A Review of "The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine" by Rozsika Parker

Rozsika Parker tackles the long and slow history of Embroidery in The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. Parker’s history of embroidery is expansive as it covers embroidery from the 12th century all the way to the 21st century. However, her history is only related to the Western Christian world and neglects to mention embroidery as an art form in any other countries or religions. Parker’s The Subversive Stitch highlights embroidery’s role as a “strictly” feminine art/craft form, and why in its expansive history as a medium we view it this way. While dense at times Parker’s writing is engaging and continuously left the reader wanting to know more. Parker states in the foreword “[t]o know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women” (ix).

Parker tries to classify embroidery as either art or craft. The art world with mediums such as painting, and sculpting are often male dominated fields. A man creating a work of art can often distance himself from his work and make his art entirely not personal. Whereas a woman creating works of art does not have this luxury. Her art will always be seen as intrinsically feminine. She is unable to distance herself from her work and therefore her work will always be personal. However, when a woman creates paintings or sculptures or other forms of “high art” it is always seen as “art”. When a woman embroiders or even knits it is always seen as “craft” (5). “The art/craft hierarchy suggests that art made with thread and art made with pain are intrinsically unequal: that the former is artistically less significant. But the real difference between the two are in terms of where they are made and who makes them” (5).  Parker goes on to define embroidery as art, “I have decided to call embroidery art because it is, undoubtedly, a cultural practice involving iconography, style, and a social function” (6).

Femininity, Parker argues, and embroidery are fused (11). Parker’s history, as stated before, is very expansive. The history of embroidery cannot easily be summed up, just as the history of femininity cannot be easily summed up. Through its expansive history embroidery has always “provided a source of pleasure and power for women, while being indissolubly linked to their powerlessness” (11). This is important. Embroidery is a sedentary medium, that requires patience, time, and presence. “But it can also leas women to an awareness of the extraordinary constraints of femininity, providing at times a means of negotiating them, and at other times provoking the desire to escape the constraints” (11). In these constraints of embroidery as a medium we can see that embroidery is femininity actualized.

As previously mentioned Parker’s history is quite a Western Christian one. The role of embroidery in Christianity should not be understated or undervalued, it is however the focus of at least four of the eight chapters of The Subversive Stitch. At times Parker’s history of Christian embroidery is dense to say the least. It’s also hard to follow if the reader is not a familiar with Christianity from the Medieval period to the early 18th century. Parker’s passages at times need a companion book of explanation of the event she’s is referencing. Again, the importance of embroidery in the Christian Church should not be understated or undervalued. However, Parker’s history of embroidery in Christianity is overstated. Parker never mentions embroidery in Judaism, Islam, or Eastern Religions (let alone Eastern countries). Parker’s history of embroidery is that of the Christian Church in England. Which, of course, is small view of a very expansive medium.

Suffragette Banner c.1911

Suffragette Banner c.1911

Suffragettes with their parasols

Suffragettes with their parasols

The best parts of The Subversive Stitch are in the last few chapters. Parker truly covers embroidery’s revolutionary history quite well. From the Victorian women fighting for suffrage to the feminists of the 1970s Parker showcases embroidery in its transition from private sphere into the public sphere. British suffragettes embroidered banner, handkerchiefs, parasols. Embroidered in the suffragette’s colors of green, purple, and white parasols countered the argument that suffragettes were anything but feminine (198). The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s sought to reject the rigid sex roles of the day. “Embroidery also evokes the stereotype of the virgin in opposition to the whore, an infantilizing representation of women’s sexuality” (2). Embroidery was seen as a gentile, feminine medium with little relation to sex or sexual activities. However, artist like Catherine Riley sought to reject “the art’s association with the repression and containment of women’s sexuality in the name of feminine purity” (204). Contemporary embroidery of female artist is used as a tool for women to speak, and be heard through a feminine medium. What artists like Tracey Emin have to say is decidedly NOT feminine but as Parker continuously points out in The Subversive Stitch embroidery’s notions of right and wrong, just like femininity is socially constructed.

Tracey Emin,  Everyone I Have Ever Slept With,  1963-1995 (exterior)

Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995 (exterior)

Tracey Emin,  Everyone I Have Ever Slept With,  1963-1995 (interior)

Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995 (interior)

Embroidery as art and craft is, and for the most part will always be, intrinsically feminine. One thing remains the same embroidery as either art or craft is traditionally made by female hands. But that doesn’t make it polite, or less revolutionary. Embroidery of today is very radical compared to the embroidery of the 12th century. Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine shows the reader that embroidery is here to stay, and it is decidedly not “your grandmother’s embroidery”.

Jenny Hart,  This Work Never Ends , 2002

Jenny Hart, This Work Never Ends, 2002

Hannah Hill, date unknown,

Hannah Hill, date unknown,

Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin

Ellen KuntzComment