Needlework has been all these to women during Renaissance - Needlework case introduction. From the time that early woman formed her first bone needle to the modern sweatshops; women have had the major responsibility for clothing both mankind and womankind. Men have been tailors and factory workers; sailors at sea have sewn their own clothing. However women have most frequently held the needle, whether for sewing on buttons or for taking the fine stitches that formed the great women’s art of quilting. Quilting received attention long overdue as art, although the everyday craft of sewing and the women who accomplished it for a living their techniques, their tools, their materials, their working conditions, the ways they dispersed their work, the changes caused by the nineteenth-century invention of the sewing machine these have been virtually ignored.
Text and textile are inextricably intertwined, seen variously as commensurate, comparable and complementary. What distinguishes the two is gender: language use has been seen as masculine, with the power to speak, to write and to create a text being viewed as a male prerogative. In contrast, clothwork—from spinning to decorative finishing—has traditionally been categorized as “women’s work,” as craft rather than art. Historically, this gender divide has not been immutable, as witnessed by the prominence of men in medieval cloth working guilds and by women. What is important here, however, is not so much the historical reality as the perception, the fiction, that pens are for men and pins (or needles) are for women. This essay examines not the facts of women’s cloth production, but rather the myth and ideal of the spinning, weaving, sewing woman.
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The images of women working at looms or bent over a needlework frame were didactic images, employed to illustrate an ideal of womanhood. Clothworking provided a sort of litmus test of femininity and virtue: a weaving woman was seen as domestic, silent, submissive and chaste—and hence feminine. Pattern books sought not only to educate women in a domestic craft, but also to craft them into the cultural image of the ideal woman, and the value of clothworking, according to these and other texts, lay not so much in the production of textiles as in its role in the production of feminine women and good wives.
“Needlework has long been an occasion for sociability. It seals the bond between mothers and daughters and among friends. The old-time quilting bee is well remembered, although most quilts were actually solo products. The spinning bee, an evening gathering for work and gossip in early modern France and Germany, was so much fun that clergymen objected. They feared that women away from their homes at night must be up to no good.” http://www.looksmartmom.com/p/articles/mi_m0IUK/is_2002_Spring/ai_86504540
Needlework was held to be the most gentle and feminine, and as such was central to the definition of femininity and feminine accomplishment. Pattern books, in teaching this most feminine skill, also inculcated in women the cultural definition of femininity. Essentially wordless, these books nonetheless were meant to edify women morally, to instill in them such qualities as industriousness, obedience, silence, and chastity.
One of the primary benefits of engaging women in needlework was that it kept them busy and productive. Idleness was thought to lead women astray, whereas industry was a fundamental virtue.
“Our English housewife,” wrote Gervase Markham, “after her knowledge of preserving and feeding her family, must learn also how, out of her own endeavours, she ought to clothe them outwardly and inwardly.” Tasks like spinning and weaving produced the cloth necessary to clothe the family and furnished the household itself with bed linens, tablecloths and napkins.
During Renaissance, to know how to handle a needle well was to have a significant skill. Parents given in their wills those daughters are taught how to read and sew. And while one wishes the daughters might have been taught to write, also, so that they could have left better records of their craft, both daughters and their peers actually held in high admiration the ability to sew well.
The majority women’s clothing of the Renaissance period was raised with narrow flat-felled seams. While finished, the seam typically measured only one-quarter inch. With double thread, sewn in small back stitches, these seams were stronger than those later sewn with machine stitch. The potency of these seams accounts for the age of the garments that stills exist in collections and for the lists of garments in eighteenth-century wills representing that clothing did pass from generation to generation until finally it was made over in so numerous styles and sizes that the fabric could no longer serve for garments needing large pieces. Whereupon women cut the cloth still smaller, fashioning it into quilts of complex and restrained designs.
Learning needlework was part of a larger series of connections between women. It was an activity that made attachments between them easier. Doing needlework together stood as a symbol of a connectedness, a way of stating social relationships (Nancy D. Donnelly, 1994).
Material objects are providing new means to recuperate the alliances of early modern women. Women’s domestic needlework, for instance, reveal political and imaginative interconnections among women as they worked within but as well sought to expand the common social and symbolic economies of sixteenth and seventeenth century England. For extremely noticeable, highly placed women like Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth Talbot, Countesses of Shrewsbury (“Bess of Hardwick”) in the Renaissance period, and for thousands of largely unidentified women of the merchant and gentry classes in the seventeenth century who thoroughly imitated the possessions of the wealthy, needlework offered the means to perpetuate, use, and even vigilantly restructure the cultural category of “woman” from within a community of women.
