New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily

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Co-curator Namita Gupta Wiggers introduces New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily


Namita Gupta Wiggers

New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily examines a critical shift in the social life of utilitarian domestic textiles. Through the work of twenty-one contemporary artists using embroidery on vintage linens and found textiles, the exhibition reveals a new agency in the use of domestic materials and iconography. The works in the exhibition – created between the 1980s and the present – are distinctly different from the self-conscious female subjectivity seen in artwork characterized as feminist from the 1970s and early 1980s. Today, shifting modes of appropriation, nostalgia and subjectivity engage content and imagery from an ironic, humorous, even subversive perspective in which the world is not always what it appears to be.

Barely fifty years ago, production of functional embroidered domestic textiles in Western cultures rested firmly in the hands of women. Objects created through hours of meticulous needlework adorned households, served as gifts and provided constructive activities for young girls and women. As middle and upper middle class women increasingly sought work experiences outside the home in the 1960s and 1970s, time spent on embroidery developed into a marker of a woman who was not “gainfully employed.” For the modern “working woman,” tucking the high-maintenance linens into drawers and storage closets liberated them from the tyranny of extra household chores.

Where young girls once learned to stitch from their grandmothers and mothers, the shift from home to the public worksphere facilitated modes of creative expression outside of the stereotypical parameters of domestic handcrafts. The fervent need to express oneself through needlework decreased as women gained access to a broader range of media and exhibition venues in the public sphere. As generations of women stopped embroidering, the art form itself grew increasingly obsolete.

Exhibition History

Co-curator Annin Barrett discusses the local trends and historical context that informs New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

Exhibition History

This exhibition project began over two years ago when Guest Co-curators Manya Shapiro and Annin Barrett noticed embroidered artwork incorporating old, worn fabrics in galleries throughout the Pacific Northwest. Work by such artists as Shanon Schollian and Dana Fenwick offers a fresh perspective on using textiles in art, including witty subject matter, a playful approach to materials and subtly subversive imagery. Importantly, the work reveals a widening gap between past and present expressions using thread on cloth. Created with an ironic sensibility, these embroidered works engage the nearly lost art of hand sewing in a reclamation and reworking of “women’s work.” When Namita Gupta Wiggers joined the museum and project in process, she recognized that this new approach moved beyond a regional phenomenon. Together, the curators expanded the exhibition to include a historical context through art that clarifies the shift observed in the regional work.

A medieval guild craft once practiced primarily by men, embroidery in recent centuries shifted to the realm of “women’s work.” As such, the practice and resulting embroidered objects grew to symbolize repression in a woman’s life by the 1800s. Rozsika Parker’s pivotal book, The Subversive Stitch, re-chronicles the evolution of embroidery as a marker of woman’s liberation from patriarchal society in Western culture. This marginalized medium provided women both a social retreat and a voice for personal expression well into the 20th century.

Traditionally handed down from mother to daughter through the generations, hand sewing is a domestic skill imbued with feminine connotations. Yet the artists in this exhibition, both women and men, do not necessarily define themselves as feminists. Many use embroidered domestic textiles to portray radically different gender roles and a new domesticity which includes an unprecedented fluidity of lifestyle and sexual identity. Orly Cogan’s sweetly embroidered nudes sporting urban accessories and David Wilburn’s “queering of the cloth” witness this shift to new social norms.

Humor was largely absent from textile art in the 1960s and 1970s, which was inextricably linked to the serious politics of the feminist movement. Fabricated by many assistants, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party recast embroidered fabric place mats as installation art. A feminist critique of gender roles, Chicago used textiles – long devalued to the category of functional craft – to represent women’s social status and to critique gender roles.

Imbued with rich records of past lives, used textiles challenge artists with a narrative counterpoint. When artists like Susie Brandt and Dana Fenwick revitalize reclaimed linens from thrift store bins with new stitched imagery, the contrast between old and new embroidery marks an elegiac distance from the past. In Ode à l’Oubli (Ode to the Forgotten), Louise Bougeois constructs an artist’s book of abstract images from reproductions of old dishtowels, napkins and curtains used by her family. The antithesis of a blank canvas, the use of recycled linens adds great depth and subtlety, linking work by the first embroiderer to the messages conveyed by the latter artist.

The recent resurgence of activity in textile-based arts signals a new consideration of the value of handwork. The amount of time spent embellishing old domestic textiles makes them extraordinary in today’s culture, where time has become a precious commodity. It makes sense, then, that embroidery is being revived as an aesthetic medium by a new generation of artists. Reworked with countless stitches and contextualized as art, these household linens reveal profoundly meaningful insights into core values conveyed through domestic items. Hilarious and caustic at times, New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily surveys a new approach to textiles that parallels changes in life today.

September 22, 2006 – November 12, 2006

Curated by: Annin Barrett, Manya Shapiro and Namita Gupta Wiggers

Along with the popularity of knitting, crochet and quilting, embroidery too is re-surfacing in surprising and innovative ways. Through embroidered works on vintage linens and found textiles, New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily explores the intersection of a traditional handcraft and contemporary art. Created through embroidery techniques that vary from meticulous to intentionally naïve, hand-stitched to machine sewn, the artwork on view is not a showcase of needlecraft virtuosity. Instead, it reveals a current trend toward the playful and ironic reclamation of “women’s work,” and a shifting relationship to the appropriation of discarded domestic materials.

Today, this new “domesticity” comes from the studio and the social arena of DIY (Do-It-Yourself) circles, where the handmade, kitsch and a culture of re-use prevails. The resulting works are surprising, humorous, and even subversive in content and imagery. The mere introduction of a domestic craft into studio practice was politically charged in the 1970s, when feminism was just beginning to open doors for women artists. By the late 1980s, artists who merged conceptual work with handcraft traditions were exhibiting work in the “white cube” of galleries and museums.

Today, a wide range of alternative art spaces and exhibition venues are available to artists, allowing them to operate outside of the established art world. Artists seek social engagement through portable work and spend time in overlapping diy and art world circles. Unencumbered by the socio-political challenges of the past several decades, artists today freely experiment with reclaimed materials and handcraft techniques. Rather than reject craft and the handmade, these artists embrace and re-contextualize craft traditions and materials.

Presented within a craft museum, New Embroidery provides another chapter in the history of utilitarian textiles. Here, the creations of countless anonymous stitchers merge with the innovative approaches of twenty-one contemporary artists. In the works on view, embroidery links the past and the present, pattern and narrative, contemporary art and traditional craft.

Artists shown include:

B.J. Adams
Hildur Bjarnadóttir
Louise Bourgeois
Susie Brandt
Lou Cabeen
Orly Cogan
Celia Eberle
Dana Fenwick
Jenny Hart
Maggy Rozycki Hiltner
Wendy Huhn
Masah Kalugin
Emily Katz
Roberta Lavadour
China Marks
Darrel Morris
Karen Reimer
Shanon Schollian
Andrea Vander Kooij
David Willburn
Anne Wilson