Saturday, 29 June 2019

Threads Of Life

I heard an extract of "Threads Of Life- A history of the world through the eye of a needle" on Radio 4, when it was Book of the Week a couple of months ago. So I ordered it from the library. Clare Hunter is a Scottish textile artist, and this is her first book.
She has divided her book into 16 chapters, with thematic titles like Captivity, Connection, Community, Power, Place, Protect, Identity, Loss etc.
There is much detail of various pieces of stitched work throughout history, and of how many women [and fewer men] have used the language of sewing to make their voices heard, across the world.
WARNING -I was so looking forward to this book -but found it deeply unsatisfying on a number of levels. If you have reserved it at the library [I have to get this copy back promptly, there is apparently a queue of readers awaiting it] then please do not read my review, as I don't want to put you off, you might love it.
HERE'S MY REVIEW- The book is very much the author's story, she has travelled the world with her needle, and so many chapters are her anecdotes about meeting Aborigine women, and Chinese ladies etc. Furthermore, she is based in Scotland - so in her discussion of Mary Queen of Scots, she laments that there is little of the royal embroidery to see in Scotland - neglecting to mention the V&A collection, or the Oxburgh Collection in Norfolk - she writes as if there are virtually no examples extant anywhere. 
Whilst she has covered a lot of ground in her book about "the social, emotional and political influence of sewing" [her description] I was really disappointed that apart from passing references to medieval nuns and the Bible Quilts of American slaves, the huge contribution of the Christian church to needlecraft has been almost completely overlooked [apart from a few rather negative examples of misguided missionaries]
Where is any mention of the great Quaker Tapestry, which gave the world a new crewel stitch, now recognised world-wide?
Where are George Mueller's Bristol Orphans, learning their special redwork embroidery, in order to prepare them for a trade when they grew up?
Or Elizabeth Fry, visiting the women prisoners bound for transportation to Australia, giving each a bag of fabric, needles and thread - so they could stitch a quilt on the long voyage [to use for warmth, or sell, or use as proof of skill, once they got to the Antipodes]?
The woman in Woolwich who set up 4 sewing machines in her church hall, to teach lonely, frightened Somali refugees how to sew, back in the 1990s [sorry, I can't recall her name] and it became a significant support group.
I could list loads more examples - but you get my point.
But that's just me - I see my own stitching gifts as God-given, and to be used to bless others. I'd hoped she might have picked that idea up somewhere from her research.
Here are my general gripes - The very clear lack of proper proofreading. This is her first book, and I think one of the Editors at Hodder/Hachette should have made a lot more of an effort here.
Spelling mistakes - miniscule and sweat pea to mention just two
Basic errors - reference to "the eight corners of a hexagon" and "Pythagoras' Theory"
And as for historical inaccuracies - [many of the Amazon reviews cite her significant errors about the Bayeaux Tapestry] she is 70 years early with the Foundling Hospital, the 17th/18th/19th centuries get very blurred [eg saying 18th century when she means 1800s] and her first reference to the Suffragettes talks about their red, white and green colours.
I got to the point where the number of mistakes over things I did know about made me doubt the information she was giving in her stories of needlework I didn't know about. My frequent mutterings about "that's not right" and "rubbish!" definitely disturbed Bob's bedtime reading.
Because the chapters are thematic rather than chronological, it is hard to go back and check up on things - an index would have really helped here.
But the biggest fault ?
How are we meant to envisage things when we do not really know what they are, and what they look like? Hunter does her best with descriptive language. In 100 words she carefully explains an antimacassar stitched by Margaret MacDonald [wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh] I sketched my impression of what this would look like from her words. Then I googled an image of it- and my drawing was completely wrong. Illustrations would really make this book come alive - and be very useful for those of us who cannot immediately call to mind what "Cretan stitch" is. I have deliberately avoided putting pictures in this post, which I think makes it less interesting than it might be.
This lady is clearly a gifted textile worker, and feels strongly that stitchery is a silent language which should be used to make the voices of the people heard more loudly, and to keep telling their stories after they have passed on. I admire her for that. But sadly I found this this book a real let-down. 
So it only gets **


  1. Well I won’t bother with this one. Whilst you are on teaching leave, have you considered doing a book, you always sound so knowledgeable about needlework and as a teacher would know how to present illustrations, diagrams etc. Your posts on your blog are always informative, please think about it.

    1. Sarah I've never considered writing a book about needlework, perhaps I should...

  2. Spelling inaccuracies alway annoy me, and there seem to be so many of them now. What a shame that the book did not live up to expectations, it is a subject that she could have done more with apparently.

    1. Perhaps it is a lifetime in teaching which means that spelling mistakes leap out at us?

  3. I second Sarah Dee's suggestion that it might be something you would consider doing. Perhaps focussing on those endeavours by "church ladies" or social workers/reformers. It might be very well received within those communities themselves and could be marketed there to start with. The WI might also take an interest.

    And to your point about editing and proofing - I find many books to be done in a shockingly poor manner these days - it looks to me as though they have been run through "spell check" as a bare minimum. I really resent this when I have paid good money to buy a book and find these sorts of lazy errors.
    For all the knitters out there I'd like to share the link o a presentation I am going to on July 9th. This show has been touring quite extensively in Canada and he has had a lot of write ups in both secular and religious publications:> wrote:
    If the link doesn't work then just google knitting pilgrim

    1. Your book idea is a great one! Thanks for the link, I know that there are quite a few folk in Canada who follow the blog. I hope the link will be useful for somebody.

  4. Saw this book mentioned in the latest Today's Quilter magazine and thought I would like to read it, however I find it odd that there are no illustrations. Don't think I'll bother with this one.

    1. "Odd" is just what the Librarian said this morning when I returned the book!

  5. I read the title of the book and got all excited! I thought it would be about the history of the world, told through the types of garments and other items sewn! I'm sure I would have been disappointed in the contents of the book, as well as the spelling mistakes and other errors.

    I also second and third the suggestions others have made that you should write a book about sewing. :)

    Did you know that among the 8 personal items a Buddhist monk is traditionally allowed to own (everything else is communal property belonging to the temple), are a needle (and thread; considered as one item) so he can sew his own robes? These days, pre-sewn robes are presented to the monks, but, originally, they used to sew them, themselves (with fabric used to wrap corpses before they were cremated).

    1. That's a great piece of information about the monks' needles&threads. Thanks for that, Bless


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