From the political storytelling of the Bayeux tapestry's anonymous embroiderers, to the POWs who memorialized their lives in the harshest of conditions during WWII, to the marches celebrating one hundred year's of women's suffrage in 2018, this is a treasure trove of book. Clare Hunters reveals how sewing and embroidery are as much about identity, politics and memory as they are about craft and art. Threads of Life is also peppered throughout with moments from Clare's own life as a textile artist, for instance, her first adventures with needle and thread, or the discovery of a beautifully worked patchwork quilt in an aunt's attic decades later. Listeners will delight in this celebration of sewing as an intimate and powerful medium for telling stories.
Hunter studied creative writing and cleverly uses personal narrative to create a persona one will instantly like. Christmas Eve 1995, for instance, finds her in a gloomy hotel in rural China, when in glides a woman from the Miao, an ethnic minority that has been forced to live in the barren uplands of southwest China. The Miao do not have a written language, but they excel in creating embroidered textiles with which they record their ancient creation myths. The two women show each other their work, mime threading a needle and hand stitching. Soon they exchange gifts.
Hunter has set about restoring the reputation of textile art in this very personal, but fascinating, history of the world... Hunter’s book is packed with such intriguing detail... Hunter writes insightfully of the ways in which needlework can provide solace and a sense of community, such as with the beautifully embroidered seascapes of fisherman John Craske, who, like many wounded World War I soldiers, used sewing to improve his mental health... Threads Of Life is a vivid, thought-provoking book, so it’s an annoying snag that there are no illustrations or photographs in the book of the works that survive.
If you are interested in the ways people have used needlework for identity, resistance and community, Hunter offers a range of examples, interlaced with her own history. I was especially moved by her account of quilts made by women interned by the Japanese in Singapore during the second world war.
Unfortunately, her publishers have not done Hunter any favours in the production of this book. Elizabeth I’s spymaster was Francis Walsingham (Frances was his daughter); the 14th-century writer was Christine de Pisan (not Pison) etc.
...298 pages of a relentlessly feminist book... It’s all very earnest and there are great cascades of abstract nouns... Some of the sewing stories are fascinating... These stories of oppressed women for whom needlework was a lifeline are well told... I would like to have seen images of those banners, but, frustratingly, there are no illustrations, apart from the endpapers, which depict a lovely 1890s American pictorial quilt. Illustrations would have helped, to turn down the volume on the book’s rather monotonous voice.
There were times, however, when I wanted to hear more about Hunter’s life. There were also moments when I stumbled over yet another new name, and when I felt she pushed her argument too far. “Prose,” she says at one point, “could not have described the contrast between the flowery fields and the barbed wire of a labour camp.” Really? There are a few Nobel laureates who have had a pretty good attempt. But mostly it felt pretty seamless. Hunter writes in clear, sometimes lyrical prose and knows just the detail to bring a story alive. Her highly impressive debut is a richly textured and moving record of a history that has largely been lost.
I'm a rubbish needlewoman, but still I was enchanted by this history of sewing, embroidery and more. Told through stories of the people who have taken up the needle and thread to make their voices heard, it takes in the Bayeux Tapestry, Mary Queen of Scots and her treasonous stitching, the therapeutic sewing of First World War soldiers suffering from PTSD, and the banner makers of Greenham Common. It's a powerful account of how marginalised peoples have used sewing to tell their neglected stories.