Feminist Textiles – Rowena Sommerville
I was a feminist before I knew what the word meant: I always thought that I was entitled to take up just as much space in the world as anyone else, but was soon conscious that a lot of the world actually didn’t agree, specifically, because I was a girl. I have also always loved clothes and fabric and textiles and knitting, and I did realise quite early on that textile skills (weaving, sewing, knitting, embroidering etc) were looked down on in ‘the art world’, and that that was not because of anything intrinsic to the form, but very definitely because they were artforms generally carried out by women (although I don’t know why it is that women incline so strongly to those practices, and I’m not going to attempt to answer that complicated nature/nurture question in this short piece).
"textile skills were looked down on in the art world"
I like a lot of textile arts, particularly what we might call ‘woke textiles’ if we were being trendy. If you google ‘feminist textiles’ you get some great images, ranging from the subtle to the thumping, and a lot of stuff (literally) that lifts the spirit. I note a sampler, made in a heart shape, in soft colours and traditional stitches, which – if you look properly – has a line of pattern that repeats the phrase ‘fuck patriarchy’, and plenty of T shirts and banners with strong messages, including ‘I would call you a cunt but you lack the warmth and the depth’. I wouldn’t wear it, but it made me laugh.
Nineteenth and twentieth century Amish quilts often seem to prefigure Rothko, Hodgson, Johns and so on, but they don’t feature in history of art chains of development. Of course, I know that they ‘weren’t done as art’, they weren’t in ‘dialogue with what other artists had done’ and all of that – but my god, the colours sing, the patterns dazzle and the creators were bold and inventive, even if they were just women, using up scraps of fabric to keep their families warm and their homes pretty. I like to think of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed as belonging in this tradition, just as her embroideries ‘subvert the genre’ as they say…
"Kahlo's style is transcendent.."
Like everyone these days, I love Frida Kahlo: her paintings, her appearance and her beautiful colourful clothes which are so much part of everything she was, enlivening the world through style and fabric and panache. Her painted artificial leg, from 1953, is an extraordinary defiant and brave object, and is to be included in the V and A exhibition‘Making Herself Up’ this summer. I have versions of Frida’s image/imagery on cushions and fridge magnets. Her style is transcendent (and now very saleable).
In my freelance life I have been working as the North of England Co-ordinator for ‘Processions’, which is devised and managed by Artichoke to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage. On June 10ththere will be Processions in the four UK national capitals (Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London), of women and girls and those who identify as women or non-binary, all walking in stripes of colour created by wearing cotton wraps in purple, white or green, the suffragette colours. Many of the groups will also be carrying fabric banners which may proclaim who they are, or what they believe in, or what they hope for. I think it will be brilliant to see the textile banner tradition living on in this way. Our very own Thorntree Roses will be there with a banner.
There’s something wonderful about using traditional feminine materials and traditional feminine skills to say new and powerful things, not least to say that art doesn’t have to be made of paint, steel or digital screens to be strong or meaningful, whatever the critics may say. Pick up those needles with pride, stitch up the patriarchy!