Editorial #10: Subversive Stitching

When Rozsika Parker wrote The Subversive Stitch (1984) she brought to the fore a powerful exploration of the cultural and socio-economic values of embroidery, which revealed the deep-rooted gender politics that led to the devaluation of ‘feminine’-coded arts.

Parker’s groundbreaking study continues to inspire and inform new critiques of embroidery and needlework’s powerful yet ambivalent role in society. In 2014, Goldsmith’s ‘The Subversive Stitch Revisted: The Politics of Cloth’ opened up new directions for research, not least Dr. Christine Checinska’s lecture on Second Skins: cloth, difference and the art of transformation, which explored the ‘place of in the refashioning of cultural, racial and gendered identities’ and reframed cloth as a way of challenging existing power structures. You can also listen to other talks from the series by Dr. Rose Sinclair, on Caribbean Dorcas Club textiles networks in the UK; Steffi Ibis Duarte on embroidery and knitting as cross-cultural collective public protest; and hear Dr. Nicola Ashmore and Dr. Megha Rajguru speak on the Remaking Picasso’s Guernica project (also featured in this issue). The continuing nature of the responses to Parker’s text suggests that there are still many directions in which to explore the subversive power of stitching. 

Subversion suggests a silent action that seeks to overthrow existing hierarchies and concentrations of power. The silent action inherent in embroidery and stitching practices is largely due to, as Parker reminds us, the idea that ‘[b]ecause of its history and associations embroidery evokes and inculcates femininity in the embroiderer’. As such, embroidery represents both ‘a source of pleasure and power… while being indissolubly linked to… powerlessness’. Those that stitch wield a double-edged needle, poking holes into society’s fabric but also risking reinforcing stereotypes surrounding domesticity, femininity and craft. The artists and writers included in this issue remind us that we must constantly push at the boundaries of what embroidery can do and achieve; what’s more, we must continue to interrogate the structures of power and capital that have not only divided needlework from fine art, but also separated embroidery as a quaint hobby from the labour of stitching. 

The textile work of self-taught artist Madge Gill, explored in this issue by curator Sophie Dutton, remained largely hidden from view until it was discovered in 2019. Exhibited last year at the William Morris Gallery, Gill’s story is one of such pleasure, power, and powerlessness. As a child, she was sent to Canada by the Dr. Barnardo’s Homes as a British Home Child. In her midlife, she turned to making in order to channel the spirit of Myrninerest, the guide she attributed her prodigious making output to. Dutton uncovers and reframes Gill’s making as an inherently subversive practice that centres her silence as a choice. Yet, when embroidered messages are finally made public the impact is undeniable. Our Spotlight feature on Aram Han Sifuentes highlights the work of The Protest Banner Lending Library, which offers a communal sewing space and archive of making. The work brings protest into the public sphere through the use of simple sewing techniques. You can find instructions on how to make your own banner here

Sara Baume’s handiwork (2020) also weaves together the global and the personal, exploring the ethics of making at a time of environmental crisis. Amy E. Elkins’ insightful review demonstrates the myriad ways that, in this dark moment, handiwork ‘is shaping our cultural moment’, opening up avenues not only of protest and dissent but also of healing and connection. Priyanka Moorjani’s poem ‘Dress’ similarly evokes the connections embedded in fabrics, as body, nature and dress become one: Look, as they trace every curve and bend of my waterbody, marking each new location with a pin. Sewists are record-makers, the threads marking down the passing of time, the slowing of time, what Elkin’s calls ‘craft’s enduring capacity to express complexity’.

Parker reminds us of this complexity in the ‘long tradition of embroidery as commemoration of the dead, and as testament of survival and resistance in the face of political persecution and racial oppression’. From Hmong story cloths, which document the flight of the Hmong people from the persecution they faced in Laos to refugee camps in Thailand, to the Chilean arpilleras that depicted the brutality of the Pinochet dictatorship, embroidery has been used across the globe to protest injustice and voice dissent. Domestic protest is explored in Ruth Beddow’s review as she discusses the role of unpaid, domestic labour through the lens of Mary Sibande’s rhizomic textile sculptures. The piece asks: who gets to make and to what end? Critiquing the white privilege often inherent in the ‘make and mend’ trends of recent years, Beddow unpicks the ‘New Domesticity’ and centre’s Sibande’s work as ‘a decisive actor in society’s mess of roots’.

Our second spotlight feature on the Guernica Remakings project highlights how stitching can bring together a global community in a healing, restorative act. Exploring a range of international projects that remake Picasso’s Guernica in response to contemporary issues, Guernica Remakings show how avant-garde strategies can be repurposed to give a voice to marginalised community groups.

In this issue, we’re thrilled to include Rachelle Romeo’s sewn poetry, a powerful demonstration of embroidery’s ability to draw out the dark, damaging histories and ongoing traumas that mar our society. Romeo stitches the trauma she has suffered as a result of the Windrush scandal into striking embroidered artworks that challenge notions of what it means to be British when the country you thought was home attempts to expel your family. Using needle and thread to embed criticisms of Britain’s colonial past onto its landscape, Romeo charges embroidery’s political history with contemporary relevance. 

Looking back over the embroidery’s political history, Natasha Hughes explores the embroidery work of Janie Terrero, a suffragette who was imprisoned in Holloway for window smashing. Whilst imprisoned, Terrero was denied a pen and paper, but she was allowed access to ostensibly unthreatening sewing materials; Torrero stitched a handkerchief that acted as an assertion of her identity and a subversive statement of the cause. Through stitching, a personal, private object becomes a protest piece. 

As Roberta Quance’s essay on the work of Berta Lopez suggests, sometimes the personal, private connections of craft resonate long after their initial impact. Coming upon her photographs from Lopez’s exhibition in 2018, Quance offers a web of interpersonal and theoretical connections, using the promise of a stitch to piece together a larger narrative. We come once more upon ‘craft’s enduring capacity to express complexity’ and resonate over the years in Aninda Varma’s Practice-Based feature. Varma traces finds her multi-media work helps to ‘grasp at certain fragments from the past’, finding nature’s rhizomatic repetition taps into deeper rivulets of memory: ‘of particular memories, of seasons, of times with my mother that have gone by, and of loss’. 

The subversive power of stitching collapses many boundaries: it is both decorative and political, a private act turned into a public declaration, a part of both the domestic and global realms. It has been co-opted by ‘New Domesticity’ and reclaimed through close attention to the affective, collective healing properties of engaging in handicraft. And it is, perhaps above all, a transformative amalgamation of power, pleasure and protest; a way of knitting together many voices to create new narratives of struggle, hope, and defiance.