An interview with Kathy Staples - Part Two of Three

Editors Note:  This is Part Two of a three part interview with Kathy Staples about the recent exhibit in New York city at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on English Embroidery.

How has the study of material culture of embroidered pieces in the recent exhibit on English Embroidery changed the study of textiles in particular? It might be helpful to the reader to explain what material culture is.

Material culture is a term bandied about and found in much popular literature now, but it’s not often defined. At its most basic level the study of material culture is the cultural study of objects that were made or modified by humans. For example, a ceramic pot is fired earth that was processed, shaped, and decorated by human hands. In addition to asking questions about the kind of earth that was used, how the pot was built, and what kinds of decorations were used, a student of material culture will ask about the circumstances of the person who made it, the circumstances of the owner, the uses—intentional and unintentional—to which the pot may have been put, how the pot was viewed in the society in which it was made, how did it likely survive successive owners. All of these questions are meant to get at some greater meanings about the pot and to begin to answer the even bigger question of “So what?”

Objects like chairs, cupboards, samplers, forks, and tea pots are not the only items appropriate to the study of material culture. When a farmer ploughs a field, he alters the terrain. In the eighteenth century the gentry moved masses of earth around to sculpt new vistas for their country homes. Both of these altered landscapes are subjects for material culture studies. The architecture of a farmhouse and the architecture of a southern plantation home are subjects for material culture studies.

In the catalog that accompanied the Colonial Williamsburg exhibit,  you posited the designs in these embroideries had many layers of meaning to the embroiderer and the society that used the needlework,  whether in dress or as domestic furnishings. Some of these meanings, (in the vernacular of the 21st century) we would call a “statement” of class, religious and political beliefs through the use of symbols and emblems. How has this recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum impacted your perspective?

I think that my work for the Bard/Met exhibition really intensified what I had already begun to understand by the late 90s about seventeenth-century England (and her colonies, for that matter). Most important for the student of historical objects is to put aside prejudices and modern sensibilities to focus on what the object meant during the time it was made and originally used. The understanding of language is crucial. For example, the word ‘artificial’ has a pejorative sense today, as imitation or even non-natural. In the seventeenth century the word meant only made by man as opposed to the work of nature. The word ‘curious,’ which today suggests odd or peculiar, meant carefully or skillfully made. In the seventeenth century some schoolgirl embroideries were described as curious artificial works, a phrase meant to praise rather than insult.

Secondly, the Bard/Met exhibition demonstrates just how far studies of historical needlework and embroidery in both America and Britain have come in the past ninety years, from typological studies—grouping needlework by style, stitch, design, and materials—and chronological studies to discussions of how needlework mediates women’s positions in society, how it reinforces community, religious affiliation, ethnicity, and race, and how it expresses political or ethical positions.


Also, in the 1998 Colonial Williamsburg catalog you discussed the types of embroiderers that produced this kind of work in the seventeenth century—professionals and amateurs, male and female—and included illustrations of how embroidered pieces were “merchandised”. In the opening remarks of your essay in the Met catalog you appear to address identical issues. Were you asked to expand on this topic for the catalog and why?  


In 1984, Rozsika Parker published a book called The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, in which she argued that while needlework has been used from the medieval period until modern times to define changing notions of femininity and societal roles for women, it was also used by females themselves as a form of resistance, to mediate those constraints forced upon them by both religious and secular powers. In particular, in the seventeenth century, Parker concluded that while the females who stitched Old Testament themes should not be seen as “proto-feminist,” their work shows females in a good light and reflects some of the “constraints and contradictions that drove some women to speak out.” In 2000, Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass expanded on this theme in an essay from their book, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. There they argued that well-to-do women stitched these pictorial panels in order to forge links with other women and “the larger world of culture and politics.” And in her essay for the Bard exhibition catalog, Ruth Geuter offers that the embroideries can be viewed as commentary of their workers’ experiences in their own society.

Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory 

There is nothing wrong with any of these approaches, and they, in fact, are great springboards for discussions of how objects function in non-practical ways. The problem, which my essay addresses, is the assumption made by all of these authors that only women worked these embroideries and that they were in total control of the work in hand (the work of young girls is not even addressed). The primary-source research shows, however, that the face of “who” did a particular piece of pictorial embroidery is seriously blurred.

It is true, for example, that Esther, Sarah and other female figures were held up as role models for women in the seventeenth century, especially in sermons. But, when it came down to who actually designed and stitched a particular version of “Esther and Ahasuerus,” the answer could as likely be a professional pattern drawer and a male member of the Broderers Company as a pattern drawer and a girl attending Perwich’s boarding school. It’s clear that not all needlework was done at home or school by a female, and much of it was worked as bespoke pieces by men or women in the textile trades and purchased by men as well as women. So questions about the contemporary meanings of these pictorial panels must continue to be asked. For example, if at least some of these embroideries are not gendered expressions, what are their messages? Why would someone purchase a piece of ready-made needlework instead of an engraving of the same subject?


Let’s talk about the catalog of the exhibit.  The editors, Melinda Watt and Andrew Morrall are to be highly commended for the arrangement and presentation of the content. The photographs alone of the embroideries are a wonder to behold.  One of the missions of this kind of undertaking is to break new ground in the scholarship in the field; do you feel they have succeeded?

The groupings in the show were terrific and offered visitors the opportunity to contemplate the embroideries in a number of ways, for example, the juxtaposition of the embroideries as reflections of the royal image, of biblical images, and of pastoral images. These themes wind in and out of many of the embroideries, offering layers of meaning. The dress accessories showed that images for embroidery were ubiquitous—one could wear a symbol as easily as display it at home. I was especially pleased with the section on interior furnishings because it challenged conventional ideas about how embroidered panels were used, probably more as large cushions than as framed panels for hanging on a wall.

The section on nature and pastoral imagery echoed Andrew Morrall’s catalog essay, which addressed the subject of Adam and Eve. He has noted that descriptions of Adam and Eve, as interpreted by the religious literature of the time, blamed woman for man’s downfall. Looking at needlework depictions, however, Andrew discovered there was a softening of the interpretation, that Adam shared in the culpability. If the published argument laid the blame for suffering directly at the feet of Eve, the stitched argument allowed for a different approach. 

Considering this alternative view, it matters less who stitched it. The questions turn to: who is looking at it? Does it reflect an attitude adopted by the gentry and ruling elites, but not meant for the working ranks? Just reading the literature would not have prompted these questions. Objects provide a different kind of evidence. Andrew is an insightful scholar for he thinks outside the box. His essay is a good example of how to read a textile, and is really very remarkable.


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