Stitchers of Instagram

Cyberfeminism, Craftivism, Therapy, and Community through #Embroidery

Authors

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2994

How to Cite

Kennedy, Ümit. (2023). Stitchers of Instagram: Cyberfeminism, Craftivism, Therapy, and Community through #Embroidery. M/C Journal, 26(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2994
Vol. 26 No. 6 (2023): thread
Published 2023-11-26
Articles

Embroidery: A Subversive History

Embroidery has a long history as a woman’s craft. Traditionally, the gendered history of embroidery as domestic, practical (utilitarian), and relational has placed it firmly in the category of craft, resulting in its exclusion from the male-dominated arena of art in public space (Emery; Durham; Jefferies). This traditional view of embroidery, and textile work in general, has been thoroughly challenged over the last 60 years. The second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought women’s textile work, and its private, domestic, relational subjects and lives, into the public arena: into art galleries and public spaces, challenging traditional notions of what constitutes art, and highlighting the subversive act of women making (Emery; Jefferies; Parker).

Women have been using “fancy work”, as embroidery was called, as overt acts of defiance, rebellion, social justice, care for self and others, and as a collective means of making sense of the world and changing it for good, for generations (Davidson; Minahan and Cox; Emery; Sawden and Etaati; Robertson and Vinebaum; Hackney; Vyas). The suffragettes famously used embroidery in their banners and sashes in their fight for the woman’s right to vote (Helland). In the 1970s, collectives such as the Sydney-based Women’s Domestic Needlework Group brought the work of everyday ordinary women into a public collection and exhibition of art (Emery). The exhibition highlighted the value of women making things together as a normal part of their everyday lives, and it positioned their domestic textile work as material artifacts of knowledge and significance worthy of observation, recognition, and analysis in public space.

More recently, there has been a resurgence of young women engaging in textile crafts online signaling a “new energy” with radical potential (Hackney 170; Robertson and Vinebaum; Jefferies; Minahan and Cox). These women are socially engaged and tech-savvy, gathering online and in-person to use craft to explore and critique their everyday lives and experiences (Minahan and Cox; Hackney). Women are using the Internet to make space to gather, to create, to develop language, knowledge, and to generate change. From forums and threads to networked digital media (see Meikle and Young) such as Facebook and Instagram (see Leaver et al.), the material gallery is now online: a public space for collective voice and representation in progress. The international embroidery community on Instagram create art in dialogue with, and in reference to, each other. The art being created is collaborative as it was in the 1970s, relational, intimate and intentional, subversive, and confronting. It falls in a category known as “craftivism” (Greer; Corbett; Jefferies; Emery; Hackney). Stitchers of Instagram reflect what Fiona Hackney refers to as a new “super-connected (informed, skilled, reflexive) amateur” (170) who engages in “the quiet activism of everyday making” (169).

In this article, I focus on my experience participating in the embroidery community on Instagram. Uniquely situated at a time of deep global and personal anxiety, I explore my experience of using embroidery as a form of self-care, to process multiple lockdowns with small children and the death of my father. Embroidery gave me a purpose, it enveloped me in community, it offered me a sense of value and worth, and it connected me with a group of people experiencing the same thing at the same time. I spent two years embroidering and one year sharing my embroidery on Instagram using the account @auburnevening. This article comprises an autoethnographic process (see Ellis; Hollman Jones; Hughes and Pennington) in which I reflect on my experience of embroidering and analyse twelve months of being on Instagram, consisting of 300 posts, thousands of comments and interactions, and many deep and long-lasting relationships developed through private messages. I explore the role of making and online community in self-care, as a collective way to engage with, and respond to, personal and global lived experience.

Embroidery as Therapy

The history of embroidery as therapeutic is broad-ranging and well-documented. In the sixteenth century, Mary Queen of Scots famously used embroidery to pass her time in captivity. Mary was held captive from 1569 to 1585, and during this time she embroidered a series of “veiled symbols” demonstrating “the resistant pride of a woman with few other ways to assert control over her existence” (V&A Museum). In more recent history, embroidery was used as a therapeutic application to treat British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers suffering from shell-shock (Davidson). Returning WWI soldiers who experienced combat trauma were encouraged to take up “fancy work” (embroidery) “as a form of therapy and source of income” (Davidson 390). There are also “accounts of prisoners of war using needlework to cope with the hardships of captivity”, demonstrating that “creative activity of this type can be used to deal with extreme adversity” (391). Like these returned soldiers, I found that embroidery “affords the opportunity to focus attention away from personal ailments and fears, and through the finished product, to confer a sense of worth or even income” (391).

