Many years ago, inspired by a book on Korean folk art and craft, I began a crude, autodidactic experiment in stitching. I worked without a pattern, using cheap floss, a needle with a too-small eye and a plastic embroidery hoop to sew geometric designs on a few worn-out T-shirts.
Thread lends itself almost too easily to metaphor. With each clumsy stitch, I thought of my maternal grandmother, whom I never got a chance to meet. An artwork of hers hangs on my parents’ wall, in Tacoma, Washington. From a distance, the framed image appears to be a painting, but it is in fact hair-fine embroidery. A light-green parrot sits at rest in a magnolia tree, the bird’s curved, red-orange beak contrasting sharply with its layered feathers. The flowers are in full bloom, shaded dark pink to white.
Each tiny stitch of plumage and branch is the work of a young woman’s fingers, cramped by the needle’s demands, her bowed head curving her torso into a C. My grandmother created the panel around 1941, when she was a high school student in Seoul living under Japanese colonial rule. Given the oppressions of that era — she and her classmates were forced to use Japanese names; she walked past soldiers on her way home from school — embroidery must have lent her a quiet, fleeting freedom.
My own practice has been intermittent, but last year, in a moment of anger and news overload, I picked up my old hoop and thread. I began to sew objects, words and portraits of loved ones into handkerchiefs and remnants of felt. I embroidered during afternoon work breaks and in the evening, while watching bad TV. I learned how to keep my fabric just taut enough and marvelled at the difference a millimeter of thread can make in evoking a nose or the tuning peg of a tiny violin.
I began to notice stitchers all around me, and not just because of the knitting mania inspired by the pussy hat. There seemed to be more crocheters fiddling with needles on the subway and pillows embroidered with girl-power motifs in storefront displays.
The fabric arts tick upward in times such as these, when women feel particularly indignant. In the 1970s, feminist artists such as Margaret Harrison and sewed polemics onto canvas and tablecloths. To take up the needle is to reclaim our histories of anonymous, poorly paid and unpaid female craft, garment labour and piece work.
As Rozsika Parker writes in her 1984 book, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, “because of its history and associations embroidery evokes and inculcates femininity in the embroiderer. But it can also lead women to an awareness of the extraordinary constraints of femininity, providing at times a means of negotiating them, and at other times provoking the desire to escape.”
There’s an undeniable satisfaction in pulling thread through the last letter-limb of an embroidered expletive or sewing up the image of a raised fist.
Even when the design at hand has no straightforward message, the act of embroidery can feel transgressive in its silence and domesticity. It is a haven from news whorls and internet noise, a return to a female tradition when our bodies and minds feel so keenly under assault.
The history of embroidery affords a glimpse of “the private inner world” of women, as a chronicler of the Korean tradition puts it. Because it has tended to flourish in female and feminine spaces — namely, the home — it is a kind of secret. To embroider is to embellish: to create a fantasia and thus be momentarily free.
None of this is to argue for retreat, let alone to the sewing room. Resistance is necessarily public, manifested in rallies and pickets, door-knocking and debate. Yet for all the time I have spent outside in the Trump era, there is a corresponding need for time indoors, where I can be still and let the mind wander. Textile work resembles meditation, though it can also take place in knitting circles and quilting groups, where silence is shared.
I recently reread Embroideries, by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic memoir about the lives of women in her extended Iranian family. The young Marjane sits with her grandmother at home over tea and listens to the stories told by female relatives and neighbours. The title of the book refers not only to needle and thread but also to the elaboration in “old wives’ tales,” domestic labour, fashion and nose jobs. Feigned virginity becomes “the full embroidery.”
I know just a few things about my grandmother. She was a passionate student who, despite the limited opportunities available to Korean women during Japanese rule, became a high school math teacher. Her husband forced her to quit when they were married, but she applied her intellect and skills to work in the home.
I used a photo of my grandmother’s embroidered parrot to guide a recent project: a bust of my mum sewn into a periwinkle handkerchief. The weave of her face isn’t as delicate as in my grandmother’s work. But there is a hint of her, there in the eyes and red-thread smile.
–New York Times News Service