A guest post by Andrea Liu
When I was growing up, all the women in my house were using needles. I’ve always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair damage. It’s claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.
Louise Bourgeois (Bourgeois in Parker, 2010: xix)
Watching grandmothers and mothers sewing can be seen as a collective childhood experience for the majority in society. There is maternal comfort remembering images of our mothers stitching. We know the needle naïvely as a homemaker’s tool used for making, mending and embellishing garments. Yet, if we search beyond the needle’s eye, we will discover that, despite its modest size, the needle is a ‘loaded’ artefact. ‘Loaded’ in the sense that the needle is multifaceted. We learn the needle is a tool, a symbol and a weapon. It mends cloth and skin, as well as relationships and society. It embroiders exquisite patterns, as well as coded messages. Although the role of the needle changes with the social and political climate, the needle is nonetheless still mistaken for as merely a homemaker’s tool. By having a sweet and homely façade, the needle’s subversive persona calls into question its relationship with women, and how and why the needle can be used in a subversive way.
As seen in writings of feminist scholars on embroidery and textiles, the needle is associated with stereotypes of femininity. Throughout history, the needle has evoked strong political and gender-based opinions and emotions. Only since the 1960s and 1970s has embroidery “ceased to be a female preserve” (Joseph-Lowery, n.d.: 1). The needle has one of the most complex relationships with femininity (Goggin, 2016: 3). Vancouver fibre artist Bettina Matzkuhn recognises the complex relationship between the needle and women by identifying contrasting views surrounding embroidery through the example of the Bayeux Tapestry:
“People associate embroidery with women [who have] too much time on their hands. We need to show how historically important it is. The Bayeux Tapestry…is 1,000 years old. It contains scenes that [could be right out of today’s] news, [scenes depicting] the butchery of war. It is a miracle that the tapestry survived. Textiles are living history.” (quoted in Prain, 2014: 81)
Consequently, the story of the needle is not a simple, linear path, but a meandering one fraught with conflicts and resolutions. It is a drama abounding in dualities, where the needle simultaneously suggests conformity and rebellion, confinement and comfort. It is a tale about women who are caught between what society dictates them to become and who they really are. As British psychotherapist and feminist art historian Rozsika Parker claims, “to know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women” (Parker, 2010: ix).
At the turn of the 17th-century, it marked the time when women entered an arranged marriage with the needle. According to Parker, the needle was defined as a feminine and domestic activity to enforce patriarchal beliefs of a ‘proper lady’ (Parker, 2010: 1). Social institutions began to promote sexual divisions by employing the needle as an indicator to mark the difference between femininity and masculinity. Thus, women were assigned to sewing as an excuse to defend their virtues and educate submission. Historian Merry Wiesner notes how the needle “became an epithet for the boring, mundane domestic task beneath the dignity of a man” (quoted in Goggin, 2016: 2).
In a way, the needle became the smallest shackle to date. The needle confined women to the home, hid them away from promiscuity and barred them from being baited with disobedience. Many believed that every stitch learned was a manifestation of feminine characteristics and an obliteration “of aspects of herself which did not conform to femininity” (Parker, 2010: 164). Assignments made by social institutions run so deep that even in present-day the needle continues to be “indelibly associated with stereotypes of femininity” (Parker, 2010: 2).
Although women were claimed to be “genetically programmed to embroider,” in truth “up to the 18th-century, the majority of embroiders to the kings were men” (Parker, 2010: 60). Since “men have always plied a needle,” the gendered reference of low needlework as simply “women’s work” is historically inaccurate (Goggin, 2016: 2). Goggin reveals how prior to the 17th-century, needlework was not associated with one sex (Ibid.: 37-38). Only from the beginning of the 17th-century was needlework constructed as “women’s work” (Ibid.: 40). Hence, masculinity and the needle have also had an extensive courtship. Sailors and soldiers have long been mending their clothes. In the 18th-century, ‘make and mend’ day was a day “in which normal duties were suspended to allow sailors to repair their clothing” (Thom, 2015: 1). The soldier’s or sailor’s gear included a ‘hussif’, also called a “housewife” referring to the pocket sewing kit (Parkman, 2016: 1).
As Parkman notes, “needlecraft was promoted by the Army as a worthwhile pastime to keep soldiers away from trouble during their hours of free time when confined to camp or barracks”, as well as “help with the recovery of injured soldiers” (Parkman, 2016: 3). Interestingly, needlework was used as well to keep women out of trouble.
