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Art? Handicraft? Women’s work? What is needlework to you? To Clare Hunter, needlework is not just a decorative frivolity but true skilled labour and a means of telling the stories of the individuals, countries and historical periods. To her, the act of sewing is to secure and trap out personal memories in thread and fabric. ‘Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle’ is Clare Hunter’s exploration of the oft-forgotten tales of the accomplished hands that created many different textile pieces, lost and preserved, and the political and social environments surrounding their work.
While nominally a non-fiction book, ‘Threads of Life’ by Clare Hunter also includes a great deal of personal reflections and anecdotes from the author herself. It makes for an interesting read, lots of historical facts to hoover up while the prose remains engaging throughout and the book has more of a feeling of a novel than an academic lecture on textiles all over the world.
The book is divided into sixteen thematic chapters with an additional beginning and ending chapter. The themes include ‘Power’, ‘Protest’, ‘Community’, ‘Art’ and ‘Voice’ – all deceptively simple nouns for some heavyweight stories and coverage inside. While the book doesn’t perhaps truly live up to the title ‘a history of the world’, there is some impressive scope covered here with more of a focus on contemporary history than ancient. Miao embroidery traditions from China are covered in more depth, as is this history of embroidering the maps of American and slave quilts there. We do flit through the traditions of Romania, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and another host of countries and the fabrics and sentiments to be found in their birth and death ceremonies. Much like a real piece of embroidery, these small little details create a tantalising picture of international embroidery culture. Taken alone, they are somewhat sad and uninteresting, but together they spark the curiosity for some additional research.
The earliest chapters of the book are most focused on the earlier periods of history and for me, are the weakest sections. At first, while I enjoyed the telling of the forgotten creators of the Bayeux Tapestry and the needlework of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her use of symbolism and stitch to communicate and influence, the prose here felt like it was veering a little on the purple side and, while the content and context of the needlework was interesting, I found myself wondering just how much historical evidence there was for some of the assertions and theories. Were they the ponderings of the author or well-established historical narrative? I’m not a historian, nor particularly knowledgeable about the period, so I cannot comment on how factually accurate it is but it makes for an interesting read, particularly the ‘re-writing’ to the historical narrative over time to exclude the roles of undesirable characters like embroiderers and women.
After that, the next chapter, ‘Captivity’, announced itself like a slap in the face. This is where Clare Hunter starts unleashing all her ferocious talent as a writer onto the page to capture the stories of prisoners of war and their needlework through the ages. It starts with some levity: ‘sewing is unobtrusive… It can be done secretly, quickly folded away should the need arise. If necessary it can be easily hidden.’ Then, the Glasgow’s museum discovery of a textile leads us through the senseless horrors of the Changi prison camp, modern Palestine and various revolutions that have claimed the lives and liberties of many.
Maybe it is Clare Hunter’s choice to tell the tale of Changi prison through the perspective of her friend, looking for the embroidered legacy of her mother, a prisoner there, but all these stories and infused with humanity, warmth and a strange scent of hope, given the atrocities described. Again, she goes for breadth, skilfully intertwining the work of modern social enterprises like Fine Cell Work with the cultural erosion of the secret codes in regional embroidery that disappear when communities are shattered by war. It makes for heavy reading, told through the stitches of defiance created by prisoners of war clinging to the last thread of their identity, but Hunter collects and curates these forgotten stories with sympathy and respect.
These seamless transitions between historical events, her personal stories and the traditions of many different cultures and people continue for the rest of the book. It is all delightfully compelling. The arbitrary division of chapters feels like it disappears from here and, even though there is a constant rapid shifting of topics, it makes for a sumptuously smooth feast for the mind.
When you read a book, novel or non-fiction, you always bring your own education, experience and perspective to the text. It would be a challenge for anyone I think to not get a very fresh sense of perspective from the book on any of the myriad of topics or to learn something new. Reading Clare Hunter’s personal experience as a banner maker in local social projects was an insight into a world that I expect would have remained largely unknown to me and even her take on the fight for women’s suffrage in England, stories I knew well from school history lessons, took on a very new light from the perspective of objects that had been absent from those very same lessons, the use of textiles in political campaigning.
