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Art History

The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine

The Subversive Stitch:
Embroidery and the Making of
the Feminine
Rozsika ParkerThe Women’s Press1984

In the history of embroidery – through the very threads of samplers, firescreens, table runners and dress – can be traced another history: the history of women.

In this fascinating study, Rozsika Parker, co-author of Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, traces the shifting notions of femininity, and roles ascribed to women, through embroidery from mediaeval times to today. In the middle ages women worked alongside men in embroiderers’ guild workshops as apprentices, designers and stitchers of gold, silver and silk. Yet by the eighteenth century embroidering was considered to come naturally to women alone, and by the nineteenth century the fine stitchery expected of women of the upper classes, and the skilled work extracted for starvation wages from working-class women, had become both symbol and instrument of female subservience.

Drawing on household accounts, women’s magazines, letters, novels and the art works themselves. Rozsika Parker discovered strands of resistance: paradoxically, while embroidery was employed to inculcate femininity in women, it also provided a way to negotiate the constraints of the feminine role. “Polly Cook did this,” states one eighteenth century child’s sampler, “and hated every stitch she did in it.”

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Creation of Femininity
Chapter 2: Eternalising the Feminine
Chapter 3: Fertility, Chastity and Power
Chapter 4: The Domestication of Embroidery
Chapter 5: The Inculcation of Femininity
Chapter 6: From Milkmaids to Mothers
Chapter 7: Femininity as Feeling
Chapter 8: A Naturally Revolutionary Art?

Embroidered runner, Beryl Weaver, reproduced in Spare Rib, 1978. Taking traditional embroidery motifs, Beryl Weaver reveals the way they prescribe the feminine ideal. Subversive Stitch.