In Defense of Needlework

Sewing is fantasy fiction’s least favorite activity. How many times has a Strong Female Character proved her agency and ability by hating her needlework? The heroine is not like other girls! She disdains embroidery; she likes to fight and ride horses, like boys do. In the Game of Thrones series, for example, fan favorite Arya rejects needlework for Needle, her sword. Plying her Needle becomes an elaborate joke on societal expectations for women in Westeros, at once a refutation and denigration of traditionally feminine activities, as well as a reflection of the fates of Arya and her more traditionally feminine sister Sansa in the first book. Sansa is imprisoned; Arya escapes.

This surface feminism makes a glibly believable case: sewing filled the lives of many historical women, especially those from Western Europe in the middle ages, Renaissance, and long nineteenth century, the periods which inspired a plurality of fantasy universes. It is a task that requires time and sustained concentration, usually indoors, and usually seated. Surely that means that sewing is neither activity nor art, but a visible sign of female oppression and limitation? Indeed, in The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Rozsika Parker points out that working with thread is, within Western European cultures, not art or work (even though women have traditionally and historically called embroidery ‘work’), but “entirely… the expression of femininity.” But to then entirely reject sewing is to reject a secret history of feminine expression and community, and to deny that for many historical women, sewing allowed them the space to think and work, as well as an art form that allowed them to create and to convey meaning when other methods of self-expression were barred from them. This makes female authors who do integrate female needlework into their fantasy novels surprisingly subversive.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle is a study in subversion. The book is a refutation of traditionally misogynist narratives, from John Donne’s “Go and Catch a Falling Star,” to fairy tales. Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three, believes that traditional narratives will completely determine her life, and that nothing she says will alter it—little knowing that she can enact magic just by speaking. The stories told to her don’t come true; the stories she tells do instead. The first inkling we have of Sophie’s magical powers are when she’s sewing trimmings onto hats (something she “quite liked doing”) and making up stories about the wearers that eventually come true. After she’s cursed into aging several decades in an instant, Sophie finds work using a traditionally feminine skillset: cooking, cleaning, and sewing. In them, she finds her own power. She saves a trapped dog that previously could have frightened her with her sewing scissors; she sews charms into a suit of Howl’s that another magician notices— an important clue that helps Sophie realize she has magical powers of her own. Sewing allows Sophie not just a space in which to enact and practice her powers, but time to think and reflect on her problems— turning sewing into a meditative practice, a description I’ve heard used by many modern day sewers.

Tamora Pierce likewise considers thread as a space for female characters to control and practice their powers. In Sandry’s Book, titular Sandry keeps herself calm while trapped in a windowless storeroom by embroidering, and then first enacts magic by inviting a candle flame into braided thread. But for Sandry, thread magic evolves from solitary practice to community formation. At the climax of the book, Sandry is once again trapped in the dark, unable to escape. This time, however, she has her three closest friends with her. She weaves together threads of magic from herself and the others, enabling them to combine their skills and talents and ride out an earthquake to safety.

Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series offers a more straightforward subversion of this trope. Heroine Alanna decides to disguise herself as a boy and train as a knight because she can’t stand going to a convent to learn “sewing and dancing… as if that’s all I can do with myself,” thus defining feminine activity as a means of restriction. All activities permitted to a lady are a means of limiting her power. However, Alanna’s relationship with and understanding of femininity shifts from an outright rejection to appreciation as she ages. In the third book, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, Alanna decides that learning to weave—an activity that her two female apprentices characterize as something “all girls were taught”—would be fun. Alanna enjoys it. And when her male apprentice denigrates weaving as “women’s work,” only “alright if you have nothing better to do,” Alanna uses thread magic to literally pull the rug out from under him. Alanna then defends working with thread as a valuable way of channeling magic—one different from her own method, of pulling from the inner reserve of her Gift, to cast fighting magic through her sword, but nonetheless valuable. Alanna, who learned thread magic from her village healing-woman, adds that “a woman with a bit of string in her hands can bring down a troop of armed knights, if her will is strong enough.” As Alanna explained earlier, “The source of all your magic lies in your own will.” Working with thread becomes not just a shared feminine skill, the teaching of which forms communities, but a feminine way of enacting one’s will set up as equal, in power, utility, and difficulty, as more masculinized forms of magic, like talking to demons and seeing the future.

The TV miniseries of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell offers another interesting take on embroidery as a means of female communication. In a subplot in the third episode, “The Education of a Magician.” Lady Pole is powerless, almost literally voiceless, thanks to an enchantment from the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. She spends half her life— her nights— trapped in Faerie. When she tries to explain the curse she is under, she can’t. The Gentleman has cursed her to relay nonsense stories instead. So, unable to speak, Lady Pole turns to the traditional form of female self-expression: embroidery. She tears up her gowns (one of which is, quite pointedly, her wedding gown, implying that her marriage has led to this state of constant nocturnal suffering and an inability to speak of it). When her friend, Mrs. Strange asks, “Who do you sew for?” and Lady Pole replies, “For you.” Embroidery thereby becomes a means of not just feminine self-expression but female communication, one Lady Pole expects another woman to immediately understand in ways men can or could not.

Tying needlework to magic makes explicit the implicit value of working with thread for women historically: a space, and a work of their own, through which they form community and can gain mastery. The particular cultural heft of needlework being a particularly and peculiarly feminine mode of expression means that rejecting it means rejecting all the meanings that women were able to bring to it because it was uniquely coded as theirs. Subvert the stitch, fantasy authors. If you look at textiles as text, a whole world of female interiority and community opens up for you, allowing a deeper exploration of historically-informed feminine experience.

Elyse Martin is a Chinese-American Smith College graduate who lives in Washington DC with her husband and two cats. She writes reviews for Publisher’s Weekly, and her essays and humor pieces have appeared in The Toast, Electric Literature, Perspectives on History, The Bias, Entropy Magazine, and Smithsonian Magazine. She spends most of her time writing and making atrocious puns—sometimes simultaneously—and tweets @champs_elyse. She’s at work on several novels.

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