Why should embroidery exist? Its aim is the enhancement of fabrics, and so it might be expected to flourish only when the manufacture of such fabrics is confined to plain products. Would there need to be embroidery on the best fabrics of the Persian world, or on the wonderful silks displayed in the Japanese exhibition of a few years back? Perhaps there would: personal or religious symbols might be demanded by persons of special status, and anyone likely to be able to afford the basic fabric would probably consider themselves special. Embroidery can be an art form, a younger sister to tapestry, using textures and colours for their interacting effects. And of course it became a form of juvenile discipline, a pre-puberty rite. Girls of good family worked over their samplers as their brothers did over Latin verse, to produce objects which indicated a social setting of relative leisure. Rozsika Parker's book, which sets out to show how feminine expression was channelled by the stereotype of the girl with her needle, never actually asks what the artistic purpose of the work was, but has much to say about how it came to be a demonstration of upper-class femininity.
LRB 7 March 1985 | PDF Download