Carol Eckert "Memento Mori" detail

SDA Book Club, March: “Threads of Life”

This month’s SDA Book Club features of review of Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle by Clare Hunter written by Faith Hagenhofer. We’re lucky to have Faith reviewing quite a few new and upcoming textile books that go further in-depth into the rich history and materiality of textiles! 

Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle by Clare Hunter

In Threads of Life, it is not sewing, but stitching and embroidery that is studied, and, while the book briefly touches many parts of the world it always circles back deeply to Europe, the UK, and mostly Scotland.  In all fairness, Clare Hunter is Scottish. In this thoroughly researched book she shares many personal experiences of the impacts and messages enabled by stitched threads.

Threads of Life examines a skill set put to work by a range of groups and individuals, for purposes outside of and broader than private domestic consumption. What sets Threads of Life  apart and makes for engaging reading of what could be a very dry history are exactly the specific thematic lenses that organize Clare Hunter’s regard of myriad stitched artifacts and some rather more obscure experiences with embroidery, many of which are personal.  I found myself taking stacks of notes on stickies and in the margins, as I was jostled and inspired by the unearthing of long lost objects and the people behind the needles, that fill each of the 16 chapters. Her chapters—among them: “Unknown,” “Power,” “Frailty,” “Connection,” “Journey,” “Protest”—focus on the makers and the circumstances of their work. For example, in “Unknown,” an examination of the Bayeux Tapestry and its anonymous makers winds down with a description of Mary Queen of Scots embroidering, in the 44th panel’s stitches. “She lived when embroidery…was valued as a transmitter of intellect and emotion…”. Mary is the central subject of “Power ,” which segues into “Frailty’s” discussion of “sewing (sic) as a panacea for mental distress.” From there many historical and current survivors, migrants, inmates, prisoners of war and refugee groups come under Harper’s sympathetic and focused eye, through their stitched works. Among her subjects are the Hmong, the Abuelas of Chile, and indigenous Australians. Threads of Life is jammed with well told stories!

This social history enters a rich field of textile literature that includes a new edition of The Subversive Stitch, by Rozsika Parker, Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as protest from the American Revolution to the pussyhats, ed Hinda Mandell, and Fray by Julia Bryan-Wilson. (More on these titles to come!)  Where these discuss the deliberate use of what’s been labeled a domestic skill to comment or undermine social issues, with the exception of Glaswegian banners most of the stitcheries described in Threads of Life aren’t overtly political.  The book also appeals to more than a textile interest.  It would be equally comfortable in any list of commodity histories—with the likes of Mark Kurlansky’s Salt. 

There are no illustrations. Hunter’s words paint awesome pictures but seeing the mostly embroidered textiles with which she tells these histories requires off-book searching. While there is a brief chapter by chapter, semi-related suggested reading list -all books- there are no footnotes to the written materials that actually cited.  Not everyone would find this irritating, but since so many of the stories are beautifully offered inspirational histories, I wanted the sources, so I might further read and look. 

Faith Hagenhofer, is a fiber artist, shepherd, retired librarian, and has been involved with Surface Design Association for more than a dozen years She serves as the South Puget Sound (Washington, US) SDA contact.

Publisher: Abrams Books
Date: October, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-4197-3953-8
Buy it on Amazon

If you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Do you have a recommendation for a recent fiber-related book you think should be included in SDA’s Book Club? Email SDA’s Managing Editor, Lauren Sinner, to let her know!

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