Great Tapestry of Scotland 93-123

Panel 94: Hill and Adamson The silver herrings and striped petticoats of the Newhaven fisherwoman.

In the comments on yesterday’s post, Heather linked to an interesting take on the “when is a tapestry not a tapestry” question from a tapestry weaver who strongly objects to the misappropriation of the term in reference to non-woven textiles. I am often struck by how textiles, more than other disciplines, seems prone to practices of woeful mis-naming, and the piece raises many moot points, particularly in relation to the gender associations of the terms “tapestry” and “embroidery.” I suppose this is what I was hinting towards yesterday in suggesting that the term “tapestry” has, in the popular imagination, a public, narrative dimension, that the word “embroidery” does not. It is certainly very sad that this is so, and the linguistic perceptions and politics of these terms in contemporary discourse seem to me quite difficult to unravel. But whether or not the nomenclature of the “Great Tapestry” has a masculine ring, one could certainly never criticise this project for its masculine bias. Women formed the majority of the talented stitchers, and not only are women represented everywhere in the tapestry, but individual panels are used to proudly celebrate the ordinary work of Scottish women in a way that is all too rarely seen in public contexts. A few weeks ago I climbed the Wallace Monument with my dad (who is a Wallace on his mother’s side, and is known by everyone as “Wal”). Half way up the tower we discovered the “hall of heroes” – a sterile space filled with the equally sterile busts of dead white men. While this room commemorates the achievements of Scotland’s philosophical, scientific, military, and literary blokes, there is not a single woman in sight. I scoured the information panels, and finally found Jane Carlyle, who received the briefest of mentions in relation to her husband. Jane and I were the only women in the room, and I wonder if she would have felt as irritated as I did. A wee girl, with a burgeoning interest in Scottish history, might find little in that room with which to identify, while her brother might be reinforced in his tacit belief that only men do important things. One of the many functions of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, it seems to me, is as an educational resource and thank goodness that the project exuberantly and thoughtfully celebrates the important work of Scotland’s women authors, political activists, washerwomen, fisher-lassies, and knitters, and places that work in a public context, alongside more familiar “masculine” achievements.

On with some highlights.

Panel 96: A Caithness School I am alawys drawn to the neeps. By the 1850s, through pioneering rural education practices, Caithness (and Berwickshire) literacy rates were the highest in Great Britain.

Panel 99: James Clerk Maxwell One of many occasions where I was struck by the wit and inventiveness of Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs. The colourful waves of Maxwell’s beard capture his work on magnetism and electricity.

Panel 103: Shinty and Curling I was bowled over by the beauty and precision of the stitching on this panel, created by Susie Finlayson and Linda Jobson. Look at the tartan! The knitted hose! The herringbone woven jacket! The way the wrong side of the fabric is represented!

Panel 104: Scots in North America I love the figure of John Muir here – the very embodiment of the ideal of the national park.

Panels 105 and 107: The Paisley pattern and Mill Working I found both of these panels incredibly beautiful and moving: the way the faces of the mill workers had been integrated into the famous Paisley pattern, the way the colours of the embroidery precisely echoed those of the Indian subcontinent in panel 92; the sense of energy and movement in the stitching and design . . . and, of course, the fact I was viewing these panels in a mill, in Paisley.

Panel 109: Workshop of the Empire I love the way that industry, labour, and the human figure are represented in this panel.

Panel 111: Kier Hardie who campaigned for women’s suffrage as well as worker’s rights.

Panel 113: The Discovery sails from Dundee One of the many things I loved about this panel was that the trades involved with the expedition were depicted and celebrated: flesher, tailor, cordiner, weaver, dyer, hammerman, bonnet maker, baker, glover.

Panel 115: The Isbister sisters Shetland knitters! Hurrah! One of my favourite panels.


