The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine (1984) by Roszika Parker is a seminal text in contemporary textile and fibre art discourse. Centring on the history of embroidery and the role it played in the construction of the ‘feminine,’ the work has weathered much criticism since its original publication in 1984. While paving the way for textile and fibre art research today, the text has been criticised for its lack of diverse representation. Parker’s text has been cited countless times and has been subjected to increased scrutiny as textile and fibre practices have increased in popularity and firmly solidified their place within the fine art world. As a researcher focussing on textile and fibre art, how does The Subversive Stitch inform my thinking? My research centres on Australian contemporary artists who utilise textile and fibre art and are breaking down binary oppositions in the art world, including the art/craft hierarchy. Included in my research are Indigenous, queer and male artists.
Should The Subversive Stitch be criticised for its limited focus or should it be understood as a ground-breaking text written from a particular viewpoint at a particular time? The scope of the text is narrow, focussing on the history of embroidery in Britain and how embroidery and femininity have become intrinsically linked. Even the title itself is a somewhat misleading. The text’s focus is skewed towards the symbiotic link between embroidery and the feminine. Not until the final chapter does Parker turn her attention towards the twentieth century and include examples of more subversive embroidery from Russia and Europe. In my research, the text is vital in giving textile and fibre art recognition. But, as when reading any text, it is crucial to be aware of the limitations and possible flaws within the author’s argument.
Taking The Subversive Stitch as my jumping off point, I will examine how research and theory on textile art has evolved over the last 30 years, both critiquing and expanding the legacy of the original text. Examined alongside Parker’s work will be six contemporary texts which acknowledge, critique and build upon Parker’s insights. These texts, in dialogue with The Subversive Stitch, expand and update textile and fibre art scholarship. Embracing amateur and professional artists alongside queer and intersectional voices and makers domiciled outside Europe, this collection of texts demonstrates that textile work produced by the full gamut of humanity can still embrace the subversive nature of stitching, and its ability to be deployed in protest, as first articulated by Parker.
Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine. London: Bloomsbury, 1984.
The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine (1984) is the best-known text by Rozsika Parker, who wrote extensively on art history and psychoanalysis. Together with art historian Griselda Pollock she authored several well- known feminist texts, including Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981). Parker’s thesis in The Subversive Stitch is twofold. Firstly, she traces the history of embroidery from the Middle Ages to the late twentieth century. Here she charts the changing status of the medium from a revered skill practiced by men and women and governed by a guild, to an amateur hobby for women of means. For Parker the changing status of embroidery runs parallel with the changing ideals of appropriate ‘feminine behaviour.’ In addition, Parker highlighted examples throughout history of women secretly and subversively embedding rebellious messages in their stitching.1 Using historical examples Parker comprehensively mapped the evolution of embroidery (and subsequently other forms of needlework) and indelibly linked the ‘amateur’ status of embroidery to the female gender.
Gertsakis, Elizabeth. ‘Words of love – folk heterotopias.’ In Craft and Contemporary Theory, edited by Sue Rowley 65–75. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997.
Australian artist and writer Elisabeth Gertsakis has criticised Parker’s narrow scope. Gertsakis approaches the text from her own Greek-Australian viewpoint, stating that Parker wrote from her own cultural and socio-economic perspective, failing to account for the differing role textiles have held in cultures across the world. Gertsakis writes that ‘Parker has written very specifically about the history of her own educated middle-class culture.’2 Clarifying, Gertsakis states that while certain aspects of the history of textiles are common across cultures, in areas such as where her family are from in Greece, embroidery continued as a revered skill and integral to culture and society. She continues: ‘Though there may be coincidences in the effects of society and industry on women’s lives across different cultures and histories, The Subversive Stitch is an account that is totally foreign to me.’3 Parker’s English, Anglo, middle-class background coloured her writing. As Gertsakis has illustrated via her Greek heritage, stitching in many cultures is a valued and integral part of culture, rather than an amateur, female hobby. Not only did Parker’s account of textile and fibre skills neglect regions within Europe, she also failed to account for the important role textiles and fibre play in many Indigenous cultures across the globe.
Walker, Ellyn. ‘The Sovereign Stitch:
Re-reading embroidery as a critical feminist decolonial text.’ In The New Politics of the Handmade, edited by Anthea Black and Nicole Bursich 217–37. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.
Ellyn Walker offers further criticism of The Subversive Stitch’s narrow focus. Walker criticises Parker’s Eurocentric style, although concedes Parker’s argument was a product of second wave feminism. Describing the shortfalls of The Subversive Stitch, Walker states that ‘there remains enormous potential to build on Parker’s perspective, to decolonize and expand its reading, in particular, through the examination of embroidery outside of a settler-colonial feminist framework and beyond Eurocentric notions of border or national (and economic) sovereignty.’4 Walker responds to these absences in The Subversive Stitch by highlighting examples of Indigenous, anti- colonial and culturally significant forms of embroidery. When describing her contribution, Walker explains she is expanding on the work of Parker. She states that she is ‘participating in an expanded analysis of feminist visual and material culture, and contemporary craft theory, informed by intersectional and decolonial approaches.’5 Walker’s generative approach demonstrates the limitations The Subversive Stitch poses as well as its potential to be brought into contemporary discussions.
McBrinn, Joseph. Queering the Subversive Stitch. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.
