“Queen Elizabeth I often embroidered with other female rulers, much the way male leaders might play golf today,” says Barbara Paris Gifford, a curator at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York. “It was a favorite activity because it inspired concentration, conversation, and competition.”
Many of our modern associations with embroidery, like needlepoint samplers or cheeky cross-stitch pillows, seem quaint, but the medium is used in diverse and complex ways. In fact, needlework has a long relationship to politics, power, and resistance.
In 17th-century Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire), embroidery offered symbolic protection for the most precious things, including religious objects and babies. More recently, in the 1970s and ’80s in Chile, women created bright embroideries called arpilleras, as an act of resistance against Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The arpilleras, which memorialized family members “disappeared” by the regime, were so threatening to the government that it became a crime to own one.
In the 1970s, feminist artists including Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and Faith Ringgold used embroidery and other handcrafts to tell powerful and disruptive stories. They mined craft techniques to explore the construction of gender roles and challenge the hierarchy that valued painting and sculpture above the art and craft forms traditionally considered women’s work.
Today, fiber arts like embroidery are a growing presence in museums and galleries, and artists use their needles to investigate a dizzying variety of concerns, exploring gender, sexual and ethnic identity, cultural history, memory, and pop culture, among other themes. Below, we talk to 11 artists who are continuing to expand this potent medium.
Sophia Narrett, So Many Hopes, 2016-17. Photo by Stan Narten. Courtesy of the artist.
Narrett creates dazzling, embroidered scenes of love, heartbreak, and unabashed fantasy. Her approach is expansive and painterly, with meticulous gradations of color, and she has a knack for rendering suburban architecture, blooming gardens, and the human body in thread.
“While Narrett’s subject matter is intimate, the scale of her scenes feels akin to history painting with their abundance of symbols and multiple action-packed vignettes,” Samantha De Tillio, another curator at the MAD, tells me. “She’s in communication with the traditionally feminine aspects of the medium, but not restricted by them.”
“From the first time I tried it, I was completely excited and absorbed,” Narrett says of her conversion from painting to embroidery. “It forced me to slow down and think about each mark.” However, her biggest influences are still painters. “I have always been most inspired by 19th-century French figure painting and by contemporary painters like Lisa Yuskavage, Hernan Bas, Angela Dufresne, and Allison Schulnik.”
Richard Saja, detail of A Three Day Party, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Saja uses embroidery to turn familiar toile patterns into scenes of whimsy and, occasionally, mayhem. His colorful stitches form a secondary layer over the toile, constructing a new narrative inhabited by imaginary animals, wild hairstyles, and a lit cigarette here or there. Saja’s light touch updates and enlivens the tired prints of Rococo lovers cavorting on swings or lounging at picnics.
Although he’s been working this way for over a decade, he first learned embroidery out of necessity, not inspiration. “I launched a cushion company and from the moment of its debut, the embroidered toile concept garnered a lot of attention. I had hired someone to embroider for me but had to teach myself to stitch just to keep up with production.”
Since then he’s been tapped for various fashion industry collaborations, creating custom Keds for Opening Ceremony in 2010, and an autumn/winter collection of embroidered jackets and dresses with Mother of Pearl in 2014. Yet no matter the demand, he continues to make all the work himself and by hand. “No matter how advanced machine embroidery becomes, it will never be able to mimic the gestural aspects a human imbues into stitching,” Saja says.
Kent Henricksen, The Escape, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
In the early aughts, Henricksen took a break from painting and walked around Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and India for a year. During that trip, textiles and thread began to pique his interest. “I wanted to make art with something unmacho and unart-like,” he says. “I realized I could use embroidery and my art would still have a bite.”
Now Henricksen often layers his paintings with embroidery, silk-screen printing, and gold leaf. These paintings have a sinister air, as hooded figures wield torches and guns or act out biblical scenes. Henricksen is often influenced by the embellished garments worn for ceremonial or religious purposes. “I have aprons that were worn by members of the Freemasons,” he explains. “The fronts have the typical logos of the fraternity, but the side that touches the body is covered with mystical embroideries such as third eyes, skulls, and bones.” He’s also fascinated by the clothing of Catholic priests. “They have wonderful embroideries of burning hearts, rotting flesh, and other gruesome details,” Henricksen adds.