Women reacted to the unchanging restriction to perform domestic needlework by sprouting a subculture within which patterns and pictures uttered their lives. These patterns–such as the busy bee of the community worker or the strawberry of generation–and pictures-often of Diana and Actaeon, Lucrece, Judith, and Esther–formed visual terminology of narratives offering alternatives to the submissiveness, privacy, and silence that needlework was believed to enforce. In the sixteenth century, only exceptional women like Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, had access to volumes containing prints and could pay professional embroiderers and artists to draw on cloth the pictures that they desired to embroider. By the seventeenth century, the women who had admittance to a print shop and money for thread could browse among some diversity of prints and has a desired picture drawn on cloth. These needle workers did not face up to their society’s equation of needlework with uncorrupted labor so much as they accepted it and made it their own. They took fatally the masculinity association of the needle with the tongue, but in its place of letting the needle silence them, they used it as their instrument of communication in the tradition of the silenced Philomel.
For Englishwomen, as Jean Danielou writes of the fictive women of the Old French romance Philomela, “female knowledge, skills, and talents . . . feed into an elaborate economy of women’s collective work grounded insight, hearing, and touch as alternatives to speech” (Jean Danielou, 1960, p. 117).
Women formed their own patterns, shared patterns with other women, and chose the subjects of their own needlework pictures and worked them in company with kinswomen, mistresses, and dependents. A few women in the sixteenth century, as well as many more women whom we know of in the seventeenth century, used needlework to search alternative narratives of the feminine as political, authoritative, active, and expressive, though consistently chaste and productive. Indeed, needlework became a vibrant discourse through which its practitioners concurrently obeyed and defied the injunction to passive silence. Needles became pens as well as minute, multiply piercing swords, as women worked patterns and narratives into their lives that expressed their sense of themselves in the world.
Sidney writes, “a needle cannot do much hurt, and as truly (with leave of ladies be it spoken) it cannot do much good: with a sword thou mayst kills thy father, and with a sword thou mayst defends thy prince and country” (1977). Transforming needle into a sword, Sidney shifts writing from an association with a profitless activity (“Truly, a needle … cannot do much good”) to a profitable one: the chivalrous defense of prince and country. The rejection of the needle as a metaphor for writing, however, also entails a rejection of poetry’s previously celebrated association with the court. Embroidery was a form of courtly leisure, an activity engaged by gentlewomen during their idle time. And Rozsika Parker observes that in the Renaissance court “functional articles of clothing heavily embroidered indicate a life ‘unsullied’ by manual labour.” (Russica Parker, 1986, 69–70).
The needle joins the feminine and sartorial, literally linking the two figures at either of its ends. Repudiating those figures that would associate poetry with courtly leisure, Sidney instead links poetry to that form of labor acceptable to the elite. The transformation of needle into a sword suggests Sidney’s desire to accommodate poetry to military service, by showing that “poets’ pastimes” do not “soften … courage” or threaten “martial exercises” and “manlike liberty” (1977, 51). But while Sidney’s counter association of poetry with the heroic warrior suggests his hopes for poetry to represent not “what is or is not, but what should or should not be” (53), it suggests as well his anxiety about the “bare Was” (36) of history – the transition from a feudal warrior to a courtly elite. A further consideration of Sidney’s ambivalent response to this transition requires a closer look at figures of gender in the Defense, since Sidney’s insistence that “poets’ pastimes” do not “soften … courage” or “manlike liberty” suggests that Sidney crucially displaces his anxieties about courtly culture onto the woman (Robert Matz, 2000).
Queen Elizabeth as giver and receiver of needle worked gifts emphasizes the particular assistance of women to social exchanges. Though, the study of needlework has started distress similar neglect at the end of the Renaissance onward. As professional work, done mostly by male guild members, the craft of needlework was becoming subordinated to the fine arts. It was also becoming work associated with women, who were increasingly secluded from public activity in their domestic spheres. Yet it is a perfect instance of women’s agency in the facsimile of culture, in the exchange of gifts.
When Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, performed needlework, they were concurrently conforming to the widespread conception of the feminine and using their needlework to screen and advance their political ambitions. Their self-display of instantaneous conformity and nonconformity to society’s ideals is analogous to the work of fewer visible seventeenth-century women. For if in the seventeenth century most of the young girls of the merchant and gentry classes and the nobilities were producing samplers according to a moderately rigid conception of form, when these girls grew older they produced needlework pictures that simultaneously conformed to and confronted wholly masculinity conceptions of domesticity.