Art historian and academic Joseph McBrinn attempts to fill some of the void left by Parker with regards to men, embroidery and stitching. McBrinn describes Parker’s book as ground-breaking and compelling, with needlework being ‘both symbol of oppression and tool of liberation in women’s lives.’6 However, he laments the omission and marginalisation of men from the world of stitching. In a similar thesis to Parker’s, McBrinn seeks to explore the construction of masculinity, those who do not conform to the ‘ideals’ of masculinity and the role of stitching in those constructs. McBrinn examines perceptions of men who stitched in the Victorian era, modern period and contemporary times. Utilising examples throughout, McBrinn demonstrates how stitching can be mobilised by men to ‘queer-y’ the dominant perception of masculinity. At the centre of The Subversive Stitch’s argument, Parker links the relegation of embroidery as a skill to the enforced ideals of femininity. Accordingly, Parker chose not to discuss instances of men who practice embroidery and other textile or fibre-based skills. While Parker explained that both men and women embroidered in the Middle Ages, her focus remained on the evolution of embroidery and its links to women and prescribed femininity. Far from criticising Parker’s stance, McBrinn expands the debate, crediting Parker’s work with being central to all discussions on needlework. Additionally, McBrinn credits Parker with compelling him to further unpack the gendered hierarchy of cultural production and the legacy these ‘rules’ have left.7
Bryan-Wilson, Julia. Fray. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Fray, by arts writer and academic Julia Bryan-Wilson, examines amateur versus professional divides in art and craft as well as the mobilisation of textiles and fibre for subversive and political means. Bryan-Wilson describes The Subversive Stitch as ‘pivotal’ and states that Parker’s account shaped academic thought about textiles. She writes that Parker provided ‘a model for thinking through how craft methods have been coded, deployed and politicized over time.’8 This codification forms the basis of Bryan-Wilson’s examination of three case studies. Across each case study Bryan-Wilson pairs a work of amateur origin against a work of art, with each pairing exploring similar political themes. Harmony Hammond’s floor works are placed in dialogue with the handmade costumes of queer performance group The Cockettes. Political oppression and protest is examined via Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña’s works and traditional South American arpilleras. Made by hand, arpilleras are small, traditional textile works and each one carries a unique narrative. During the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, women began encoding arpilleras with the horrors brought against Chileans by the regime to disseminate these stories around the world. Bryan-Wilson’s third case study focuses solely on the well-known NAMES Project Memorial AIDS Quilt and both amateur and professional artistic responses to the project. Bryan-Wilson’s book, while not exploring femininity as Parker’s work did, builds on Parker’s legacy by exploring the political and subversive streak running through textile and fibre works. Additionally, Bryan-Wilson’s examination of art, craft, professional, amateur, non-Western and queer making expands the scope of enquiry initiated by Parker in The Subversive Stitch.
Auther, Elissa. String, Felt, Thread:
The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
In String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, Elissa Auther examines the subjugation of textile and fibre art from a material perspective. Auther credits most of the contemporary hierarchy of art, craft and their materials to the work of Clement Greenberg – particularly his writing on kitsch. Seeking to rebut Greenberg’s hierarchy, Auther demonstrates the repeated mobilisation against materials such as string, felt and thread in American art from the 1960s. Auther credits Parker and The Subversive Stitch as influencing her thinking and shaping her response to the history of stitching, femininity and the subversive power of textiles and fibre. Here, she demonstrates both the positive aspects of subversive stitching and the problematic association with the feminine. She states that Parker’s ‘openness to both the possibilities and problems associated with women’s needlecraft offers a welcome correction to the dismissive attitude toward feminist art and activism around the elevation of women’s traditional craft practices.’9 Auther’s work references The Subversive Stitch on a less specific level than other texts, instead choosing to build upon Parker’s legacy and the steps towards reclaiming and elevating textiles and fibre that Parker initiated through her work.
Hunter, Clare. Threads of Life:
A History of the World Through the eye of a needle. Great Britain: Sceptre, 2020.
Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle is a digestible social history of textiles and fibre. Hunter, a curator, textile artist and banner maker, takes the reader on a journey through both personal and historical examples of the subversive and reparative nature of textiles. Examples in the book range from the subversive stitching of Mary Queen of Scots to the apilleras of Chile to traditional textiles made by the Hmong peoples to quilts made by female prisoners of war in Changi (Singapore) during World War Two through how the invention of the sewing machine impacted female labour.10 While this text is a social history rather than art historical discussion, the sheer volume and breadth of the examples cited by Hunter demonstrate the continuing power of textiles and fibre as modes of art production.
While these authors and others may have criticised the narrow viewpoint of The Subversive Stitch they have also expanded the scope of the original text and demonstrated how it continues to be influential in academic research into textile and fibre art today. The subversive elements in stitching which Parker isolated have persisted and flourished since the publication of the original text. Spawning countless exhibitions and articles, ‘subversive stitching’ has become a foundational stone of both textile and fibre art, and in the feminist art movement. The ground-breaking nature of the text, despite its limitations which are now very evident, cannot be ignored. In my writing and research, to best represent textile and fibre artists from around the world I feel that Parker’s work is crucial for its important contribution and for its ability to be expanded upon to encapsulate the truly global nature of textile and fibre art. The legacy of The Subversive Stitch continues to unfold.
Bree Di Mattina is an emerging arts writer and curator from Meanjin/ Brisbane. Her lifelong passion for fabric and fibre and desire to celebrate and elevate women’s art has culminated in her current PhD research into contemporary textile and fibre art in Australia.
‘Words of love – folk heterotopias,’ in Craft and Contemporary Theory, ed. Sue Rowley (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997), 68.
of Life: A history of the world through the eye of a needle (Great Britain: Sceptre, 2020).