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Stitch in time: How needlework has created huge political and social impact across the world

One of the Stirling tapestries. The set of tapestries is entitled 'The Hunt of the Unicorn'. Stirling Castle, Scotland, UK.
One of the Stirling tapestries. The set of tapestries is entitled 'The Hunt of the Unicorn'. Stirling Castle, Scotland, UK.

THROUGHOUT history, we are often told that pens have been mightier than swords, but the humble needle and thread has been just as powerful.

Across the world, needlework has had huge political and social impact.

Author Clare Hunter has uncovered what she describes as “a history of the world through the eye of a needle” in her book, Threads Of Life.

From craftily politicised embroideries by an imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, to the therapeutic stitching that saved shell-shocked First World War soldiers, the writer and community textile artist tells the story of men and women who have used the language of sewing to make their voices heard.

“Having been involved in community textile artistry for more than 30 years, I’ve long been interested in the impact of needlework and its emotional impact,” said Clare, whose mum taught her to sew when she was little.

“There is so much hidden history related to the craft, so many stories, and it was like entering an Aladdin’s cave of tales during the three years I spent researching.”

Embroidery stretches as far back as 30,000BC, but Clare picks up the story with the 11th Century Bayeux Tapestry, a 70m-long cloth depicting the story of the Norman Conquest of England, and concludes with last year’s Processions march through Edinburgh, which marked 100 years of some women receiving the vote.

Once seen as a dated pastime, Clare says it’s increasing in popularity – and is still a tool for prompting change.

“I think the digital age has left people yearning for something that feels individual and comes from the heart, and needlework and other crafts are coming back into fashion,” she continued. “Needlework is tactile and emotive.

“The Craftivists Collective is a group who use sewing as a form of protest.

“They are full of fun ideas and make smaller, meaningful pieces, such as handkerchiefs embroidered with the words ‘Don’t blow it’, which they hand out to board members when discussing better rates of pay for their workers.”

Clare has been delighted by the positive reaction to her work, which is Radio 4’s Book Of The Week, starting tomorrow.

“I just hoped people wouldn’t think it was a stupid idea,” she smiled.

“I attended a creative writing course at Dundee University and, for my final dissertation, I wrote about sewing.

“The lecturer said it was something I could turn into a book.

“I’ve been flabbergasted by the reaction – I had no idea people would find it as interesting as I do.”

QUILTS OF COURAGE

When Singapore fell to the Japanese during the Second World War and tens of thousands of Allied troops surrendered, hundreds of the prisoners were women.

Separated from the male members of their family, who were imprisoned in an adjoining camp, they had no way of getting in touch.

Then one of the PoWs, Ethel Mulvaney, proposed using sewing as subterfuge to keep in contact.

“The women each sewed something personal into their allotted six-inch square piece of fabric and their relatives in the male camp would know they were still alive,” Clare said.

Needlework had been introduced into prisons in the 1800s by humanitarian Elizabeth Fry, who thought it would provide women with skills which could lead to employment, and also calm frustrated spirits.

Today, there are more than 30 male prisons across the UK organising needlework through social enterprise, Fine Cell Work, which has received a number of commissions from places such as the Tate Modern and the V&A.

 

STITCHED TOGETHER

The First World War left more than just visible scars in the soldiers.

Countless troops were traumatised by shell shock, which led to lack of concentration and caused sudden bouts of tremors.

It prompted a new approach – the introduction of occupational therapy.

Artists and craft workers were recruited to organise projects and workshops for the men, and needlework was one of the most successful of the skills brought in.

Clare explained: “It was something repetitive, rhythmic, slow, peaceful, and offered a chance of reflection.”

 

THE WHITE HEADSCARVES

Every Thursday for more than 30 years, a group of women wearing white headscarves met in the public square in Buenos Aires.

“These headscarves were meant to look like nappies, and each woman had embroidered on to them the names and birth dates of their children who had disappeared,” Clare said.

“The headscarves were worn as symbols of their mothering.”

In 1973, when Peron was re-elected in Argentina, the Dirty War began between right and left-wing factions, and many political opponents were abducted and never seen again.

Fourteen women, unknown to each other and demanding news of their kids, turned up in the square one afternoon. Their numbers swelled over the weeks, months and years.

By the end of the Dirty War, around 30,000 people had been kidnapped, most presumed murdered, and 9,000 remain unaccounted for. The last march took place in 2006, by which point a grandmothers group had been set up demanding to know the fate of 500 children born in detention camps or prisons and illegally adopted.

Their campaign resulted in more than 100 children being reunited with their biological parents.

LEITH RELEASE

“My first community commission was in 1985 for Buchanan St Housing Association in Leith,” Clare explained.

“Leith was experiencing a high level of drug-taking, unemployment and a crumbling social housing scheme.”

A group of pensioners, unemployed young, local activists and curious residents came along and began working on a banner.

It rekindled enthusiasm and eventually the title deeds were handed over by the local authority and the housing association had what they’d campaigned for.

The banner led to a bigger project, Pictures Of Leith, where 300 people contributed to a 30ft triptych showing local life through the generations.

“The Asian Women’s Aid centre, bin men, fishmongers – they all stitched a piece of their lives for the wall hanging,” Clare added. “I think people felt their history was being overshadowed by the area’s ills, and wanted to recapture that positive side and show the support of Leith was still so strong.”

A QUEEN’S CODE

While in captivity, embroidery was Mary, Queen of Scots’ main distraction.

But it did more than pass the time – she used it to tell her story to her son, James.

She created a set of bed furnishings that contained images of imprisonment such as a caged bird and a lion caught in a net, alongside heraldic logos of the royal houses with which she was associated.

Mary also dealt in metaphors, such as two women on a wheel of fortune, to pass comment on her relationship with England’s Queen Elizabeth.

Clare said: “While her letters were scrutinised and censored, she was able to correspond much more freely through her embroidery.”

She sent individual embroideries to people she wished to communicate with – the Duke of Norfolk, Elizabeth and James. Most of her embroidery has now been lost or destroyed, with just two verified pieces surviving in Scotland, located in Holyrood Palace.


Threads Of Life, Sceptre, out Thursday