CLARE Hunter has always loved thread. Even as a child, nothing thrilled her more than to be taken to her local craft shop where she'd gaze in wonder at the shimmering display of embroidery silks. “There were colours I hadn't known existed,” she says. “It wasn't long after the war and there weren't a lot of things around, so to see that sudden glow of all these colours was amazing.”

Born in Glasgow in 1950, Hunter attributes her lifelong fascination with textiles to her mother, who organised those craft shop outings as “a treat” and spent hours patiently instructing young Clare in sewing techniques ‒ perhaps, Hunter now thinks, as a way of keeping her quiet.

But if her mother thought she was encouraging docility in her inquisitive daughter, she was mistaken. For although Hunter took to the needle with gusto, it was hardly in the spirit of conformity. Back in what she describes as a “fashion-starved” 1960s Glasgow, “if you couldn't sew your own clothes you looked like your mother” and Hunter clearly had no intention of doing that. Instead, she'd rustle up a party outfit overnight, sometimes getting her sister to stitch her into the garment if there wasn't time to sew on fastenings.

For Hunter, the needle became a weapon of empowerment rather than subjugation. In 30 years working as a community textile artist, she has helped marginalised women, striking miners and impoverished communities to express identity, dissent and protest through thread. And as her new book, Threads Of Life, makes clear, people have been quietly subverting this supposedly gentle art for centuries.

When we meet in the Glasgow Women's Library surrounded by bold and beautiful feminist banners, it becomes plain that for Hunter, pursuing a career in textiles was a rebellious act in itself. “I was really keen to go to the Glasgow dough school [domestic science college], where they did a dressmaking and pattern-cutting course,” she recalls. “But at school, the teachers were appalled that somebody with brains should aspire to the dough school, so they disallowed it.”

Her parents were, she thinks, “regretful that I couldn't follow my heart but at the same time pleased that I had the brains to get on further in life, as they saw it”. After being steered towards academia, Hunter studied English and drama at Glasgow University, where she became heavily involved in student theatre.

Her passion for thread would not be quelled, however, and when she later became the first Scot to get onto the directing course at Bristol Old Vic theatre, she found herself making Shakespearean costumes – including ruffs. “I was enthralled by that, really interested in finding out how garments were constructed,” she says. After a series of theatre roles she graduated towards the community arts scene, which was then gathering momentum as a way of tackling deprivation through creativity.

At 25, she was running a Salisbury arts centre, helping ex-prisoners and people with mental health problems to re-engage through pottery, printing and creative writing. “It opened my eyes to how a community could work and create together and how all sorts of people in all sorts of walks of life could share not just the same space but the same achievements.”

When in 1981, the People's March For Jobs set off from Liverpool to highlight unemployment, Hunter – now working as an arts development officer in Northampton – made a banner to welcome the marchers when they came through the town. “It was the first banner I ever made and a very scrappy affair – just a bit of lining fabric with letters glued on,” she recalls.

Intrigued by the rich history of banners, she suggested making some with local people in Nottinghamshire after she'd been invited by the Mansfield Trades Council to encourage community involvement in May Day events. It was 1984: just as the miners' strike was erupting and with the Nottinghamshire workforce bitterly divided over the dispute, Hunter found herself working with miners' wives support group members. “I ended up driving them at night through back lanes to picket lines so they wouldn't be stopped by police,” she says. “When I heard the striking Mansfield miners didn't have banners, I started making some for those groups and that led me to an understanding of how fabric and thread could be used, not just as something that women did quietly at home, but as something that could be much bigger and bolder.”

Later, as a self-employed arts consultant in London, she realised she wanted not just to work with communities, but to belong to one. Standing outside Covent Garden underground station, she had what she calls her “eureka moment”. “I decided to count the number of passers-by who weren't aged 25 to 35. I think in that 20 minutes I counted four.”

For Hunter, that statistic confirmed that central London would never provide the kind of multi-generational, community life she yearned for and she made the snap decision to close up her office and return to Scotland.

After bundling up her belongings, she rushed to Euston Station but it was almost Christmas, the train was jam-packed and Hunter – who was carrying several suitcases and a cat – realised she wasn't going to get on.

“Then suddenly from inside came the shout of – 'In here, in here!' It was a crowd of oil rig workers on their way to Aberdeen, who squeezed me and my cat in. I've never laughed so much as I did on that journey back to Glasgow.”

Her jubilation was short-lived. Back living with her mother at the age of 35, she realised she'd gone from being “a well-known consultant leading conferences, wearing nice suits, to basically having nothing”. But after securing a £40-a-week Enterprise Allowance, she found a damp but affordable west end flat that was big enough to make banners – and began pursuing her dream of setting up “a community enterprise that was about creating jobs for people who had real talent and flair but didn't have the educational qualifications to get to art school or even dough school”.

She called it NeedleWorks and from 1986, the organisation grew into a successful operation, employing eight people and engaging diverse cultures, age groups and communities in producing banners, wall-hangings and a witty, Glasgow-themed fashion collection.

