Threads Of Life: A History Of The World Through The Eye Of A Needle

By Clare Hunter

(Sceptre, £20)

Review by Susan Flockhart

Clearing out the attic of an elderly relative, Clare Hunter opened a dusty old trunk to find herself sifting through the shreds of a lost era. There were lace-edged table cloths, elaborately embroidered shawls, a First World War nurse's apron and a pile of Victorian baby dresses: ghostly white and apparently never-worn. At the bottom, “lying drowsy in its own warmth”, was a huge patchwork quilt fashioned from 6,000 hexagons of coloured cloth.

Imagining the skilful hands which stitched that bedspread and the generations who slept, loved, and died beneath its weight, Hunter peers through the net curtains of a household's past and her account of the experience is enthralling.

In fact, Hunter has told this story before, having read it to a creative writing group while Threads Of Life was still a work-in-progress. “Moving and beautiful” was how the group's guest writer described the piece, despite having cynically dismissed the commercial viability of a book about the social, emotional and political significance of sewing. When she was later asked how her “knitting” book was coming along, Hunter left the group in disgust. “There are only so many battles I have the spirit to fight,” she writes.

The belittling of needlework clearly rankles with Hunter, who points out that although textile-production has been crucial to industrial development and embroidery was a well-recompensed high art during the Middle Ages, sewing has since been trivialised precisely because it's been relegated to the female and domestic spheres. By Victorian times, the once prestigious craft of tailoring was being ridiculed as effeminate and even the great Bayeux tapestry was derided as “rudely worked with figures worthy of a girl's sampler”.

Yet as Hunter points out, the unobtrusive nature of sewing meant that oppressed women have often used tapestry and embroidery to make their voices heard. The exiled Mary Queen of Scots displayed her regal birthright by embellishing her clothes with emblems, ciphers and coats of arms. Much later, the painstakingly crafted banners held aloft by suffragettes were a deliberate subversion of the “gentle” feminine arts.

Down the centuries, slaves, refugees and native peoples robbed of their lands and languages expressed their identity on fabric and as a community textile artist, Hunter helped drive the needle of protest. She joined the women of Greenham Common as they wrapped the perimeter fence in cloth, worked with the people of Leith to document their community's history in thread, and helped create banners for rallies during the 1984-5 miners' strike.

As an art-form, needlework is overshadowed by painting, sculpture and architecture so that even in Glasgow, where textiles have always been at the heart of the School of Art curriculum, Hunter claims that the sumptuous embroideries of Margaret Macdonald have been shamefully neglected and that while her husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, continues to be “lionised”, Macdonald's legacy has been “not just marginalised but eradicated”.

She acknowledges, however, that women have been complicit in the marginalisation of sewing, by appropriating the craft for themselves and excluding men, who were, after all, denied access to school sewing lessons thanks to “an educational system that deemed it inappropriate for a constructed myth of masculinity to be tainted by an equally constructed myth of femininity”.

By and large, Threads Of Life is neither a tirade nor a lament but a celebration of the power of thread, which for millennia has linked individuals and communities across space and time. In parts of China, we learn, neighbours would give a new mother pieces of embroidered cloth to be stitched together into a “hundred-families coat” that would protect her child with their combined blessings.

Threads Of Life is full of stories, including the colourful (and scandalous) tale of the American creator of the Singer sewing machine, Isaac Merritt Singer, who fathered at least 24 children by numerous wives and mistresses. Nor does Hunter gloss over the textile industry's darker aspects, such as child labour and sweatshop conditions.

Clothes, she writes, “absorb human touch” and literally “keep us in touch with our past”. In the 18th century, London's Foundling Hospital encouraged mothers leaving their babies there to deposit a piece of fabric “both as a memento and as proof of parentage”. In the hospital archives, Hunter examined thousands of carefully catalogued scraps of dress cotton and bonnet ribbon and thought of all those desperate young women, “deciding what remnant of themselves to leave, how best to communicate love, regret, hope, a small explanation to the child they will never see again, while the registrar hovered with his scissors”.

Devastating. By unpicking the seams of the clothes on our backs, Clare Hunter has brought to light elements of history that have languished in our collective attic for far too long. Threads Of Life is a terrific book.

Threads Of Life is BBC Radio 4's Book Of The Week from February 4-8. A Herald Magazine interview with Clare Hunter will be published next Saturday (February 2)