Subversive stitching: From Emin to Aydua

Image credit: INDIA AYLES

Quilting, weaving, applique and embroidery are ways that we can literally embed our thoughts into something via a simple piece of thread. These old-aged textile techniques usually associated with a domestic female space, forms of “low” art, are being powerfully reclaimed within contemporary art and fashion; showing us they have relevance to our lives. As Grayson Perry reminds us, textiles have an intimate relationship with our lives, whether in the clothes we wear everyday or the quilts we sleep under: “we are born and we die and we make love under a quilt”.

Birth, the in-between and death are echoed in Grayson Perry’s The Walthamstow Tapestry 2009. The almost Bayeaux Tapestry size textile work begins with the visceral birthing of a child, into a world of brands, from converse to PG tips, to the inevitable deathbed. The tapestry becomes a medium for Perry to explore contemporary culture; a fiber-mirror is held up to society. From abortion, the British class system, religion, sexuality and identity, Grayson confronts us with the issues pertinent to our time through a threadbare medium.

Tracey Emin parallels the footsteps of Perry in a more close-up and personal manner. To her, techniques such as quilting provide a space for self-expression. Emin in the 90s began producing a series of quilts for her retrospective at the White Cube. This textile exploration led her to large-scale installations such as To Meet My Past 2002 that consisted of a four poster bed, mattress, bed clothing and curtains. The confessional quilt, featured on the bed, plays upon the old concept of quilts being a medium to record ones memories. Emin’s quilt has body stains and embroidered red thread across the cotton sheets denoting the menstrual cycle and her lovers that may have entered the bed. Displayed in the contemporary white walls of the Cube, Emin creates an aggressive, almost primeval reinterpretation of the medium.

Looking at the most obvious use of textiles, clothes, designers have returned to these timeworn crafts as a theme in their collections. Faustine Stenmetz in her SS15 collection 2015 took denim, a popular and mundane material, and physically unraveled the fabric, dismantling the mass-produced material. By undoing the threads of the denim, Stenmetz produced a kind of craft in reverse: an unwoven tapestry. More recently in Paris fashion week AW17, Maison Margiela created a walking tapestry in jacket form. The model wore what looked like a Persian carpet with neon yarn embroidered onto the surface. Mimicking the jacket, her hair was knitted with the yarn; she embodied the craft in a powerful feminist fashion. Like Margiela, Molly Goddard 2016 British woman’s wear designer of the year, expanded the notion of embroidery. This year the designer created a modern installation at the Now Gallery, where visitors could freely sew into her gigantic tulle dresses hanging from ceiling of the space. These female designers, which return to these crafts such as tapestry and embroidery, are reinvigorating techniques, which were traditionally confined to domestic spaces. In a world full of conceptual art and fast-fashion, it is heartening to see a return to craft, especially craft that is empowering women. We are trying to make this happen in Cambridge.

This ability of the medium to bridge so many different aspects of contemporary culture is exciting, but its value also lies in the therapeutic quality of the process itself. Embroidering is a slow and relaxing activity, mindless as well as creatively challenging, and in a world and a university environment where efficiency and productivity is always the priority, it can be a welcome gap in a hectic timetable. It is a medium that allows collaboration and discussion, which arguably does not happen enough in a competitive academic environment such as this one.

Recently the two of us made a tapestry for the exhibition Responses to Feminism, organized by the Churchill Feminist Society. Our piece sewn continuously over a month used wool to drawn our thoughts on feminism into a large piece of calico. We used slogans denoting female types such as goddess, femme fatale, vestal virgin, mother earth and krone to question the many stereotypes that women are often forced to conform to. Behind closed doors, other students in Cambridge are working with these mediums. Ella Chapman, for example, creates beautifully detailed embroideries of vaginas, which on a hanker-chief sized cloth subvert female docility. Hopefully in the future more exhibitions and events will allow people to participate in collaborative textile projects showing that these old fashioned techniques still have significance to our lives.

Aydua is collaborating with Amnesty International for the event “Tapestry Against Torture” this Monday. After Amnesty’s Cage petitionm in which students signed fabric banners against Trump’s endorsement of torture, we are hoping to bring lots of people together to form a sewing chain joining these pieces into a large tapestry to send to Teresa May. Please join us!

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