Why revisit The Subversive Stitch now?

What made us decide to revisit The Subversive Stitch? Since it first appeared in 1984, Rozsika Parker’s pioneering book, The Subversive Stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine, has been republished a number of times, in 1986, 1989, and 1996. Then, for a long time, it was out of print. In 2010, when we heard that I.B. Tauris was planning a new edition, we realised that it was coming up to 25 years since we curated The Subversive Stitch exhibitions in Manchester, which were inspired by Parker’s book. Feminism seemed to be ‘back on the agenda’, needed now more than ever, with new generations organizing events, symposia, publications; and textiles – at last – to have ‘come of age’ as a confident interdisciplinary field, with an increasing number of books, peer review journals, and a proliferation of doctoral research in both theory and practice. It was a good moment to take stock, to look back to the art and feminist debates of the 1970s and 80s, from which both the book and exhibitions emerged, but also to explore the politics of cloth now, and to ask what are the urgent questions, and how are they being addressed? Together with Althea Greenan at the Women’s Art Library, and later with colleagues at The Victoria and Albert Museum and Iniva, we started to develop a collaborative project. Rozsika Parker’s death, in November 2010, gave us an added urgency. The Subversive Stitch Revisited: The Politics of Cloth is dedicated to her. It is our way of thanking her.

The importance of Rozsika Parker (1945 – 2010)

Rozsika Parker was a founder member of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, launched in 1972; a feminist art historian and collaborator with Griselda Pollock on Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981) and Framing Feminism: Art and The Women’s Movement (1987); and later a psychotherapist, publishing widely in the field. When The Subversive Stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine was first published in 1984, its impact was immediate. A decade earlier Parker had written a short essay called ‘The Word for Embroidery was Work’ (Spare Rib no 37, 1975), and later, together with Griselda Pollock, had exposed the gendered hierarchy that separated the fine and so-called decorative arts in ‘Crafty women and the hierarchy of the arts’, a key chapter of Old Mistresses. This offered a critique of the sexual division of labour that runs through the history of embroidery, and which, ultimately, led to the devaluing of textiles as an art medium. But it was in The Subversive Stitch that Parker embarked on a full-length in-depth study, bringing together the history of embroidery, the social history of women, her knowledge as an art historian, and her love of literature.

In this ground-breaking study she mapped the decline in the status of embroidery from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century: from a high art form practised by both men and women, particularly in England, to one that was seen as lowly and feminine – and from an admired professional art to a marginalised domestic craft. Yet she also offered insights into the ways in which women negotiated the limitations of femininity, using embroidery as a weapon of resistance. Moreover, she brought questions of class into her analysis, examining ‘sweated labour’, the sewing done by working women, which then as now, meant long hours and low wages. Indeed her work continues to inform how we think of the role of embroidery in Western culture, the construction of femininity and the practice of craft.

In her opening remarks at The Subversive Stitch Revisited symposium in November 2013, Jennifer Harris, now Deputy Director at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, recalled reading The Subversive Stitch soon after it was published:

‘As a relatively young curator it had a profound impact on my own practice. Most writing on embroidery history before Parker focused on questions of style and technique, or the source material for embroidery patterns. But The Subversive Stitch was polemical. It explored the social, cultural and economic contexts for embroidered objects and inquired into their meanings. It inspired me to review and reinterpret the way I displayed our collections and to see the exhibition as a site of contention – something that can engage in critical debates and explore research questions rather than simply reflect contemporary scholarship.’

The 1988 Subversive Stitch exhibitions in Manchester

A couple of years after The Subversive Stitch was published, three of us, Jennifer Harris, Bev Bytheway (then Exhibitions Organiser at Cornerhouse in Manchester) and Pennina Barnett, conceived the idea of two independently researched but complementary exhibitions based on the ideas in Rozsika Parker’s book; one was to be historically based, the other contemporary. We extended its reach by drawing on the work of other writers and critics, but Parker was unstinting in her support for the project and our wish to use the same title – how could you improve on it?