Elaine Reichek, The Sick Rose, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Trained as a painter, Reichek first began using thread in her canvases as a way of drawing. “I wasn’t conscious of this as embroidery until I saw what I had been making,” she says. Since the 1970s, she has been dismantling the barriers between craft forms and high art, allowing them to cross-pollinate, with conceptually rich results. The artist uses digital embroidery, beading, tapestry, and other techniques, often quoting images directly from art history and texts from both literature and documentary sources.
Not unlike a traditional embroidery sampler, her work often explores the interplay between text and image, without privileging one over the other. “In my last body of work, ‘Invisible Citings,’ I thought about text almost exclusively—text as imagery, text embedded in textile. I’ve developed an interest in rendering handwriting, codes, and typefaces in thread,” Reichek says.
Although she has explored the history of hand-embroidery deeply, Reichek embraces the possibilities offered by computerized embroidery. “My embroidery patterns are digitally generated, even though they have to be hand-sewn to assume material form,” she says. “Of course, most commercial tapestries today are digitally woven, which makes sense when you remember that Jacquard’s punched cards [an antiquated loom technology] were an early form of binary coding.”
Orly Cogan, The Wonder of You, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.
Orly Cogan, Samson, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.
“My work explores common female archetypes and stereotypes, the Madonna/Whore, the pin-up girl, the lolita, the femme fatale,” Cogan writes on her website. The artist stitches her imagery onto vintage linens with existing motifs of cross-stitch flowers or gamboling deer. The results are palimpsests in which the struggles and anxieties of a new generation of women are layered over the handiwork of the old.
Cogan’s characters often appear caught in moments of private indulgence—lying on the floor and sniffing cocaine, or naked and surrounded by cake. Yet her style is illustrative, with economical marks and strong outlines, similar to the pictures in a children’s book. Sometimes she includes pale stains of paint to delineate space or suggest flesh and blood. Barbara Paris Gifford, of MAD (which has works by Cogan in its collection), describes her pieces as “narratively troubling.”
Elsa Hansen Oldham, Facing Ali, TK. Courtesy of the artist and Simon Dickinson Gallery.
“Embroidery works for me because the labor suits my temperament,” Hansen Oldham states simply. “It’s quiet, intricate, and there are no short cuts.” Hansen Oldham’s boxy, simplified approach to the medium often leads to textiles that resemble 8-bit video animations, and her subjects, usually pop cultural icons, historical figures, and fictional characters, often seem to have been selected via free association, or a memory game.
In R. Kelly and R. Crumb (2016), for example, Hansen Oldham renders the singer and visual artist together, a connection based on little more than their shared first initial. Although her style is somewhat naive, there is little reverence reserved for her subjects, regardless of their fame. (Golden Shower, 2017, appears to depict a particularly unwholesome episode from the 2016 presidential campaign.)
Hansen Oldham is interested in exploring her own idiosyncratic concerns, rather than breaking technical ground. “There is such ample history associated with embroidery,” Hansen Oldham notes. “When my creative brain turns off, I can turn to this tradition and use the momentum of others who came before me for inspiration.”
Elsa María Meléndez
Elsa Maria Melendez, Quiero más o la pelea del cuerpo, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
“I began to use textiles in my installations in order to make it possible for people to interact with my work by entering these spaces, caressing their contents, and resting on the fluffy fabrics,” Meléndez says. The printmaker, painter, and installation artist constructs immersive environments using embroidery and appliqué techniques more commonly used in small-scale works.
The amount of labor evident in these monumental yet carefully detailed pieces is part of their power. “I obstinately embroider canvases of enormous size, accumulating and organizing huge amounts of materials, tearing, mending, and filling them constantly,” Meléndez explains.
In one towering installation, El Ingenio Colectivo o la Maldición de la Cotorra (2014), a cloud of soft sculpture heads and hands hovers above a line of quilted, headless bodies and a large arrangement of foam, wooden palettes, and shoes. The arrangement suggests a group of bodies divided into three parts—a seductive yet disturbing arrangement of materials. Meléndez, who is interested in issues of women’s identity, sexuality, and representation, hopes that reactions to her assemblages are complicated.
“What seems inoffensive is also menacing,” she says. “The viewer can be pricked by a pin, or become tangled in ‘vines’ of fabric. They might feel moved or threatened by the phrases embroidered on the textiles.”
