Sharing all of these interviews has been so exciting! And today’s interview is especially exciting to me because it talks about women from years past who made a difference, but aren’t necessarily household names!
1. What does craftivism mean to you?
For me, craftivism is a way to make the causes I care about feel more personal. I first heard the term from a friend who wrote her PhD thesis on the subject – I was interested at the time, but it was a few years before I even learnt to sew.
I use needlecraft to tell the stories of otherwise forgotten or marginalised women. I almost doubted that the term ‘craftivism’ didn’t apply to my own work as I feel like my portraits are a very ‘quiet’ form of activism. I don’t go out yarnbombing in my community or creating big, public displays (though I have nothing but admiration for those who do!) but do I find something very empowering in physically sewing every stitch, taking the time to meditate on each portrait and story. I spend so much of my day working in front of screens that it actually feels quite subversive to focus on making something with my hands.
2. How did you start embroidering images of rebel women?
It was really a combination of things. I’ve always been very interested in history, and people’s stories. As a feminist I was always aware that women’s stories had often been left out, but the first time I felt like doing something about it came when researching my local history.
I was browsing the doomsday book online (as you do) – the doomsday book was a national census of all the people, property and land in England taken in 1086. I’m originally from a small village in Middlesex, and was fascinated to find that the ‘Lord’ of the village in 1086 was a woman called Estrild the Nun. I couldn’t find any further information about Estrild other than that one little entry, but she fired my imagination.
Discovering Estrild led me to learn about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party installation, which was also a huge inspiration for my project.
Around this time, I was also unhappily employed in a craft shop, where I’d been learning to sew to pass the time on the tills. I began with cross stitch, but before I was even competent I got bored of the patterns. I started going freehand and never looked back!
I don’t consider myself particularly accomplished as an embroiderer, but I’m enjoying improving my skill with each panel, and I think it shows from portrait to portrait.
3. Who is a rebel woman to you? (I.e., what does it mean to you?)
I actually have quite a strict set of criteria! She must be a self-identified human woman who really lived (i.e. not fictional or mythological – no Lizzie Bennets or Aphrodites!), and she may have either made a notable contribution to society, worked in some way towards full equality for women, or have personally achieved something extraordinary for a woman of her time which makes her a positive role model.
I quite often have to make a quick judgement when ‘evaluating’ a historical woman’s life story – but I’m more likely to add her than not if I’m unsure. I try to judge the women within their own time – some of the warrior women like Tomyris have particularly gory stories attached to them, but were living in a very violent and brutal time period. I might not choose to include someone from the 21st Century who famously severed the head of her enemy and dunked it in a bucket of blood just to prove a point!
Essentially, the ‘rebel women’ on my list are women with interesting stories, who lived life on their own terms, sometimes even in the smallest of ways.
4. How do you find these women?
It actually took me about six months to compile my initial catalogue or ‘list’ of women (which you can access here) before I even began sewing what I’d hoped would be a quilt of about 100 portraits. The list currently includes over 1800 women from all over the world, from 3000 BCE to present day – and it’s still growing.
I asked around, I read books and kept my ears open. Any time I heard mention of a woman in history I scribbled it down and researched her later. Wikipedia has of course been invaluable – there are countless lists of suffragists by country, lists of women’s firsts, queen regents, women artists, athletes, balloonists etc.
I will never consider the list complete; I am still more than open to suggestions!
5. Is this a long term project or a gateway to something else?
It is absolutely a long term project in that I don’t have any plans to stop! I’m only about 150-ish embroideries in, so I have a very long way to go.
I also blog about each woman individually, which takes even more time, but my real hope is that others are inspired by stories. I love to access history through art, and it would be so incredible if more of these fascinating women had art, plays, films or novels written to bring them to life. If I could write 1800 screenplays, then I would!