Young female artists are choosing to embroider their politics to fight against the patriachy and throwaway digital culture.

In 2018, there have never been more feminist exhibitions, events and publications. It is clear that feminism is firmly back on the agenda, and so is working with textiles and embroidery. You might have once considered stitching as an activity for your gran – for years craft has been belittled and marginalised – but contemporary textiles are far from twee.

In recent years, the medium has begun to regain its reputation as a significant art form, and young artists have begun to explore cloth to address identity politics, not solely that of feminist issues, and as a retort to society’s reliance on technology. In this digital era, we often find ourselves engaging with culture and the world through screens, so the ability to feel and smell cloth, engages our dulled senses and is a breath of fresh air for us younger generations.

The rise in young artists embracing textiles echoes the recent revival of film photography in which we enjoy the proces and delay in gratification, one we have rarely experienced in this immediate western culture of phone cameras and Google.

Embroidery by
Hannah Hill

“I think a younger generation of women are invested in exploring and challenging the textile works of feminists in the 60s and 70s,” says 24-year-old Sarah Joy-Ford, an artist who works mainly in quilting, and also curated the Cut Cloth exhibition in Manchester’s Portico Library last summer. “Cloth is offering a potent site for exploring materiality, meaning making and continuing to challenge the patriarchy.”

Cut Cloth was an investigation into the shifting role of textiles within contemporary feminist art practices and a reflection on its value as a specifically feminist mode of expression. Work by artists including Hannah Hill, Eleanor Edwardes and Sarah Joy-Ford proved the medium’s new relevance, often referring to and incorporating the digital, creating an updated juxtaposition of technology and hand-embroidered cloth.

Hannah Hill’s hand-sewn meme, that took 15 hours to create, has a much greater impact than one knocked up on an app in five minutes, and it is the incorporation of these two seemingly incompatible ideas, textiles and the digital, that has pushed the craft into the 21st century, sparking interest in the young.

“The global opening of the world has had an impact on the way the west views textiles”

“I was fascinated by how artists were disrupting the perceived placid and regulatory nature of domestic crafts, in order to make challenges to patriarchal structures and oppression,” Joy-Ford explains to me. “Turning what had been a tool of oppression, associated with girlishness and obedience into a tool for subversion and disruption appealed greatly to me.”

A document was also produced, which looked toward contemporary practitioners and writers to reflect on the importance of these feminist legacies in textile art, including an essay by Jennifer Harris, ex-Deputy Director and Curator of Textile at The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. Harris has previously worked on two projects exploring the tangled connotations of textiles, the first an exhibition at the Whitworth in 1988, called The Subversive Stitch, and the second a symposium held at the V&A called The Subversive Stitch Revisited, in 2013.

Both were inspired by Rozsika Parker’s book ‘The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine’ and were collaborations with Pennina Barnett, a London-based writer and curator.

“Before Parker, nearly all writing on embroidery focused on style and technique,” explains Jennifer Harris. “After reading Parker my approach became much more political. Not only did it affect the way I displayed the cases of embroidery in the Whitworth’s own collection, the impact of the book was much broader than that. It made me review the way that I saw exhibitions as a whole, that the exhibition project could become polemical. Harris goes on to explain that while many artists and writers are now critiquing the book (naturally, given it was written over 30 years ago), the fact that it is still repeatedly referred to in projects like Cut Cloth shows how important it was and is.

Parker’s book mapped the decline in the status of embroidery from the Middle Ages to the 19 th century: from a high art form practised by both men and women, to one that was seen as lowly and feminine – from an admired professional art to a marginalised domestic craft.

Embroidery by
Hannah Hill


“In the 13th and 14 th centuries, both men and women embroidered,” says Harris. “Textiles in Britain were highly regarded and referred to as Opus Anglicanum, Latin for ‘English work’, but as it became more associated with the feminine and the domestic, in the 19th and 20 th centuries, its status declined rapidly.”

Beyond Western Europe, however, which is the focus of Parker’s book, we can see a very different tale. “Looking globally, you will increasingly find that textiles are not at the bottom of the pile hierarchically,” says Harris. “In many parts of Africa, for example, textiles are a very significant art medium, as well as in Japan and parts of Sout Asia. The global opening of the world has had an impact on the way the West views textiles.”

The revival of textiles as a significant medium has a renewed interest in feminism to thank, but also exposure to different cultures, and it now holds new connotations, as a metaphor for the exclusion of other social groups.

“In other words, textiles have begun to represent ‘the other’ and, by that, I mean that they now represent LGBTQ, the feminine, the queer, and can also be used really potently to represent nonwestern culture,” says Harris.

“Because textiles are so associated with the everyday, they come freighted with social and personal history which means you can use textiles as an art medium to address the politics of identity in a really powerful way, which has become very significant in recent years.”

“In my own work, and throughout the Cut Cloth book, there is a commitment to de-stabilising narratives and meanings associated with feminism, textile practice and their complicated relationship,” says Joy-Ford.

“There are a growing number of artists, including myself, using textile practice as a strategy for queer world making. These queer practices proclaim cloth’s historical closeness to resistance, disobedience and outsider-ship from institutionalism whilst embracing the instability of cloth, culture and identity.”

Cloth offers a tactile experience which is lapped up by the young and is a chance to enjoy the “offline”.
It is everything that our online throwaway culture is not, and the more communities that textiles represents, the more powerful its message. The cloth is the lord of the outsider, and these are the women of the cloth.


Galchester Issue One 