The stereotypical image of obedient housewives doing needlework is rooted in the reality of many historical women. Embroidery has become almost synonymous with a domestic and delicate representation of femininity. It was not only considered a female activity, but also a senseless pastime and not an art. Despite the lack of appreciation for a medium often considered “women’s work”, contemporary female artists like Judy Chicago, Orly Cogan and Anecdote use embroidery to create artwork with a feminist message.
The attempt to elevate embroidery to the rank of fine art dates back to the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century. Proponents of the movement believed that the craft should have the same prestigious status as fine arts. This was when only paintings, sculptures and architecture created by men were considered “real art” and women artists and embroidery were considered irrelevant. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged women and non-professionals to create designs that challenged the exclusive, male-dominated art world. May Morris – who was the daughter of William Morris, an important figure in the movement – was a skilled embroiderer and a pioneering feminist figure, but she never received the same recognition as her father because of her gender.
Because women were not allowed to join the Art Worker’s Guild – which was an integral part of the Arts and Crafts movement – May Morris co-founded the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907 with Mary Elizabeth Turner. Although her designs did not specifically feature feminist messages, Morris’ groundbreaking role as a professional embroiderer and her other accomplishments challenged sexist institutional structures and paved the way for other women to work in the medium.
Despite these efforts, the medium was still often seen as the work of women devoid of artistic merit. Nor was it a popular medium for feminist artists who wanted to dissociate themselves from the oppressive past tied to the craft. If like Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “You are not born but you become a woman”, embroidery is undoubtedly one of the things that make you “become” a woman in the eyes of society. When feminist artists like Chicago use embroidery, they don’t disagree with this narrative of a traditionally female medium, but rather embrace it. At the beginning of his career, Chicago tried to avoid the incorporation of “women’s work” into her art due to its pejorative connotation, but this changed with works like her 1979 party dinner, which honors the medium as a valid art form.
Years later, it seems that a growing number of female artists are using embroidery to convey feminist ideas despite or perhaps even because of her past. A medium so clearly denounced as the work of women and therefore shunned by many artists for fear of being seen as ‘feminine’ and ‘irrelevant’ is now experiencing a revival.
Contemporary artist Orly Cogan takes vintage embroideries created by women from previous generations and transforms them into a “base for fantastic explorationby modifying them. Her works examine stereotypical representations of women such as the femme fatale archetype or the Madonna-whore dichotomy. The artist aims to overcome these stereotypes while honoring women and their work from past eras.
Another contemporary artist who uses embroidery as a feminist medium is Hannah Hill, also known as Anecdote. Her work addresses the exclusion of embroidery from the canon of art while exploring themes such as gender, feminism and the stigmatization of sex workers. One of Hanecdote’s works references the medium’s past using a meme of the cartoon character Arthur clenching his fist in anger. Above, a text reads: “When one remembers that historically, embroidery was not taken seriously as a medium because it is a work of women.”
It seems like these artists don’t want to eradicate the medium’s past and contribute to the narrative that women’s work is bad work. Instead, they reclaim embroidery as an inherently feminist medium. Their work has ties to so many historic women who have used embroidery as an art form or a means of self-expression.
These artists reference the historical tradition of the medium as the work of women and make something new out of it. Their approach seems similar to movements like the feminine writing (“women’s writing”) which strove to find a new mode of expression beyond the male-centered literary tradition. An important figure in the movement is the philosopher Luce Irigaray. Her words also offer a possible explanation for the transformation of embroidery into a feminist medium. “If we continue to speak of this same similarity, if we speak to each other as men have spoken to each other for centuries, as they have taught us to speak, we will fail each other,” she wrote in her 1980 essay “When Our Lips speak together”. adding: “The words will cross our bodies, above our heads, will disappear, will make us disappear.
This quote once served as inspiration for feminist artist Jenny Saville who attemptedpaint the femalein his work instead of writing it, which was the goal of the feminine writing. By embracing a language or medium that moves away from a masculine, male-centered narrative, female artists are able to claim but also maintain the feminine identity of embroidery. It allows them to tell stories about and overcome female archetypes, to advocate for better treatment of sex workers, and to honor a medium that has been used by so many women before them.