Threads of Life

14th September 2022

First published in Inspirations issue #106 in April 2020, written by Ansie van der Walt

‘I think the stories of people who are in the shadows of society have more to teach us about our world than the great and the good. People who have had to struggle because of political oppression, mental fragility, poverty or disenfranchisement often have both extraordinary strength and tenderness – the stoicism to survive in physical and emotional hardship and an empathy for those whose journey through life has been difficult. Given the opportunity to visually and texturally express what they have experienced can result in surprisingly poignant textiles.’

Clare Hunter is a community artist, curator and banner maker from Glasgow, Scotland where in 1986, she set up NeedleWorks. Here she works with people from all ages and cultures, using sewing as a way to celebrate local history, document community experiences and share personal concerns through the creation of wall hangings and banners.

Clare’s stitching journey started with her mother who taught her to embroider as a young girl.

‘I loved the rhythm and the feel of it in my hands. Throughout my teenage years I carried on embroidering but also mastered the sewing machine and made most of my clothes from cheap remnants.’

When Clare began working in theatre, she helped to design and make the costumes for these mostly cash-strapped companies. Later, when she started working as a community artist, it just seemed natural to use her needlework skills for projects ranging from puppetry with children to creative workshops with adults. ‘In the 1980s I went to a mass demonstration at Greenham Common Peace Camp and saw there how women were using the fabrics from home – old sheets, tea towels, the cast-off clothing of their children – to create banners that emphasised their role as protectors of family and community and it made me more aware of the potential of sewing as a social and political medium.’

In 1984, when Clare was asked to organise a community project in England to encourage local people to become more involved with their May Day parade, she decided on a banner-making project. “It was the year of the Miners’ Strike and I began, voluntarily, to make banners for the striking miners. I realised that banners offered a portable and powerful form of public art where people, especially those whose voices were rarely heard, could express their concerns, share their histories, celebrate their sense of place and possibility.”

Through NeedleWorks, Clare learned that giving people the opportunity to visually and texturally express what they have experienced can result in surprisingly poignant textiles. ‘One only has to look at the early panels made to commemorate those who died of AIDS in early 1980s America as part of the Names Memorial Project to see how, in the hands of mainly men unused to sewing, arresting and imaginative ways were found to animate loved ones in cloth and thread. Similarly, during Pinochet’s regime in Chile, it was the poorest of women in the shanty towns who recycled fabric to create small sewn documentaries telling of their country’s terror and deprivation. Making patchwork pictures, stitched images of loss, they smuggled it out of their silenced country to alert the world to what was happening.’

Clare’s book Threads of Life – A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle, published in 2019 (see review below), is a narrative of the role needlework, sewing, embroidery and textiles have played in political and cultural events around the world and through the ages.

Over the centuries the status and economic value of women’s needlework became demoted until it was seen as something irrelevant to society, merely a form of female decorative diversion. In writing Threads of Life, Clare unearthed many examples, in every century, of people – men as well as women – sewing textiles of social meaning.

‘The rich cultural language expressed through needlework of so many communities – especially those who have been oppressed or enslaved, and the language of women without the means to write down their thoughts and experiences - has been wilfully eroded by those who have chosen to silence them.’

Clare found that in countries which suffered social and political loss, refugees and women lacking social freedom are taking up sewing as a way to make an income and gain a modicum of independence, to have a voice. It is these women who are changing the status of needlework by demonstrating how important it and its traditions can be to a community’s well-being.

‘As people become more conscious of our need to look after our world there is an increasing use of recycled fabrics as a political act, and as people resist the technological push to turn us into algorithms, they are expressing their individuality and ingenuity through crafting clothes and sewn gifts which are unique, which take time to make, which speak of their hearts as well as their heads and hands.’

Banner making is still one of NeedleWorks’ main objectives.

‘It is a collective way of being distinct about who you are and what you stand for. They are proclamations of solidarity and care. Designing a banner is a group affair.’

Clare sits down with a group of people and they talk about how best to encapsulate their collective identity and purpose: how best to capture these in the colours, images and slogans they choose. If the banner is to be taken on rallies, as opposed to hung on a wall, the design has to allow an onlooker to take in its meaning at a glance as the banner passes by. Too much clutter and its message will be lost. Once the group’s identity and concerns have been distilled into a simple visual statement, they gather the materials and start to trace and cut out the lettering and the different images.

‘The good thing about appliqué, the technique I predominantly use, is that even those who have never sewn before or don’t want to sew, can participate in the banner-making because often the most labour-intensive work is in the tracing and cutting out. Once this is done, everything is tacked down by the group and then I, or someone in the group who is good at machine-sewing, sews it together. There might also be more embroidered detail done during or afterwards by the group with individuals taking responsibility for specific pieces. What is important is that the process is sociable and rewarding, accessible and inclusive. When groups see their handiwork being admired by others they are always surprised by their own capabilities and that strengthens their confidence and sense of worth.’

Whether at work as a community artist, or working on her next research project, textiles and needlework are always at the centre of Clare’s life. ‘Sewing is part of who I am. I am not a textile artist, so I don’t exhibit my own work. While I do work to commission the design evolves as a collective act, and with community textiles. I am there as a creative translator to help a community effectively transmit what matters to them in fabric and thread. I would like to think that my book Threads of Life is my artistic contribution to the world of needlework and that, through my creative writing, I have managed to convey the value I put on sewing as a way to voice my own humanity and the humanity of others.’

Threads of Life– A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle

Clare Hunter | Sceptre 2019 | Soft Cover 306pg
ISBN 978-1-473-68792-9 | RRP $32.99

A needlework book without pictures may seem an unusual and unappealing idea but this engrossing paperback is so richly illustrated with wonderful stories that you will hardly notice.

Clare Hunter has spent much of her life deeply immersed in textiles and her community, helping people express social and political concerns through banners and wall hangings. Recognising the power of stitch to give voice to those who would otherwise be unheard and the value of needlework in recording historical events, both large and small, Clare has gathered a fascinating collection of tales from around the world and across time.

Collected in chapters with titles such as Captivity, Identity, Connection, Protest, Loss and Community, these stories reveal the ways that fabric and stitch can and have been used as a vital tool by individuals and groups to commemorate, celebrate, record, sustain, protect and mourn. Reading through the pages is an emotional journey and Clare provides a unique insight into events, some, with worldwide impact, others extremely intimate and personal, and their human responses. There are the early 20th century banners, richly appliquéd and embroidered, carried by suffragettes rallying to gain the vote for women, the small, white handkerchief embroidered with the seven names of young girls abducted to serve as ‘comfort women’ for Japanese officers during the Second World War, and the billet books containing scraps of fabric and other mementos left with each child by despairing mothers at the London Foundling Hospital in the 18th century.

There is profound sadness and anguish in many of the stories but there are also tales of beauty, success, exquisite skill, dedication and joy, each one carefully and skillfully wrapped in its historical context. All give support to the power of needle and thread and the innate, human need to tell our story, not with the geographical restrictions of words but the universal language of stitch.

This is a fabulous book, well researched and beautifully written, that is an absolute joy to read.

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