Embroidery as Storytelling

Embroidery as Storytelling
May 7, 2022 Rachel Biel
Shop embroidery on Artizan Made.

We’re featuring our Market Categories here on our blog to give them some context, some history…  Embroidery is one of those vast categories as there are so many different techniques that go back in time for centuries. For this post, I thought it would be interesting to explore how embroidery has been used for storytelling.

Stitching can be extremely complex or it can be simple lines used like a pencil in a drawing. Because there is so much freedom in the technique, embroidery has been used as a way to record history for centuries. Like most of the other textile arts, embroidery can be personal and intimate, belonging to one person, or it can be communal and have many people contribute to a large textile or to a technique that becomes easily recognizable as belonging to a group of people. Examples include the Hmong, Miao, European eras, African villages, Indian tribal groups, the Suzanis from the Stan countries and so much more. In some places, embroidery has been an elitist expression, while in others, a practice of the people. Let’s have a look at some stories…

Past

Bayeux Tapestry - Battle of Hastin

Bayeux Tapestry – Battle of Hastin

The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most intriguing and bizarre examples of embroidery used in story telling. It is an immense project that tells the “story of the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066, told in a 70 meters long embroidery”. It has a dedicated website here which has loads of info on its history and the story it tells:

“The Bayeux Tapestry probably spent seven centuries in the Treasury of Bayeux cathedral and was then moved to a number of different locations in the city and throughout France before ending its journey in the former Seminary of Bayeux ,where it has been on display since 1983.  Since then, it has continued to be a never-ending source of inspiration for scientists and artists all over the world.”   Bayeux Museum

Nobody knows who made it!

A student project animated the tapestry, bringing it to life:  “The Animated Bayeux Tapestry was created as a student project while at Goldsmiths College. Just as the historic original embroidery does, the animation depicts the lead up to to the Norman Invasion of Britain in 1066. Starts about halfway through the original work at the appearance of Halley’s Comet and concludes at the Battle of Hastings.”

 

Of course, there are many stories of love and peace and folklore told through embroidery, but the stories of war have been especially memorable because they have come from humble origins, women using what they know to stand up to oppression and to make a demand. The 1970’s were a time of terrible repression in South America with thousands of young people disappearing. Torture was the norm and those who survived were often too debilitated to ever live meaningful lives. The worst dictatorships happened in Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

Chilean women adopted a style of applique and embroidery native to Peru and Colombia, “arpilleras”, which normally showed idyllic images of life in the country or small towns. They used the technique to protest, demanding to know where there sons had disappeared to, asking questions about the violence and the injustices they were seeing. These groups organized for almost 20 years and their textiles became highly collectible as evidence of the horrors these people endured.

 

This arpillera was created by Violeta Morales. The faceless figures next to the women represent the missing victims who dared to oppose Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, from 1973

This arpillera was created by Violeta Morales. The faceless figures next to the women represent the missing victims who dared to oppose Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, from 1973

Facing History details the arpillera movement during this time in Chile.  The StoryCloth database documents how these arpilleras spread to other countries who started documenting their own trials in a similar way. You can see that the stitching is quite crude, basically used to hold different colors of fabric in place and to write text, in this case, the names of the disappeared.

At almost the same time, on the other side of the world, the Hmong documented their experiences in the Vietnam war through textiles they called “pandau”. The Hmong were allies of the US and fought the Viet Cong with everything they had. This earned 300 thousand of them refugee status in the United States. Many of the scenes in their pandaus show them escaping from the Viet Cong and being rescued by American soldiers. This pandau was made by Hmong artist Xao Yang Lee:

 

Depiction of Secret War (top) and refugees fleeing Laos (line of people at bottom). Hmong Pandau

Depiction of Secret War (top) and refugees fleeing Laos (line of people at bottom)

Read more here.

The Present Remembering The Past

Not all story telling happens through figurative embroidery. The war in Ukraine has highlighted it’s folk roots, especially with embroidery, music and dance. Wearing traditional garb has become a symbol of resistance.  Dyvyna means “Miracle” in Ukrainian and a vocal group has been using music and traditional dress as a statement of defiance since Putin annexed Crimea. Read more here.

The Dyvyna ensemble performs traditional songs from the Donetsk region

The Dyvyna ensemble performs traditional songs from the Donetsk region

See the background showing a traditional embroidery design?  Traditional garments for both women and men feature embroidered patterns and now these represent a strong cry for identity.  There are similarities between Ukrainian and Russian folk wear, dance and music, but they are also distinct. This dance group in the United States wears folk embroidery and looks back to World War II when Ukraine was under the yoke of the USSR.

 

Music, dance, clothing, food, and so much more feed identity. I really love World music where there is a fusion between cultures, but for people who are facing annihilation, their unique historical symbols help separate them from the world while strengthening the symbols that make them special, important, and irreplaceable.

