Marjorie Agosín, editor. Stitching Resistance: Women, Creativity, and Fiber Arts 2014. Solis Press. Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England ISBN 978-1-907947-90-2

Review by Theresa Wolfwood

“…female fiber art has often been crafted to explore social issues and inspire change for the benefit of their communities and the world.”

Resistance to violence and injustice is a powerful force in all societies; when that resistance takes the form of art it becomes an even more powerful force to communicate with and to inspire effective resistance. For women in many societies the creative resistance has taken the form of textile art, familiar, almost exclusively female, domestic skills used to express personal and universal resistance.

‘Stitching Resistance’ is a a contemporary and historical expression of the power of textile made by women using their talents and everyday life to make art that goes beyond the personal and domestic to enrich our  global community.

Creations in fiber are not only ‘a worthy art form’; they are also a lasting testament to the enduring power of women and an important archive in the enduring history of resistance to injustice and violence.

The contributions in ‘Stitching Resistance’ range from South and North America to Europe, from ancient Greece to contemporary artists, collective and individual (often anonymous for protection).

The power of the needle is as enduring as that of the pen and the sword.

Going back to ancient Greek times, Penelope resisted bullying as she wove by day her tapestry and unpicked it by night, so it was never completed and she could remain faithful to her absent husband. Greek mythology is full of the power and beauty of women’s handwork. Similar myths are found in other ancient cultures from Sumerian to the Andes.

Fiber creation used to work through personal tragedy, family problems, illness and the trauma of persecution provide s therapy for many individuals. There are a number of contributions in this book by individuals, mainly in USA, who write about their work. Although of interest; for this reader, these articles are not really about resistance.

Quilting, the art of patching together scraps of fabric, often from worn clothing, has a long history of telling the stories of resistance to slavery in the USA, to oppression in Ireland to war and violence in recent years in Bosnia. Quilting is mainly a group activity, bringing together women to share ideas and solidarity.

There are many examples of how women’s textile arts have been denigrated in patriarchal societies; relegated to craft and not considered ‘fine art’. Resistance to this male-dominated art culture is an important thread throughout this book. Museums and galleries now exhibit these work which were once dismissed as women’s domestic craft.

The centre piece of the book and the subject of engaging interest are the arpilleras. Arpilleras are appliqued pictures using scraps of fabric (often from the clothing of the disappeared) sewn on a sack cloth backing to portray life under oppression. Although the form started earlier in Chile, Violeta Parra used it; they later became a major expression of resistance under the Pinochet regime in Chile. Women came together in workshops to sew these seemingly simple pictures, but they expressed sophisticated and detailed resistance to cruelty, the poverty and constant disappearances and murders in Chile under the dictatorship of Pinochet after the military overthrow of the progressive democratic government of Allende. Arpilleristas came together in workshops to sew their stories, support each other and to earn money from their sale. They were sent out across the world to support the women and to create awareness of the situation in Chile.

Arpillera from the exhibition “Disobedient Objects” in Victoria & Albert Museum. London. UK. 2014 curtesy of Roberta Bacic

Thanks to the many contributors to this book, these arpillera stories are a living archive of women’s resistance. The art form spread first to Peru where women used it to express their own culture and resistance to poverty and abuses. Now there are arpilleristas in many countries, adapting the art form to express their own struggles for social justice. In Chile and Peru, also, arpilleras are still created to expression their contemporary struggles – against machismo and the destruction caused by the mining industries are only two examples. Arpilleras are not only art, they a memory bank of resistance

There was a brief mention of an action in Denmark where women knitted squares to form a tank cover when the Danish government supported the USA-UK war on Iraq. Details and images about this intriguing action may be seen at:

Unfortunately the continuing history of banner-making, particularly in the UK, is not covered in this book. The subject, covering historic collective banner-making for suffrage movements, miners’ strikes to Greenham Common peace actions awaits a book of its own.

Most of the contributors to this book are academics and they have provided copious references for readers who wish to learn more about women’s textile arts.

“The threads, the scraps pf cloth, the wool, the lace, and the stitching are all manifestations of beauty, courage, and the possibility to embroider the world with grace and light.”

Filed under Agosin, Marjorie