Stitching up the Patriarchy

Feminism can be hard work sometimes, but when it involves collaboration, creativity and wit it can also be joyous. I have been rediscovering some creative ways in which women have been challenging the patriarchy. It began with a recently published book and took me back to an experience in the 1980s that has been very influential, and on the way, I had occasion to revisit a quilting exhibition, the Magna Carta and to remember Vienna.

Unravelling Women’s Art

For several years I have been following the twitter account of #WomensArt (@womensart1) because all kinds of imaginative visual treats are available: ethnic art, weaving, crochet, tapestry, quilting, painting and more. Her recent book discusses women’s textile art and covers a great deal of ground. The chapter that I enjoyed most was the Politics and Textile Arts featuring many acts of activism (craftism). She features women suffrage campaigners, Sojourner Truth, quilters from many projects, including the Broken Treaty Quilts of Gina Adams, banner makers, rug weavers and embroiderers.

Unravelling Women’s Art: Creators, Rebels & Innovators in Textile Arts by PL Henderson, published by Supernova Books in 2021. 279pp

Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party

Of course, PL Henderson’s book refers to Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party. For anyone unaware of this seminal work, it is a combination of ceramics and needlecraft, displayed on a huge triangular table, set with individual places for 39 women, and with the names of many more women written on the ceramic floor.

I saw this work when it was displayed in White Lion Street in Islington, probably in the early 1980s. It was so impressive: a collaborative piece, a celebration, a display of superb needlework and ceramics, and an affirmative experience as well as a visual treat. It can be seen today at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

A review of Judy Chicago’s second volume of autobiography, The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago(2021) in a recent edition of LRB, and PL Henderson’s remarks, sent me back to my copies of the two catalogues that accompanied the exhibition.

The Dinner Party: a symbol of our heritage by Judy Chicago (1979) published by Anchor Books. 256pp

The Dinner Party Needlework by Judy Chicago (1980) published by Anchor Books. 288pp


An exhibition of quilting at the V&A, before Lockdowns, was another treat. The exhibition featured quilts from many parts of the world, from different times, and made by different people for different reasons. One I recall was a coverlet made in Changi Prison by 20 Girl Guides in 1943. They secretly made 72 rosettes out of any scraps they could find around the camp, and the girls signed and embroidered the central hexagons. 

That exhibition was very enjoyable, attended by so many women interested in the construction, stitch work, materials used, and the context of the quilts on display. Many members of my family are quilters, excellent quilters, and so are some of my friends. They have different styles and techniques, and use different colour schemes. I love their creativity.

Magna Carta

So much of the needle craft I have referred to is created collaboratively. This was the case for a splendid work displayed at the British Library in 2015, celebrating the 800th year of the Magna Carta. I wrote a post about it, which you can read here.

It was the brainchild of Cornelia Parker, whose work I very much admire. And these aspects of the 13-metre-long embroidery of the Magna Carta’s wikipedia page appealed to me:

  1. The aesthetic pleasure of the embroidery itself. Even the underside gives needlewomen great pleasure. 
  2. The democratic nature of the enterprise, celebrating the combined efforts of many to secure the rights and freedoms of the people of the UK and beyond. Most of the stitching was done by prisoners (see Fine Cell Work website below).
  3. The work was created by and realises the principles of freedom, collaboration, creativity and democracy.
  4. Our Human Rights Act is in danger
  5. Needlework can be a political act.
  6. Words have power. Ideas have power. Words, and embroidery carry ideas. 

I can’t find out where the embroidery is now. The ideas it represents are more important than ever.

Vienna woolbombing

And one of my favourite surprising, joyous, and creative activities is yarn bombing. Here’s an example I came across in Vienna in 2012.


Sue Montgomery is a Canadian Mayor who liked to knit during meetings. She knitted in red when men spoke and green when women spoke. She tweeted her first day’s results in May 2019. 

I knit in city council because it helps me to concentrate. Tonight I decided to knit in red when men spoke; green for women. Day 1 results. #reclaiminghertime #women power #listen

Sue Montgomery – knitting/talking

More embroidery

I bought this wall hanging in Zimbabwe, soon after Independence. I love the way it depicts so many of women’s roles.

I could have mentioned the banners made for the suffragette marches before the First World War. Can anyone recommend a good book about them? 

And I remember seeing a great deal of textile art at Greenham Common. But again, I have no resources on them. Recommendations please.

Related posts

Stitching up our Rights (Magna Carta)

As good as a Book in Bayeux (Bayeux Tapestry) 

Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf (an exhibition in Chichester 2019)

Fine Cell Work (hand made in prison)


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading

10 Responses to Stitching up the Patriarchy

  1. Great post Caroline! I was at that Judy Chicago show in London too – I remember it as being stunning! May have to check out her books…

    • Caroline

      Thanks for your comments. Perhaps we rubbed shoulders at the Chicago show. I remember it was busy and crowded. Also spectacular.

  2. I’d not heard of Judy Chicago’s installation but that book cover captured my interest so much I just had to go and find out more. What a superb piece of work, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Thanks Caroline for highlighting this and giving me some joy on a grey, wet afternoon

    • Caroline

      So pleased you were captured by the Dinner Party. The two books about it that I used to illustrate it are very interesting, and of their time.

  3. barbara Childs

    Hello Caroline
    My sister-in-law ThaliaCampbell/nee childs was one of the founding members of the Greenham Common women’s peace group and political banner maker –
    Here is a website
    but all you need is her name and stuff will come up about her.

    • Caroline

      Hi Barbara,
      Thank you so much for adding this to the comments. Love the banner that is featured on the site you linked to. At an Embrace the Base event we carried one (My mother, sister and our three children) that said, THE WISHES OF THE ISLANDERS ARE PARAMOUNT, quoting Mrs Thatcher about The Falklands. But it wasn’t a creation as marvellous as your sister’s. I wish I could find my photo of it though.
      Your family are very creative I notice. Great addition to the post Thank you. xx

  4. Frances

    Hello, I used to make banners – largely textile and dylon – nothing for Greenham although I did visit. I too have that Zimbabwean embroidery panel – although I think mine is of a technically higher standared. The patterns of the on the clothes are vividly reproduced in the stitching. In respect of banners generally do look at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester where the original WPSU banner is displayed. Send me a message if you ever pitch up in Manchester. Any visit should go alongside one to the Pankhurst house.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for this Frances. I’ll have to come to Manchester (from Devon) sometime soon and visit the People’s Museum and visit the Pankhurst House.
      Were you a professional banner-maker? It’s a very skilled job I am sure. I love the WSPU banners, and many Trades Union banners too. It’s an art form. Can you recommend any books.
      My Zimbabwean panel was bought in Bulawayo in 1984 and I love it for all the women’s tasks it shows. I had been staying in Harare where I saw a larger, possibly higher quality, panel and was pleased to find oe to buy myself. Where did yours come from?

  5. Frances

    Hello, I forgot I had posted this and did not check back for a response. Thank you for letting me know about the history of yours. Excited because today I found a second one in a charity shop. I was an activist who could make banners rather than a professional. The definitive book on trade union banners is Banner Bright by John Gorman. If you do get to the people’s history museum check out when the next conservation tour takes places as that is very interesting. Best wishes F

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