A textile relic from women’s everyday lives divulges the extent to which women reached out to other women in their extensive families, in overtly political alliances, and through historical and mythic figures. What the named and unnamed women of this article have in general is their awareness of needlework as embodying the female relationships that expressed identity. Elizabeth Tudor, Elizabeth Talbot, and Mary Stuart used needlework to form and interrupt alliances with other women, to symbolize and exhibit their identities in both imagined and politicized relations. Women in the seventeenth century took benefit of developments in print culture to select, often jointly, preferential narratives that made connections to female figures in the past. The study of women’s material culture is just beginning to open new approaches to think about women’s lives and women’s subjectivities. Textile work in particular registers women’s search for ways to symbolize the prospect of political female activity within the heart of domestic space.
Basically, needlework combined virtue with social position: the act of embroidering exemplified a woman’s domesticity and virtue, but it also made a statement about the wealth of the household because the production of ornamental needlework required leisure time—and so reflected doubly well on the husband.
The productivity embodied by needlework is also closely connected with another feminine virtue, arguably the ultimate virtue: chastity. In discussions touching on femininity or women’s education, qualities such as industry, modesty and obedience were, to borrow a phrase from Ruth Kelso, considered “chaste habits.” (Rozsika Parker, 1989).
Chastity was the ground on which women’s honor stood, and these habits were seen to help women acquire and preserve their chastity. For example, pattern books vaunted industry and directed it inward, in the service of the home. But clothwork, as women’s work, also took place in the home and separated women from society.
Of the numerous chaste habits inculcated by needlework, the most important was silence. As John Taylor writes in “The Praise of the Needle,” the introductory poem to The Needles Excellency:
And for my Countries quiet, I should like,
That Women-kinde should use no other Pike.
It will increase their peace, enlarge their store,
To use their tongues lesse, and their Needles more,
The Needles sharpenesse, profit yeeldes, and pleasure,
But sharpenesse of the tongue bites out of measure. (John Taylor, 1940)
Silence was one of the prime virtues to which women should aspire, in part because of the metonymic association of chaste speech with chaste action, or perhaps more importantly between unchaste speech and unchaste action. (Think, for example, of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.) Needlework, ostensibly a solitary activity undertaken in the home, created an enforced silence in women and an enforced chastity. The absence of words from the design pages of the pattern books acted as a visual reminder of the dictum of silence.
During 1877 to 1885 was a reviving period that shows the femocrats Rosamond Davenport Hill and Alice Westlake supporting efforts to make the girls’ curriculum gender-specific, whereas the drastic Frances Hastings, Florence Fenwick Miller, Henrietta Muller, Elizabeth Surr and Helen Taylor did not. In 1885, Hastings and Taylor took a distinctive stand when they sought to reduce the LSB requirements that girls in Standards IV and above take a course of twenty lessons in cooking. However, the needlework requirements aggravated the lengthiest debate. All four serving women’s members of the 1876 Board agreed that they were too high and strictly jeopardized the girls’ academic training, but Florence Fenwick Miller, Henrietta Muller and Helen Taylor stand out as the most persistent female opponents of school gender training.
The justification for supporting the education of working-class girls and women was implied in terms of improved child-rearing and home-making. It eased the capacity for educated middle-class women, to begin themselves as ‘experts’ in the ‘pedagogy of the feminine.’
Promoters of women’s local government work expected that women in leadership would act to progress the lot of women generally. All through, female members took an active interest in Board policy as it impacted on London’s women teachers, but is it possible to assume a unity of purpose and political intent.
Though, we can say that during renaissance period, Needlework is just as significant in recovering the locally politicized alliances of fewer visible women of the merchant and gentry classes. Throughout that period, domestic needlework pieces survive in large numbers; they are protected within families and passed down from older women to the next generation specifically because the equation between needlework and the feminine demonstrated so persistently. Not only can their samplers tell us something about the female connections within their lives, but also the seventeenth century saw the production of large numbers of needlework pictures as women took advantage of the revolution in print culture that made available hundreds of diverse narratives from which to choose a needlework subject.
Jane Burns, From Shadou’s to Reality, trans. D. Wulstan Hibberd (London: Burns and Oates, 1960).
Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 1986), 69–70.
Philip Sidney, “the Motives of Elizabethan Courtship, ”Renaissance Drama, n.s., 8 (1977): 3–35
Robert Matz; Defending Literature in Early Modern England: Renaissance Literary Theory in Social Context Cambridge University Press, 2000
Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 11, 63-4.
Gervase Markham, The English Housewife: containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman (1615), ed. Michael R. Best (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986), p. 146.
John Taylor, “In Praise of the Needle,” The Needles Excellency (1631), 12th ed. (London, 1940), Al-Alv.