In early 2021, big-box craft retailer Michael’s carried an 8×8 inch book of needlework patterns titled Feminist Cross-Stitch, by Stephanie Rohr (Union Square & Co.). After restocking the book, a few employees complained to their managers about its contents. Michael’s management ordered all stores to stop selling the book, pointing to four designs which contained a particular swear word.
“It is our policy not to sell products with the F word in or on it in our stores,” the company stated. “It is not in line with our brand and that policy will not change.”
(The brand had a harder time explaining why it opted to destroy the unsold books, after photos surfaced of a copy with “Put in compactor” marked on top.)
Michael’s decision to remove the book from their bricks-and-mortar stores created a kerfuffle that made it to the New York Times, but Rohr’s book is far from the only needlework book to use profanity or feature political sentiments. A quick online search pulls up books titled Improper Cross Stitch; Super Subversive Cross Stitch; Feminist Icon Cross-Stitch; and the Snarky Cross-Stitch Kit, all published within the past few years, just to name a few.
Sites like Etsy provide even more options for modern stitching with a twist. You can stitch relatively tame political or social statements (“Resist!” or “A woman’s place is in the revolution”) or more pointed sentiments (“Wear a fucking mask” or “Other people ruin everything”). There’s plenty of toilet humor of the “if you sprinkle” variety – and worse. Way worse. Peppered throughout is a healthy amount of profanity ranging from naughty words (think “crap” or “damn”) to all seven of George Carlin’s “Words You Can’t Say on TV.”
It’s tempting to view this cross stitch niche as a reaction to the political and social turmoil of the past decade or so. Certainly, there has been a spike in cross stitch designs that address specific issues of our day, including recent designs relating to COVID-19 and the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision. You could also argue that the emergence of social media has made no-holds-barred communication commonplace and removed social norms around frank conversations and the use of expletives. While that may be true, subversive stitching in one form or another has been around for centuries.
Left/Top: Making embroidery, Upper East Side, N.Y. City, February 1910. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine. Right/bottom: Embroidered canvas panel, Mary Queen of Scots, (1569 – 1584).
The Political Is The Personal
Embroidery and other similar needlecraft have been making controversial statements for centuries. One of the most famous surviving works of embroidered art is the Bayeux Tapestry. Begun in the 1070s, the Bayeux Tapestry memorializes the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William, the Duke of Normandy, took the English crown by force after King Edward died without an heir. Instead of being a simple record of an historical event, the tapestry (actually a large piece of embroidery) is as much a piece of political propaganda as anything else. The tapestry includes scenes where Edward promised the throne to William – thus framing the Norman conquest as a preordained transfer of political power.
Hundreds of years later, Mary Queen of Scots stitched veiled political messages into her needlework. Imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I, Mary filled the long days by stitching – including a scene of a ginger cat toying with a mouse, a not-so-subtle reference to the red-headed Elizabeth toying with Mary.
In the early part of the 20th century, suffragettes who went on hunger strikes in prison embroidered their signatures on handkerchiefs, “cleverly combining political petition and protest with the female social tradition by which guests embroidered their signatures for their hostess, commemorating a visit.”
In more recent times, makers have continued to fuse political statements with stitching. The AIDS Quilt, begun in 1985, memorialized the (then) thousands of San Franciscans dying of AIDS. The project expanded to nearly 50,000 individual panels, each honoring a loved one who died from the disease, and became a focal point for awareness, comfort and social justice. In 2016, the Tiny Pricks Project began creating a material record of the 45th American president by stitching quotes and images into textiles, a way to preserve remarks made on impermanent media like Twitter. The Social Justice Sewing Academy’s Remembrance Project creates banners to display for solidarity and to memorialize victims of violence. These banners are displayed all over the country to inform communities about the impacts of systemic violence.
Of course, it’s impossible to explore the topic of subversive stitching without discussing the feminist angle. In medieval times, embroidery was a form of art, performed by professional stitchers – both men and women. By the Renaissance, needlework was seen as the perfect occupation for more affluent women, marking a certain social class and providing embroidered clothing and household goods. Needlework quickly became intertwined with strict notions about femininity. “Women embroidered because they were naturally feminine and were feminine because they naturally embroidered,” observes Rozsika Parker.
The intersection of feminism and femininity in needlework is a big topic, far beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that as long as society has imposed rigid gendered roles upon women, there have been women resisting with whatever means were available – including needlework. One popular example is a sampler created by a young woman named Patty Polk in the 1830s. Polk created a very traditional embroidered design with garlands of flowers and a stylized image of Washington’s Tomb. The inscription read “Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it. She loves to read much more.” While her words make us smile, they are also a reminder that women didn’t always choose to stitch; instead, it was an activity foisted upon them by the patriarchy based on a strict definition of femininity and adherence to a woman’s “place.”
Left/Top: The cover of Super Subversive Cross Stitch by Julie Jackson. Right/bottom: Shannon Downey aka Badass Cross Stitch re-images vintage coloring book pages as modern feminist fiber art. This piece was created for the Anti-Art Fair in London in 2018.
With its history of political messaging and feminist protest, needlework is a natural place for contemporary stitchers to express their thoughts about today’s world. Shannon Downey, of Badass Cross Stitch, originally turned to cross stitch to achieve more balance in her life while running a digital marketing agency. After a while, her focus changed.