Not everyone got it. Hunter lost count of the times she'd be working with a group of women on an intricate piece of community embroidery, only for some male joker to stop at the table and quip: “I've got some trousers that need taking up”, or “Can you sew on a button on my jacket?”

Beyond the cynical fringe, however, textile-based arts were enjoying a renaissance. Impressed by a NeedleWorks banner project he'd witnessed in Glasgow's east end, the city's director of museums, Julian Spalding, asked Hunter (then known by her maiden name of Higney) to help create a “Bayeux tapestry of Glasgow life” during its upcoming year as European City of Culture, 1990.

Taking up the challenge, Needleworks engaged more than 600 Glaswegians in a series of workshops held in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The first ever workshop provoked some curious reactions: “What time does the jumble sale begin?" asked an elderly couple after spotting a table strewn with bits of cloth. But under the design stewardship of textile artist Malcolm Lochhead, those 600 people's efforts were stitched together to create a dozen, 15ft-high banners, each celebrating an aspect of Clydeside life. Shipyards and tenements, Hampden Park and the Barras, street buskers and pantomime dames… all were colourfully rendered in a witty work of collective creativity that was named after an old joke about the city's gallus humour: “Come to Glasgow for a laugh, go away in stitches.”

Keeping Glasgow In Stitches was universally acclaimed as a triumph (Spalding described it as “brilliant”) but it was also, Hunter now acknowledges, “a huge project to co-ordinate”. In 1991, she collapsed with exhaustion.

At the time, NeedleWorks were short-staffed and Hunter was working all hours to complete commissions. During one all-nighter, she phoned her sister and said simply: “I can't do this any more.”

“My sister said, 'I'm coming in a taxi, we'll take everything you're working on back to the workshop and then you are coming home with me.' So I went to hers and just slept and slept.”

After rest, recuperation and contemplation, she decided it was time to voluntarily liquidate NeedleWorks. Another community business agreed to take on two of the staff, some went freelance and Hunter – who was about to get married – was ready to explore “pastures new”.

Now living in Stirlingshire, she has since gone on to raise a family and spearhead several high-profile community-based textile initiatives. Just last year, for example, she co-ordinated a series of women's banner-making workshops ahead of the June 10 Edinburgh Processions march, which payed tribute to the Scottish women who fought for the right to vote. The suffragettes themselves, says Hunter, were famous for subverting the domestic craft of needlework to create beautiful banners, partly as a rebuke towards those who derided their campaign as “unwomanly”.

Many of their banners – like those created in the Processions workshops a century later – were works of art. Are we finally beginning to appreciate this long-undervalued discipline?

“I think we are,” says Hunter. “It's interesting that in the age of mass production, the appeal of the homemade has become stronger and stronger.” She believes the success of websites like Etsy proves people still value products that express individuality and identity and that the popularity of knitting and sewing circles like Stitch'N'Bitch confirms we still need face-to-face contact, even in the social media age.

What about men? As Hunter's book makes clear, they too were victims of the 1944 Education Act, which made sewing lessons compulsory for girls but not boys, thus not only channelling female pupils towards domesticity, but robbing their male counterparts of the chance to learn valuable skills.

Are things improving? Role models like Glasgow textile artist Malcolm Lochhead and celebrity embroiderer Jamie Chalmers (author of The Mr X Stitch Guide To Cross Stitch) are helping to change attitudes, believes Hunter, but with needlework no longer routinely taught in schools, she thinks both genders are missing out. “Children – and particularly boys – love sewing and I think it's totally delicious to watch a seven-year-old boy picking up needles and threads for the first time, loving what happens when you push that needle through the cloth and the patterns it makes.”

Should sewing be reinstated on the curriculum? Hunter herself seems to have been traumatised by her school needlework teacher, who would “tut-tut sorrowfully” over her failure to master the“ghastly” regulation sewing machines. But she does think “creativity in all its forms should be there at a much higher level – be it dance, drama, music, needlework, all these things should be equal to academic subjects”.

What matters, she says, is that young people understand how clothes are made. In her youth, fabric and haberdashery stores were on every high street but today most have disappeared and the people who make our clothes are all but invisible. Ignorant of the effort and skills involved, we expect to pay a couple of pounds for a T-shirt and as Hunter points out, that comes at a price. “We think about sweat shop labour happening in India but it's actually happening much closer to home. In pockets of Glasgow people are getting under the minimum wage to machine-sew.”

Threads Of Life, which Hunter researched with the help of a Creative Scotland grant, aims to change the way we think about sewing, by demonstrating the crucial role it has played in human culture and history. It's a wonderful book and Hunter is already planning her second, about Mary Queen of Scots and her textiles. That inveterate embroiderer – who confounded her jailers by embellishing her clothes with symbols that declared her royal birthright – features prominently in Threads Of Life.

But, hints the author, there is much more of this story to tell. In Hunter's deft hands, it can't help but be enthralling.

Threads Of Life: A History Of The World Through The Eye Of A Needle, is published by Sceptre, £20