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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Subversive Stitching - An Unintentionally Essay-Like Post Vaguely Not Safe For Work Or For Eight Year Old Readers Who Are Quite Sheltered And Whose Parents Wish Them To Remain So

In my short life I have run into several people who have insisted my textile arts aren't, in fact, capital A "Art". I'm the first to admit that many of the things I make are made artfully by an artisan, but fall under the practical category of design. But don't you dare tell me that I can't use my spinning, dyeing, knitting, crocheting, embroidering and sewing skills to produce "Art". Textile arts have been confined to the sexist realm of "made by women, and therefore not important" for centuries. If we  process our conception of "Art" through social filters built on a telling of history in which "Art" is only produced by men, of course textile arts will not be included. But why would we do that? What would we be missing out on?

Quilting is womanly, crafty, soft, and submissive. Embroidery? Keeps the hands busy while making polite conversation about marriage and babies. Knitting isn't feminist and is the bane of badass girl power. Right? So very wrong. Textile arts are coming to the forefront in a big way as more people accept that the history of art is not (and should not be) only populated by men who paint. Check out these women and men who are making artistic statements through textile media:

Lisa Anne Auerbach is a knitter who creates garments in response to a variety of political and social topics, from bicycling and road sharing to abortion and 9/11. Her amazing colourwork sweaters are calls to action, call outs (Calling outs? Callings out? Whatever), and warm, fuzzy protests that scream their message from woolen stitches.

Designing and knitting a sweater - a stranded colourwork sweater - even on a machine, is a big freaking deal. It takes a LONG time. Auerbach's sweaters are art objects in themselves, but I would contend that the act of wearing them is an art performance as well.


"After six months held by the Nazis in a prisoner of war camp, Major Alexis Casdagli was handed a piece of canvas by a fellow inmate. Pinching red and blue thread from a disintegrating pullover belonging to an elderly Cretan general, Casdagli passed the long hours in captivity by painstakingly creating a sampler in cross-stitch. Around decorative swastikas and a banal inscription saying he completed his work in December 1941, the British officer stitched a border of irregular dots and dashes. Over the next four years his work was displayed at the four camps in Germany where he was imprisoned, and his Nazi captors never once deciphered the messages threaded in Morse code: "God Save the King" and "Fuck Hitler"..."
Read more about Major Casadigli's embroidery, and that of his son Tony, pictured above, in this awesome article from the Guardian.


Another embroiderer, Julie Jackson, started her Subversive Cross Stitch company to share her "form of anger management therapy" with other stitchers. She sells kits, like the above Fuck Cancer kit online, and has a book of patterns out as well. As I was googling her site to snag a pic so you'd see how awesome this sampler is (it's the perfect combination of post-modern ironic snark, feminist strength, and refusal to become part of the pink-ribbon-cancer-romanticising/profiteering-machine) I found this piece by internet feminist icon Twisty Faster of I Blame the Patriarchy:

She describes her Frida Kahlo- esque piece thus:
"It’s a self-portrait in cancerbroidery, incompleted a summer ago as I recuperated from, and felt compelled to represent in a medium with which I was entirely unfamiliar, assorted barbaric cancer cures. I’m no embroiderer, but I can attest to the therapeutic forces contained in wool thread."
I really recommend her blog if you like your feminism served fresh, pithy, with no punches pulled.


Visit the website of Shelley Hakonson, a Canadian artist whom I was privileged to know in my high school years, to see some more mixed media based work that still incorporates a great deal of textile art. Her artistic motivations and inspirations are as varied and complex as the materials she uses, and her embroidery skills are (if you'll permit me a short dalliance with adolescent slang) epic.

This Byzantine angel requires a much closer look to see the wry humour and pointed commentary stitched into the work. Go look at her website gallery for more.

 In other words, textile art is not soft or weak just because it's cozy and sometimes delicate. It's not just for women, and it's not just for men. It's accessible, it's both practical and whimsical, and it's something you can create from a place of great experience or none at all. So get out there and knit your ideals, quilt your pain, embroider your protests, crochet your life story, and weave your vision. Or just whip up a few gifts for family because holiday season is fast approaching. Your "Art" and your arts are both welcome here.

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