“I started to use embroidery as a way to spend time thinking substantively about all of the activism work I was doing and began making my own patterns and pieces. It was a pretty natural progression from making art about the activism I was engaged with to using it as a tool to engage with others and ‘recruit’ them into the work.”
Downey offers embroidery tutorials, free and paid patterns, provides workshops and coordinates community projects and other participatory experiences. “Craft is a brilliant tool for community building and community activation which is the heart of activism. The stitch gatherings create a perfect environment for strangers to become friends and for folks to have conversations about hard topics, as well as to make action plans within their communities. Craft opens doors and builds space for people to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Haley Pierson-Cox of www.redhandledscissors.com, the author of several cross stitch books including Improper Cross-Stitch (St. Martin’s Press 2018), agrees that it’s natural for people with strong political or social positions to coalesce around a visual medium like stitching. “People think ‘I’m really mad and I need to do something about this energy,’” she explains. Pierson-Cox cites the relative ease of cross stitching as one reason for its current popularity as a method of voicing the political. “Cross stitch itself is very easy to do,” she observes. “You can do complicated things with it, but the actual art of reading a chart and doing the stitches is pretty accessible as long as you can hold a needle and stitch through fabric. If you can count and you understand how to use a grid, you can make nearly anything in the stitch realm.” Lower barriers to entering the craft and quick, satisfying results make stitching an ideal medium for expressing frustration and anger.
Left/top: The cover for Haley Pierson-Cox’s Bob Ross themed cross stitch pattern book. Right/bottom: “Thank you, Internet for letting me observe so many crazy people from a safe distance.” Pattern by Gnat, inspired by Mina de Malfois.
On a Lighter Note
Not all modern stitching is motivated by political, social or anti-patriarchal sentiment. Consider the needlepoint pillow created by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. The pillow, which reads “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anyone, come and sit here by me,” is considered an icon of sassy stitching – no political or social sentiments required.
Julie Jackson is considered by many to be the OG of sassy stitching. Her first book, Subversive Cross Stitch (Powerhouse Books) was published in 2003 and created a movement of subversive stitchers. Jackson defines subversive stitching as “taking the old-school motifs of traditional cross stitch and combining them with phrases that are much more modern and sometimes a bit shocking–subverting the norm.” Her work features traditional motifs, like decorative borders, hearts, and flowers, paired with snarky sayings: “Spark joy or get out,” “Reclaiming my time,” or “Not today, Satan” are a few examples.
While a portion of Jackson’s work touches on the political, most of Jackson’s work adopts a more light-hearted approach. Jackson views her work as a way to spread joy and remind people to laugh. “I think Subversive Cross Stitch has always been an invitation to take part in an inside joke, or at least that’s my intention,” she explains. “I’ve always encouraged people to strike out on their own and create their own version of subversive. No two people will do it alike, so there’s room for everyone. It’s been wonderful to see it spread so far.”
Haley Pierson-Cox agrees that there are many ways to participate in modern stitchery. “A lot of people are involved, each with different takes, and they are generally excited for each other.” She does not sell individual patterns, focusing on books and technical craft writing.
“As long as people have been making things, people have been making the naughty or unexpected version of that thing. Now it’s more public and more people see it via the internet. It’s not as ephemeral as it used to be.”
Interestingly, none of the stitchers with whom I spoke encountered many complaints about their use of swear words. Cox-Pierson notes that her work isn’t likely to be found by those who would be offended given the search terms necessary to locate it. Julie Jackson’s experience is similar, with only a handful of complaints over her twenty years in the industry; she doesn’t mind since “it gives me an opportunity to engage that person and we usually end up having a good conversation.” Shannon Downey views swearing as “essential to my existence,” explaining “I love words. I fear no words. I think there is nothing more powerful than a well-placed curse. Words are tools and I will use all of the tools at my disposal to inspire action.”
Despite their different business models and unique takes on modern stitching, one thing all three stitchers agree on: the importance of connecting with another person. Haley Pierson-Cox reaches customers through snarky stitching but also through shared pop culture passions. She’s published a book dedicated to Golden Girls patterns (“they’re sassy in the same way I am”) and has a Bob Ross-themed cross stitch book out now. Shannon Downey hopes that people value the spirit behind her work. “I will proudly, easily, and unapologetically share my truths and invite folks in to discuss, challenge, and engage with them. . . I think even the people that hate what I have to say, feel moved by it – which is the goal.” Above all else, says Julie Jackson, is the joy. “The best part is when someone glances at a piece with bunnies and hearts with no interest and then they do a double-take when the words finally hit them. There’s unexpected delight in that moment and that’s what I love most about it.”
I “Subversive Stitches,” by Jayne Shrimpton, http://www.thepostmagazine.co.uk/brightonhistory/subversive-stitches.
II The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Roszika Parter (2010 rev. ed. I.B. Taurus).
Carol J. Sulcoski is an attorney by day and a knitting author, designer and dyer by night. Her latest book is “Yarn Substitution Made Easy” (Lark Crafts 2019). She lives outside Philadelphia with her three nearly grown-up children and a fluffy orange cat.