Threads of Life by Clare Hunter
A History of the World through the Eye of a Needle. (Sceptre)
£6.99 Apple bookstore
This is a marvellous book with chapter after chapter of interesting information, beautifully written by a sensitive author with a very emotional response to her material.
The first chapter, with the title “ Unknown”, speculates on the nameless embroiderers of the Bayeux Tapestry. It was a revelation to me to see the rather rude borders enclosing a thin 50 cm high cartoon of the Norman invasion. Designed by a man with knowledge of soldiering, with a restricted palette of only 4 colours but with differing hues of woollen thread, with the use of only four stitches, the Embroidery’s largely Saxon craftswomen were largely ignored by history until very recently.
Chapter 2 (“Power” ) reflects on Tudor work, from Mary Queen of Scots’ few extant pieces described as a means of self-expression during her years of imprisonment, to a tree at the Field of the Cloth of Gold hung with 2000 satin cherries, and also told me that St Clare (1194-1253) is the patron saint of embroidery.
Chapter 3 (“Frailty” )looks at work produced by the mentally ill who document their suffering by embroidering their feelings on clothing, and at the occupational therapy of ex-servicemen in the form of an altar cloth of 1919 in St Paul’s.
“Captivity”, “Identity” and “Connection”, the next three chapters, are equally moving, especially the accounts of the work of women prisoners of war in the Japanese camps in Singapore which helped to preserve their identity and hopes. At the end of the book are links to images of everything described by the author, and the solace of embroidery in terrible conditions, the tiny pieces of material used by mothers who left their children in the Foundling Hospital in Lincoln Inn, the Dutch women’s patchwork skirts in the postwar period after German occupation, her description of clearing the house of an elderly relative’s textiles, all (unusually, but perhaps this is Lockdown?) moved me to tears.
It is the combination of the voice of the author – who insists on giving value to people and their creations – the detail and the gentle delicacy of the whole thing which won me over as I hope it will some of you. At the end of the book she writes
“ You look through your collection of adornments, the tiny glittering sequins, the box of beads, the braid of jig jigging pom-poms…then you push your threaded needle in…on and on in rhythmic sewing, until you have made something that matters: a thing of beauty and meaning, an embroidery that holds your spirit fast within its threads.”
Link to Clare Hunter’s website here