An imposing wooden structure bisected with lines of thread greets visitors head-on at the entrance of the current Anni Albers show at the Tate Modern. The contraption – a shaft countermarch loom – is echoed at the end of the exhibition, with a Structo Artcraft loom that was used by Albers herself. As the UK’s first major retrospective of Alber’s work, the galleries are filled with over 350 objects, ranging from her geometric wall hangings to textiles for interiors and architecture, her writing, and prints and drawings. Bookending the exhibition with the tools of her trade ensures the method of creation is kept at the very heart of the show: this is unapologetically about a textile artist.
Anni Albers marked a momentous step for fibre arts when the former Bauhaus student became the first weaver to have a significant solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1949. Nearly 70 years later there has been a resurgence of textile arts on gallery walls, and the Albers exhibition is part of the Tate Modern’s commitment to showing artists working in this medium. In 2015 they held a retrospective of abstract artist Sonia Delaunay who worked across a number of areas including textiles and clothing. Around the country there has also been an increase in the display of textiles. In 2017 ‘Entangled: Threads and Making’ at the Turner Contemporary challenged the classifications of fine art, design and craft through the work of more than 40 female artists whose work included disciplines ranging from embroidery and weaving to wood carving.
Artforms using textiles have existed for millennia but have not always been held in such high esteem in the art world. The artificial divide that exists between fine art and textiles (or applied/decorative arts, or craft) is a gendered issue. ‘Textiles have always suffered as an art media because of their association with domesticity and femininity,’ says Hannah Lamb of The 62 Group of Textile Artists, an artist-led pressure group that has been promoting textiles as a fine art for nearly 60 years. Historically, textiles have been labelled ‘women’s work’, and dismissed as inferior to pursuits such as painting and sculpture. But this has not always been the case.
Medieval English embroidery known as Opus Anglicanum was prized around the world for its skill and artistry. Made by both women and men, it signified the pinnacle of luxury in medieval Europe. Enjoying an international reputation, it was prized at royal courts and was commissioned by ecclesiastics for use on liturgical vestments. It was during the Renaissance that the separation of art and craft became more apparent, and a hierarchy developed that saw fine art – with its masculine associations – prized over the craft of stitching. This was accelerated in the 18th century with the academization of the art world. The Royal Academy was founded in 1768, and less than 18 months later a rule was passed that regulated what could be admitted for exhibition. Needlework was banned, outlawed from the realm of high art along with shell work and artificial flowers.
Competence with a needle had become a marker of fashionably refined middle and upper-class femininity by the 19th century, something the feminist art historian Rozsika Parker made clear in her book The Subversive Stitch (1984), one of the first studies to examine the marginalization of women’s work in the hierarchy of art and craft. ‘To know the history of embroidery’ she wrote, ‘is to know the history of women.’ At the time Parker was writing, this notion was being challenged by Second Wave feminist artists who attempted to reclaim stitch away from its associations with oppression, showing it could instead be used as a tool to fight the patriarchy, and to give a voice to previously voiceless groups. Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’ (1974-79) is an epic retelling of women’s history in a stitched installation that was dismissed as ‘kitsch’ by the male critic of The New York Times.
In a documentary airing on BBC Radio 4 this week, I explore a current wave of contemporary artists who are again transforming the image of embroidery, challenging historical and cultural preconceptions and making progressive, often political work. Textile and performance artist Raisa Kabir was trained as a weaver and incorporates sound and video into her work. She highlights how the gendering of embroidery in European history not only marginalizes the practice through sexism, but also ignores global histories and experiences of people of colour, turning it into a radically political artform. ‘The notion that it’s inherently about white feminism and embroidery is this Victorian white, Western phenomenon – I don’t resent it, I just think that’s a misconception … politics and textiles for me are intertwined, they’re not separate.’
Political stitching also has historical precedent. Pre-dating Opus Anglicanum, the Bayeux Tapestry (technically an embroidery, not a tapestry) is arguably the most celebrated example of Anglo-Saxon art. There is political ambiguity throughout the piece, at times it appears sympathetic to King Harold, although it’s likely meant to function as a form of Norman propaganda. The embroidery was long believed to have been the work of Queen Mathilda, William the Conqueror’s wife. But this has been superseded by the argument that it was produced by English needleworkers – likely women, possibly nuns in Canterbury – as there was already a tradition of embroidery that would flourish in following centuries.
In the mid-16th century Mary Queen of Scots was seen as a threat by Elizabeth I as she had a strong claim to the throne, and was championed by Catholic subjects during Elizabeth’s Protestant rule. She was kept under house arrest and spent much of her time embroidering, threading covert symbols that were her only means of expression. A phoenix to represent immortality and regeneration, and a cat and mouse that hinted at the relationship between herself and the English queen. Her needle allowed her the only means of resistance while she was under constant surveillance.
The time invested in hand embroidery lends a permanence and gravitas to messages conveyed in this way, and it became a medium of choice for political banners. The Artists’ Suffrage League, founded by Mary Lowndes in 1907, created embroidered banners for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies that were carried in some of the earliest large-scale demonstrations held in support of women’s enfranchisement. Embroidered banners were also used by Trade Unions and the cooperative movement.
The subversion of embroidery for political purposes belies its dominant purpose within fashion history as an expensive and decorative marker of the wealthy and elite. Yet exploring hidden histories and questioning the established hierarchy of art and craft is also reaching fashion ateliers. Hand & Lock is an embroidery brand which has roots tracing back to 1767. Based in London, they produce embroidery for the British military, the Royal Family, Savile Row tailors and European fashion houses. In 2000 they initiated an embroidery prize to support new generations of stitchers, and in 2016 introduced a Textile Art category which now receives more submissions that the Fashion category. ‘This increasing trend continues to blur the line between craft and art’ says Sophie Carr, the Prize Co-ordinator at Hand & Lock. ‘We often see submissions that contain meaningful messages about the transient state of the modern world conveyed through stitch.’
‘In Stitches’ explores contemporary radical embroidery, and airs on BBC Radio 4 at 11.30am on 15th November. Presented by Amber Butchart, it’s A Curtains For Radio production produced by Louise Morris and Andrew McGibbon for BBC Radio 4.
Main image: Anni Albers, Wall Hanging, 1926, mercerized cotton, silk, 2 x 1.2 m. Courtesty: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Everfast Fabrics Inc., Edward C. Moore Jr. Gift, The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
Amber Butchart is a fashion historian, author and broadcaster who specializes in the historical intersections between dress, politics and culture. She is a former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, and a regular public lecturer at institutions ranging from the Tate to the V&A. She researches and presents documentaries, including BBC4’s six-part series ‘A Stitch in Time’ that fused biography and art to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.