Commentary: Stitching into Feminism

Cross-stitching’s radical womanhood 

An Instagram user’s image promoting her cross-stitching art.   
Credit: 
Photo from Instagram

As up-and-coming artists challenge societal expectations, cross-stitching is experiencing a feminist resurgence.

Along with needlework, it’s been around—and respected—for centuries. However, today, the traditionally feminine art is reduced to a frivolous hobby, as evidenced in a recent Globe and Mail profile of its leading artists.

For one of these cross-stitch artists, Emma McKee—who’s created work for Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and SZA—it’s about re-establishing the medium as serious art.

“We like to denigrate women’s work, we like to put it in the craft space. It’s a cute little hobby, it’s not serious work or effort,” McKee told The Globe.   

The notion that cross-stitching is a craft rather than an art has very little evidence supporting it.

Textile exhibits are a staple of any museum’s cultural exhibits, and are frequently presented as proof of the artistic vision and skill of a society.  The only issue is these pieces are presented as ancient history, not an ongoing art form. 

Today, Canadian artists are working hard to re-establish cross-stitching as a serious art. Younger, hipper circles are taking the lead, giving the resurgence a community and a fan base.

For many of these young artists, cross-stitching is about family: it was passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, each of whom were taught that the skill would make them more desirable as a spouse. 

Today, cross-stitching is more than an oppressive skill; it’s an art that celebrates womanhood and feminine relationships.

In stores across North America, cross-stitched pieces are popping up with Beyoncé quotes, or positive mantras. Some of the imagery seems less uplifting. A few years ago, cross-stitch pieces with “bi—” or “wh—” were beautifully embroidered against a background of pink flowers.

They’re alarming and abrasive. This feminine art uses words that have been used in violent ways to oppress women. It contrasts subtle oppression with the violent consequences many women have endured.

It’s radically feminine. It allows women to express their anger and to challenge typical conceptions of womanhood.

Women are recognizing the potency of this work and are capitalising on cross-stitching. They use it to reclaim a formerly oppressive practice and establish themselves as artistic entrepreneurs.

Through this entrepreneurial spirit, cross-stitching and embroidery is taking on a new domain—the internet.

Platforms like Etsy and Instagram can market these products without funding, management, or any past experience. Women are introduced into the professional world of art and business on their own terms, rejecting masculine artistic spaces and practices.

They’ve created professional opportunities away from male dominated art galleries and art history textbooks. Online, they set their own price and become their own boss.

It’s not just the craft or the platform that distinguishes this art form as radically feminine—it’s also the content.

These up-and-coming artists are creating feminist works and calling out the societal expectations that are placed on young women.  Their work challenges modern-day notions about what it means to be a woman.

That’s always valuable—regardless of the medium.

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