The act of embroidering. Part I

Núria Malé and Mireia Cuenca

About why and when women stayed at home emboidering and minor arts separated from Fine arts, and maybe culture impoverished.

The art of embroidery has been one of the columns of the construction of the concept of femininity in the West during the modern and contemporary epoch. At a certain moment in our history, woman, and with her embroidery, was relegated to the home, forming a triad which was almost indissociable for 500 years: woman – home - embroidery.

But it was not always thus. There was a time, in Europe, when not only women but also men embroidered and when kings and abbots appreciated a beautiful piece of embroidery just as much as a grand altar piece, a shining stained-glass window or a capital carved with Old Testament stories. It was during the early Middle Ages, as Carlo Maria Cipolla has it (Storia Economica dell 'Europa Pre-Industriales, Il Mulino ed.1974) a rural, lonely world, with an economy based on serfdom where the main units of production were the great feudal domains (whether monastic, secular, for men or women). It was a society structured in closed, very vertical bodies, where God and His Heavenly Jerusalem presided over the cosmos as a model and source of legitimacy for ruler and community. All the gems and precious metals, all the luxurious textiles filling that metaphysical city described by Ezequiel in the Bible became a reference for power and majesty, symbols of excellence as Grahame Clark calls them (Symbols of Excellence: Precious materials as expressions of status, Cambridge Univ., 1986) Since the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, via abbot Suger and Hildegard von Bingen as far as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, writings praising the spiritual virtues of adornments, embellishments and lavish decoration would come to be sanctioned by the Church and royalty as attributes of power. And obviously, embroidery was an extraordinary support by means of which to express all that paraphernalia, that notable physicality so typical of medieval aesthetics (Herbert L. Kessler, Seeing Medieval Art, Toronto Univ., 2004), because it used extremely valuable materials such as silk, gold, silver, jewels, gemstones, encrustations of pearls, and a great multiplicity of resources were available to create different textures. In fact, two of the major works of art of the Middle Ages are embroidered panels which we know as Tapestries: that of the Creation in Girona and that of Bayeux, and both are works of an iconographic ambition comparable to any cloister with its carvings or illuminated Bible.

The Embroidery of the Creation, from the late eleventh century, was worked on fine, terracotta chevron wool, twisted like a Z and woven as an S, and is embroidered with different coloured wools in chain stitch or stem stitch. We know it as a Tapestry because it was worked with the technique of acupictus or “needle painting”, which means that the chain stitch embroidery in effect covers the whole of the support making it look like a tapestry. It was most likely worked by the Benedictine nuns of Sant Daniel in Girona under the protection of a great noblewoman, Mafalda de Pulla-Calabria, widow of Ramon Berenguer II and mother of Ramon Berenguer III, and not only the size (originally 480 cms x 540) but also the iconographic subject of the Genesis cycle presided over by the Pantocrator and the stories of the True Cross show the magnitude of the work. (Carles Mancho, ed. El brodat de la Creació de la Catedral de Girona, Barcelona Univ. 2018).

The Battle of HAstings. Death of King Harold
The Battle of HAstings. Death of King Harold

The Bayeux Tapestry, also from the late eleventh century, is worked on linen embroidered with wool thread and is even more interesting in terms of critical and historical reception to explain how the perception of embroidery has evolved. As in the case of the Girona Embroidery, this is not actually a tapestry, but as the medieval scholar Madeline Caviness  says (Visualizing Women in the MIddle Ages: sign, spectacle and scopic Economy, Pennsylvania Univ., 2000) the prestige associated with the great tapestry workshops of northern Europe in the Lower Middle Ages must have caused the term tapestry to be attributed to it. The embroidery in question, which was to be found in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Bayeux, was attributed to Queen Mathilde by French tradition, and is a gigantic work 50 cms wide and almost 70 metres long, showing more than 600 characters, more than 700 animals and more than 80 buildings and ships to explain the conquest of England by king William in 1066, with the battle of Hastings at the climax and an exceptional narrative capacity including scenes of violence, sex, tenderness and ambition just like the best television series! 

