The “Textile Memoir”: A Review of Threads of Life by Clare Hunter

Sewing is a way to mark our existence on cloth; patterning our place in the world, voicing our identity, sharing something of ourselves with others and leaving the indelible evidence of our presence in stitches held fast by our touch.1
Clare Hunter, Threads of Life

I read this beautiful book as slowly as possible because I desperately did not want it to end. Part memoir and part history, Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life: A History of the World Through The Eye of A Needle (Abrams Press, 2019) is a gorgeous exploration of needlework in its contemporary and historical context that brings the reader closer to an array of silenced voices. Through her experiences as a needleworker, Hunter also reveals a great deal about herself as a community activist, writer, and woman. Hunter demonstrates there is as much to be learned from textiles that lie for generations in musty attic trunks as those that are housed safely in humidity-controlled drawers with acid-free linings in museums. Threads of Life attests to needlework and sewing as a form of communication that was once — and is still — a mode of recording experience that predates and defies language.

Hunter organizes each chapter around a theme — for example, “Captivity,” “Protest,” and “Loss.” In each, Hunter weaves together the historical past and the personal present, demonstrating that all that happened then is inextricably part of now. She begins with a description of her visit to Normandy to view the Bayeux Tapestry, a continuously embroidered 70-meter mural that records the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. With her joy at seeing the tapestry in person for the first time comes a wave of furious indignation that the museum curators omit any mention of the hundreds of anonymous seamstresses who created it. Her reaction to this erasure makes clear one of the salient themes of the book: textiles are powerful because of what they show and who made them, how, and why. Hunter positions needlework as a two-fold source of knowledge, both an “archive of supposedly enduring materials” and an “ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice.”2

Threads of Life cover art. (©Abrams | Used with permission)

Around the fourteenth century, a global wave of sumptuary laws taxed excessive finery in garments in order to strengthen class distinctions, thereby elevating embroidery to a highly valued, male-driven art form. But when these laws were repealed in 1630, needlework lost its position as “the public indicator of wealth and power.”3 Needleworking became unlucrative and, as a result, unmasculine. Female needleworkers thus carried on a once-hallowed tradition that capitalist society at large eventually deemed little more than hobby, pastime, or, worse still, “just women’s work.”4 But this devaluation is unfair and historically inaccurate. It is true that women have often been the primary drivers of needlework, owing in part to the fact that it is a kind of “writing” that can be done secretly and symbolically, fitting well between the burdens of caring for a family and running a household. The needleworker can put the work aside and continue it later, when she has a moment to herself. (In this way, Hunter helps reframe “women’s work” as celebratory rather than pejorative.) But it is not only women who have found voice in needle and thread. As Hunter shows, embroidery especially has been a vehicle through which the marginalized and silenced have recorded their truths and stories, encoded in stitches. Housebound and shell-shocked British veterans from the Great War found meaning, comfort, and camaraderie through the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry, the first-ever group dedicated to occupational therapy. The Hmong people’s testify to their history of trauma and loss in their paj ndau (story cloths) showing, for example, a splendid landscape with enemy soldiers hidden in the foliage, machine guns trained on unsuspecting Hmong children. Agnes Richter stitched Ich (German for “I”) thousands of times on her asylum-issued garments in the face of declining mental stability and unending institutionalization. Chilean mothers challenged Pinochet and rendered their vanished children visible with their arpilleras.5

Embroidery sampler, made by 11 years old Elizabeth Lodge in 1863. (The Women’s Museum in Dallas, TX / Wikimedia Commons)

But the unique and desirable power of traditional textiles has complicated their place in modern life. As Hunter explains, in recent years non-governmental organizations have formed connections with refugees and other disadvantaged indigenous groups in order to sell their traditional work and help them gain a foothold in capitalist society. However, with commodification comes a loss of meaning. One of the refugee embroiderers who is part of the Sughar Empowerment Society in rural Pakistan confronts how the commercialization of her needlework shatters its significance: “How could she transfer the honor she had sewed into a garment for her daughter’s dowry into a handbag she made for a stranger?”6 How can sacred tradition be preserved when it is sold on the shelves of every fair-trade artisan co-op from New York to Tokyo? Hunter cannot answer these questions, but the very act of posing them makes us mindful of what happens when a global economy hungry for evermore beauty ignores the meaning and embodied labor behind what is visible.

Hunter writes with the elegant and straightforward authority of one who has not merely studied a subject to gain mastery but also participated in it herself over a lifetime. When I put Threads of Life on my bookshelf, it will go right between Helen MacDonald’s H Is For Hawk and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale. All the way through, I had the feeling that this is an important book. And yet, I found I couldn’t even begin to articulate why. Yes, I loved reading every word, and yes, I feel it makes significant contributions to our understanding of a marginalized and hidden archive. But its importance felt bigger than that, somehow. And then Hunter articulated what it was herself, in the chapter entitled “Value”:

A guest writer has been invited to host the creative writing group I have recently joined. He asked us to introduce ourselves and say a little about what we are working on. As each member outlines their memoir, crime thriller, historical novel, or their collection of short stories, the writer nods encouragingly. Then it is my turn. I tell him I am writing a book about the social, emotional and political significance of sewing. “Ah yes,” he says, “I can just see me asking my local bookstore if they have that bestseller on social, emotional and political sewing.” His look towards me is pitying.7

He dismissed Hunter and her work in the way that so many men have been historically dismissive of the “little things” that women make. But those little things – delicately embroidered caps for newborns, creweled shrouds for the dead, appliquéd suffragette banners – are intrinsic to our humanity. Hunter ignored him as he deserved to be ignored. She did her work anyway, as women do, and made something extraordinary from the seemingly ordinary. And I am so very grateful to her for that.

Notes

  1. Clare Hunter, Threads Of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle (New York: Abrams Press, 2019), 298. Return to text.
  2. Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 19. Return to text.
  3. Hunter, Threads Of Life, 233. Return to text.
  4. Hunter, 268. Return to text.
  5. Hunter, 42, 112, 39, 158. Return to text.
  6. Hunter, 274. Return to text.
  7. Hunter, 205. Return to text.

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