RogerBW's Blog

Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle, Clare Hunter 29 November 2019

2019 non-fiction. A history of sewing and embroidery, trying to recover the stories of the people who did it.

This is another Book of the Week condensation, and one that suffers a great deal thereby. If there's a thesis or through line in Hunter's book, it's lost here, in favour of a fuzzy notion that textile art should be taken seriously. So please bear in mind that I'm only reviewing a fragment here.

There's a profound bias towards the Anglosphere: discussion of prisoners' and soldiers' embroidery during WWII, while fascinating, is entirely on the Allied side, there's significant time given to the theory (speculative at best) that the Bayeux Tapestry was embroidered by captured Saxons, and overall I see no sign that sources in languages other than English were ever considered.

Further, Hunter has clearly reached positions for which she writes no defence: The Dinner Party is Good because it's about women and it includes textile art by women (though the painted china is much the more important part), and anyone who objects to the depiction of the most significant thing about women being their genitalia (except for the one black woman who is unsexed by comparison) is just a prude. In another chapter, Mary Queen of Scots was Good, therefore anyone who opposed her was Bad.

In spite of that, when it deals with recovered historical artefacts, the book can be fascinating: for example, that the small patches left with babies at the Foundling Hospitals – in the usually-vain hope that some day the mother might be able to reclaim them and could prove the relationship by a matching garment – now form the largest surviving record of 18th-century cloth, or the way in which the interned civilian women in Singapore during WWII kept up their morale by making blankets and other cloth things to be sent to their separately-interned menfolk.

There are many interesting things here, but it's mostly terribly shallow, and I think it would be more useful as a guide to things to read about than as a source of information in itself. The book could have benefited from an editor, too: the chapter on the Bayeux Tapestry keeps talking about King Alfred, and the one on the Foundling Hospital mentions Hunter being there "350 years later" (the book being examined is from 1760). There's a lot of gushing about "feeling" the emotions of the people who made the things that Hunter goes to see, which must be more speculation than anything else.

I feel no particular urge to read the actual book, though I find the subject distinctly interesting.

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