How a needle and thread became radical tools for Queer artists.
The use of fabric in queer history is a fascinating way to explore how we tell personal stories without words, and embroidery has a powerful place within this space. The utilisation of needle and thread to express queer identity is both visual art and protest art against gender norms.
Fabric can be queered in so many ways, according to artist Andrea Geyer who weaves queer images into textiles. She says ‘It can be shelter, it can be clothing, it can be a flag, it can be a backdrop. It also provides a platform of visibility for those who may be closeted or invisible in society in spoken word or media representation.
In 1930’s Britain, Ernest Thesiger laid the groundwork for queering embroidery. Using embroidery to recover from being injured, Thesiger’s work proved to be more than just a rehabilitation tool. It was common for WWI veterans to use embroidery to help them with injuries sustained in war, despite this previously being seen as an activity for women only.
As the war became more of a distant memory, the use of embroidery began to be firmly re-established as a ‘feminine’ activity, with fierce gatekeeping from the media in order to keep the binaries of masculine and feminine as distinct as possible. Viewed in this light, men using embroidery were seen as a threat: ‘Men are beginning to invade territory once thought sacred to her, and in knitting, crocheting, and many other forms of needlework Jack is almost as good as Jill’. (The Courier and Advertiser, March 6, 1933, 6)
Not holding back, The Yorkshire Post proclaimed ‘’Shall we regard this as a sign of degeneracy in our male stock?’’ (“Potters and Needlemen.” The Yorkshire Post, March 5, 1934, 8). They argued that men who engaged in needlecraft were effeminate and should have only practiced embroidery in cases where no women were around to do it for them, such as being stuck on a ship or in a ‘jungle camp’.
However, Thesiger was not to be put off. He built up a reputation as quite the character, viewed as a camp, exuberant man who enjoyed a dazzling social life. McBrinn describes him as ‘a social butterfly, a celebrity figure, a queer eccentric, existing somewhere “between passing and flaunting,” in a time when all homosexual acts were criminalized and pathologized’ (2017, p. 295).
He enjoyed scandalizing those who believed his embroidery was improper. As Medhurst (1997) argues: ‘’Thesiger stated that his needlework incited “surprise in many & horror in some” and thus may be understood as a gesture of camp in that it was “a survival mechanism in a hostile environment,” which “answers heterosexual disapproval through a strategy of defensive offensiveness (camp thrives on paradoxes), incarcerating the homophobe’s worst fears, confirming that not only do queers dare to exist but they actively flaunt and luxuriate in their queerness”.
The thread as a single entity is powerful and open to queer potential- it does not have to conform to prescribed norms.
It has the potential to become so many things, from being part of a woven fabric depicting a neutral landscape, AIDS memorial quilts, a piece in protest art, used in bondage, made into a pride flag, or perhaps form part of a sex scene embroidered and sold to raise funds for community projects. Like queer people, there is no need to conform to what ‘should’ be. Threads and the act of weaving them together are symbolic of the person crafting their own identity, sexuality, and community. Each thread is integral to the overall picture but contributes its own individual colour and texture.
The unifying power of the culmination of those threads into a community identity can be seen most prominently today in the world of drag where fabrics are used to craft identities and communicate drag styles, from pageant queens to look queens. Drag is visual art aimed at unsettling gender norms, connecting the community, and enjoying self-expression. While some might claim that drag is a parody of womanhood, this is not accepted by many drag performers. Similarly, with needlework and embroidery, it is a place to celebrate, not to mock. Humble outlines why: ‘needlework’s exposure of the constructed nature of gender identity, through the literal performance of “femininity,” anticipates what postmodern critics have interpreted as parodic (Butler, 1990, 43). Humble goes on to state ‘however, Thesiger’s embroidery should not be read as a “straightforward parody, which dismisses the thing it mocks, but a double vision which treats with profound affection the thing it reveals to be so clearly ridiculous” (2012, 221).
The power of textiles in queer art can also be seen in the work of Aron Kantor, who makes short fetish films featuring the LGBT+ community. He uses glitter in Ferocious Memories, workplace uniforms in Neon Nancy, and latex in MASK4MASK to highlight how fabric and material can convey messages about sex and sexuality, and challenge gender norms. Glitter symbolises the power of community- people may feel fragmented and powerless on their own, but they can be bold and bright when united. There is power in visibility, and a single thread becomes stronger when united with other threads.
A quick scroll through Etsy and Instagram will reveal many NSFW embroidered images, featuring graphic sex acts, protest slogans, and declarations of power. In this case, the power of a prick translates into queering the art of telling stories and it is an artform that builds community. There are many tools for a revolution; a sewing box is part of this queer toolkit.
Dr. Caroline West is the host of the Glow West podcast, which looks at sex, sexuality, and the body. Find her at www.iamcarolinewest.com or @glowwestpodcast.