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Embroidery has long been considered a hobby of women with too much time on their hands. But the art form has a diverse, even radical history, particularly for another group of people with hours to kill: the incarcerated. From Mary, Queen of Scots to women in mental institutions to Palestinian political prisoners, those in confinement have also taken up embroidery. Isabella Rosner, curator at the Royal School of Needlework who also sews, knits, and crochets, traces this long history in Stitching Freedom: Embroidery and Incarceration, a new publication from Common Threads Press. While the stitchwork she examines is deeply personal, it also has a political dimension, serving as a creative protest against the denial of individual rights. Rosner describes some of the most interesting examples of embroidery by the incarcerated that she has researched, why this craft has been practiced across many cultures, and the relevance of stitching today. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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Why did you begin your examination with Mary, Queen of Scots—who was a prolific embroiderer during her more than eighteen-year incarceration at the hands of her cousin Elizabeth I?

I wanted to start with Mary, Queen of Scots because she is, in the history of British embroidery, the first person we know of in an incarcerated state whose embroidery objects survive. Her embroidery is some of the earliest that we have that’s symbolic of not only—you know, a flower means this and an animal means this—but is representing her personal strife. She sets an interesting tone as she’s an exiled queen who meets a very unfortunate end. But she’s still somebody who has access to the finest textiles even though she’s in prison. She still has personal servants living with her. Her form of imprisonment is different from everybody else. I consider Mary Queen of Scots a good gateway or conduit through which we can access other stories because in certain ways, she matches what we expect of embroidery: that it’s tied to this idea of a privileged woman who has the time to stitch—this kind of untruth, this pervasive myth.

But what happens when she has a lot of that taken away? What happens when her letters are read? She immediately does a 180; this is how embroidery isn’t just about innocently stitching flowers and rainbows. It can be something more than that, deeper, more subversive and more emotional. [Such as embroidering Elizabeth and herself as cat and mouse. Or staking her claim to the throne by embroidering the Latin verse “Virescit vulnere virtue,” meaning “Virtue flourishes by wounding” in what is known as the “Marian Hanging.”]

Her work is a good example of how people engage with other parts of their lives and turn that into stitch. She’s also showing us, whether she wants to or not, how she’s feeling in terms of the actual stitch content; her stitches aren’t even. They’re not always going in the same direction. And it’s hard to say if that’s because that was less of a concern in the late 16th century or if she actually was angry and didn’t care. The stakes were higher than that—her focus elsewhere. She found comfort in stabbing this piece of fabric. It didn’t matter if she was stabbing it one way or the other.

You have this great line in your work: “To enact violence on fabric with a needle.” Can you talk about that?

Violence is very present throughout—there’s no choice but for it to be there. We’re familiar with stories of incarceration and the violence inflicted upon people, but I think it’s interesting when we consider the violence that these people were inflicting upon fabric, in a way that I can’t help but think allowed them to re-harness agency they had lost: a sense of control, of maybe just passing time. It feels important to note they’re working on an art form that involves a tiny, sharp thing.

The cover for the book, Stitching Freedom: Embroidery and Incarceration
Common Threads Press

More broadly, what do you think embroidery as a medium reveals about incarceration as compared to say drawing, painting, or sculpting?

First of all, it tells the story of a very different group of people. I have a degree in art history, and I loved it. But by the end of it, I was sick of learning about paint. Because through paint, we have a very specific view of the world. We’re seeing a very slim, small percentage of people: either people who could afford to be painted or people who are modeling in idealized ways. With painting and sculpture, we’re seeing it all through the lens of an artist.

Embroidery cuts out that middleman. We have a more direct connection to the maker, but we also have a broader understanding of who the makers are in terms of their socio-economic standing, race, religion, sex, all that stuff, because embroidery is ultra-accessible. Not everybody is going to be the world’s best oil painter, and not everybody has access to those opportunities to be the world’s best oil painter. But the building blocks of embroidery are such that most people can access a needle, piece of fabric and thread, and stitch from there.

But embroidery esembles things like painting and sculpture in that you can study the hand of the maker. Painters develop a style of brushstrokes and embroiderers develop a style of stitching. There’s a lot to see and learn when you study a stitcher’s hand; you’re thinking about not only how they’re stitching, but what stitches are they using. The fact that Arthur Bispo de Rosário [an institutionalized Brazilian artist with paranoid schizophrenia who created over 1,000 works] is using this chain stitch, where did he learn chain stitch? How did he decide that chain stitch was the best stitch to render text? Did he even make that decision? Or was that the only stitch he knew? I think the exploration of answering those questions leads to a lot of exciting realizations or imaginings of people’s lives.

