The Material of A Movement: Women’s Free Speech in the Textile Tradition
Apr 15, 2021
A linen sampler made by 17-year-old English nursery maid Elizabeth Parker in 1830, and a ‘Pussyhat’ hand-knitted by architect Jayna Zweiman in Los Angeles, 2017 – aside from both being held in the V&A Museum’s stores, what could these objects possibly have in common?
Sewn in sharp red cross-stitch, Parker’s embroidered white silk sampler narrates her experiences of mistreatment working as a servant in a Sussex country estate. Though hidden from view, it acts as an extraordinarily defiant open letter in an era in which women, certainly of her stature, were not allowed to put pen to paper.
“As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully entrust myself.”
– Elizabeth Parker
Zweiman’s candy pink one-size-fits-all cap, on the other hand, is one of the millions now in existence as part of The Pussyhat Project. The idea was conceived with a friend and screenwriter Krista Suh in 2016, during crochet classes at the Little Knittery yarn store in L.A. At the same moment, a (now infamous) piece of audio was released, recording US President Donald Trump boasting that he could just “grab” any woman “by the pussy.” Over 600 international Women’s Marches ensued in protest and while Suh was set to march in Washington DC, Zweiman was injured and unable. Together they devised the Pussyhat: transforming marches across the world into a sea of pink in a bold statement of global togetherness, while giving those that couldn’t attend a visible way to speak out for women’s rights.
Almost 200 years apart, one narrative and one symbolic, one private and one overtly public, Parker’s sampler and the Pussyhat are examples of female freedom of speech through craft.
Historically viewed as domestic - used to keep women inside, quietly following a neat pattern - textile crafts have in fact been integral to female activism for centuries. In British examples alone, the 19th-century anti-slavery campaign was largely funded by organised needleworkers crocheting pro-abolitionist merchandise, in the early 20th-century sewing groups created the hundreds of embroidered banners used in the British suffrage movement, and it was shortly after that such groups turned their hands to making ‘divided cycling skirts.’
This was all able to take place due to the disbelief that craft could be subversive - makers even played into its supposed ‘feminine’ qualities. Anti-slavery merchandise was intentionally delicate and decorative, including gentle images of female slaves; suffragettes photographed themselves sewing to promote the message that if they received the vote, they would continue to be the homemakers they were expected to be; and divided cycling skirts were literally cloaked trousers. Even today, millions of marching women hatted in pink yarn are likely to be safer than if they were wearing anything less stereotypically feminine.
In the 1970s, Second Wave feminist artists like Judy Chicago attempted to elevate textile art from the demeaning definition of ‘women’s work’ and use it instead as a platform to voice the women’s movement, therefore inverting its associations with oppression.
When Chicago’s seminal The Dinner Party (1974-79) premiered at The Brooklyn Museum in 1979, it was dismissed as “failed art” by New York Times critic Hilton Kramer - elaborating that “nothing more obvious or accessible or didactic has been seen in an exhibition of contemporary art in a very long time.” Made with 400 volunteers and combining a multitude of crafts and textile techniques, this vast installation imagines a sitting of 39 ground-breaking female artists, astronomers, scholars, orators, scientists, philosophers, religious and state leaders. Each place at The Dinner Party was set with handmade tableware atop needlework runners, which illustrated the diner’s pioneering discoveries: together presenting an alternative narrative to a commonly male-dominated history.
Visitors were welcomed to The Dinner Party by six woven banners which laid out Chicago’s visions for equality, and were hand-woven in the style of Renaissance-era Aubusson tapestry. Traditionally this technique is carried out from behind the looms so weavers cannot see the designs as they work - acting simply as a labour force. Chicago developed custom-built looms so that her team could see their work as they wove, enabling them to take agency over the way they translated her designs into thread.
Whether it was the “accessibility” of its historic tapestry-work, or the “didactic" nature of laying out women's achievements that irritated Kramer, The Dinner Party is now celebrated as a revolutionary work of feminist art.
Given the mechanisation of textile making today, their growing appeal to artists may seem surprising. The reasons for this are at least two-fold: a reaction to the fast and smooth life in the digital age through embracing a slow and often imperfect practice; and a recognition that craft is still undervalued, intrinsically bound up with female histories. A third contributing element is the translatability of the medium to social media, mainly Instagram, as the platform enables artists to share their work widely and accessibly, through a small, close-up lens ideal for intricate embroidery.