Obviously, to think that a work of such Herculean magnitude might have been carried out in a castle by just the wife of one of the actors, to celebrate and perpetuate the deeds of her beloved husband, is a deformation which says more of the period when the work was documented and shown in a museum than of the time at which it was actually produced. Later it was thought to have been commissioned by Odo, stepbrother of William and bishop of Bayeux, but as many present-day historians say, “the Bayeux Tapestry is far from being a work of Norman propaganda”, so at any rate it is clear that the facts have nothing of the epic and the conquest of England is told as a “violent and bloodthirsty invasion with two factions and armies equipped unevenly.” (Montserrat Pages i Paretas, El tapis de Bayeux. Analisi de les imatges I nova interpetacio, Abadia de Montserrat 2015), where king Harold is continuously identified as “rex anglorum”, legitimate king, until his death. Probably the work was commissioned by an important figure in the Anglo-Saxon community, either Edith Godwinson (widow of king Edward and sister of king Harold, who as a link of legitimacy to the English past was respected under the Norman government) or more probably by archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, primate of England between 1070 and 1082, who wished to denounce by means of this visual narration the dire management of Odo as lieutenant of England. What is certain is that the work must have been carried out at an Anglo-Saxon monastic workshop, probably one of the two workshops in Canterbury, that of the Cathedral and of Saint Augustine´s Abbey, because from an iconic point of view, many details have been perceived which are similar to miniatures from the two scriptoria of the cathedral city. Thus, a work which is extremely important for worldwide medieval culture and history was created by a group of (male) monks using embroidery techniques. But soon the fortunes of the art of embroidery were to change as the result of a series of socio-economic and ideological changes, slow but inexorable.

As Raul Glaber, a monk at Cluny, wrote in his “Historium Libri Quinque”, from the year 1000 “Europe was covered with a white mantle of churches”. Social and technical progress brought wealth and cities grew up around the ecclesiastical and royal hubs, with a whole urban Revolution blossoming between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The economy of the frontier surrounding the city changed from serfdom and peasantry to commerce and town dwellers. Continuing with Cipolla’ s magnificent description, “the City was a New World, a place where one could escape from serfdom, a place of rupture where new chances could be ventured upon.”

Chretien de Troyes in the late twelfth century “Et l’ on pu dire et croire qu’ en ville ce fut toujours foire.”

The great contribution of the cities is the critical mass, a major concentration of humanity which is an incentive to competition and demands a progressive professionalization within jobs. Among them embroidery, which would increasingly require greater capitalization in order to work with the growth in orders and which would become concentrated in urban and secular hubs, taking over from the centres of religious production (until the Reformation did away with ecclesiastic work). The two main types of embroidery of the period are paradigmatic:

Opus Anglicanum. Between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, done mainly in the London workshops, a true creative hub in medieval Europe. The Opus Anglicanum specialized in liturgical vestments, copes and chasubles, and thus, apart from the Victoria and Albert Museum, most examples of this “English work” are to be found in the Vatican.

Opus Florentinum, concentrating more on altar pieces worked on fabric or altar cloths, with its centre in Florence. Apart from famous examples such as the Altar Cloth of Santa Maria Novella, the work of Jacopo di Cambio (1300) at present in the Florence Accademia, we have here in the region an extraordinary example, the Altar Cloth of the Basilica at Manresa, work of Geri di Lapo which the legal expert Ramon Sarea donated around 1350. To realize the importance which these pieces of work had as luxury goods, we only need quote the 1401 inventory of the possessions of Duc Jean de Berry, one of the wealthiest men in Europe, where around fifteen pieces of Florentine embroidery are mentioned. They were, then, pieces of work which required a splendid array of materials and technique, eminently urban and highly professionalized, which demanded a level of capitalization which was impossible in the rural monastic communities.

Jacopo di Cambio. Accademia Fiorentina
Jacopo di Cambio. Accademia Fiorentina

In this new context, guilds were formed to stimulate self-government and control to protect the interests of each professional body, while the home/household (with the rigid sequence of apprentice-journeyman-master) would become the basic unit of production. Needless to say, the husband would normally be the legal representative, signing all the transactions, and the wife would increasingly disappear from the documents, although she continued to be an active economic agent.

DOC/1239-1245 Mabel of Bury Saint Edmunds would be one of the last women to be named in the archives as supplier to King Henry III.

DOC/ the change is notable as we go forwards, and women only appear as owners of a business when they are widowed. 1572-1583 Elisabet Fuster in Barcelona takes over her husband´s embroidery business.

