Sunday, November 14, 2021

Weekend Review: Threads of Life


Threads of Life / Clare Hunter
NY: Abrams, c2019
306 p.

Another intriguing book on the history of stitching this week! And by another Clare. Lots of sewing and needlework enthusiasts in the UK it seems, and this book is by a Scottish writer, Clare Hunter, who has been involved in community textile projects for over 20 years.

The book looks at needlework from many different angles, in 16 chapters loosely arranged by theme -- identity, community, power, protest, art, and place, for example. In each she ranges between cultures and examples of needlework that has lasted either as a physical object or a set of techniques and traditions that are passed down. 

If you are an aficionado of textile history there won't be a lot that is new to you here, though. She covers the Bayeux Tapestry, Chilean arpilleras, folk embroidery, Hmong story cloths, and other histories that many textile art readers will know of. There are elements of other things stirred in, sometimes quite randomly, and there are many interesting highlights. The writing style is generally clear and readable, sometimes going into small flights of fancy writing, embellishing the themes. 

I found it an interesting read, making the point that primarily female embroiderers have been creating in a domestic sphere for eons, and that much of their output has been anonymous, their input undervalued. Even the stitchers of the Bayeux tapestry are unknown. Talking about how stitching is a huge part of economies and history, even while those doing it are treated like disposable cogs, is really important even now considering the fashion world. 

The flaws are mainly down to the publisher, in my view. There could have been more substantive editing going on, as there are some factual errors. There is confusion in the chapter on the Bayeux tapestry, erroneously attributing a nephew of the king as a son, a pretty major problem when the lack of succession was a key element of the battles. And my personal bugaboo, she refers to "the" Ukraine repeatedly; it is just "Ukraine". 

The lack of images in a book about a visual art is also slightly disappointing. There is a list of websites to visit at the end of the book, which will show you many images of the things she discusses in the book. But even a centre insert with some colour photos of some of the items would have added a great deal to the reading. 

This is a relatively short overview, a popular history, and so it can't go into vast detail on everything connected with needlework -- that would be a rather impossible feat. The focus in mainly on Western history, and it moves from far past to contemporary uses of needlework like Craftivism and the kind of political stitching that the author herself has been involved with for years. She has led banner making efforts for many causes, and started a Glasgow based community enterprise called NeedleWorks in the mid-80s. So her own stories of stitching and its place in her life are woven into this history, making the memoir element and her own slant on this topic clear. Some readers weren't keen on that -- I found it natural and appealing. 

Another interesting fact about this book is that it inspired Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior in her creation of the Fall/Winter 2021-2022 collection. I think this is fascinating! You can watch the clip of her talking about it, and Clare Hunter talking about the book, below. If you like this, pop over to the Dior channel on YouTube and you can watch a whole series of short videos about this collection, including the show itself. 

As you can probably tell, I liked this book and found it engaging, even with a few caveats. I think anyone with an interest in this topic, especially if it's kind of new to the reader, will find it illuminating. The bibliography is also great, and a wonderful starting point if one particular area strikes your fancy. I'd say this one would make an appealing Xmas gift, wrapped up with an embroidery kit, perhaps! Definitely one that can be read in bits without losing the plot.

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