In addition to the welcome opportunity to focus on the achievement of making a tangible product, like others I found embroidery to be soothing and peaceful. Nurit Wolk and Michal Bat Or explore the therapeutic aspects of embroidery for adolescent girls in post-hospitalisation boarding schools in Israel between 2020-2022. Among the five themes that they identified, they found that embroidery “inspires a sense of uniqueness and unconventionality … and provides a source of relaxation and tranquility” (14), acting as a “calming”, “soothing”, or “grounding” activity while processing trauma (Wolk and Bat Or). Similarly, Kari Sawden explores Saeedeh Niktab Etaati’s use of embroidery to process and ritualise personal grief during COVID-19 as an Iranian-Canadian (Sawden and Etaati). In their reflexive ethnography Sawden and Etaati explore embroidery as an opportunity to “meditate upon and emotionally grapple with experiences of grief and to make such reflections tangible in a way that allows for their release and the reclamation of personal peace” (2). Like Etaati, my experience of embroidery was profound as it allowed me to reclaim internal peace at a time of personal anguish.

I began embroidering at a time when I had seemingly no control over my circumstances, with multiple lockdowns and lengthy periods of COVID restrictions, or over my feelings of intense grief over the death of my father, resulting in acute anxiety attacks that would last multiple days. During this period, embroidery allowed me to switch off in the quiet moments when my grief would visit me and my anxious thoughts were loudest. The creative focus that embroidery requires silenced my thoughts and feelings. While some, like Etaati, use embroidery to explore their feelings, I used embroidery as a respite from my feelings. Embroidery allowed me to focus on the process of making, and to momentarily attribute my worth to my ability to create something beautiful. In my very first post on Instagram, I write

auburnevening A new venture to share my evening creations. As a mother of two small children, there is nothing like the long awaited bliss of the evening. After a day full of chaos and noise, I crave the quiet, still evenings, when I pick up my embroidery hoop. There’s nothing like the process of making something beautiful with your hands. I love the way time stands still as I lose myself in the task, the rhythm, the creating. I love the way my brain goes quiet and I forget about all the demands and difficulties of the day. It’s my time.

#auburnevening #eveningcreation #embroidery #embroideryart #embroiderydesign #embroiderylove #embroideryhoop #eveningescape #metime #make #create

The focus of my work at the time was simply creating beautiful work, and I have never followed a pattern. All my designs are free-form. While some celebrate the role of the pattern, valuing it for its structure (Wolk and Bat Or), and its connection to a collective (such as Etaati’s contribution to the Redwork Embroidery Project; Sawden and Etaati), the fact that I was not bound to a pattern and free to create whatever I wanted in the moment was critical. It gave me a sense of control over my design, and it gave me a sense of freedom, both of which I was lacking in my personal life (with multiple lockdowns, anxiety attacks, and the existential crisis following the death of my father). Not surprisingly, my designs centred on finding beauty in the everyday mundane, something women are skilled at, and something much of the world was thrust into during COVID. My designs, like home, breathe, slow down, and be still, were a direct response to world events – lockdown, personal and collective lack of control, and anxiety. I was performing and embodying a “smell the roses” attitude, which while seemingly superficial when taken on its own was a desperate act of survival during a time of deep personal and social unrest.

Fig. 1: My embroideries shared on Instagram as @auburnevening.

I experienced a significant increase in positive affect as a direct result of creating something tangible and beautiful. Embroidery gave me a daily focus and purpose, a routine of switching off and creating, which I looked forward to each day. The positive impact of embroidery was lasting, continuing throughout my two-year period of embroidering, which is consistent with studies exploring the ongoing effect of creative pursuits. In their study exploring 658 young adults, Conner, DeYoung, and Silvia found that daily creative activity leads to increased positive affect (feelings of happiness) and flourishing, a state of well-being described as “a state of optimal functioning accompanied by feelings of meaning, engagement, and purpose in life” (Conner et al.; Ryan and Deci). While most studies of this nature explore how mood affects creativity, Conner et al. focus on how creativity affects mood. They suggest that creative pursuits are “intrinsically motivating”, ultimately increasing feelings of happiness and well-being that importantly carry over into the “next-day”, which they call “next-day well-being” and “next-day flourishing”. A significant component of my flourishing was the collective, collaborative, communal experience of creating.

Crafting Community and Creative Activism

One of the most important aspects of my experience of embroidery was sharing my work on Instagram, and as a result forming connections with others and participating in a community. There are a growing number of women participating in embroidery on Instagram, which reflects the proliferation and resurgence of traditional textile crafts among young women (Minahan and Cox; Robertson and Vinebaum; Jefferies; Hackney). Through posting my embroideries on Instagram I connected with women, both here in Australia, and all over the world. One of my deepest connections was with Mary, a young woman living in Russia, who in addition to processing the experience of COVID was now facing life under sanctions due to the Russian war with Ukraine, and was experiencing a growing sense of despair. Although our contexts and circumstances are completely different – even our experience of the seasons is opposite – we both connected over our shared use of embroidery as a welcome escape from the difficulties we faced in life. Our friendship began with likes and comments but quickly expanded and developed through Instagram’s direct message function. Through embroidery, through our sharing of making online, we not only exchanged information about the craft, but also intimate information about our lives. #embroidery offers women like myself and Mary an opportunity to process, share, and respond to everyday life, and to connect with others doing the same. I shared intimate information about my experience, my feelings, my grief, and my anxiety with the embroidery community on Instagram. Sharing in this way fosters deep connection with others.