As the Middle Ages went on, the trend was for women´s public activity to lessen, for example in the ecclesiastic hierarchy, and their role in guild organizations, eminently run by men, would diminish. A regression which would unbalance the distribution of workers and in turn mean that all women who remained outside regulated and controlled jobs would take the embroidery orders home, thus generating exponential growth in domestic or amateur embroidery. “Women, recently released from remunerated production, with the status of their households still uncertain in a context of increasing mobility, would be in charge of providing the home with “luxurious” decoration such as embroidery, which, reflecting their aristocratic origin, helped to legitimize the social position of the budding bourgeois family. “(Rosika Parker, The subversive Stitch. Embroidery and the making of femininity. Bloomsbury 2010). A particularly graphic cultural example is that of Mary Queen of Scots, imprisoned by her protestant rival Elisabeth I. Queen of England, in Lochleven castle, whiling away most of the endless days embroidering complicated emblems which she would use to transmit political and religious messages.

But even in the case of an embroidering queen, we now begin to see an important change in the perception of the art: Nicholas White explains in his official chronicles that when he conversed with the Catholic queen, comparing the arts of sculpture, painting and needlework, the queen stressed that “painting is by far of higher quality than the rest of the arts”. Not only had the terms of the social pact altered with social growth and the sexual division of work, but also the arts began to take their positions in a hierarchy which was very different from that of the Middle Ages. The emerging artistic values of the Renaissance would finally establish a rigid hierarchy in the Arts, where intellectual would prevail over manual or mechanical activities. The element upon which this new order within the world of artistic creation was to be based was the Lives (1550) of Giorgio Vasari, an evolutionist apologia of the history of art with the concept of the Creator-Genius at its height. Stylistically, the Opus Anglicanum would be left to one side with its explicit materiality and the art of embroidery, like the rest of the arts (now become artisanry) would go on to lose their autonomy and specificity, absorbing the new European development of space and modelling which had been born in painting, sculpture and architecture (the Fine Arts).

Parato di San Giovani, commissioned by the powerful Arte de Calimala from Antonio di Pollaiuolo was carried out by Italian, French and Flemish masters: Paolo di Bartolomeo di Manfredi of Verona, Piero di Piero of Venise, Antonio di Giovanni of Florence, Coppino di Jan of Mechelen, Paul of Antwerp, and the French Nicolas de Jacques. Worked over a lengthy period of more than 20 years (1466-1488), in punto serrato/velato, with small, dense stitching in silk or gold thread which rendered the texture and structure of the background almost invisible, with the intention of thus giving the illusion of painting, by hiding the traces of the specific technique of embroidery. The spontaneous prints of the inspiration of the creating artist (the sprezzatura) was rather difficult to instil on the embroideries, which would increasingly become relegated to the private area of the household, requiring a great deal of technical effort and evoking more than ever the individuality of the artist, a generical female presence.

The Protestant Reform, and with it above all Calvinism, would mean another turn of the screw in the consolidation of a whole cluster of female values in the art of embroidery. Contrary to medieval Catholic Christianity, the reformers no longer proclaimed that sanctified “shed all your possessions and give them to the poor”, but rather that work and personal success could be seen as the best tribute to God. Life would be evaluated in terms of the individual balance between gains and losses and progress as a merit/personal obligation of the good Christian. In that new moral framework, domestic embroidery would go on to form an essential part of the education of the young women of the family, determining the whole process of gradual initiation towards full femininity and teaching virtues sanctified by the new economy such as chastity, innocence and obedience.

The progress of Martha Edlin (1660-1725) is perfectly documented and conserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Right from a Sampler worked at the age of eight, with decorative bands of coloured silks or another example of drawn thread work done when aged nine to an illustrated chest where the lid shows her mastery of the technique of stumpwork up to the stylistic heights of a jewel box with a whole range of illustrative and decorative embroidery required from a girl of thirteen Needless to say, in an art form which was so thoroughly embedded in the growth and apprenticeship of the individual there was also space for creation and personal expression, in fact domestic embroidery would become wide open to popular art forms, such as stumpwork or embroidery with relief which included the use of all sorts of stuffing and appliqué and is usually used to tell bible or contemporary stories which are always portrayed in a contemporary setting.

Raised work on the lid of the embroidered casket, Martha Edlin, 1671, England. Museum no. T.432-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Raised work on the lid of the embroidered casket, Martha Edlin, 1671, England. Museum no. T.432-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In that society, which was further atomized spatially and chronologically, the individual fought for her own salvation, leaving behind that Christian community working in common in the fields and for collective salvation. The church as the place of communion would also lose priority in favour of the home, with the father at its centre, becoming the main agent of moral and religious control. The family worked as an ideologically autonomous productive unit linked to new emerging concepts such as private property or individualism. A proto capitalism which by definition defied the concept of the natural ownership of the land to benefit the more mobile power of money and which, for that very reason, would gradually move away from Nature as a productive reality and begin to fix it in the social memory as a utopic space, a lost ideal harmony. In the eighteenth century, in the taxonomical desire which was to define the Illustration, Nature, defined in opposition to Culture, would be associated utopically to woman:

“Man is man only at certain moments, while woman is woman all through her life”. Rousseau, Emile or on Education.

