IN 1572, an embroidered cushion was cited as evidence in a trial for treason against Elizabeth I of England. Still extant, it shows a lace-cuffed hand emerging from the clouds, brandishing a sickle, to cut down a dying vine. A banner reads in Latin: “virescit vulnere virtus”, translated as “virtue flourishes by wounding”. A personal monogram and the coat of arms of Scotland reveal the identity of its author: Mary, Queen of Scots.
Recently forced to abdicate her throne and flee to captivity in England, Mary sent the cushion to her future fourth husband, the Duke of Norfolk. He was involved in a plot to overthrow his royal cousin, possibly with his collusion. The symbolism of the embroidery communicates its subversive intent: Elizabeth, celibate without children, is the dying vine. The offended Mary, fruitfulness proven by the birth of her son James, is the pruning hand bringing fruitfulness and sure succession to her nations.
But the plan did not materialize. Norfolk was executed; Marie will remain imprisoned until her own beheading in 1587. During these long years, embroidery was one of the only means of expression available to Marie. It was a form of emotional regulation and a conventional feminine task. Yet it was also, as Clare Hunter explores in her recent book Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen Of Scots And The Language Of Power, her own “testimony”.
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Hunter states that, through hundreds of painstaking needlework, the marginalized Mary “insisted on her presence and preservation, affirming her value and power…”.
The surviving works of the fallen queen are a collection of flora and fauna, often inspired by Renaissance emblem books. They present very personal metaphorical and heraldic associations. Self-pity mixes with a biting sense of humour: on a cruciform panel, on display at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a ginger cat steps on the tail of a mouse, a criss-cross pattern behind it evoking a net. This image is frequently interpreted as a caricature of the notoriously prevaricating red-haired Elizabeth, gambling with Mary’s life.
In Mary’s time, textiles were sophisticated, portable, and luxurious articulations of power in Europe, more valuable than paintings. Over the following centuries, embroidery came to occupy an ambivalent position, referred to as ‘craft’ as opposed to ‘art’ in an inherently gendered bias. Yet Hunter’s textile biography of the iconic Scottish queen reveals the power of embroidery to act as an alternative type of communication, with the potential to disrupt mainstream narratives. The medium has become part of a strong tradition of activism, its often collaborative nature celebrating collective effort and solidarity.
It therefore seems fitting that a modern interpretation of an expansive national history for Mary’s kingdom should take embroidered form in the Great Tapestry of Scotland, based on designs by Andrew Crummy. It consists of 165 panels sewn by more than 1,000 volunteers, including Hunter, at nearly 200 sites. Shown at Holyrood in 2014 and now on permanent display at Galashiels, the Tapestry interweaves historical monuments with the lives of ordinary people.
Mary has her own panel. She is depicted sewing with a hoop, lined with references to her embroideries. The importance of Scottish textiles is commemorated: tartan of course, but also waulking, tweed, jacquard knit and paisley patterns. The last historical event described is the meeting of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 after more than 200 years. It shows a globular purple thistle and two hands holding a needle and thread, conveying a sense of both repair and creation.
Edinburgh-based artist Tzipporah Johnston (whose work is featured above) also uses embroidery as a form of communication. A member of the Society for Embroidered Work, seeking to elevate the status of embroidery, Johnston recently co-created NEUK Collective, championing neurodivergent people in the arts.
In a world that pathologizes neurodivergence, Johnston writes that his Museum Of Monotropism is meant to “communicate something of my inner experience – autism from an autistic perspective.” In doing so, she finds a sense of joy and fascination in her perspective on the world, while exploring its challenges.
Its title referring to autistic hyperfocus on particular interests and tasks, the series includes embroidered “amulets” alongside collections of found objects. These include eyes embellished with beadwork, beautiful but slightly unnerving artwork reminiscent of sacred objects. With them, Johnston intends to evoke “the pain and intensity of eye contact and the kind of attraction-repulsion I feel towards the eyes as a result”.
Johnston feels a deep empathy for the use of amulets throughout history, “physical defense[s] against the fear of the world, and a way of exercising control over the terrors of life”. In his Amulet Against Estrangement, two hands are separated, placed inside their own black frames. Yet they are bound by a crimson thread. “I crave connection,” says Johnston, “but the reality of real people is often quite difficult, quite overwhelming. Sometimes it’s easier to make that connection at a slight distance through objects. I have quite a large collection of amulets and charms.Each of them is a record of someone’s hopes, fears or wishes.
This concept of self-protective amulets, and what they communicate about human vulnerability, provides poignant insight into Mary’s needlework. His constant creation of embroideries alluding to his predicament, past, and family relationships were perhaps his own assortment of amulets.
The tactility of Mary Queen of Scots’ textiles only heightens their charisma as her testimony, demonstrating her determination to continue to make an impact on the material world, however risky it may have been for her own life.
Johnston suggests that it is this tactility, and the relationship of embroidery to care, that enhances its appeal. In such intensive work, with the maker poring over every stitch, “it feels like when you hold it, you’re holding someone’s hand.”
In fact, the repetition of hands in the imagery of all these works is striking, from a 16th century queen’s cushion to a national community project and contemporary art. It accumulates an inescapable sense of intimacy. They seem to represent the power of embroidery as both individual and communal creative expression throughout history: a gift passed down from hand to hand.