Threads of Life and Scotland’s Textiles

First published on Imps in the Archive on 11 March 2019.

Why doesn’t Scotland have a national textiles archive?”

Clare Hunter reading from her book at the discussion with Janice Forsyth

That was the big question at an event at Glasgow Women’s Library with Clare Hunter, banner maker and community textile artist. The event was a discussion of her book Threads of Life, an examination of the social, political and emotional significance of sewing, as well as a personal memoir.

In conversation with arts broadcaster Janice Forsyth, Clare explained that though there are lots and lots of books about sewing, hardly any look at why people sew.

Threads of Life describes how throughout the centuries women – and men too – have used sewing – creating a pattern on fabric – as a way to make their mark and tell their stories. Often marginalised, or in circumstances where they are in extreme danger or distress, they may feel their identities are the verge of being eliminated. For example, 19th century women who embroidered their stories when confined in a lunatic asylum and soldiers who sewed to help with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are collaborative projects where people maintain and create community identities, sewing to promote a cause or create pictures of the things important to them.

Sometimes, though, the sewers are subsumed, like the unknown women who created the Bayeaux Tapestry; the historical significance of the tapestry is acknowledged but the skill and hard work required to make it has received less appreciation.

Cover of the book Threads of Life by Clare Hunter

Clare mentioned lots of projects where communities created textile artworks, such as Keeping Glasgow in Stitches and the Great Tapestry of Scotland, which don’t have a place to be regularly displayed. Others, like the textiles produced for the Millennium, may have been put in cupboards and forgotten.

There are also personal records in stitches, from which individual stories can be extracted, explored and enriched, such as the wonderful samplers on display at the National Museum of Scotland from the Leslie B Durst Collection.

These textiles are records – of personal lives and of community experiences – as well as being artworks, that should be known, recognised and appreciated.

One of the other interesting features about the book is that it has no photographs. That’s deliberate, explained Clare. She didn’t want people to be distracted while reading but also she feels photographs don’t capture the texture of textiles.. In fact in her book she cites the example of Charles Stothart, who was commissioned to create drawings of the complete Bayeaux Tapestry in the early 19th century. But after two years of work it was felt that the drawings were too ‘flat’; instead a wax impression was taken and used to create plaster casts instead.

The argument for a Scottish memory institution for textiles is supported by the long history of textile production in Scotland, from tartan and Harris tweed to Paisley pattern and Fair Isle jumpers; from Borders’ weaving mills, to Turkey red dye works to Singer sewing machines.

It is the story of embroiderers and textile artists, from Mary Queen of Scots, to Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and Glasgow School of Art teacher Ann MacBeth to today’s craftivists and community arts projects.

Textiles are expressions of identity for individuals and communities, and Scotland’s textile story is rich and varied, a story of skill and artistry that is hopefully becoming ever more visible.

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