Panel 123: Women get the vote. This panel was stitched by the Edinburgh members of Soroptimist International

Images of knitting – 2


Here are a couple more postcards from my collection. Strictly speaking, these are reproductions of advertisments, but I am particularly fond of the Sunlight Soap image which, as you can see, has been pinned on my board for some time. I find it interesting for the way it represents knitting as a leisure activity, rather than as a part of women’s domestic labour. Washing is textile-related work for this nostalgically mop-capped woman, but the activity of hand-knitting is situated firmly in the category of “rest and leisure”. Since Sunlight has made the washing quick and easy, she can relax happily with her yarn and needles. This is interesting because, in other contexts at around the same time, hand-knitting was work and could easily be associated, in very different ways, with ideas of women’s labour. But quite apart from the questions it raises about what-is-work and what-is-not for women, I also like many things about the design of this advertisment – the giant ball of yarn in the foreground; the brilliantly white sheets waving gaily in the landscape; the knitter’s sense of contemplation; and the strong, bright colours of the image.


This advertisment — in which Jeanie and Jimmy are about to make a terrible mess on the carpet while playing sit-up-and-beg with a giant tin of digestives — is rather different. The yarn and needles are incidental to the scene, and seem to be there to give middle-class mother something to do, or perhaps to calm her nerves before she contemplates getting the dustpan and brush out. She stares at her offspring’s biscuity activities with a rictus grin which seems to say “put the tin back in the kitchen where it belongs, you wee shites.” Quite apart from the crumb-related horror that is about to unfold, the association of digestives with dog biscuits is not one you’d imagine Mc Vities wanting to cultivate. Extraordinary.

I love reading your thoughts about these images — perhaps particularly when you disagree with me — so all comments are very welcome.

In other news, I have a couple of designs to release! More about that tomorrow.

racy mending

I have been playing around with ideas about mending and darning for a forthcoming article, and have been turning up some interesting tangential things in various digital collections. Pictured above are “Chicago’s top models for 1922″ who have been co-opted to advertise the novel innovation of the seam ripper. The caption reads “Ripping is a pleasure with Rip-Easy!” What’s interesting about this Iowa sewing company’s choice of marketing is that it seemed to be entirely directed at men. This photo, with its group of local lovelies, “pleasurably” ripping the seams out of silk and lace while displaying their ankles, most obviously speaks to the male viewer. That same year “Rip Easy” advertised itself in Boys Life Magazine as “the best and most practical device to help the folks at home with their home sewing. Send in 10c for a sample and Do a Good Turn for Mother.” Perhaps “Rip-Easy” assumed that men and boys were more likely to be fascinated by stitching gadgets than the women stitchers themselves . . or that blokes were simply more interested in the rather racy idea of women’s ripped seams. . . either way, I’ve not found any comparable advertisments in the women’s magazines of 1922.

Here is more racy mending, from a 1904 postcard. This stitcher is clearly an impressive multi-tasker: fixing a hem while reading The Sunday Magazine and giving whoever is watching her raise her skirts a wee thrill. No matter that it is much easier to stitch a hem if one is not already wearing it, to sit in a comfortable chair while sewing, or to use a pair of scissors rather than one’s teeth: the legs are what’s at stake here.

I’ve found lots of these mildly racy, early twentieth-century images of mending, and it isn’t that surprising. Associations between mending and s*x are conventional and familiar from centuries of genre painting and portraiture: a woman looking at the work in her lap gives a man an opportunity to look at her; a female servant bent over her darning displays her hands or chest; an idle stitcher clearly has her mind on other things.

but then I began to find an awful lot of these:

which took the s*xual politics of the sewing basket to a slightly different place. . .

well, you asked

By request, another treat from The Archers pattern book. Here is the fragrant Caroline Bone / Pemberton / Sterling resplendent in a knitted suit of lemon hue. In this frothy confection, she may well run the risk of being mistaken for one of Ian’s more outlandish Grey Gables deserts. . . and yes – it is floor length! Check out the saucy glimpse of 1980s ankle.

And imagine the never-ending horror of actually knitting it.