You offer Annie Parker, a well-educated 19th-century Brit who was arrested some 400 times as a unique case in that she used her own hair for embroidery. Not much is known about her besides the fact that she died in a workhouse from consumption.

Annie Parker is somebody who haunts my dreams and who I care very deeply about because she was so screwed over. Everybody in this book was for the most part. It’s poignant and powerful that we don’t even have a photo of her. We do not know what she looked like, but we have a piece of her body. The thing I found out after writing this is that one of her samplers came to the private art market. On the bottom it had, “In memory of Thomas Parker, 1879.” I was like, “Woah. Who is that? That’s a person with the same surname. What’s happening there?” It was very likely her husband, who was abusive. That led down a path where I found out she’d given birth to four children in prison, all of whom died. Dark. But I feel very passionately about studying Annie and the fact that she uses her hair because so much of what we know about her comes from newspaper articles that can’t help but be salacious. They result in removing Annie’s humanity from her. The fact she used her hair means we see her—we see her body and the depth of longing, frustration, anger, piety, dedication, resignation, and this need to heal. She’s using hair that she plucked out I’m guessing, rather than using more typical silk thread, cotton thread. What do you even say to that? The survival of her pieces and that specific choice to use her body makes me feel like she’s reaching out a hand to us all these years later.

Why do you think these pieces, which are often in museums, have captured historical and popular interest?

Several reasons. One, on the surface, there’s a novelty factor: people are having a bad time in these places, but they’re coming to embroidery. A lot of these people were poor—they were not frequently represented in museum objects. It feels relatable. Even if I wasn’t a person who did embroidery and studied embroidery, I would feel emotional about it because you’re seeing how people function in circumstances where they have lost so much of themselves, and you know that you’d want to do something similar. I’d want to do something repetitive and mindless and creative and artistic as a way to pass the time. Also, occasionally there’s a sense of humor, real joy and, again, it feels like a hand reaching out from the past, like the sampler by the British major and prisoner of war Alexis Casdagli, who had a cross-stitch hobby, secretly writing “Fuck Hitler” [in Morse code].

You highlight the stitching work of the Suffragettes in your volume. What are other examples of politically-minded embroidery?

The political object I think most about was Rada Nikolić’s handkerchief. [The 19-year-old hailed from the former Yugoslavia and was arrested by the Nazis for her involvement in anti-fascist activities. While awaiting her execution, she embroidered a young woman behind bars.] A lot of the political stuff is angry. But with Nikolić, it feels quieter. It feels sadder or more introspective, but also aiming toward a future. She knows that she won’t live to see it, but she writes to her family saying, “Hey, it’s all going okay over here. Remember me when I’m gone.” The fact that she’s mourning the political landscape she finds herself in, reflecting on the violence and how extremely screwed up it is, feels especially poignant. When I was writing this, I was drawn to moments of sadness and longing because so much of it’s about anger or frustration or trying to make things better or different. These are devastating but important moments in which to pause and reflect. She looks so young, that little stitched face with her little hair that turns up at the ends.

Another poignant aspect of all this is the sheer amount of time it takes to make these pieces.

That pace of embroidery; it’s so slow, even if you’re incredibly skilled. And it requires a lot of active thinking. With a lot of freehand embroidery—and much of this is freehand where people are making up their own patterns—it takes all of your effort and concentration. That makes these pieces even more brutal and important. It feels like worship, like you can’t help but focus all of your energy and emotions on this thing, whether it’s recounting a story from your family’s past or reflecting on your current situation. You’re bent over a piece of fabric. You’re getting close to it. Your eyes are probably hurting. Your hand is hurting. Maybe your back. It becomes a full-body, full-brain exercise. This thing I always ask people who come on my podcast is what do you think the role of needlework is in today’s world? People talk about how it’s a helpful antidote to overconsumption and our reliance on fast fashion. How we’ve completely forgotten about and have separated ourselves from any understanding of how long it actually takes to make textiles, sew, or embroider. But once people realize how incredibly slow embroidery is, it adds a lot of depth and power to these objects.

While you don’t discuss it in your study, there’s also a long history of embroidery by Palestinian political prisoners.

It’s something I’m thinking about all the time. Wafa Ghnaim—she has a website, book, and Instagram—is doing important work to share the story of Palestinian embroidery. These are stories of incarceration on an individual level. But think about incarceration and on a national level, on a widespread millions of people level—embroidery and incarceration are very present. Every community around the world, whether they’re experiencing a genocide or if they have been moved forcibly moved, if they are refugees, they’re seeking out embroidery. Like Hmong story clothes; when the Hmong people were fleeing Vietnam in the ‘70s, they were telling their stories with embroidery. It’s a human through-line. It’s not painting people seek in these situations; who has access to paints and canvases? What do you have access to? Hopefully clothes you unravel and remake.

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