Books

Threads of Life: A history of how sewing changed the world

Clare Hunter has spent a life with the needle. In her new book, Clare diligently explores the profound effect embroidery has had on groups all over the world, from fighting Pinochet to supporting striking miners

have sewn for most of my life. My mother taught me when I was young and the repetitive rhythm of hand embroidery and machine sewing seemed to suit my temperament.

It calmed me. It wasn’t however, until the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, that I realised that there was much more to needlework than decoration and dressmaking: that sewing could have social, emotional and political purpose, used to campaign, commemorate, celebrate and protect.

I went to Greenham Common where women in its anti-nuclear peace camp covered the nine-metre perimeter fence with sewn petitions, many of them made from materials found at home: old sheets, cast-off clothes, cleaning cloths.

With the strike at its height, I became involved in creating banners for striking miners,

During the miners’ strike of 1984 I was in Nottinghamshire running a community arts project involving local groups making banners to carry on that year’s May Day parade. With the strike at its height, I became involved in creating banners for striking miners to provide them with bold fabric proclamations of protest.

In those days, charity shops sold small patchwork pictures that had been made in Chile, smuggled out of a country silenced by Pinochet’s harsh regime. When those who spoke out were tortured, imprisoned or murdered, it was the poverty-stricken women in the shanty towns of Santiago, many of whom had lost husbands and children, who gathered up scraps of fabric to tell their stories of loss and grief and alert the outside world to the reality of their lives.

In the 1980s I was a community artist, devising creative ways to involve communities – particularly those most annexed from the everyday swim of life because of disability, poverty or ethnicity – in activities that could give them a voice and a presence.

I set up NeedleWorks in Glasgow working with people in care homes, hospitals, youth and multi-cultural centres to promote the imagination and creativity of those whose talents were all too often neglected or overlooked. And I began to gather stories of sewing, across centuries and cultures, its hidden history, which I have now collected into a book Threads of Life.

The book tells of the shellshocked soldiers of World War 1 who found a way to make an income, regain self-esteem and control of their mental and physical frailties through the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry; of the POWs in World War 2, men as well as women, who unpicked worn clothing and unravelled jumpers to scavenge thread to covertly stitch defiance, patriotism, hope and survival; the African-American slaves who, forbidden to learn to read or write, kept hold of their spiritual beliefs through stitching them symbolically onto quilts.

Sewing is a multi-layered language, created to be read,

What struck me most as I excavated such stories was how much of our understanding of the purpose and potency of needlework has been lost over time: embroidered cloth folded away, its maker unknown, its connection to a cause or a personal or community trauma unrecognised. In the thousands of books written about sewing few discuss the reason why people sew. Yet sewing is a multi-layered language, created to be read. It is tactile as well as emotional: feel and feelings combined to preserve values and connect generations.

I find sewing therapeutic not only because of the soothe of its rhythm but because the concentration it demands allows my mind to settle. The focus and sense of accomplishment it brings are beneficial to our mental health. No wonder then that it was introduced into prisons by the 19th-century penal reformer Elizabeth Fry as an aid to the rehabilitation of women in Newgate gaol. Through sewing they not only learned an employable skill to use on their release, but a way to snatch a kind of privacy amongst the claustrophobia of prison life.

Fry’s work continues today through the organisation Fine Cell Work, which operates in nearly 30 UK prisons involving hundreds of – predominantly male – prisoners in embroidering small products to sell online and larger commissions. These men sew in their cells, finding a quietude and respite from the clatter and clang of their world and sensory solace in the slip of thread and the soft touch of cloth.

Sewing is a democratic craft: its stitches are simple, its materials accessible. It doesn’t need a workshop or expensive tools and, as its history proves, it can be done even in the direst of circumstances. Today it is being used increasingly in collective projects to support and protect the most vulnerable. The Sleeping Bag Project in America invites people to make hand-crafted sleeping bags for homeless people, many sewn with messages of comfort, hope and support; PreemiesUK involves people making tiny clothing for premature babies, The Spruce Crafts offers free patterns for chemotherapy turbans, beds for rescue animals, walking frame bags for those with limited mobility and more. All
these and others help to create donations from the heart: a way of passing on caring messages to those most in need of attention. They offer the personal touch of a tactile connection through the gift of needlework.

Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle by Clare Hunter is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)

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