One of the main themes in the book is the status of textiles in society. While many historical pieces have not been preserved due to the fragility of fabric and thread, it is clear that a great deal of history and evidence has been lost simply due to curator’s disinterest in all things fuzzy. Along with this has been the social diminishing of the skill and worth of needlework in particular and its relegation to the outcast status of ‘women’s work’. Unintellectual, repetitive and worthless.
You can feel Clare Hunter’s simmering outrage at the numerous injustices that revolutionary female artists and activists have faced. I was mortified to realise that while of course I had heard of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, I had even seen much of his brilliant work from grandparents determined to give me some sense of cultural and artistic appreciation, I had never considered the existence of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, a formidable artist in her own right. Given her husband acknowledged her contribution with the following words, ‘remember, you are half if not three-quarters in all my architectural work…’, her disappearance from the mainstream narrative seems rather unjust.
Through her stories of community outreach work, work with empowering refugees around the world, that the needle and thread hold power. Knowledge of the skills of how to construct sturdy garments and to decorate them in the charms and wards of the local custom are valuable things and in the connection of fabrics, it is not just items of monetary or practical value we create, but connections to those that taught us to sew and to the geographic regions whose customs and styles we inherit.
The book is thought-provoking on many of the topics it covers, from alternative views of history, to the ‘right’ way to help impoverished communities commercialise their textile traditions. The perspective I think I found most interesting in the book though was the role of embroidery kits in the ‘dumbing down’ of embroidery. In particular, the assertion that the widespread popularisation of these ‘robbed women of their creative confidence’. I have no idea whether this is a personal perspective or there is evidence to substantiate this but it’s an interesting, if very sad, idea indeed. I have sat in many a class with women almost expressing guilt and fear at the idea of designing something of their own who are highly proficient embroiderers. Maybe Clare Hunter’s words should be taken as something of a call-to-arms?
I have seen a lot of complaints that the book does not include any photographs of the work featured – they are available online if you so wish – but I think Clare Hunter’s descriptions are so vivid and wonderful the readability doesn’t really suffer from lack of visual prompts. I think the lack of photographs are a clever prompt as well. While this book is a truly devourable piece of prose, where I think its greatest success lies is inspiring the mind. Be it imaging these glorious textiles, some of which have been destroyed by time or human hand, learning of new techniques and styles, or seeing a new perspective on topics and approaches. Any book that leaves me just wanting to read and learn more is a good book by me.
The ending of the book is an incredible work of genius too. There is such a breadth of topics and ideas throughout the book that is very difficult to write a summary of the content that is suitably inclusive. However, the denouement to the whole fascinating tale comes together so perfectly seamlessly that it feels like the work of a master magician.
‘Threads of Life’ is an incredibly powerful text. It is relatively short at 306 pages but every sentence drips with new ideas, facts or perspectives. How Clare Hunter has managed to turn a book on thread into a thrilling ride I don’t know but she has. Despite each story perhaps only being granted a few pages, it never feels bitty or shallow and I cannot emphasise enough how well-crafted and constructed the whole thing feels. It would be very easy for this to have become a raggedy patchwork of unsatisfying, shallow remarks but it comes together so well to create something beautiful.
By definition, a lot of the subject matter in this book is difficult and while I think Clare Hunter covers many of the harrowing stories of individual’s without it veering into the gratuitous, if you have the perspective of needlework as a sanitised, genteel hobby then you have been warned. If you’re looking for something a little more upbeat and frivolous, then I would opt for Kassia St Clair’s ‘The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History’. There is very minimal overlap in the subjects covered between the two books, so owning one is no excuse not to get the other.
Overall though, I’d say ‘Threads of Life’ really packs both a narrative and informational punch. It’s a wonderful, thought-provoking read for anyone with even the most minor interest in needle and thread or, just a different perspective on the historical events covered. Highly, highly recommended not just for the journey it takes you through, but where it encourages you to do.
Author: Clare Hunter
Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.4 cm