I have just finished reading this book by Mary Beaudry, which I bought in the Victoria and Albert Museum bookshop several months ago. I say reading, but actually there was a lot of skimming involved. This is a book for archeologists rather than stitchers. I thought it was going to be really interesting as it has chapters on all the tools of our trade: pins, scissors, thimbles, scissors, needles and so on, but it is pretty much a field guide to these artefacts to guide archeologists when they dig them up during excavations. The introduction was really stimulating, though, with Beaudry making a very good case for the association of women with the material findings of needlework – needles and thimbles and so on. She acknowledges her massive debt (as we all do) to Roszika Parker’s foundational Subversive Stitch, and she builds on that work. Beaudry makes the point that needles and pins and thimbles are so solidly associated with women’s work and thus women, that archeologists don’t really ever consider them. She gives a very nice summary of the conflation with an artefact with a particular gender:
Throughout history, activities customarily performed either by men or by women have become associated with and deemed appropriate to members of one sex or the other. Through such customary associations various undertakings and responsibilities have become culturally designated as the “natural” province of one sex or another and therefore integral to the definition of gender identity through designation of gender roles. The processes, settings, tools and materials employed in an enterprise are metonymically transformed into symbols of sex-specific tasks and so become emblems of gender identity. (p. 2)
She suggests we take a closer look, and that we consider the importance of context. Needles are a good example – where you find a needle and how many you find will tell you quite a lot about the life of the owner. I was also a bit surprised to discover that because there was so little money to be made from being a seamstress in the nineteenth century, women often supplemented their income with prostitution and thus the trade ‘seamstress’ became synonymous with ‘prostitute’, which sits rather oddly with all those Victorian ladies stitching away at crazy patchwork and so on. I also liked the idea that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries so many pins were involved in keeping clothing in place that approaching a lady was a dangerous occupation, even arch-seducer Byron said it was like touching a porcupine. I’d like to end with a really big claim from the beginning of the book. In my line of work I get a lot of ‘where would civilisation be if no-one had ever…’ Beaudry makes her claim for the role of needlework in the establishing of civilisation:
Consider for a moment the likelihood that complex civilizations could have arisen if no one had invented cordage for tying up bundles, creating strings from fibers that could be manipulated in many ways, knotted, netted, laced through skins, woven into cloth. If women had never experimented with fibers, if this experimentation had never led to textile production, to clothing, tapestries, blankets, bags, coverings of all sorts, the course of civilization, if indeed there was any would have been unimaginable, unthinkable. Textile production and sewing of some sort have been tangled up with aspects of culture – technological, social, economic, ritual and so on – since early human history. (p. 5)
This strikes me as a pretty big claim, but it might bear repeating next time I get a crack about knitting, and doing something more mainstream!
The book is an excellent piece of scholarship and I think it will become a classic for archeologists, but it is a bit heavy-going for the lay reader. Just in case you fancy a look the details are as follows:
Mary C Beaudry. (2006) Findings: the material culture of needlework and sewing. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.