equality. The agency inherent in their mission is mirrored in the maker’s stitches, which act as both a celebration of the prisoner’s suffering, and as ‘a poster to further articulate WSPU goals,’[v]. Through her handkerchief Janie Terrero thereby created an ‘expression of agency [which] served to cohere and sustain a collective [and political] identity’[vi].

Superficially decorative and yet political, floral yet fiery, Janie Terrero’s handkerchief exemplifies the ingenuity of female authorship, which ‘often uses unexpected materials and unorthodox technologies,’[vii] when denied the convenience of that masculine implement; the pen. The resourcefulness of female expression realisable through the needle is embodied in the myth of Philomela, whose cunning utilisation of needle and thread mirrors the suffragette’s. In Ovid’s account of this myth, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, and afterward proclaims that ‘I will…tell everybody’[viii]. Tereus, ‘locating the power to speak solely in the tongue’[ix], removes Philomela’s tongue, and in doing so believes he has stripped her of all communicative power. He has not, however, considered the power of Philomela’s hands: Philomela sews an account of Tereus’s attack onto a tapestry to show to her sister, Procne, who ‘bear[s] witness to the story because of the rhetorical power of Philomela’s threadwork,’[x], and together the sisters seek revenge. Like Janie Terrero, Philomela utilises needle and thread to expose and record her circumstances, turning to this overlooked and undervalued form of feminine-coded communication when cut off from traditional modes of interaction. Both accounts hint at the rich tradition of women subverting needlework for their own ends, and in so doing enact female agency in environments which attempt to expunge them of all autonomy.

From Philomela in antiquity, to Mary Queen of Scots in the sixteenth century, Janie Terrero in the twentieth, and those whose names history did not record who punctuate the spaces between, each account reveals that the needlewoman is never who or what she seems: that the pretty petals so delicately sewn by that woman you first imagined, head bent, hands busy, silent in her servitude, contain the keys to both her authentic self, and her freedom. And as she lifts her needle, she meets your eye, and she winks.

Words: Natasha Hughes

About: Natasha Hughes is a London-based curator and researcher who has recently graduated from MA Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins. Her work focusses on historical female creatives traditionally excluded from the canon which she explores through a combination of research, curatorial practice and writing. She is the co-founder of Kleió, an all-female collective which uncovers marginalised narratives through contemporary feminist curatorial practice. Kleió’s current project, Feather Dusting/ Future Lusting ( a digital response to the COVID-19 crisis), opens online in early June. Find Natasha on Instagram here and Kleió collective here.


[i] Parker, R. (1984) The Subversive Stitch, Embroidery and The Making of The Feminine, (p. 197) I.B Tauris.

[ii] Wheeler, E (2012) The Political Stitch: Voicing Resistance in a Suffrage Textile, (p. 8) Textile Society of America.

[iii] Wheeler, E (2012) The Political Stitch: Voicing Resistance in a Suffrage Textile, (p. 8) Textile Society of America.

[iv] Hunter, C. (2019) Threads of Life, (p. 132)Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

[v] Wheeler, E (2012) The Political Stitch: Voicing Resistance in a Suffrage Textile, (p. 10) Textile Society of America.

[vi] Wheeler, E (2012) The Political Stitch: Voicing Resistance in a Suffrage Textile, (p.11) Textile Society of America.

[vii] Lyons, M. (2017) New Directions in Book History, Approaches to the History of Written Culture, A World Inscribed. Palgrave Macmillan.

[viii] Goggin M et al. (2009) Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles 1750- 1950, (p. 37)Ashgate Publishing Limited.

[ix] Goggin M et al. (2009) Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles 1750- 195, (p. 37)Ashgate Publishing Limited.

[x] Goggin M et al. (2009) Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles 1750- 1950, (p. 37)Ashgate Publishing Limited.