Clare Hunter tops and tails her book about the long history of textile work, of stitching, embroidering and quilting, with a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy and to The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s 1970s feminist installation in the Brooklyn Museum. Both works are very large – the Bayeux Tapestry an astonishing 230 feet long – but beyond that, and their incorporation of complex narrative embroidery, they stand at opposite ends of the needlework spectrum. One is a chronicle in just four colours of wool made by women and picturing men at war and peace; the other is a female artist’s celebration of history’s famous women. It is hard to imagine what the anonymous stitchers of the Bayeux Tapestry would have made of The Dinner Party’s vulva-shaped place settings. Perhaps, like me, they would have furrowed their brows at Hunter’s contention that Chicago’s fabric vaginas cross ‘an invisible threshold of gendered taste’. I like to think they would have had a good laugh: after all, the 11th-century tapestry (probably made by nuns) is not shy of genitalia – in fact, in the replica created by Victorian lady embroiderers, the many penises of the original were shrunk to comply with 19th-century standards of decency.
This history of sewing is full of fascinating details. The creators of historical works are often nameless, so mysteries abound too. As a community banner maker, Hunter has proper experience of needlework in all its forms and the book is at its best when she discusses the practical details of