Category Archives: Embroidery

The Grass is Greener

I start a new job tomorrow. It’s a six week project but may turn into a full-time actual job. This is tremendously exciting, so I wonder why am I day dreaming about this: An embroidered depiction of unemployment by Melissa Calderon.




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>The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker

I only read recently of the death of Rozsika Parker, and having intended to review The Subversive Stitch for months am finally galvanized into doing so.In a glowing obituary in The Guardian Ruthie Petrie describes Parker as

“A feminist, art historian, psychotherapist and writer. In all her work is a stitching-together of the themes that occupied her: women’s struggle for recognition within the art establishment; a challenging of the division between fine art and the decorative arts; the tensions, sometimes productive, sometimes destructive, in women’s creative work.”

The Subversive Stitch was first published in 1984, and was revised and re-issued to coincide with the V&A’s Quilt exhibition (see below). This revision has incorporated a new introduction which covers, briefly, the work of Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin – of whom Parker clearly does not approve – and others.

It is, without doubt, a Feminist History and with all due respect to the Sisters, it is within this framework that I find it flawed.

Parker is brilliant on the particularly bonkers brand of misogyny peddled by the Church. For instance, during the Middle Ages St. Margaret was one of the most popular of all the saints and martyrs as the patron saint of childbirth. She was thrown into a dungeon for refusing to denounce Christianity and was swallowed by the devil in the form of a dragon. She escaped because her crucifix caused the dragon’s belly to explode. Having inspired 5,000 pagans to convert she was beheaded. Her last request to God was that pregnant women who prayed to her should be granted an easy birth and a healthy child.

St. Margaret gets medieval on a dragon's ass. It's a metaphor for childbirth. (Detail of a panel from a burse held in the V&A Museum, made in England 1320-40)

St. Margaret gets medieval on a dragon’s ass. It’s a metaphor for childbirth. (Detail of a panel from a burse held in the V&A Museum, made in England 1320-40)


 However, because God has cursed women to bring forth their children in pain (Genesis 3:16) the depiction of any intercession, whether by midwives or by patron saints was prohibited. An interesting anomaly developed where a sanitized version of St. Margaret’s story existed in writing, while embroiderers continued to decorate priests’ chasubles with the kick-ass Margaret they and other uneducated churchgoers knew.

By the mid-nineteenth century – during the Victorians’ Gothic revival – St. Margaret had been diluted into an unrecognisably meek version of herself.

St Margaret & the Dragon, having mellowed with age

St Margaret & the Dragon, having mellowed with age

Parker also describes the evolution of embroidery from Guild-protected professional work to work that was done at home, for love or out of duty rather than for money. This change occurred during the Renaissance when, as is the case now, it was a luxury to have a stay-at-home wife. And if she could produce luscious bedding, curtains, wall hangings et cetera, then so much the better:

“Embroidery combined the humility of needlework with rich stitchery. It connoted opulence and obedience. It ensured that women spent long hours at home, retired in private, yet it made a public statement about the household’s position and economic standing”

She explores the changing fashions in embroidery from representations of biblical or mythological scenes in the Middle Ages; to the Elizabethan riot of flora and fauna; through Seventeenth Century samplers which emphasised the technical skill of the seamstress rather than the breadth of their imagination, and on via the Industrial Revolution, when pastoral scenes were at their most popular and biblical scenes saw a revival.

There is a fascinating story to be told about and through embroidery. The problem I have with the book is that it is Feminism first, and history second. Parker has grouped her chapters thematically so just as you’re getting to grips with womens’ position in Guilds (sometimes in charge, sometimes not), she will introduce some example of paternalistic Victorian perfidy. Usually she refers back to her original point, but it can be at least a chapter before she does so. Often too in this later expanding on a stridently made original point the facts reveal a far more ambiguous truth.

This combined with a justifiable anger has affected her ability to marshal the facts.

More paternalistic Victorian perfidy! Typical!

More paternalistic Victorian perfidy! Typical!

A simple narrative history would allow her readers to come to their own conclusions – namely that history (or rather herstory) sucked – without feeling we were on the receiving end of a rant.

I feel guilty criticising The Subversive Stitch because Roszika Parker has passed on, and I was taught not to speak ill of the dead. Also her generation of feminists really made my lot look good  a difference in this world.

The Subversive Stitch is an important but ultimately difficult read. One perhaps for the academics and gender studies crowd rather than the practitioners (no offence).

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>Quilts Exhibition at the V&A


Rajah Quilt, Made by convicts on board HMS Rajah, 1841, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Rajah Quilt, Made by convicts on board HMS Rajah, 1841, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


While trapped in London during April’s volcanic ash “Travel Chaos”, I went to see the V&A’s fantastic Quilts exhibition. The place was jammed with ladies of a certain age, all giving the impression they were rocking twin-set and pearls even if they weren’t doing so literally. I wonder did the V&A make a deal with Britain’s Womens’ Institutes?

What struck me about the quilts on show was how valuable they ought to be as pieces of socio-economic history, and what a shame it is womens’ crafts have been assigned only an emotional value. For one thing, you can tell an enormous amount about the wealth of the maker. Quilts are generally made with scraps of fabric that the household would have left over from the making of clothing and other soft furnishings. Thus if a quilt is made of scraps of silk you can assume that the household it came from was fairly wealthy.

The stories attached to each quilt reflect family connections, social aspirations and political affiliations as well as more typical rites of passage such as marriages, births and deaths.

It is the intertwining of the personal and the political that makes the exhibition so intriguing. Take the quilt below, which shows King George III reviewing the troops, dated 1803-1805. Not only is it a fabulous piece of propaganda, it is also a record of its maker’s thwarted ambitions.


George III reviewing the troops (detail), Unknown maker, 1803-1805. Museum no. T.9-1962.

George III reviewing the troops (detail), Unknown maker, 1803-1805. Museum no. T.9-1962.


From V&A curator Sue Prichard’s blog:

“Perhaps more intriguing … is the image of a feisty young woman who has stitched her portrait into several of the most pertinent scenes. Who is this woman – so bold, so brave, and so insolent as to stitch herself into history? Why didn’t she simply sign and date the piece like so many before and indeed afterwards? This is not a typical stitcher, content to sit by the fireside gossiping with her companions. This woman, a red haired beauty, has aspirations; her passions aflame with a desire to experience the wider world, a man’s world…”


"I was there! I was there, look!"

“I was there! I was there, look!”


So, inspired by the exhibition, I’ve started work on a patchwork quilt. It is decidedly apolitical and a little unambitious in comparison to the fantastic work in the V&A. It consists of scraps of old shirt cotton, Irish Linen and silk in an Art Deco-ish style. I will not be signing it; I will not be embroidering a self-portrait; I am content for it to exist as a warm and sentimental thing.


Oh, and many many thanks to Catherine and Gonzo O’Neill for the booze ‘n’ bed for the night, and to Aengus and Linda McMahon for same. X


Duvet Days Reading:

“The Woman Who Shot Mussolini” by Frances Stonor Saunders.

Saunders’ writing is initially a little flowery, but this is a cracking story about the Honourable Violet Gibson, daughter of Lord Ashbourne, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini in 1926 and was condemned without trial to a lunatic asylum where she died in 1956.

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Filed under Embroidery, History, Quilts, V and A Museum