Curiously, 1970s and 80s knitting has been preoccupying me this week. The other day, my good friend Matthew sent me a copy of the January 1982 edition of Spare Rib, in which this amazing sweater featured:

I have to say that I love this — not only does it make me nostalgic for a certain kind of politics, its a reminder that knitting has always been associated with feminism, despite some claims about its more recent integration. The pattern is described as “a luknitics exclusive” and it seems that “Luknitics” was a business registered in in Perth in the early ’80s. I am wondering whether any of you know anything about Luknitics or their patterns? I really want to find out more . . .

Also, while on a trip to the butchers in Stockbridge yesterday, I nipped into a charity shop and scored 10 early 1970s copies of Golden Hands Monthly. A few of the craft activities are very much of their time (pasta art? aigh!), but there are lots of diverting, amusing, and indeed inspiring articles and tips, patterns and designs. I was pleased to find that all of the pull-out sewing and embroidery patterns were still intact, and that I actually really liked many of the skirts and dresses. I also found the Golden Hands knitting and crochet patterns so interesting that I’m starting to question my own taste. For example, there is something in me that really likes this crocheted bonnet-with-integrated-ear-muff:

. . . and I am fascinated by this vest:

The pattern also includes proud photographs of the back of the work, with all of the different coloured ends neatly sewn in, and claims the extra effort involved as a sort of victory for thrift: “with no weaving, you save yarn!” A writer for Spare Rib might have seen the costs of this garment rather differently, once the extra hours of labour were factored in. This really seems to be 1970s knitting at its most crazily time consuming. And yet . . . there’s just something really pleasing about all those tiny, different coloured hexagons . . . no . . . I. . .must . . . resist. . . intarsia. . .

Finally, here is an example of domestic time very well-spent — this is our Christmas cake, and that is Tom’s hand feeding it the first of many glasses of whisky. We had our stir-up Saturday yesterday (I believe Jill Archer’s stirring-up is actually today?). Tom uses the recipe in Jane Grigson’s fruit book, with the quantities of everything increased by 25%. I like a nice, big cake. Hope you have had a lovely weekend, too.


I am often struck by the liveliness and diversity of the world of contemporary domestic crafts. In very particular ways, the intermewebnet really has informally transformed the domestic into the public sphere. From their kitchens and computers, women and men all over the world are exchanging knowledge about an enormous range of practical issues and debates, sharing their messes and mistakes as much as their proud creations. These people are asking questions about consumer and gender politics, about the history of design, about process and about material practice. They are making things for beauty and for use: benches, pies, hats, yarn, toys, books, tools. Some people are examining the idea of domesticity and transforming it into art, while many others are finding it the basis of successful businesses.

With all this infinite variety, how is that the two least interesting faces of contemporary domesticity have suddenly become its public representatives? The two faces I refer to are the domestics-in-drag who need no introduction here, and those less pernicious, but no less prevalent ‘ironic’ crafters who read anarchy in every crocheted granny-square. In an article by Viv Groskop in last week’s Guardian, the conservative and ironic faces of the ‘new domesticity’ are held up as twin envoys of what is regarded by many (non-crafting) feminists as a terribly regressive trend. Apparently, both Jane Brocket and the Great Cake Escape are indicative of a ‘return’ to the pre-feminist 1950s, that simple time of embroidered table linen and hourglass silhouettes, when the clock struck four, and everything stopped for tea. According to Groskop, the activities of both conservative and ironic crafters reinforce rather than question traditional domestic ideologies, prompting the rather pointless query: “can domesticity ever be subversive?”

Now, I’m not going to have a go at the Great Cake Escape. At least these women are energetically camp and entirely self-aware. Unlike many so-called anarchic crafters, their irony seems less cynical marketing than witty interrogation—a stage toward something that might turn out to be more interesting. And (perhaps unwittingly) the juxtaposition of ironic with conservative crafters in Groskop’s article does reveal something more intriguing about them both than either are in isolation. Brocket is quoted saying that “anything which is very personal and behind closed doors and pleasurable to women is subversive these days.” Here, she neatly captures what was always really at the core of the middle-class English domesticity she celebrates and perpetuates: that is, the dark heart of eccentricity and taboo beating beneath David Lean’s “heppy” exterior. What I am getting at here is just how close net curtains are to fetish-wear, and anyone who has seen Patrick Keiller’s superb exposition of petit-bourgeois Englishness in Robinson in Space will know exactly what I mean.

