Something struck me when I was recently completing my anatomical facial embroidery (and no, I don’t mean Conjugal Kraken coming at the back of my head with a hefty copy of Gray’s Anatomy). It was that the art of embroidery is so deeply and horrifically sexist that it might have been devised by Jim Davidson, Jeremy Clarkson and Bernard Manning while getting uproariously drunk in Hooters. It’s no wonder my frontal lobes have hosted such a tussle between it and my feminist ideals. Let me explain…
I’m a feminist, right? A shouty, kick-‘em-in-the-balls-if-they-wolf-whistle-at-me feminist. So when I had the urge to embroider about a year ago it felt like I was replacing the part of my brain that fights for equal pay with an adoration of fairies and teddy bears. You see, as much as I sought embroidery kits that offered scientific, political, social, funny, modern or funky images all I found was embroidery kits of cottages, flowers, elves and anything that could plausibly contain the words ‘home sweet home’. It was like peering into a creative abyss, one so horrifyingly domestic that it gave me the urge to set fire to my own head.
And I remain staggered that this is what the world thinks women want from their embroidery. That after a day of leading a team, running a lab, training in a gym, managing a multi-million pound budget, bagging new contracts and scaling the career ladder, we women are still offered… kittens. And that’s where the sexism appears, hollering from the window of its white van. You see, at some point it has been decided that lifting a crewel needle equates to a thirst for fairytales and kitchen, an outdated notion that insists on dragging us women back to pre-emancipation. It’s the same sexism that makes BBC sports commentators remind the audience that a female athlete is also a mother, that makes clothing stores offer girls nothing but pink and that makes women wax their foofs because men prefer it that way.
Look at it this way: expecting every woman to want to embroider homey images is like expecting every man on the planet to like anchovies. It’s absurd, narrow, unintelligent and about as progressive as chucking sticks at the sun. It’s also doing the art of embroidery a staggering disservice. I mean, imagine how much more popular embroidery would be if the companies churning out embroidery kits gave even so much as a nod to the 21st century. Yes, on the fringes of the art there is more adventurous, exciting, socially and politically meaningful embroidery and I cling to it, but when it comes to the mainstream it’s about as exciting as giving the doctor a stool sample.
And why do you think that is? Well I reckon it’s because these companies, like millions of others, are male dominated. The result is that the usual patriarchal idiocies are being foisted on women because, hey! Why believe women are anything other than home lovers? After all, the more the patriarchy portrays women as incapable of intelligent thought, the less accepting society will be of women gaining equality and the more likely it is that the patriarchy will have a hot dinner on the table when it collectively gets home from work. No wonder kitten images are so popular. They make women look as if one whiff of the modern world will make them reach for the smelling salts.
It’s no bloody wonder that my feminism and my sewing fingers wrestled like drunks at the back of a nightclub. I actually thought for a short time that taking up embroidery meant abandoning my feminism because the embroidery I saw was the antithesis of modern womanhood. So when I realised that I could do my own embroidery, that I could take modern images with which I, a modern woman, identified, it was a revelation. And while the idea of sewing anatomical images onto calico came to me gradually, once the lightbulb in my head lit up I also realised something else: it’s not the act of embroidering that is a stereotype, it’s the images that women are forced to embroider which uphold all of the festering notions of yesteryear.
And it was at that point that I embraced my love of embroidery like a starving squirrel in a nut factory. You see, I’ve realised that the art of embroidery isn’t a betrayal of my feminism at all. In fact, by embroidering the images and slogans that mean something to me it has become an incarnation of my feminism. All I had to do was turn my back on the endless supply of embroidery images which force women back into their gleaming kitchens.
So if you’ve ever fancied a spot of embroidery, go to the relevant aisle of Hobbycraft and then run. That’s right. Run. As fast and as far as you can. Then get in your car and drive until you’ve run out of petrol. And when you are ready to embroider like a modern woman, grab a piece of fabric and your embroidery thread and think of all the things that make you a complex, interesting, exciting, creative, intelligent and progressive person. Then just sew them. They could involve science, sport, songs, books, telly, languages, careers, fashion, politics or economics. They could be in mad shades of red, blinding limes or inky blacks. It doesn’t matter, as long as it reflects you.
And if you adore embroidering bunnies and bears? Go for it. Embroider the shit out of them and squeal over every stitch. Just don’t expect me to do it too. Sewing stopped being the preserve of home loving housewives a long time ago. It’s time modern embroidery learned to do the same.