Hawthorne & Heaney on ‘Threads of Life’ by Clare Hunter

book, book review, clare hunter, embroidery, London, textile art, textiles, threads of life

Hawthorne & Heaney on 'Threads of Life' by Clare Hunter London Hand Embroidery

”You cut a length of thread, knot one end and pull the other end through the eye of a needle you take a piece of fabric and push your needle into one side of the cloth, then pull it out on the other until it reaches the knot. You leave a space. You push your needle back through the fabric and pull it out on the other side. You continue until you have made a line, or a curve, or a wave of stitches. That is all there is: thread, needle, fabric and patterns the thread makes. This is sewing.”


A few months ago, we got a lovely little surprise in the post of a book about embroidery. Whilst we have quite a few books on embroidery in the studio, specific techniques or historical references and so on, this one differed in that it was about embroidery as a cultural vehicle, and so it had our attention. The book is called ‘Threads of Life’ by Clare Hunter who explores embroidery as the chosen method of communication for many great examples of noteworthy people during the course of her book.


Whilst we do not want to ruin the book for you should you wish to read it yourself, there are a few parts which we hope might grab your interest as they did ours. The book is split into well defined chapters on particular themes which makes it very easy to dip in and out of as the feeling takes you.


Chapter 2: Power, was a particular favourite of mine as it is all about Mary Queen of Scots who was an avid embroiderer, something that I previously had no idea of but can’t help but be captivated by this idea of an embroiderer Queen. Hunter explores her relationship with embroidery from both an external and more personal level where she uses embroidery as her weapon to try and exert some influence over her future:

”Female Monarchs had greater need of the advocacy of textiles than their male counterparts. The public display of their hand crafted emblems and symbols meant that for women, even when physically absent from court through childbirth, banishment or imprisonment, the textiles they had commisioned or sewn remained on display as their representatives, still messaging their lineage, still acting as a presense of sorts.’ (Page 24-5)

”In desperation, she began to woo Elizabeth with embroidered gifts. It was a calculated generosity. Such presents in court etiquette represented a bond or inferred an obligation: used publically, they declared intimacy.” (Page 31)


The book is semi-autobiographical as Hunter includes stories from her own past, one of which made for another highlight of the book for me. In the ‘Journey’ chapter, Hunter tell us of a visit she made to Kaili, Southwest China where she shares a non-verbal conversation she has with a Miao woman she met there. It demonstrates the passion that people interested in embroidery all seem to share, which transcends spoken languages:

”I think she is about to leave, but instead she unties its knot and lets it spill out textiles, which she then lays out one by one onto the bed… The bed becomes canopied in encrusted cloth. She beckons me overand we examine the textiles together, her touching and stroking, lifting up this corner and that, willing me to see an intricacy here, wanting me to notice a technique there.”(Page 110-111)


I think what is really lovely about this book, as an embroiderer, is that it really examines embroidery as a craft and as an art form. Personally, I felt gratitude to Hunter for shining a light on embroidery and really felt that ‘yeh, i’ve been there’ moment when she talk about sharing a segment of the book with her writing group and the somewhat despondent attitude to the subject prior to reading the piece. Any works like this that seek to re-educate societies attitudes to something which can be perseved as irrelevant, elitist or outdated to the vibrant and ever evolving art form that we know it to be, must be a good thing in my opinion.

All quotations courtesy of ‘Thread of Life’ by Clare Hunter (Hodder & Stoughton)

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