“With Just Needle and Thread”: Clare Hunter, Threads of Life


Here too are the embroiderers’ own responses to what they sewed, to the scenes they had to revisit: tenderness in the stitching of a hapless group of unarmoured archers battling for survival beneath the thundering hoofs of horsed nobility; empathy for the yowling dog guarding King Edward’s deathbed; sadness in the gloom of the stilled fleet of ghost ships beached below Alfred shortly before he gains the throne; all set among the poignancy of loss in the borders’ motifs of fettered birds, hunted deer and predatory beasts. They elicit an emotional response, encouraging humanity across the centuries. This is the power of these stitchers, who, with just needle and thread, wool and linen, captured human experiences which, 900 years on, still move us.

Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life is a marvelous, inspiring, touching, and extremely wide-ranging account of the myriad ways needle crafts of all kinds have mattered and made meaning throughout history. It is as much a manifesto as a work of scholarship, for reasons that are often touched on in the book but nowhere more explicitly than in the opening to her chapter “Value”:

A guest writer has been invited to host the creative writing group I have recently joined. He asks us to introduce ourselves and say a little about what we are working on. As each member outlines their memoir, crime thriller, historical novel or their collection of short stories the writer nods encouragingly. Then it is my turn. I tell him I am writing a book about the social, emotional and political significance of sewing. The writer doesn’t nod. Instead, he pauses, leans forward and places his elbows on the table, then slowly interlaces his fingers. ‘Ah yes’, he says. ‘I can just see me asking my local bookstore if they have that bestseller on social, emotional and political sewing’. His look towards me is pitying.

Though after hearing her read an excerpt about her “discovery of an old patchwork quilt” the writer comes round, admitting he “finds it moving and interesting” and that “it reveals a world he knows little about,” Hunter leaves the group: “There are only so many battles I have the spirit to fight.”

Margaret Macdonald, The Mysterious Garden (1911)

Time and sexism are needlework’s two great antagonists in the story Hunter tells, the first constantly threatening the intrinsic fragility of works made of fabric and thread, held together only by stitches, vulnerable to fading, tearing, fraying, disintegrating; the second constantly either refusing or usurping its standing as art, treasure, or historical artifact. Museum curators turn down collections that are then dispersed or lost forever. Women’s achievements — such as those of Margaret Macdonald (“my chosen muse, my guide), who was married to Charles Rennie Mackintosh — are subsumed into their male partners’ careers or otherwise discounted or ignored:

The Willow Tea Rooms on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street are now being restored. The renovations are screened by large hoardings that feature full-sized portraits of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Kate Cranston. There are none of Margaret. . . I ask about Margaret Macdonald; why is she not pictured outside? The woman I speak to is confused. She has never heard of her. ‘This was her work too,’ I say, ‘as much as that of Rennie Mackintosh.’ . . . How long does it have to take, I wonder to myself, for women artists to be properly and fairly acknowledged?

Yet though Hunter is often, and rightly, angry that it remains necessary to defend and explain and justify and restore the value of stitchery of all kinds, overall Threads of Life is more celebratory than confrontational. It makes the positive case for sewing’s “social, emotional and political significance,” and for its artistic significance as well, through its many accounts of what (mostly, though not exclusively) women have made with their needles and why this work has mattered.

hmong story cloth

Hunter’s chapters are organized thematically, which is effective if also, cumulatively, somewhat dizzying: their headings include “Power,” “Identity,” “Connection,” “Protest,” “Loss,” “Place,” “Art,” and “Work,” and in each she draws from different regions and periods to illustrate how stitching has contributed to communities and movements across history and around the world. Displaced Palestinian women in refugee camps first “safeguarded their village stitches” and then began to mingle styles, indicating “changing sensibilities, a strengthening of a national consciousness.” Women prisoners of war in Singapore used “sewing as a subterfuge to stay in contact with their menfolk.” The Soviet Union repressed nationalist expression in Ukraine, including “the wearing of national costume”; by insisting instead on a “secularised and theatricalised version,” they “engineered a natural loss of embroidery practice and knowledge” that had to be reclaimed after independence. Suffragettes in the early 20th century carried banners “sewn in ravishing needlework, employing the most beautiful of fabrics — brocades, silks, damasks, and velvets — and using materials deliberately displaced from the privacy of the drawing room to the public arena of demonstration.” Story-cloths made by the Hmong, “an Asian ethnic group of undisputed cultural antiquity” who have faced “centuries of ethnic division, warfare and enforced migration,” tell their stories “of stable rural life, village bombardment, jungle marches, the treacherous crossing of the Mekong River and their meagre existence in refugee camp.”

