Swearing and Stitching: The 21st Century Approach to a Traditional Craft

4 Dec

Guest blog writer Emily L. Newman holds a Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and is currently Assistant Professor of Art History at Texas A&M University – Commerce. Often exploring the intersections between popular culture and art, her research focuses on the way contemporary artists have addressed female body image

Femininity and cross stitching have traditionally been linked, as Rozsika Parker has thoughtfully articulated. In many ways, these ideas, which developed in the 17th and 18th century, persist today in the growing trend of American crafters selling their patterns and wares on the Internet. These artists often become popular by embracing controversial subject matter or phrasing. For example, Julia Jackson, founder of a blog and author of a book of the same name, , created a community that has developed based on her use of unconventional cross stitch patterns. Jackson often combines traditional patterns with bold phrases such as “Chill the fuck out,” “Beeyatch,” and “Go fuck your self.”

Jackson is just one of many artists who blog about their designs and make them available on Etsy, a site that makes it easy to sell handmade products. Sellers going by the names “StitchOutLoud” and “The Stitch Bitch Cove” sell similar pieces that incorporate surprising language as well as rude and insulting phrases.  , the pseudonym for Jamie Chalmers, provided a place for him to display and sell his designs, but he also brought in other stitchers and their patterns. He has parlayed the success of his own designs into success for others, providing them a space to discuss and sell their work while also working to create exhibitions and spaces for their works to be shown publicly as well as writing and publishing books on the art form.

Geographical location becomes less significant as these artists are able to work together and share patterns and techniques across the country via chat rooms, websites, blogs, and Meetup groups. Like traditional quilting circles and consciousness-raising groups, these artists, primarily women, have created a place where they can share ideas and skillsets while also bonding and developing creative approaches to the craft. These artists rely on the community to create friendships but also to further develop their skills. Physical space is no longer important, however, as the internet creates opportunities beyond the scope of where they live.

            Yet their popularity is especially dependent on their transgressive language. These 21st century artists are working in a conventional and popular craft, one that was often used as a way to manipulate women and reinforce submissiveness. By bringing in a variety of swear words, offensive phrases, and sometimes graphic imagery, these artists harness the power of taboo. Not only do these works come off as brazen and frequently humorous, but the rely on the contradiction of the words with the design. Because cross-stitching is often affiliated with women, the incorporation of curse words is jarring and unexpected, as women are less affiliated with swearing than men. The contradictions inherent in these works show that cross stitch artisans have not only continued on the path Parker laid out when discussing cross stitch in the twentieth century, but they are further questioning the way that craft can be used to challenge societal norms.

            Additionally, as these artists can share their work immediately with other artisans and the public, many of them engage in contemporary events and popular culture.  A popular design on Jackson’s site is the phrase “Put a bird on it!” Referencing IFC’s Portlandia, this saying was uttered by series creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, in a that has received almost 1.5 million youtube hits.  Armisen and Brownstein were playing with hipster culture and their affinity for revamping objects, often personalizing them by adding simple graphic designs like birds. Erin Keane of salon.com even suggests that the show spurred the use of birds on products of all types. In her piece, she quotes Brownstein who explains how the project got started,  “I had started noticing that putting a bird atop an otherwise pedestrian or utilitarian object elevated it to art — or that putting a bird on a painting made it an instant signifier for coolness. The bird was basically becoming shorthand for art.” The phrase has become a playful way of acknowledging the way symbols and pictures are used throughout society. In referencing Portlandia, cross-stitchers are acknowledging their awareness of the cultural phenomenon, but are also further commenting ironically on the use of a bird as a symbol of hipster coolness while perpetuating the spread of the bird image.

            Cross-stitching may represent a traditional hobby for women, but these artists have turned around the practice by making its subject contemporary. These communities that have developed are using the most up-to-date social media programs, while furthering something often considered old-fashioned. Thankfully, these artists have figured out a way to keep the unique art of cross-stitching relevant in the 21st century.

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Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, rev. ed. (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2010).

David Gauntlett, Making is Connecting (Cambridge and Oxford, UK: Polity, 2011).

Parker, The Subversive Stitch, 1-39.

Robin Tolmach Lakoff and Mary Bucholtz, eds. Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) and Geoffrey Hughes, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1991), 207-212.

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