Brief Encounter. Heppily unheppy.

But despite her incidental disclosure of the obvious proximity of pinny-porn to bourgeois deviance, there are several problems with Groskop’s article. The main one is that she hasn’t done enough research. She just trots out banal generalities about how baking and sewing are stereotypically ‘feminine’ without actually looking at who participates in those activities, examining how they can be empowering, transformative, critical and creative things, or looking at how sewers or bakers of either sex who share and circulate their knowledge can thereby find new means of social and political engagement. Groskop’s notion of domesticity is incredibly, ludicrously limited: for her, it just equates to cupcakes and repression. But if she had just looked underneath the frilly pinafore—ironic, conservative or otherwise—she would have found a whole world of witty, critical, talented, and engaged domestic crafters just getting on with their thing without congratulating themselves on how bloody ‘heppy’ they are the whole time. As one smart baking friend of mine put it “the creativity is in the recipe and the labour, not in the fact that you scatter dolly mixtures on top”*. While Groskop concerns herself with those dolly mixtures, the rest of us will carry on engaging with that labour, and that creativity.

*thanks, Clare B.

whisky and women

Bunnahabhain. Monday morning.

I’m a woman that likes whisky. Now, I know I don’t need to explain this to you. I know that you may like whisky too. And I’m sure that if you do like it, if you have any sort of taste or enthusiasm for any type of usquebah, that you will probably have encountered at least one of these common assumptions about women and whisky.

1. You must be a masculine woman.
Because women don’t really like whisky, do they? The kind of woman who drinks whisky only does so as a pseudo-masculine conceit, doesn’t she? Some sort of attempt to get down with ver lads? A whisky-drinkin’ woman is laying desperate claim to a man’s balls, capability and ambition. Doesn’t Mrs Thatcher like to drink whisky? And Madonna too? Well, there you go then.

2. You would rather be drinking Baileys.
You are visiting a distillery and are automatically offered some hideous gloopy sweet concoction in lieu of the tasty dram that you came looking for. For, it is assumed by some makers and purveyors of the good stuff that, simply because you don’t have testicles, you would automatically rather be drinking something creamy or pastel coloured with a fookin umbrella stuck in inside it.

3. You prefer ‘feminine’ whisky.
Would you like a lowland malt, madam? I’m sure your delicate palate isn’t up to the bruising of a brutish Caol Ila. Surely you’d rather have a Bladnoch? A ladies dram?

(This lady would rather have a Bowmore.)

Given these persistent and hard-to-shake assumptions about women whisky drinkers, I was very interested to read this piece about the recent rise of women members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. In the article, the SMWS celebrates the fact that it has managed to create the ‘right atmosphere’ for women. As one of them (ahem) I wouldn’t dispute this, but I wonder whether the SMWS might now, in a similar spirit of accommodation, turn its attention to the language of its panel’s tasting notes?
For example in the current list, cask 29.67 is described thus:

“In the unreduced taste the panel found scorched bacon, peanut brittle sprinkled with chimney soot and rubber in the nicest way — can you imagine it? Maybe Ursula Andress in a wetsuit. . . ”

Now, I love reading the SMWS’s tasting notes, and they are not specifically at fault here. For you will find comparisons of whisky to women, ranging from the predictable to the bizarre, throughout most whisky ‘bibles’ and all over the review pages of Whisky Magazine. Here, for example, is one eminent whisky critic’s description of a 12 year old Rosebank:

“Relatively young, but beginning to weary nonetheless. Perhaps this tiredness is caused by worry about the future. A feminine whisky that has lost the first bloom of youth. Snatch a kiss while you can.”

