"What I’ve discovered in writing this book is that so many people have used sewing as a way to communicate." Clare Hunter is talking about her marvellous non-fiction début, Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle. Among much else, it takes in the storytelling of the Bayeux Tapestry; patchwork quilts crafted by black slaves in the American South; the therapeutic handicrafts done by First World War soldiers suffering from PTSD; and the banners displayed by peace campaigners at Greenham Common in the early 1980s. Already confirmed as a BBC Radio 4 "Book of the Week" on publication, Threads of Life is a compelling and beautifully written account of how marginalised peoples throughout history have used the language of sewing, embroidery and textiles to tell their neglected stories. With comparisons being drawn with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, the timing of publication will also make it a glorious Valentine’s gift (or self-purchase) for anyone who loves needlecraft.
Hunter and I talk over coffee at the British Library. She is visiting from her home in Stirlingshire, Scotland, to conduct research for her second book, about the significance of textiles in the life of Mary Queen of Scots, who also makes an appearance in Threads of Life. "Most books on Mary Queen of Scots imply she was just a vain person who liked to dress up. But that’s not at all the case," Hunter tells me. "What she wore, the textiles she bought and the gifts of cloth and needlework she gave tell a whole story both about her inner life and who she was trying to woo. Embroidery became her emotional and political representative."
A warm and engaging woman in her sixties, Hunter grew up in Glasgow. In the book, she describes how her mother "lured" her into an early love of sewing. "She used to take me to a shop in the middle of Glasgow which was an Aladdin’s Cave to a wee girl. All those beautiful embroidery threads and colours from which I was allowed to choose and take home to sew lazy daisy stitch." In her teens, Hunter began to make her own clothes.
Hunter started her working life in the theatre, before becoming the first director of the Salisbury Arts Centre, and then an arts development officer in Northampton during the 1970s and early ‘80s. Her work began to blend with her love of sewing and textiles when she made a banner for the People’s March for Jobs in 1981, a national protest against the high unemployment rate. Then, while working with the people of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire on a community project to make banners for the town’s May Day parades, she found herself turning to her sewing machine for local striking miners during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. "It was fantastic, that big outdoor presence of bold colour and simple statements," she recalls. Threads of Life charts the significant role of sewn banners in all kinds of political activism, from those paraded by the suffragettes in the early 20th century, to the arpilleras or appliquéd pictures defiantly displayed by women whose loved ones had been abducted and killed in General Pinochet’s Chile.
Hunter later returned to her native Scotland and established NeedleWorks, a community textile enterprise which involved local organisations making banners and wall-hangings to document their activities, history and concerns. Among its projects were a set of banners carried at the opening of the Scottish Parliament. By this time, she was accustomed to thinking of sewing as an activity of both personal and political significance. But it was only while studying for an MLitt in creative writing at Dundee University some years later that she began, with the encouragement of her tutors, to put her thoughts down on paper. Just before Christmas 2015, Hunter took a chapter of what eventually became Threads of Life to a pitch-off to literary agents organised by Scottish Book Trust at Waterstones in Edinburgh. On the basis of what she heard in an initial 10-minute pitch, Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates asked to see more and, impressed by what she read, took Hunter on. A number of publishers expressed interest in publishing the completed book, and Hunter subsequently made alterations to the structure, threading more of her own story through it. Finally, it found a home with Juliet Brooke at Sceptre.
Not as it seams
Hunter completely overturns the prevailing idea of sewing as a quiet, unobtrusive and submissive activity, and restores it to the position it once occupied. Through the centuries, she contends, we have lost sight of the "potency" of needlework, the tactile residue of its makers’ touch, the meaning of its symbolic patterns and motifs and the way it preserves our traditions. "I wanted to remind readers of needlework’s emotional, social and textural qualities, and by doing so, revive an appreciation of its value," she says. "In Medieval times, sewing and embroidery were seen as high arts. But over time, and with the arrival of a more industrial age, sewing came to be regarded merely either as sweatshop labour, or a frippery that ‘idle’ genteel women undertook."
While Threads of Life takes in needlework wrought by both men and women, the book has a strong feminist tack running through it. Hunter explores how women through history have used the sewing conventions of their times "to purposefully subvert its form to evoke and exorcise powerful emotions".
Though global in its reach, Threads of Life, just like its author, is rooted in Scotland and its strong textile history. Along with Mary Queen of Scots and kilts, the book also features a gorgeous golden embroidered globe on the cover, complete with a thistle and a Glasgow rose. Aside from writing and researching, she currently has two sewing projects on the go: a banner for trade union Unite to replace a long-standing painted version, and two patchwork quilts for her 20-year-old twins ("very simple and old-fashioned, and rhythmic and soothing to do").
Hunter tells me the moving story of a friend of a friend who, estranged from her father, found a folded pile of his shirts while clearing his house after his death. "She cut them up and made them into a patchwork quilt so that she could finally appropriate the love that he had never shown her." Threads of Life is full of such stories, reminding us that needlework, above all, is a tactile and therefore very personal pursuit. "It involves choosing the stitches, and handling the fabric yourself. We need to remember the importance of how that feels," says Hunter, gentle, but also pin sharp.
Sewing is a visual language. It has a voice. It has been used by people to communicate something of themselves—their history, beliefs, prayers and protests. For some, it is the only means to tell of what matters to them: those who are imprisoned or censored; those who do not know how or are not allowed to write of their lives. For them needlework can carry their autobiographies and testimonies, registering their origin and fate. Using patterns as syntax, symbols and motifs as its vocabulary, the arrangement of both as its grammar, sewing is a graphic way to add information and meaning. But is not a monologue, it is part of a conversation, a dialogue, a correspondence only fully realised once it is seen and its messages are read. It connects the maker to the viewer across time, cultures, generations and geographies. As a shared language, needlework transmits... the unedited stories, not just of women, but often of those marginalised by oppression and prejudice.