Natalie Baxter, My Super Sweet M Sixteen, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
Baxter’s grandmother taught her to quilt when she was in college. She was working in video at the time, and wanted to create art that documented her family’s heritage. “So I started with my granny who lived in a holler alongside Kingdom Come Creek in eastern Kentucky,” Baxter explains. “I still have the first quilt we made together. It won first prize at the Letcher County Homemakers Club.”
Although Baxter’s story is as American as deep-fried apple pie, her textile-based projects “Warm Gun” and “Bloated Flags” both poke holes in some of our most dearly-held national myths. “Warm Gun,” a collection of droopy and colorful firearms made using quilting and embroidery techniques, is especially deflating as Baxter turns symbols of masculine power into cuddly soft sculptures. Upon seeing these works, many online commenters were not impressed, responding with nasty invective.
“I think gun ownership is closely tied to a lot of people’s identity,” she tells me. “And it can be very upsetting to feel that your identity is being threatened.” Treating the comments as a gift, Baxter used them as the engine for her recent body of work, “Alt Caps.” One piece from the series features the embroidered phrase, “That’s art? See folks what shrooms and LSD do to the head.”
Nassar works in tatreez, a traditional Palestinian form of embroidery. Historically, its motifs were passed down from mother to daughter and the story of the pattern was visually encoded in the design itself. Palestinian-American, and born and raised in New York, Nassar was drawn to embroidery out of the desire to connect with his Palestinian heritage and its cultural traditions. The longer he did it, the more he learned about its history, systems, and meanings. “Palestinian embroidery really has it all,” he says. “Geometry, superstition and magic, social cues, family and village associations, embellishment and more.”
Nassar’s “The Jaffa Series (and After),” completed during and after a recent residency in Tel Aviv-Yafo, is made up of small, exquisitely stitched canvases covered with motifs that resolve themselves into desert landscapes, gentle green hills, and curving coastlines. Although there’s an undercurrent in his work that touches on issues of colonialism and occupation, he avoids tackling those problems explicitly.
“In my opinion, any sort of hardline political stance when it comes to Palestine and Israel is going to be flawed,” he explains. “It’s a situation where everything is right and yet wrong at the same time. The way I try to address it in my work is more introspective than declarative, and this is important to me, as someone who is so very much ‘on both sides’—with Palestinian family on my father’s side and Israeli family via my husband.”
Dindga McCannon, Women in Jazz #7. Courtesy of the artist.
McCannon began her career as a painter over 50 years ago, but fiber art soon came calling and she’s worked with diverse materials ever since. “Scraps of African fabric began creeping into my paintings,” she recalls. “Artistically it gives me so many more options and the opportunity to use things that have been touched by human hands, like buttons and handmade fabric.” Often embroidered with beads, buttons, and charms, and quilted from vibrant fabric, the artist’s work seems to shimmy and shine.
McCannon is a member of the Weusi Artist Collective, founded in Harlem in 1965 by artists who invoked African themes and symbols in their work. “Most of my work is about the stories of African-American people, especially women,” McCannon explains. “Unlimited creative supplies enable me to tell a broader story.” Her piece I Do Not Have a Husband I Just Don’t Have Time (2014) employs mixed media to proclaim the pleasures of female independence. Some 20 fabric luggage tags decorate the bottom of the work, suggesting joyful mobility. To drive the point home, the topmost tag proclaims, “I go where I want to go. Hooray!!!!!!!”
Britta Marakatt-Labba, Historja, 2003–07. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Photo by Roman März. Courtesy of documenta 14.
“I never see any problems, just solutions,” says Marakatt-Labba of her creative approach. The artist uses embroidery, printmaking, and appliqué to depict scenes from the life, history, and mythology of the region in northern Sweden that she calls home. Because she was raised in an indigenous Sámi community and grew up surrounded by traditional crafts, “it was most natural for me to choose the textiles as my way of working with images,” Marakatt-Labba says.
“Britta Marakatt-Labba’s work leads you, the traveler, into Sámi epistemology and storytelling, where the worlds of the sacred and the profane coexist in everyday life,” writes Norwegian art historian Hanna Horsberg Hansen.
The artist’s epic embroidered tapestry Historja (2003–07) was recently included in Documenta 14 and depicts both the daily activities of Sámi reindeer herders and particular moments in the region’s history. The 77-foot-long work reveals its storyline as you follow it from right to left—foxes run out of the woods, reindeer are herded, and cows graze, and at one point, a group of men sets fire to a church and blood rains down on the snow, conveyed by staccato stitches of red thread.