This sleazy uncle stuff is fairly typical of the genre, but more surprising (to me at least) was this review of a 15 year old Glenmorangie which appeared a few days ago on the ScotchChix blog

“This older sister to Glenmorangie 10, the girl next door, is a bit of a wallflower. With her strawberry nose and vanilla palate, Glenmorangie 15 should be just as pleasing as her sibling. However, she simply doesn’t open up the way Glenmorangie 10 does, leaving this Scotch Chick just a tad disappointed.”

To me, that’s poorly written as well as being offensive. Aigugh!

Whisky is something that inherently evokes fascination and desire. It is a drink that is both complex and elusive. Because it is all of these things, one of the principal vocabularies used to describe it is that of sexual — and specificially heterosexual — possession. And while the culture of whisky production, sale, and consumption may be shifting to accomodate women, the vocabulary of whisky certainly hasn’t caught up yet. Its always demure or yielding this, coy or coquettish that. But whisky is not a woman. And such comparisons of whisky-to-woman act, I’m sure, as an impediment to many women’s enjoyment of a wee dram or two — reinforcing that persistent and eroneous stereotype of it being a man’s drink.

Bowmore at Bowmore.

But there are other whisky metaphors no less evocative, and certainly not as irritating as those afforded by gender. For example, this whisky seller has superb tasting notes that are redolent, idiosyncratic, and never resort to an offensive language of sexual desire (at least not that I’ve seen). For example, their website describes a Talisker 25 year old suggestively as “the love child of Brian Ferry and Eartha Kitt”. References to the Who’s great performances, Moon still at the drums, abound. These epithets may be obscure to some, but to me are far more powerful and compelling than any comparison to a leering whore or a perfumed great aunt (the latter being a favourite reference point of whisky critics for the output of closed Forres distillery, Dallas Dhu).

Anyway, as you may have gathered, one of the things I enjoy so much about Islay is the whisky. It was, in fact, an Ardbeg at the Port Charlotte Hotel that induced my own whisky epiphany some years ago. The taste of an Ardbeg 10 or a Bowmore 17 just says Islay to me, it speaks of gold and green and blue, of rocks and peat and salt water, in a manner more vivid and eloquent than any metaphor I or anyone else could dream up. And, after all this discussion about the language of whisky, I find that I really lack one to adequately capture the feel of Bowmore’s lochside warehouse, with the cool smell of the sea and the promise of its slowly aging casks. I just don’t have the words to describe it. But it is something very close to whisky heaven.

Bowmore. Last Sunday.


Brian Sewell and the Bluestockings

“Brilliant Women: Eighteenth-Century Bluestockings” National Portrait Gallery, until 15th June.

On Thursday evening I stood in a packed room at the National Portrait Gallery. Men and women of all ages jostled to get a look at a three-quarter length portrait of an eighteenth-century writer. This was Catharine Macaulay, author of a radical history of England; essays about the politics of the American and French Revolutions; and an important educational treatise which argued, among other things, for women’s intellectual equality.

Robert Edge Pine, Catharine Macaulay (c.1775). National Portrait Gallery.

In the gallery with Macaulay, several other “brilliant women” were displayed. There was Elizabeth Carter, whose translation of Epictetus was received, in mid-eighteenth century Britain, as a national triumph. There was Hannah More, the important moralist and playwright, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, literary essayist, political pamphleteer, and author of the wonderful, mordant poetry her contemporaries recognised as the best of the age. These were women whose writings were the focus of international acclaim. They were eighteenth-century celebrities. And yet their fame had nothing to do with their faces or their bodies. They were women whose significant intellectual achievements were regarded as proof that the age of enlightenment had finally arrived.