638px-Aids_QuiltStitching has been used for commemoration, solace, and survival, to record personal losses and as a means of political protest and consciousness raising. The NAMES Memorial Quilt became a focal point for raising awareness about AIDS: “it played its part in raising funds for research, better sex education, preventative measures and effective drugs.” Under Pinochet’s harsh rule in Chile, women created arpilleras (“embroideries sewn on burlap”) telling “of their own experiences, of kidnapped sons and daughters, of their search to find them, of the loneliness of not knowing what had befallen loved ones.” At first the regime overlooked these deceptively cheerful-looking crafts “as tools of subversion”–sexism providing women protective camouflage. But once their subversive intent was clear, “the women were followed, their homes raided.” Esther Krintz and her sister survived the Holocaust by pretending to be Catholics; the rest of her family was murdered by the Nazis. “We know this story,” Hunter tells us, “because Esther sewed it down”:

Her scene of when the Nazis arrived in Mniszek in September 1939 has her grandmother in a crisp sprigged apron standing on the steps of her lace-curtained house, her grandfather’s shoe lying where it fell as he was dragged from his home. Esther and her two sisters are tidy in floral dresses and plaited hair, watching helplessly as their world changes.

It was long after the events she records that Esther created her embroidered memoir, choosing “sewing as an act of restoration”. Needlework itself also takes time:

The choosing of a fabric, its cutting out to shape different images — the leaves of a trea, the bright red bow of a girl’s dress — have to be carefully done. The needle lingers and the stitcher is forced to pause from time to time to re-thread a needle, pick out and cut a new piece of thread, decide what to embroider next, what colour or stitch to use. It allows space for reminiscing, for remembering. So it must have been for Esther Nisenthal Krinitz on her slow journey of re-creation; one stitch a commemoration, and the next a farewell.

Embroidered Panel by Mary, Queen of Scots (V&A)

We get to know a lot of individual stitchers besides Esther, from Mary, Queen of Scots — embroidering away her long years in captivity and persistently, as Hunter points out, using her stitched signatures to assert her royal rights and claims — to Mary Lowndes, who “set up the Artists’ Suffrage League to supply the suffragette cause with bold, eye-catching campaigning artwork,” or Elizabeth Snitch, who “embroidered her Map of the County of Bedford Divided into its Hundreds in 1779 when she was twelve.” Elizabeth is one of many girls whose samplers point to more didactic or repressive uses of needlework, especially as it became singled out as women’s work and used to teach and discipline girls who might have preferred other modes of self-expression.

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress (1846)

Hunter doesn’t avoid other less inspiring facets of the history of her subject, including the dire conditions of seamstresses in Victorian London whose plight inspired Thomas Hood’s famous poem ‘The Song of the Shirt.” Class is often an element in how different kinds of needlework are seen and valued, as is race: for instance, Hunter looks at examples of the often detrimental effects of missionary or imperial incursions that forced changes to indigenous crafts and traditions. Economics play a big part in the story, especially around the transformation brought about by the invention of the sewing machine, which (like so many mechanized ‘solutions’) did not ultimately free people from labor but instead changed both the pace and the nature of their work. One of the costs Hunter emphasizes is the loss of the sociability needle workers had traditionally enjoyed:

Until the invention of the sewing machine, sewing had been companionable. Whether grouped with other women or sitting with the family, a woman could sew and still converse. The advent of the sewing machine changed how and where sewing was done. It became a solitary occupation at home, the silent chore of home workers or the toil of factory workers sewing in places where, amid the clang and clatter of machinery, conversation was impossible.

But, she goes on to note, it also gave women a rare opportunity for “independence and financial freedom” as they could establish themselves as dress makers on their own and work “no longer prey to the vagaries and exploitation of employers.”

foundlingThreads of Life covers so much it would be better for you to read it yourself if you’re interested, rather than for me to keep giving more examples! But there are two others I want to just touch on, because I found them so interesting, and because they represent the two poles of needlework that Hunter’s book moves between: the intensely intimate and personal keepsake, and the deliberately calculated public display. The first, of the former kind, is the “billet book” she looks through from London’s Foundling Hospital. Mothers who left their babies there were “encouraged to leave tokens, both as a memento and as proof of parentage” in case they were ever able to come back and find their child. The result is an intensely touching record of “that moment of choosing, of mothers deciding what remnant of themselves to leave, how best to communicate love, regret, hope, a small explanation to the child they will never see again”:

The tokens are tiny, just an inch or two of cloth, snipped from a shawl, a skirt, a blouse, a bonnet ribbon . . . Many are grimed in dirt, some thinned with wear, most dulled by poverty. . . . One child was left a pale blue satin-soft rosette. In the company of the other, more austere tokens, it appeared as luxuriant as a full-blown rose.

It’s a record of heartbreaking pathos, but at least one such story had a happy ending: “One woman, Sarah Bender, came back eight years later clutching her half of an embroidered heart and was reunited with her son.”

