Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


Using recent embroidered artwork by Ghada Amer, Orly Cogan, and Louise Bourgeois as a bellwether for changing social relationships, this paper will discuss how values regarding time, family and gender roles have evolved in the past couple of generations. Rozsika Parker’s pivotal 1984 book, The Subversive Stitch, recognized the significant relationship between women’s social history and their embroidery styles, passed down through generations in Europe and America. We can extend that analytical approach to embroidered artwork being made today. Parker’s book ends with 1970s feminist art, such as Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. This work achieved a kind of equal but separate status in the art world, and is now installed in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. A roomful of historic documentation prepares the viewer to appreciate it and the mostly non-professional, feminine arts tradition it alludes to. Hand embroidery was still commonly practiced by women as a craft throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s however, embroidery languished as many women reacted against traditional feminine roles by refusing to sew or do other domestic tasks perceived as menial. This rupture in the relationship between embroidery and women set the stage for a different aesthetic tradition to emerge.

These days, in hip towns across America, super crafty clubs in the style of Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ‘n Bitch knitting groups, meet at bars for sessions complete with martinis and attitude. The DIY Lounge gathering at Portland, Oregon’s Doug Fir bar is a good example of this phenomenon. A kind of crafts fair/social hour, it encourages hands-on craftwork, including stitchery, in a public setting. Instead of learning how to embroider from their mothers at home, as women did for generations, young women now teach each other. Out of this new relationship to handmade textiles come stories and humor that would have been inappropriate in an earlier era.

Comparing outmoded social attitudes with the changing function of textiles in daily life, we also gain insight into the revaluing of time in Western culture. Time-intensive practices employed to create common household linens have become almost extinct in only a couple generations. It is significant that hand embroidery, once practiced by a majority of women as a marker of feminine domesticity, has recently been revalued as a museum-worthy medium in the historically maledominated realm of fine art. Many contemporary artists in the last ten years have addressed the connection between textiles and a woman’s current place in society. Much of this work is concerned with its placement in art history, often asserting its own importance with irony, humor and subversive wit.