The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain. Page after Richard Samuel (1777)

Unfortunately we now seem to live in a less enlightened age. For how else are we to read Brian Sewell’s recent complaint in the London Evening Standard that Catharine Macaulay just wasn’t pretty enough? Sewell, who clearly requires that images of women address his senses rather than his intellect, dismisses this important exhibition as “blowing feebly on the dying embers of feminism.” According to Sewell, “almost everything the sane man needs to know about bluestockings is to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.” It’s a shame that he didn’t bother to look at the catalogue accompanying this edifying and carefully curated exhibition, or he might have learnt something that would lead him to question the sanity of his entrenched prejudice. But clearly Sewell has, at one time or another, actually read something other than the dictionary, as he is able to trot out every sexist assumption ever levelled at women of learning. One of the key points of this exhibition is to show how British women intellectuals were, in the eighteenth century, the focus of celebration and esteem as much as they ever were of satire. They may well have provided fodder for misogynistic caricaturists like Sewell, but they were also thought to add value to the stock of national achievement. Sewell displays a predictably sad masculine response to women of learning by, like eighteenth-century satirists, castigating their sex rather than engaging with the troubling matter of their intellects.

Macaulay as Libertas (Liberty). Giovani Battista Cipriani (1765)

Faced with the imposing and assured portrait of Catharine Macaulay by Robert Edge Pine Sewell writes: “It is a long time since my reaction to a picture was a burst of laughter, but it happened here, in front of the amazingly Plain Jane that Catharine Macaulay was in her mid-forties.” In this superbly bold image, Macaulay self-consciously associated herself with the figure of Minerva, who inspires, as Freud reminds us, the fear of emasculation. Perhaps this was the source of Brian’s anxious giggles. But not content with damning the wise and defiant Macaulay as unlovely, Sewell is daft enough to question her intellect. According to him, Macaulay’s production of an eight-volume History of England was a freakish and pointless activity: freakish simply because she was a woman and pointless because the men who came after her told the same story: “if we have forgotten Catharine Macaulay’s history it is because the other Macaulay, Thomas Babington, covered the same ground.”

Sewell is — despite himself — right: we have forgotten Macaulay’s history because she was a woman, and because other historians wrote other histories. But this is not because her monumental achievement in The History of England from the Accession of James the First to that of the Brunswick Line was either freakish or pointless. It is because the men who came after her found the historian and her history challenging, both intellectually and politically. Men like Sewell—conservative men, men of small minds and small-minded adherence to the normative status quo—found Macaulay’s writing deeply worrying. For she dared to say that it was fine to kill a king; to establish a democratic republic in his stead; to extend the franchise to those who worked to buy their bread; for colonies to declare their independence from the empire; and for women to claim equal rights as rational creatures. Sewell knows nothing about Macaulay because of the success of men like him in erasing and forgetting women’s intellectual achievements generally, and their articulate questioning of the establishment in particular.

It is actually hard to overestimate just how famous Macaulay was, or just how influential her arguments were during the eighteenth-century’s revolutionary decades. While her face was, as Lord Lyttleton put it, “on every printsellers counter”, her words were on the lips of every radical in London, Newcastle, or Sheffield then engaged in the popular struggle for parliamentary reform. In 1770, the town of Boston wrote and asked her to intervene on its behalf with the British government. Every self-respecting son of liberty along America’s Eastern seaboard had read her History and regarded Macaulay as the personal spokeswoman of their rights. Two decades later, as the French Revolution shook Europe, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and told her how she entirely “coincided” with Macaulay’s “opinion respecting the rank our sex ought to attain in the world.” Macaulay didn’t live to applaud women’s attaining of that rank, or see the kind of constitution that she had imagined for America. In 1790, a few months before she died, she told the editor of the Monthly Review how well she knew that her “democratic spirit” and her “recommendation of a learned education for women” meant that her publications would be relegated by conservative men to “the lining of trunks, or other ignoble purposes.” For more than two centuries this was unfortunately the case.

Print after Katharine Read’s portrait of Catharine Macaulay (1769)

But the wonderful exhibition in which Macaulay now features at the National Portrait Gallery has already attracted several thousand visitors. An associated conference, organised by the team of brilliant women who curated the exhibition, was massively over subscribed. All of this suggests an encouraging level of interest in the achievements of the learned women of the past. And yet Brian Sewell’s review, which includes a gleeful rubbing together of grubby hands at the demise of Women’s Studies as a separate discipline in British universities, is depressing evidence that the struggle Catharine Macaulay fought—and suffered for—is far from over.


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