Clare Hunter’s THREADS OF LIFE: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE

Threads_Of_LifeHunter’s Threads of Life is a great addendum to Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. I certainly couldn’t read Hunter’s Threats without recalling Dawn.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that one story we can look to (like Hunter’s “a history”, not “the”) about our early human history is of experimentation and playfulness as mothers of innovation. I use the term “mothers” deliberately, both for Hunter’s and Graeber and Wengrow’s accounts. The latter argue that we have examples of “gynarchy” serving as models for a world, ours, today, mired in what they somewhat vaguely define as “being stuck”. (Vague as it is, we do, feel stuck, that is.) In gynarchical societies, for example, argue Graeber and Wengrow, like the Minoan, art illustrates a society where, summarising Jack Dempsey’s analysis of Minoan fresco, “Flowers and reeds, birds, bees, dolphins, even hills and mountains are in the throes of a perpetual dance, weaving in and out of each other. Minoan objects too bleed into one another in an extraordinary play on materials–a true ‘science of the concrete’–that turns pottery into crusted shell and melds the worlds of stone, metal, and clay together into a common realm of forms” (438). The Davids go on to speculate, “More than any other form of human activity, painting on walls is something people in virtually any cultural setting seem inclined to do. This has been true almost since the beginnings of humanity itself. We can hardly doubt that similar images were produced, on skins and fabrics [emphasis mine] as well as directly on walls” (439).

In elucidating the playful, ecological, creative origins of gardening (not farming, please note), Graeber and Wengrow attribute women (specifically in the Fertile Crescent) as “co-creators of a distinct form of society – learned through the productive routines of cultivation, herding, and village life – and celebrated by modelling and binding soft materials, such as clay or fibres [emphasis mine], into symbolic forms” (245). I have come a long way from Hunter’s book and yet, she presents the same view, in a thematically-grounded narrative, about the centrality of needle and thread in history-telling. While Graeber and Wengrow present a macro-narrative, arguing for a diversity of past societal models from early and indigenous history, Hunter’s is a micro view, connecting women’s self-expression, through fibre arts, to a building of, and connecting to, community and the past. Neither author is shy, indeed is open and affirming of expressing an activist perspective. Graeber, in particular, was crucial to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and Hunter too took part in many a protest campaign, especially in her capacity as a banner-maker. Were she a part of “Occupy Wall Street”, along with Graeber, their banner would have been festooned with symbolic embroidery advocating for the 99%. 😉

Hunter organized her chapters thematically and, in each, regales us with wonderful, little-known examples of embroidery illustrating her chosen theme. Her narrative is thus a loop, a daisy-chain of stitches, moving forward and looping back. As a reader, I loved her premise, but found some chapters stronger and more interesting than others. My experience of reading Hunter’s book echoed a back-and-forth movement: read, read, read, note an embroidery I wanted to view, off I’d go to Mr. Google. This, even more than Hunter’s prose, convinced me of the embroiderers’ artistry. I fell in love, in particular, with Ann West’s V&A-housed quilt, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz’s panels, and Harriet Powers’s American-Civil-War-Era quilts. I don’t think this contradicts Hunter’s purpose, which is to bring this art into the light to be viewed, appreciated, and given its place in the history of art, even as she mourns its diminished state: “Embroiderers remain uncelebrated because they are largely anonymous, and while their needlework might be of historical value, donated to and collected by museums, without the necessary provenance, their creators cannot secure a part in its story. For centuries, this was the fate of women embroiderers. They were robbed of their power. This is the history of needlework” (12).

I think Hunter’s strongest, most compelling writing is done in the chapters entitled, “Frailty” and “Captivity”. Here, Hunter shows how needle-plied creativity and imagination serve as important forms of self-expression (she discusses this more in a chapter entitled “Identity”) and move, like all great art, outwardly, leaving something of the self, as it connects to the whole, behind. A trace, of thread, pattern, colour, line, curve pushed through with needle and thread in unimaginably inhumane conditions, a prison cell, camp, asylum, prison. I am so grateful to Rohan Maitzen’s Novel Readings blog for pointing me to this lovely uncategorizable book, part memoir, part history, part anthropology, part paen, part polemic.

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