Teaching gender, talking about sewing

Linford Christie at his embroidery
Linford Christie at his embroidery

Today I start a series of lectures for undergraduate students and the first class is on gender, the body and organisation.  I thought it might be a good way into this to think about a gendered occupation and I suddenly remembered two pictures that I have used before.  The first is this one of Linford Christie learning embroidery.  It was part of a campaign by a Government body, Learning Direct, to encourage us all to acquire new skills for the knowledge economy.  I don’t have a note of the date unfortunately, but I do know that it was produced when Christie was at the height of his pomp after his gold medal successes at the Barcelona Olympics.  The message seems to me to be, here is this man, champion of the world. the conquering hero, the epitome of masculinity, strength, courage, competitiveness, determination, the fastest man on earth.  Even he can learn embroidery.  I don’t how much they paid him, but personally, I don’t find Christie convincing.  His body language is ill at ease, and his smile seems forced.  He clearly finds the embroidery frame a threat to his masculinity.  I contrast the machismo of Christie with the following:

Young woman at her sewing machine
Young woman at her sewing machine

This image is possibly even more startling and I wish I knew its provenance.  It was given to me after a lecture I used to do on portrayals of women sewing.  This is quite extraordinary for a stitcher – what exactly is she making with all that tulle?  A set of net curtains?  And why exactly is she stark naked?  Is this pornographic?  Or does the bird cage in the top right-hand corner suggest a feminist subtext?  But the association of the feminine with sewing and sewing with the feminine is very clear.  It reminds me of Roszika Parker’s great assertion: ‘To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’ in The Subversive Stitch.  Parker’s thesis is that young women were taught the qualities of femininity – taught how to be women – by being taught embroidery.  They were taught quietness, self-containment, composure, to keep their heads down, to be neat, to be diligent, to see things through, to be silent and content with their own company.  And to be happy to stay at home.  She also states that young women were taught to copy designs and not to be independently creative.  Parker suggests that this was so successful that embroidery and femininity became synonymous: embroidery was women’s work, and thus we are set up to find the super man in his glory Christie, funny when he picks up a little cross stitch.  The Subversive Stitch has just been republished and is well worth getting hold of.  Its title comes from Parker’s theory that women have always used needlework as a way of making statements about their worlds and of challenging societal norms and constraints placed upon them.

I am not sure that my young economists will go for this.  But it is always worth a try.

7 thoughts on “Teaching gender, talking about sewing

  1. Dear Ann
    I chanced upon your blog via Janet Haigh’s blog and saw this picture of the naked girl with a sewing machine. My first thought was that it was late Victorian erotic art, with a slight Chinese or Japanese feel in the design of the flowers. I hadn’t immediately spotted the bird in the cage, but the German word “vögeln” is commonly used to describe the sex act. I tried looking at the large size of the picture to see if the sewing machine is a German brand but it is too difficult to read. In any case, the needle with its repetitive up-and-down motion penetrates the fabric. I don’t know if you agree.

    Best wishes


    1. Thanks for this. It’s a really interesting idea. I thought it looked a bit technicolour forties or fifties. I think the person who gave it to me said it came from the ‘Guardian’ newspaper at some point. I really like your idea of the verbal pun, though. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. I am very inspired by the fact that you use textile in your teaching. I just wish I had thought to do that before I retired from the Open University. There were quite a few quilters around but I don’t think any of us used it in out work.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I wouldn’t have used textiles in my academic work if it hadn’t been for a really great colleague I had when I worked at UWE. He suggested that I put a quilt into the American Academy of Management Conference and I never looked back. Another great colleague, Charles Booth, at UWE suggested that I thought I about using textiles in my published work as well. So, interestingly, both were men. I wonder if I would have taken it as seriously if a woman had suggested it? Male approval did seem to legitimate the activity, which is interesting if you work on gender! What did you teach at the OU? I hold it in the highest esteem. OU students really work for their degrees in my experience. Thanks again for commenting.

  3. i am finding your site really stimulating. Your comments about male approval have really got me thinking. I wonder if a woman would have suggested it. I am now musing on the area of stitching as a private female domain and as something that is often not meant to be seen. When I used to teach needlework in the 60s I told girls that their stitches had to be tiny and neat, as near invisible as possible, just as I had been taught. I don’t think I would say that today. Now I would say textile work is Art.
    (I used to be a Staff Tutor in Education at the OU in Cambridge and now do a little bit of tutoring for them down here in the southwest.)

    1. The neatness on the back issue is so interesting, isn’t it. I think I still feel a bit of residual guilt that the back of my pieces are so chaotic. I sometimes want to put another backing over the worked piece. Having said that, machine work sometimes looks much more interesting on the back.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. There seem to be a number of us who are interested in our academic lives crossing over with our professional academic roles. What do you tutor in?

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