Not everything has to be about war and misery, of course. Dr. Jessica Grimm of Acupictrix specializes in medieval goldwork embroidery. She researches old works and shares her findings on her blog. Lately she has been volunteering to demonstrate her techniques at the Glentleiten Open Air Museum in Upper Bavaria. Reenactments help us remember the past and having environments where we can see how things were done helps us imagine a different time.

You can learn goldwork embroidery with Dr. Jessica Grimm!

Dr. Jessica Grimm Goldwork Embroidery Workshop

Dr. Jessica Grimm Goldwork Embroidery Workshop

 

The Present

All of the textile arts have been vying for recognition as “art” since the 1970’s. Because they are usually labeled as “women’s work” or practiced by indigenous people, they have been denigrated as less valuable in art circles. The tension between what is “craft” and what is “art” has been long and tedious. One of the ways textile artists have tried to change these perceptions has been through the function of the textile as well as its subject matter. Remove the utility by making it an “art quilt” rather than just a “quilt”. Embroider shocking sentences or scenes to wake people up.  Mr. X Stitch has one of the best platforms for contemporary embroidery, documenting a wide range of movements and techniques.

Another tension in the embroidery world deals with how machine embroidery is perceived. This is true with the other textile families as well. Weaving, quilting, knitting and sewing all have mechanized tools that make the handwork devotees grimace. Yet, these are all just tools and what is done with them is what make it all interesting. Eileen Doughty machine embroiders on soluble fabrics, creating sculptural works that are fantastic! Many of her pieces talk about nature and ecology. My favorites are her teapots:

 

Doughty Designs Fabric Tea Pot

Doughty Designs Fabric Tea Pot

 

India Tresselt of Yarndance has used her embroidery to document the injustices she saw during the Trump years as well as other social problems. She works in series and has been published in many online journals. It’s quite interesting to see how her work evolves over time and how the same idea gets explored in different ways. “This is not normal.” was a phrase she used over and over, each time pointing to one thing she saw as dysfunctional. Visit her website to see her political work and her shop.

This piece talks about the Latin American children who have been imprisoned at the US border:

 

India Tresselt of Yarndance -Shame On US- Political Embroidery On Vintage Cloth USA

India Tresselt of Yarndance -Shame On US- Political Embroidery On Vintage Cloth USA

 

Finally, we have a mix of old and new when upcycling artists use vintage embroideries to create something new. Debra Dorgan does that with garments, accessories and home décor.  Is this also story telling? I think she succeeds at creating a bond to the past through her work. Perhaps the story is about salvaging what is beautiful from the past. I just really, really like her Lady Dolls and wanted to include them here….

Debra Dorgan Lady Dolls

Debra Dorgan Lady Dolls

When I was a teenager, I studied Portuguese embroidery with an old woman in Brazil. She was austere and severe and scared me a bit but I loved practicing the stitches. Those skills came in handily throughout the years, but I never got into the pretty embroideries of that tradition. I did start exploring it again by capturing some old family images in thread and that has been great fun!  This one is of me as a one year old, sitting on a rocking chair:

 

Rachel Biel embroidery

Rachel Biel embroidery

 

There are so many amazing embroidery artists and traditions represented in my textile community! I could go on and on about them and will continue to feature others in our posts here, but I cannot end this without doffing my hat to Salley Mavor of Wee Folk Studio! She is a master at storytelling through needle and stitch! She has illustrated children’s books, has written about her techniques and lately, has also used her talent in social critiques. I have seen some of her pieces in person and am awe struck by all of the work that goes into one scene. Well, she topped it all off with an animated movie using stop motion photography to give life to her storyline, Liberty and Justice:

Liberty and Justice Stop Animation Film by Salley Mavor of Wee Folk Studio

Liberty and Justice Stop Animation Film by Salley Mavor of Wee Folk Studio

Salley describes the story line:

In this satirical take-off of the traditional folk tale, “Hansel and Gretel, the wordless story follows protagonists Liberty and Justice as they negotiate the challenges of today’s unique political landscape, while being shadowed by a persistent Twitter bird.   See more on her site.

Salley got harsh words from some of her fans for leaving fairy tales and jumping into political opinions. Some people want art to just be pretty or nice and get really uncomfortable when they are confronted with messaging that differs from their own. But art has ALWAYS been used as a mirror to what’s going on in the world and as such, it has served as an invaluable tool to historians and to the rest of us who want to know those old stories. Our contemporary stitchers also document our times and there is plenty that I see that I don’t really care for, but feel that it’s great to have these different perspectives and narratives.

What about you? Do you embroider? Do you have any favorite storytellers on cloth that you would like to share? Let us know in the comments!

Here are some of our embroidery category items from our Market. They show up randomly from the larger mix.

Click on them to see the description and pricing and they will either link to our member’s shop or be available for sale through our cart.

Visit our Embroidery Category to see more.

 

Comments (2)

  1. Dr Jessica Grimm 2 months ago

    What a lovely varied blog post, Rachel! Thank you so much for including my work.

    • Author
      Rachel Biel 2 months ago

      You’re welcome! I hope people hop on over to your site and explore your research. Fascinating!!

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