The Subversive Stitch
The Subversive Stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine by Rozsika Parker published by I. B. Tauris
I’ve wanted to read this book for a while but to be honest as it is hailed as a piece of academic feminist literature I was put off. I expected it to be wordy, heavy going and worthy but to my relief it is none of these things. Yes it is academic but the writing style flows and is always engaging, full of evidenced based opinion.
The Subversive Stitch documents the history of embroidery, mainly in Britain from the medieval period right up to the present day. Taking in why the art became a predominantly female activity and didn’t get invited into the fine art club. So if you are serious about textiles this book is essential reading.
Rozsika Parker’s book brings to light the relationship between women (mainly upper and middle class) and embroidery. Exposing how embroidery was used to subdue and control girls and make them ready for marriage. How samplers represented the quiet dignity of a girl but also how some also stitched quotes into them hinting of their unhappiness. This led to women using stitch as a means of communicating their dissatisfaction of their lot. Examples of this are the suffragettes and the anger of the women’s lib movement. This story of embroidery brings us to where we are now with artists like Tracey Emin and movements like Craftivism.
As a women and a textile artist I am intensely interested in the group I belong to and its history. Parker describes the activity of Lady Julia Calverley who in the early first half of the 18th century embroidered for 50 years literally covering everything from slippers to wall hangings with stitch. To me this signals what little else she had to do but also the addictive nature of sewing. I am sure I’m not the only one who has felt that one more row or patch or line led to yet another late into the night. In the introduction to the latest edition the author discusses the work and impact of Louise Bourgeois. Like me Parker feels the work of Louise Bourgeois has done a lot to bring textiles to within high art and suggests that her work has also led to a deeper understanding of women’s expression through textiles. Reading this book has enabled me to look at embroidery from the past and present in a more informed way.
Rozsika Parker is a psychotherapist and commentator which it probably the reason why the many images in the book are disappointingly in black and white. This makes me wonder if she is less interested in the artworks themselves than the information they hold for her. Non-the less this is an excellent read and I am sure I will return to it again and again.