Not only Nature, intimacy, leisure, the lesser arts would become incrusted into the encyclopaedic description of woman: the paintings by Chardin or François Boucher portray the family environment where, beyond male authority, sentiment, tenderness, and natural affection stemming from the mother have taken their place. And all those values related to gender and status which the young girl learns sitting by her mother in the kitchen or the dining room, dressed as it were as a miniature version of a woman and very often embroidering. In fact, in the middle of the eighteenth century, Nature had become so much assimilated into femininity that the English term “to embroider” was completely interchangeable with “to flower”. It was in the middle of the eighteenth century that Nature as utopia was born, breathed into by an incipient nightmare, the Industrial Revolution, which would develop from the second half of the eighteenth century in England and Scotland: a dystopia which meant another point of inflexion in the social evolution of men and women and their activities. The population explosion which influenced all the technical developments of the revolution and the rural exodus which it would generate, was to change definitively the profile of those societies which were still agrarian and stockbreeding into urban and mechanical.  As the anthropologist Jean Schneider (Cloth and human experience; Smithsonian Inst., 1988) says, in modern Europe the story of Rumpelstiltskin is a clear manifestation of the coming of the industrial misery which would develop not only around the urban setting of the factories, but also in the rural environment of the families which formed part of a spontaneous network of producers alienated by capitalist businessmen and factory owners. A miller tries to impress the king by saying that his daughter spins so well that she can turn straw into gold, which leads the latter to wish to marry her. Forced to agree to the king´s expectations, the miller has to make a pact with an elf/devil named Rumpelstiltskin, who in exchange demands to be given the miller´s first grandchild. In the new textile industry, many girls would go blind in their teens as a result of the long hours spent embroidering precious white silk for a rich bride.

The nineteenth century was without a doubt that of the great expansion of the bourgeoisie and its ideals, among them that of “the lady at home at her needlework”. It began with that tremendous Napoleonic Empire soaking almost the whole of Europe with blood (between three and six million dead) but also with the liberal principles of the moderate French bourgeoisie (anti-monarchical and anti-Jacobine). In fact, despite the efforts of the great absolutist empires which met at the Congress of Vienna to set out the imperialist values of the so-called Restauration, the opposition which was firstly liberal and constitutionalist and later nationalist, would not cease to besiege that vestige of the Ancien Régime which was the Holy Alliance. And furthermore, Darwin from the viewpoint of biology, Lyell from that of geology or Freud from that of psychology would end up by giving the final hammer blows to the pre-bourgeois mental structures. It was, at bottom, a moment of stimulating discoveries but also of deep social ill feeling, where the home became a refuge, the unit of production having been transferred to the factories. The home was an envelope, said Walter Benjamin (The Arcades Project), an area of tranquillity where the bourgeois sought comfort as the indisputable proof that he was in his own place. The home was the opposite of the noisy, asphyxiating city, overloaded with nervous stimulation which according to Georg Simmel (The Metropolis and mental life) lead man to collapse and apathy. In those interiors swamped with warm light, full of furniture which, placed away from the walls. occupied the centre of every room, full of objects and textiles, embroidery spread over every surface, from curtains, through table- and bedlinen or bedroom slippers, apart from every item of indoor or outdoor clothing imaginable. Nothing was left free of decoration. It was so full of exasperated femininity that the male, as Richard Sennett (The Fall of Public Man, Anagrama 2011) says, the father, the husband, seeks another place of leisure such as the club, the café, an eminently male place where he can try to develop privately as a social being, far from the working class which outside was becoming organized and besieging him, but also far from women.

More and more attributes have increasingly enwrapped men and women in chrysalids which are reciprocally alien. “The sexes drew further and further apart. No open conversation was tolerated, Evasions and concealments were sedulously practised on both sides “. Virginia Woolf (Orlando). And woman, vestal virgin of the hearth, began to live polarized between the need to believe in that much dreamt-of home and the certainty of its impossibility. Victorian literature pivoted between the two groups of fractured womanhood, two female figures archetypical of the times: the angel of the house (Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House, 1854-62) and the madwoman locked up in the attic (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The madwoman in the attic, Yale Univ., 1979) An initial attempt to bridge that gap would come from the hardworking hand of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.