Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario


Copyright 2006 by the author.


Textiles from around the world are capable of conveying sophisticated narration. But in regions where censorship, both in the form of overt government censorship as well as individual self-censorship exists, the ability of textiles to narrate becomes a crucial tool in the discussion of topics otherwise left unspoken. Textiles can offer a form of communication that, ironically, may go unnoticed precisely because of the “innocent” materials in which these messages are told. A growing “illiteracy” to alternative modes of narration such as those offered by the crafts offers an ideal foil for such sensitive conversations. As record keepers these textiles reveal that attempts to stifle free speech in fact do little to suppress public outcry. Instead, artists seek alternative materials and metaphors such as thread and cloth to record injustice and violation, particularly against the female body.

In “The Prison of Colonial Space: Narratives of Resistance” the late Zimbabwean fiction author Yvonne Vera discusses the role of sewing in South African political activist Ruth First’s biography, 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law. First writes in detail of her use of a sewn calendar hidden “behind the lapel of my dressing-gown.” During extended periods of solitary confinement designed to break First’s spirit, she sought sanity in this forbidden record keeping, which provided a may to chart time and return some sense of emotional control to a situation designed to remove all sense of hope from her future. First explains, “Here, with my needle and thread, I stitched one stroke for each day passed. I sewed seven upright strokes, then a horizontal stitch through them to mark a week. Every now and then I would examine the stitching and decide that the sewing was not neat enough and the strokes could be more deadly exact in size; I’d pull the thread out and remake the calendar from the beginning. This gave me a feeling that I was pushing time on, creating days, weeks, and even months. Sometimes I surprised myself and did not sew a stitch at the end of the day. I would wait for three days and the give myself a wonderful thrill knocking three days off the ninety.”