Prisoners of War have also been recorded to use the needle in a subversive way. An example is a seemingly inoffensive sampler in cross-stitch created by Major Alexis Casdagli, a British prisoner of war imprisoned by Germans for four years during World War II (The Telegraph, 2012). By “pinching red and blue thread from a disintegrating pullover belonging to an elderly Cretan general,” Casdagli spent his pastime stitching a seemingly subliminal message (Ibid.). His Nazi captors enjoyed his needlework so much that they hung it “on display in the castle where he was being held and subsequently three other prison camps” (Ibid.). The main message running down the middle read:
“This work was done by Major A. Casdagli. No. 3311. While in captivity at Dossel-Warbung Germany December 1941.” (Ibid.)
Around the outside of the message, apart from the painstakingly stitched decorative symbols, “an innocent looking set of dots and dashes” were Morse code that hid the message “God Save The King” and “F**k Hitler” in plain sight (Ibid.).
The tailor is another man-who-sewed. In literature famous fictional tailors are described as stereotypically clever, intelligent, cunning and manipulative men, small in height and occupied the lowest social class. In The Tailor of Gloucester, Beatrix Potter describes the tailor as living in poverty and in ill-health:
“But although he sewed fine silk for his neighbours, he himself was very, very poor – a little old man in spectacles, with a pinched face, old crooked fingers and a suit of thread-bare clothes.” (Potter, 1903: 3)
In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the weavers are portrayed as swindlers and con-men. They convince the emperor that “the clothes made from this wonderful cloth would be invisible to everyone who was unfit for the job he held, or who was very simple in character” (Andersen, 1837: 1). They are great performers who manipulate the emperor and his ministers, setting up two looms and pretending to work at their empty looms even until late at night.
In The Valiant Little Tailor, the little tailor is also described as small in stature. He is clever, intelligent and confident, and relies on trickery and manipulation in order to outwit his opponents, such as the giant and the king. The common descriptions of tailors portrayed in literature are their small stature and low social rank. They also seem to be effeminate through their use of wit instead of brute force. Within literature, there is a vast difference between a man who holds a needle and a man who holds a sword. In a way, this echoes the stereotypical idea that the needle belongs to the feminine.
Naturally, feminists saw the needle to represent an oppressive activity, and wanted to reject the needle, while other women saw the needle as source of empowerment and embraced the needle. American feminist Elaine Hedge’s now-classic essay “The Needle or the Pen?” (1991) is an interesting piece that highlights this dilemma, to accept or reject femininity. Hedges “explores the dilemma faced by heroines in 19th-century fiction – whether to choose the constraints of domestic life as symbolised by the needle, or the freedoms of public life as symbolised by the pen” (Pristash, Schaechterle and Wood, 2016: 14). Hedges unwittingly sets up a catch-22 with her question ‘the needle or the pen.’ By rejecting the needle, it is the rejection of femininity. By accepting the pen, it is a reverse psychology of having the woman justify masculinity as the ‘superior’ gender. Agreeing with Heather Pristash, Inez Schaechterle and Sue Carter Wood, Hedges has introduced an outdated feminist approach of the needle. Although the needle has the historical baggage of being a symbol of patriarchal oppression, the needle has been a key instigator for women to speak their mind through stitching. The needle may have been a tool enforced by social institutions to educate women to behave properly, but they have no means to control the thoughts of the women whilst they stitch. The breakthrough to Hedge’s question is changing the conjunction from ‘or’ to ‘as’. The needle as the pen demonstrates how the needle has not only been “a vehicle for women’s construction by the dominant discourse” but “has also been a vehicle for women’s own construction of alternative discourses, discourses with the potential to expand women’s discursive worlds and the power they wield over their own lives” (Pristash, Schaechterle and Wood, 2016: 13). As Maureen Daly Goggin argues: “[T]he powerful ideological construct of needlework as ‘woman’s work,’ and all that term has come to mean and the pejorative baggage it carries, obscures the richness of this practice as a potent rhetorical tool” (Goggin in Pristash, Schaechterle and Wood, 2016: 14).
Between feminine stereotypes and reality, the needle mutated into a Janus-faced artefact, holding a dichotomous nature where opposing personalities simultaneously contradict and collaborate (Parker, 2010: xix). On the one hand, the needle was used as a means to force-feed women into the feminine ideal. On the other, it also became “a weapon of resistance against the constraints of femininity” (Parker, 2010: ix). It was a tool of oppression, yet an instrument of liberation. It was a professional endeavour, yet a leisure for past time. It was a barrier confirming class status, yet provided an avenue for crossing class boundaries. It was constructed and pursued as a religious duty, yet it was a secular pleasure. For example, needlework became “both a cause of confinement and a comfort” (Parker, 2010: 151). It was a prison sentence, yet an escape for women to stitch whatever they thought. It was an innocuous pastime, yet a powerful, political weapon (Goggin, 2016: 3). Despite the negative aspects associated with the needle, all these dualities highlight how needlework has “an empowering force in women’s lives” (Pristash, Schaechterle and Wood, 2016: 14). In a way, the constraints enforced with the needle have aided women to discover their own voice and power. Hence, the split personalities within needlework work not against but for each other.