Using Instagram to share her embroidery pieces tackling sexual identity, police brutality and gender equality, London-based artist Hannah Hill came to recognition after publishing Arthur Meme in 2016. A small stitched square, perhaps a contemporization of Parker’s 19th-century sampler in its bite-sized character limit and Instagram format, was part of a stream of memes featuring Arthur the aardvark that went viral that year. With the cartoon character’s clenched fist gripping a scarlet-threaded knitting needle, it expressed Hill’s frustration at the underestimation of female power and itself went viral with over 18,000 Likes on Instagram. Hill’s work sees popular culture, social politics and heritage come together - following the rich textiles history within her Guyanese family and working in this way as, she says, “the more I got into feminism, the angrier I became that textiles were considered ‘women’s work.”
Tapestry has been taken to the screen in a different way by artists The Singh Twins, identical Sikh sisters who grew up in Northern England and whose lightbox artworks combine Indian miniature tradition and tapestry with digitally-created imagery. Via eleven portraits of women, their 2018 series Slaves of Fashion examines the human labour cost of 2000 years of textile manufacturing, rooted in India and reaching out to every corner of the world it touched. Recognising that these practices are ongoing, the series intends to raise debate around ethical consumerism and industry.
“We wanted to provoke the question: if modern society finds trade practices associated with colonialism morally unacceptable, then how can it allow similar practices to continue today?”
– The Singh Twins
Directly engaging in these practices through her personal experience, and making use of the global platform of Instagram to raise awareness, is emerging Lahore-based Hazara artist Fatima Khademi.
Khademi grew up in Quetta, a region in Pakistan in which over half a million Hazara people live, having fled persecution in Afghanistan. Here, she spent her childhood weaving Persian carpets for sale, always following a compulsory pattern determined by the buyer. For her 2021 durational performance The Noise of Silence, Khademi set about reclaiming her childhood occupation: returning to Quetta and spending a week at a child’s loom, weaving not to any predetermined design but selecting her coloured threads according to what she could hear. As she worked, Khademi played audio from her homeland in Afghanistan - news broadcasts, podcasts describing Hazara history, and Afghan folk and pop music. Culminating in an abstract tapestry steeped in personal history, each day of her performance was filmed and shared on Instagram, with written translations of the Persian audio allowing international audiences to engage and understand.
As Anni Albers said “threads were among the earliest transmitters of meaning,” and they remain powerful as a female-led, necessary, and multi-layered form of communication.
From quiet revolution in this stirring work by Khademi or Parker’s secret sampler, to punchy protest in hats, memes and pixelated print, the textile arts continue to provide space for conversation about women’s rights - adapting to the differing situations that women find themselves in worldwide.
Chloe Hodge is a curator and producer with ten years’ experience working with international artists and institutions, and holds a Masters in Curating from the Royal College of Art. Chloe specialises in digital and participatory practice, and has developed digital commissions for Biennale of Sydney, Taipei Biennial, Crossrail and Folkestone Triennial. Chloe has focused on furthering the work of emerging digital artists via projects in collaboration with Google, and a two-year online commissions programme at UP Projects, producing virtual and augmented reality artworks to immersive audio-visual installations.
Chloe recently held the position of Head of Exhibitions for YBA Marc Quinn, where she managed projects for the International Rescue Committee, the City of Vienna, Belvedere and Albertina museums, Yale University and The State Hermitage Museum. In terms of further exhibitions practice, Chloe has also held roles with The Royal Academy of Arts and UBS Art Collection in London, where she coordinated a world-touring programme for Annie Leibovitz.
Chloe is currently curating and producing a digital commission by a New York-based female artist to be installed at Fondation Beyeler in Basel in September 2021 and the Serpentine Galleries in London, in mid-2022. She has just completed a series of international digital artist commissions for Platform Asia, funded by Arts Council England.
Chloe writes for various arts publications and produces catalogue texts and essays for V-A-C Museum, Venice and its Centre for Experimental Museology, Moscow which together champion new media art.