The Subversive Stitch became the umbrella title for a historical survey held at the Whitworth Art Gallery entitled ‘Embroidery in Women’s Lives 1300-1900’, which included over 200 objects ranging from medieval vestments to embroidered suffrage banners, and for a large exhibition of work by contemporary artists at Cornerhouse called ‘Women and Textiles Today.’ Although Parker had specifically focused on embroidery, the contemporary exhibition broadened its remit to provoke questions about the relationship between women, textiles and feminine stereotypes, both historically and in the 1980s. Furthermore, we were interested in work that explored these ideas regardless of the medium, so that as well as textiles, we also included film, photography and performance. (A full list of artists is listed in the catalogue of the exhibitions, which can be accessed on this website). The collaboration between the Whitworth Art Gallery and Cornerhouse in Manchester resulted in the exhibitions touring to five further UK venues, attracting well in excess of 100,000 visitors in total.

It’s hard to sum up the critical response to the exhibitions, and as curators we are probably not best placed to do so. In terms of media coverage, there were two eight minute slots on national radio, reviews in specialist craft, textile, and feminist art journals, but little coverage in the mainstream art press – and a slamming review by Germaine Greer in The Independent broadsheet newspaper. Perhaps one of the most enduring images from the exhibitions is the sampler by Lyn Malcolm commissioned by the Whitworth Art Gallery and Cornerhouse and reproduced on the poster, catalogue and private view cards at the time. It became the ‘brand image’ for the project, and was later used for the 2010 reprint of Parker’s book, and also for our own ‘revisiting’ project in 2013, linking the quarter century since The Subversive Stitch exhibitions opened in Manchester.

The Subversive Stitch Revisited: The Politics of Cloth symposium, Victoria and Albert Museum, 29-30 November 2103

Having settled on the idea of a two-day symposium, we realized that Revisiting The Subversive Stitch could be interpreted in many ways. Given that many other issues have come to the fore since Parker’s book was published, should we focus solely on the impact of feminist theories on textile practices, writing, curation; or include other concerns too, such as the global textile trade, cloth and cultural difference, and recycling? We decided to organize two brainstorming workshops to help us think this through, and invited a number artists, curators and writers to join us. We asked what Rozsika Parker’s book meant to them, how key ideas had changed since the 1970s and 80s, what they thought the most urgent issues were now, and importantly, what might constitute a politics of cloth for the twenty-first century. These sessions were invaluable in shaping the form and content of the symposium, which was now broadened to include work by both women and men that addressed ethical, social and global issues, and that focused on cloth as a subversive strategy – with an emphasis on radical and interventionist projects that challenged structures of power.

We then circulated a call for papers, and were overwhelmed both by the response and quality of proposals – over 180 from all over the world. Making the final selection of 24 presentations was a formidable task, and there were many that we would have loved to include, had there been (even) more time. The symposium was all we had hoped it would be, and to hear papers and meet colleagues from across the UK, Republic of Ireland, Austria, Norway, Serbia, Canada, North America, and South Africa was a great privilege. The event sold out in just a few days, but we always envisaged an afterlife, and this website makes that possible. It enables a far wider audience to listen, through podcasts, to each presentation, and to access the symposium programme, which gives details of each speaker and abstracts of their talk. It also includes a range of other material, including a digital copy of the (long out of print) catalogue to the 1988 Subversive Stitch exhibitions, published by Cornerhouse and the Whitworth Art Gallery, and a selection of colour slides of the work in situ. The website is a work in progress, and we welcome feedback on how it might develop in the future.

Rozsika Parker encouraged us to consider the place of women within art and craft histories, to value critical analysis and enquiry in textiles, and to extend our research across disciplinary boundaries. By revisiting her extraordinary book, we pay homage to her legacy, acknowledge the enormous importance of her work to generations of artists, scholars, and curators – and play our part in ensuring that the subversive potential of cloth remains central to making, thinking and writing.

Pennina Barnett and Jennifer Harris, June 2014.