Feminist researcher and writer Maureen Daly Goggin identified how women adapted their needlework through subverting familiar stitches and structures to create infinite variations for communicating their views in a coded way (Goggin, 2016: 4). Goggin explains how “the power to perform magic with the needle comes through the embroiderer’s familiarity with stitches” (Goggin, 2016: 5). This ‘power’ often involves a political role. Visual artist Elaine Reichek was one who “frequently evokes the political role of embroidery” (Joseph-Lowery, n.d.: 1). By likening textiles to the “subaltern of the art world,” Reichek herself referred to textiles as the “politics of thread” (quoted in Hemmings, 2011: 26). Throughout history, the needle became “a political tool for women involved in resisting authority” (Segal, 2017). Interdisciplinary historians Alice Dolan and Sally Holloway recognised the potential use of needlework:
“Textile production has been a vehicle used by the dominant (male) discourse for the definition of women and their roles in society. But it has also served as a vehicle for women to construct their own alternative to the dominant discourse, allowing them to expand their power and societal roles. Women have traditionally used needlework as a way to build and solidify community through group activities such as quilting bees and knitting groups. Many of these groups took activist stands with the textiles they produced.” (Dolan and Holloway, 2014: 7)
Another type of power is the needle’s “claim to forgiveness” (Bourgeois, quoted in Parker, 2010: xix). The act of stitching is therapeutic, delivering an emotional cleansing. English novelist Dinah M. Craik claimed, “the needle was ‘a wonderful brightener and consoler; our weapon of defence against slothfulness, weariness and sad thoughts” (Craik, quoted in Parker, 2010: 150). Louise Bourgeois famously recognised the emotional restoration that the needle is capable of:
“The needle is used to repair damage. It’s claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.” (Bourgeois, quoted in Parker, 2010: xix)
Bourgeois’ creates a distinction between the needle and the pin. The obvious difference between the two is that the needle has an eye at the blunt end to allow you to pull a thread, while a pin does not. The needle can stitch and mend, whereas the pin can only hold fabric together in preparation for sewing. Hence, with the pin, the action is as Bourgeois describes “aggressive”, stabbing, piercing and goring. The needle, on the other hand, repairs, forgives and heals. Stitching allows for slow reflection, understanding and empathy. This is where the magic lies within the needle. As well, allegorically, the needle can be seen as a symbol of femininity, and the pin as masculinity. Bourgeois could possibly be claiming the power of femininity.
According to Dolan and Holloway:
“Women were and are memorialized through the products of their needles and spindles, whether plain sewing or elaborately embroidered bed curtains. This investment of time was key in imbuing emotional meaning that could be gauged by a relation or friend or a museum visitor hundreds of years later.” (Dolan and Holloway, 2016: 155)
Through the needle and thread, women made their mark in history. While men recorded history with their pen, women meanwhile stitched their stories. There is a power to the use of threads. Weaver Anni Albers also reminds us that “along with cave paintings, threads were among the earliest transmitters of meaning” (Albers, 1965: 50). Although words today “generally carry by far the greatest load of our expressive manifestations,” when words fail to save us from pain, whether experienced privately or publicly, the needle becomes the safe space for communication (Albers, 1965: 50). The needle and the thread participate in a symbolic language where “the thread goes beyond everyday functionality and begins a journey of transformation” (Whiles, 2008: 3).
To be continued…
About Andrea Liu
Born in Orange County, California, Andrea Liu is a writer, researcher and designer. Graduating from Central St. Martin’s in 2018, she specialises in woven textile design and has honed her skills in material research and off-loom woven construction. She endeavours on making sustainable designs, approaching every project with the goal of turning waste into material of value. Prior to Central St. Martin’s, she worked as an Executive Assistant and ghostwriter for a film producer. As well, she attained a B.A. (Hons.) in Chinese Studies from The University of Manchester in 2011 and a M.phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2012. Read more about Andrea and her projects on her website.
About “The Needle as the Pen” post series
The series of “The Needle as the Pen” blog post is based on Andrea Liu’s unpublished B.A. dissertation in Textile Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, in which she investigated–under the same title–why and how needlework moved from the private sphere to public sphere in context of activism. With Liu Zhuanghuan’s coat in mind, I examine why and how the needle, the cloth and the body actively work together. Blog posts will discuss the needle, the cloth and the body, and explore conflict, resolution and activism experienced by the needle, the cloth and the body when the private and public spheres collide and crash into one another. Examples of arpilleras from South America, sourced from the Conflict Textiles Collection in Northern Ireland, will be used to illustrate how textiles speak truths about the women’s experiences in pain and healing.
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