In 1984, feminist art historian Rozsika Parker published ‘The Subversive Stitch – Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine’, in which she explored the sociocultural and gendered connotations of sewing and stitching across Western history. Now in 2019, TJ Boulting presents ‘Subversive Stitch’, a group show examining the legacy of embroidery today – another step in the creation of a contemporary canon of fabric as a serious artistic medium.
In her ground-breaking book, Parker argues that from the early modern period onwards, embroidery was construed as feminine; the dominant male discourse associated it with domesticity and craft, in opposition to the masculine higher-ranking fine art mediums of painting and sculpture. However, Parker also draws attention to examples of women who have stitched subversive messages into their sewing or harnessed its perceived femininity for empowerment, particularly after the cultural reclamation of embroidery by the Arts and Crafts, and suffrage movements. She wrote about “the contradictory forms of embroidery, demonstrating how it has been both a source of pleasurable creativity and oppression. Embroidery has been the means of educating women into the feminine ideal, and of proving that they have attained it – witness the history of samplers, for instance – but it has also proved a weapon of resistance to the painful constraints of femininity.”
The potential power of the stitch has been picked up by women artists with increasing confidence over the course of the 20th century. This is particularly true of modernist figures such as Anni Albers and contemporaries of Parker like Louise Bourgeois, whose work prompted a reassessment of what it means for female artists to work with fabric.
The show at TJ Boulting has a snappier title than the book that inspired it – perhaps a hint that the gallery aims to re-frame this “women’s work” for the 21st century. The exhibition’s primary focus is on the medium of stitched fabric itself, rather than exclusively on women’s gendered role in producing it, allowing for nuance, openness and differences of approach. This is a feminist show, but it doesn’t restrict itself to only showing work with an explicitly feminine message.
For example, Lilah Fowler’s contribution ‘3609’ (2017) explores the connection between weaving and computer programming, highlighting the historic use of machines to produce complex patterns in materials as an early example of automation in manufacturing. Yelena Popova also uses weaving to examine the materiality of the digital in a tapestry that acts as a physical “screen shot” of an earlier algorithm-generated computer work.
Other works on display deal with ecological themes, such as James Merry’s embroidered vintage sportswear. Merry (whose inclusion in the show indicates that embroidery is no longer solely a female occupation) stitches delicate flowers and leaves onto the logos of well-known consumer brands, encroaching on the company’s cultural identity and suggesting a symbolic resistance by nature. Marianne Thoermer’s work similarly deals with organic growth, using thick thread to recall the microbial and the bacterial.
There are also some unabashedly feminist pieces in ‘Subversive Stitch’, and they are some of the strongest in the show. Charlotte Edey’s powerful hand-finished tapestries challenge the gendered politics of space, making a case for a radical feminine space: an imaginary landscape inhabited only by the female. Gal Leshem likewise contributes a powerful offering with ‘And She is a Mummer and Queen’, a hanging sculpture made of soft fabric. The work’s title is taken from Natan Alterman’s 1957 poem ‘The Spinner’, which highlights the historic role of women in creating the fabrics that clothed everyone from kings to beggars. At the end of the poem, the spinner of the title makes clothes for herself:
“And she put on the robe of her weaving —
no brighter ever was seen.
And now she is thief and beggar,
and she is mummer and queen.”
In these verses, spinning becomes a tool for self-determination, allowing the woman to create her own identity through her active role in the production of her clothing.
Roszika Parker wrote, “Limited to practising art with needle and thread, women have nevertheless sewn a subversive stitch, managing to make meanings of their own in the very medium intended to foster polite self-effacement.” ‘Subversive Stitch’ at TJ Boulting suggests that work with fabric has changed in status since Parker was writing in the 1980s. Fully accepted as a legitimate medium for art, there is little politeness or self-effacement here. Instead, men and women are using the stitch to empower, to challenge, and to make meanings with a confidence that is entirely deserved.