Subversive Stitchery

Contemporary needlework comes in many guises; from the twee to the political via the subversive and disturbing. Mr X Stitch, "the number one contemporary embroidery and needlecraft blog" showcases the breadth of these (including my own embroidery). Mr X Stitch himself, the blog's founder, is Jamie Chalmers, a self-styled "manbroiderer" who gets a mention in Rozsika Parker's book The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine.

Recently, subversive craft has really come into its own; taking the form of everything from sewn swear words to "craftivist" protest banners to knitted and crocheted graffiti.

Crystal Gregory's Invasive Crochet
Ami Grinsted, a recent graduate from Falmouth's Contemporary Crafts course, created an embroidered series on the Egyptian Revolution. Ami cross stitches on wilfully difficult surfaces; wood (which she drills holes into to sew through) and wire mesh. As a review of her work on Mr X Stitch says, "Ami chooses to increase the tension (of her sewn subject) by stitching through hard surfaces".



Embroidering a protest placard seems to my mind to be a reference to the old embroidered trade union and suffrage banners. Suffrage banners are a perfect early example of the "woman's work" of embroidery being employed for a subversive cause.



In the 1970s needlework was reclaimed by the Feminist Movement, for example by the fine artist Kate Walker. In The Subversive Stitch, Walker is quoted as saying that she has "never worried that embroidery's association with femininity, sweetness, passivity and obedience may subvert my work's feminist intention. Femininity and sweetness are part of women's strength. Passitivity and obedience, moreover, are the very opposite of the qualities necessary to make a sustained effort in needlework. What's required are physical and mental skills, fine aesthetic judgement in colour, texture and composition; patience during long training; and assertive individuality of design (and consequent disobedience of aesthetic convention). Quiet strength need not be mistaken for useless vulnerability."

My work (though possibly in a slightly more subtle way!) follows in the traditions of Julie Jackson's Subversive Cross Stitch.

A Subversive Cross Stitch pattern

My Don't be an art school arsehole embroidery

Though I choose to embroider on old linens, the sentiments I stitch upon them are new; this results in a fusion of past and present, acknowledging embroidery's lineage whilst keeping it contemporary. Like many other contemporary embroiderers, I take what could be a twee and cloying pattern and add a healthy dose of irony, with tongue in cheek punning and verse. In other pieces I embroider a line from one of my poems on love in the modern urban environment. I embroider on linens passed down to me by my grandmother, in turn handed down to her by my great grandmother. In this way I acknowledge embroidery's past as "woman's work" whilst simultaneously subverting it.

My work may not be overtly feminist (aside from the fact that it subverts what is traditionally thought of as "women's work"), but it is often subversive, sending up artist clichés in a humorous and self-deprecating manner.

One of my embroideries exploring and poking fun at the "tortured artist/writer" cliché
In The Subversive Stitch, Rozsika Parker explains how at one time embroidery was thought of as "almost a secondary female sexual characteristic". Today, "manbroiderers" like Jamie Chalmers and Richard Saja challenge that assertion.

Richard Saja's work
My embroidery is informed by that of my peers, particularly those, such as Iviva Olenick and Joetta Maue, who explore themes of love. I am incredibly grateful to the always supportive online embroidery community on mrxstitch.com, Flickr, and here on Blogger. They continue to inspire and encourage me.