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The Subversive Stitch

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.


Posted by author: Rebecca Fairley
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10 thoughts on “The Subversive Stitch

  • As a Creative Writing tutor I was delighted to see your piece on the Subversive Stitch. I actually read Parker’s book about 12 years ago when I was doing a PhD on women writers contemporary with Jane Austen and was interested in seeing how women could use both writing and embroidery to express themselves, since at that time they could not easily enter the male public sphere. I certainly read Parker’s book because I was interested in the sociology and the history rather than the art of textiles. But it’s hard to pull the two aspects apart. You can’t look at the arts without being aware of the underlying politics.
    I’ve always been fascinated by samplers since it was often the only place that ordinary women and female children could actually sign their name to something they had made themselves.

  • This encourages me to try The Subversive Stitch again. It’s been languishing on the bookshelf a few years. Focusing on domesticity and feminism has felt like a trap – I don’t want to feel that my interest in textiles has been determined in some way by my gender.

  • I read this book quite a while ago, when I was doing an MA in design history. Its feminist narrative is valid now – although the book was originally published in 1988 when feminism had a certain tone which is still graspable in this book. It occurred to me reading Rebecca’s commentary that a more recent book, String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art by Elissa Auther (2009) (and a bit academic in its format), which is an art historical discussion of the fibre art movement, discusses women fibre artists in the 20th century – so a very different century to most of those discussed in the older book. Yet it shows something about the active voice of externally-facing practicing artists (we now have a choice to move beyond the domestic), which gives it a currency and relevance to art practitioners now. Both books read together would bring interesting dimensions to a reflective textile art practice.

    • Ha ha! Good question Mary. In the main I have found academic writing very dry, unapproachable and to be honest boring. This book however brings the subject to life by being written, I think in an easier style. This easier more human style of communicating ideas and knowledge suits women’s history. Its how I want to learn about it anyway.

      • Woah! I find it very worrying that the head of a degree subject area can make a statement about academic writing which will negatively influence all the students doing a Textile degree!
        ‘Academic’ writing is style of writing, that is all, one might need persistence to get used to the language used but nothing worth having is easily gained!!

        • Mary I think you misunderstand me. Academic writing is of course a valuable style of writing and as a post graduate student I have written extensively in just such a style. As a tutor and teacher (and a human) I am also aware that academic writing can be off putting to many people and thats ok. It is my role to find openings for these students; to access academic thinking (which does not necessarily need to be in academic writing) and encourage them to use it effectively. Having said that I am of the opinion academic writing is elitist and aims to exclude. It is often not very useful and hinders creative thinking. I am well aware that it is important to get to grips with understanding the style but I would also encourage visual arts students to find alternative forms of writing about academic thinking and exploring their own ways of writing about their experiences. For more information I suggest the book Visualising Research: A guide to the research process in art and design by Carole Gray and Julian Malins, published by Ashgate (2004). Let me know what you think : )

  • As an overview of the role of gender in the arts, the book, ‘Old Mistresses:Women, Art and Ideology’ is excellent. Rosika Parker and Griselda Pollock.

  • Dear Rebecca – Thank for putting this title on my radar (non-native to UK – and thus not fully versed in must reads….!). Have ordered the book – looking forward to it. I highly value such general recommendations – part of the textile “upbringing” we get at BA-Textiles. 🙂

  • I am about half way through the Subversive Stitch and although I have no issue with the writing style, but found the feminist angle very heavy going. I have put that down for a while and am currently working my way through.Women’s Work: The First 20, 000 Years – Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times 17 Jan 1996 by Elizabeth W Barber, not as well written I think but extremely interesting and informative and simple reporting rather than trying to tie into feminist thought. Maybe one day I will go back to the Subversive Stitch, but not anytime soon.

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