2019_The_Dinner_Party_2002.10_DWoodman_2018_DSC01916_4000w_600_525My last example, at the other extreme, is Hunter’s discussion of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party. I knew a bit about this famous art installation, but only vaguely, and not enough to understand that needlework played a big part in its concept and execution. My ignorance is no doubt partly because, as Hunter’s commentary explains, much of the significance of Chicago’s designs got lost in the (mostly male) critical fixation on the dinner plates, which are all I knew any details about. “The history of art,” Hunter acerbically notes,

is awash with graphic and stylised representations of male genitalia. But when Judy Chicago put vaginas on her plates the critics and curators of the art world were aghast. She had stepped across an invisible threshold of gendered taste, its male gatekeepers appalled that such a normal feature of women’s physicality should feature within an artwork dedicated to women’s lives.

But the plates were just part of the overall work, which included “large fabric runners to each place setting which referenced–symbolically and pictorially–each woman’s chronological place in history and provided greater insight to their narratives”:

A wide variety of needlework techniques was embraced. This was no tokenistic application of sewing to enhance the Dinner Party’s visual effects. Each runner was thoroughly researched, carefully considered and exquisitely executed: stitchers translating Chicago’s graphic designs to texture and colour through myriad sewing techniques, painstakingly finding ways to overcome technical challenges. It took two years to complete the runner for Hatshepsut (1503-1482 BCE), the female Egyptian pharaoh of the XXVIII dynasty, made from the finest linen and embroidered with hieroglyphic characters in praise of her reign.

maitzen-coverHatshepsut is also the subject of one of my longtime favorite historical novels, Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning, and this was one of many moments when the intrinsic interest of Hunter’s book was enhanced by ways it connected to longstanding interests of my own. In fact, my favorite chapter in my Ph.D. dissertation, which in an expanded form became my first book, was about real and metaphorical needlework in books by 19th-century women historians. It was prompted by my noticing how often needlework came up in works like the Strickland sisters’ Lives of the Queens of England as well as in reviews of them, and by discovering Elizabeth Stone’s 1840 book The Art of Needlework:

As Stone moves needlework from the margins to the mainstream of history, the figure of embroidery that for the male critics captured the combination of triviality and femininity characteristic of the new historiography becomes a symbol of true historical significance . . . Stone’s written account of needlework across cultures and through the ages accomplishes many of the same ends needlework itself furthered, particularly establishing or invoking a community of women whose common interests and skills unite them despite their many differences–urging a gender bond that transcends class barriers, historical distance, and ethnic variation. . . .

Hers is not a story of progress but of kinship, and her shifts from topic to topic, her accumulation of like examples and related incidents, reproduces in her pages the fellowship between women across the ages and across geographical and cultural divides fostered by the art of needlework and celebrated in her book.

Hunter does not mention Stone’s book (or mine, for that matter, though that’s hardly surprising!) but my description of The Art of Needlework fits Threads of Life almost as well. It is the kind of book that evokes both very specific appreciation of the art and craft it describes and a deep and far-reaching sense of community — both created with just needle and thread.

A sampler that now hangs (pressed and framed) in my office.

6 thoughts on ““With Just Needle and Thread”: Clare Hunter, Threads of Life

  1. Café Society March 27, 2020 / 6:31 am

    Fascinating Rohan. Your mention of the Willow Tea Rooms made me remember the only time I was ever there. It’s probably about 30 years ago now. I was in Glasgow for a conference and we were given the Saturday afternoon free. Several of us made a pilgrimage to the tearooms while we were sitting there enjoying afternoon tea this chap came up to us, probably well into his 70s or 80s, sat down at a spare chair and said “I want to read you my poem”. Which he then proceeded to do. As I recall, it wasn’t a particularly good poem, but somehow I think it typified Glasgow. I can’t imagine anyone having the gumption to do that anywhere else.


    • Rohan Maitzen March 28, 2020 / 10:08 am

      I haven’t been to Glasgow but my husband was there once and found it quite a quirky place!


  2. Kerry Clare (@KerryReads) March 31, 2020 / 10:11 am

    Wonderful post…and I don’t even know how to sew (though I did have tea at the Willow Tea Rooms once!)


  3. theresakishkan April 1, 2020 / 12:35 pm

    I love this post. That man in the writing group needed to read more (maybe Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work), to listen more, and to understand the importance of textiles to material history. Have you read Treasures in the Trunk, Mary Bywater Cross’s telling of the history of the Oregon Trail by examining and decoding the quilts made by women on that particular migration? Even the names of the quilts are evocative: Wandering Foot, Birds in Flight, various compass and star patterns, wheels (of fortune, or broken, or paired with stars).


    • Rohan Maitzen April 2, 2020 / 8:19 am

      That sounds fascinating!


  4. Cathy January 25, 2021 / 3:14 pm

    I hope she has also mentioned the Rajah quilt from Australia, which kept female transportees occupied, trained for future income, and better fed during their months-long voyage from England in 1841. They were taught how to quilt by Elizabeth Fry, an early prison reformer. Fascinating story with broad repercussions.


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