‘One of the most potent forms of Renaissance communication, when it was valued as a transmitter of intellect and emotion, when it was a conversation between people and they God. Back then, sewing mattered.’
Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle
By Clare Hunter
Published by Sceptre
ME, I’ve got a soft spot for Mies Boussevain-van Lennop. Why? First of all, because she was a Dutch resistance fighter who helped Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany. Secondly, because she founded a feminist political party, the Dutch Women’s Movement. And third, because of the way she wanted its members to dress.
They should make, she said, a liberation skirt. It would be a symbol of what women in the resistance had done and would do to help rebuild the country. To make it, every bit of fabric would remind them of something or somebody: a piece from a child’s coat, a dead son’s shirt, a Jewish yellow star, some parachute silk, a badge from a uniform. Whatever they used, it had to mean something. Often they worked together on those liberation skirts in quiet, companionable comradeship; later they would wear them with pride, stitched together like the new country they were also refashioning. In the five years from 1945, 4,000 liberation skirts were made.
Clare Hunter’s book Threads of Life is full of stories like that, which many of us might never have known (or at least I didn’t) but which show very clearly how what we sew chronicles who we are. Why, I wondered, has that idea of honouring of loved ones’ through patchwork never caught on? If we like to celebrate individualism through fashion, wouldn’t that be the ultimate way of doing so?
Read Hunter’s book, though, and you know what would happen next. Those liberation skirts would be end up being mass-produced, like the quilted, embroidered traditional kanthas of Bangladesh – no longer made (as they used to be) from dead relatives’ clothes but simplified and impersonal and sold as tourist souvenirs. Hand-stitched embroidered symbols of place and genealogy, where each village had different patterns, would be replaced by symbols of obvious national identity, as happened in Palestine. National dress in modified became blander, less threaded through with meaning, as happened in Ukraine under Soviet rule.
For all that, sewing can sometimes capture the quiddity, the vividness, the occasional oddness of the death-dulled past better than anything. Hunter provides plenty of examples. A Great Yarmouth woman locked up in a Victorian workhouse rages in wildly stitched capitals against her abandonment. A piece of embroidery turns up at a jumble sale in Bristol in which British women prisoners of war recorded their first sight of the infamous Changi jail after the fall of Singapore in 1942. In the archives of the London Foundling Hospital, as she gently touches the cloth tokens that eighteenth century women left behind with their abandoned babies, Hunter meditates movingly on 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.’
Threads of Life isn’t always about marginalised people. You could, for example, very easily tell much of the life story of Mary Queen of Scots through her clothing, embroidery, and dresses, and indeed Hunter does. This was, she points out, a time when embroidery was ‘one of the most potent forms of Renaissance communication, when it was valued as a transmitter of intellect and emotion, when it was a conversation between people and they God. Back then, sewing mattered’.
For most historians, though, it hasn’t and doesn’t. Go to Bayeux, listen to the audio guide, and there won’t be a single mention of the women (probably captured English noblewomen) who made its world-famous tapestry. Go to the National Museum of Scotland, and you won’t find a single banner made by women suffragettes on display (although, oddly enough, there is one for the Federation of Male Suffrage). Go to the Glasgow Style Gallery in Kelvingrove Museum and there’s not a stitch of the new style of needlework pioneered in the city in the early 20th century. When she visited the Willow Tea Rooms, Hunter was even more outraged to find no mention of her ‘chosen muse’ Margaret Macdonald, even though that project was as much her creation as of her husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
But Hunter’s book is a lot more than a necessary feminist correction for such oversights. Through its wide ambitions are spelled out in its subheading – ‘A History of the World Through the Eye of the Needle’, and though it is indeed quite fascinating about a whole range of sewing women, from the Miao of south-west China to the mothers (and grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who embroidered their headscarves with the names of their ‘disappeared’ loved ones, it is the personalised chapters which linger longest in the memory.
Oddly, perhaps, Threads of Life doesn’t begin with any explanation of how embroidery first got hold of Hunter’s imagination. Instead, it steps straight into history, and a heavily-structured narrative that breaks down the subject into categories such as Protest, Loss, Art, Captivity and Identity. Given the width of its ambition, this is undoubtedly necessary.
But there’s another book hiding beneath this objective overlay – smaller scale, Scottish, and personal – and fascinating though I found the rest, it was the stories based on her own experience as a banner-maker, community textile artist and textile curator that drew me in the most. This is, I must admit, a world about which I know nothing. In the past, if I came across exhibitions of work done by community sewing groups, while I would have been glad someone was putting them on, I would probably have mentally filed them away under the ‘well-meaning but worthy’ category and not bothered to have a look myself.
Threads of Life has made me change my mind and realise what I, in my condescension, have missed. To explain why, I must go back to a comment Hunter overheard while looking at the Great Tapestry of Scotland. ‘The standard of work is so uneven,’ a woman complained. And maybe it is, but so what? We’re all uneven, and the great tapestry of Scotland is great because it involved so many people; as near as could be managed, it is by us as well as about us.
The shellshocked soldiers returning from the First World War, who couldn’t do much with their lives, but who could gather – officers and men together – to stitch on the altar cloth for the Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1919, they were uneven too. The grieving mothers and lovers of AIDS victims who made such heart-warmingly colourful quilts to challenge the anonymity of the dead, they were also uneven. The banners made in the Eighties by the striking miners or the Greenham common women or the residents in the Buchanan Street Housing Association in Leith (Hunter’s first community textile project in 1985) might have been uneven too, but they were about causes bigger than their makers – and that, ultimately, is what matters.
It is one of the glories of Hunter’s book that it takes you into so many lives, many of which have been marginalised by the history books, just as sewing has been. Bewitchingly, it stitched together a past I knew little about. It has only one glaring fault, its publisher’s not its author’s. The press release comes with half a dozen pictures, from the NAMES Memorial Quilt filling the entirety of the Mall in Washington DC in 1996 (when it was seen by 14 million people), to the sumptuously coloured sewn story cloths of south-western China. Sadly, the book doesn’t have a single one.
Clare Hunter will be appearing along with Kassia St Clair at Aye Write! in Glasgow on 23 March at 4:45pm.
Threads of Life by Clare Hunter is published by Sceptre, price £20.
‘We have been living on a knife-edge for so long I know this is something big.’