In the embroidery community on Instagram I found a group of women who were socially conscious, deeply empathetic, brave in their bold and public statements, and deeply affirming of each other. I connected with women over various life experiences, but mostly over the experience of being a woman. I learned about the socio-political issues facing different communities through making. I participated in affirming narratives and experiences and I received enormous affirmation of my work, and in turn myself. At a time when we could not gather or connect in person, we gathered and connected online daily, and supported each other through our personal and collective grief. In one of my posts I write, “I just love the creative space and community on Instagram. You’re all so amazing and it’s a joy every time I get to connect and interact with any of you! I feel so welcomed and encouraged here – thank you ❤️”. In the same post I write that embroidery and the community “really helped me get through 2021 which was one of the darkest years of my life (anyone else? ✋)”. As I experienced, #embroidery continues the long history of women making as a relational act of care towards others (Robertson and Vinebaum; Emery; Vyas).

Not only do women use embroidery to create social space and foster social bonds, they also use it to advocate for social change (Robertson and Vinebaum). Women are using textiles like embroidery in spaces like Instagram “to spur interpersonal dialog and exchange, and to educate, build community, and advocate for social change” (3). Minahan and Cox call this a “unique cyber-feminist phenomenon, one of women expressing their own thoughts and reflecting their own circumstances and environment” (Minahan and Cox 10; Florida). The embroidery community on Instagram brings together ordinary young women – amateur hobbyists, who are self-taught – who embody Luckman’s cyber-feminist description as “women-with-attitude” who are “modern, hip, sassy, postfeminist” (36), technology-literate (Minahan and Cox), informed, historically savvy, and reflexive (Hackney 171). Fiona Hackney calls these women the “new amateur”. These women come together in public, “transforming public spaces into shared, dynamic, communal social space” (Robertson and Vinebaum 5) in which “alternative values and ways of living can be imagined and shared, and practical examples for change defined and materialized” (Hackney 187).

I argue elsewhere that women have gathered online to create space, share information, and find community for decades, in genres such as blogging (see Morrison) and vlogging (see Kennedy Becoming). Embroidery on Instagram is an example of this, a congregation of women who make as part of their everyday existence. Making is relational and collaborative, and fosters a collective narrative about life, about COVID, about embroidery techniques and process, about motherhood and domesticity and balancing domestic responsibilities with professional pursuits (embroidery is now included in this as a viable small-business and source of income for some). It also fosters a collective, collaborative response to current social issues, like climate change, diversity and inclusion, movements such as Black Lives Matter, events like Pride Month, and current political debates like abortion rights. All of this continues the long history of embroidery as a subversive act. Today’s “fancy work” on Instagram features beautifully embellished and bedazzled swearwords, breasts, and vulvas, for example, messages that continue to promote female empowerment and advocate for all human rights. Embroidery on Instagram is therefore an extension of craft that is “firmly placed in the language of empowerment and liberation” (Jefferies 28).

This collective, participatory act of #embroidery can be understood as a type of “craftivism”, “slow activism”, or “quiet activism” (Greer; Williams; Jefferies; Hackney). Betsy Greer defines craftivism as “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite” (in Jefferies 25). K.A. Williams defines craftivism as “a social activism that explicitly links individual creativity with human based mechanisms of production to broader sociopolitical cultural contexts in an attempt to influence the social world” (305). Craft offers a way of knowing the world (Hardy 176), and for the new amateur, Fiona Hackney suggests, “craft is power” (170). Women on Instagram engage in the “quiet activism of everyday making” (169), which Sarah Corbett suggests is a form of slow activism, “a reflexive action which changes the participant as much as it does the world” (in Jefferies 27). One way in which #stitchersofinstagram continue the subversive act of embroidery is by selling their work on Etsy, through which they experience individual and collective affirmation and continue to challenge traditional notions of craft vs. art.

Selling on Etsy

An important part of the experience of sharing embroidery on Instagram is the progression that many stitchers make from making to selling their work. It wasn't long before I started sharing my embroidery on Instagram that I too opened an Etsy shop. In one of my posts on Instagram, responding to the #marchmeetthemaker tag, I introduce myself as the face behind @auburnevening. In addition to my introduction and my heart-felt gratitude to the community I had found on the site, I also shared the news about my shop: “I’ve recently opened an Etsy shop, not to become a small business and not to make a profit but simply to supplement this rather expensive hobby 💸 and as a solution to my growing piles of finished hoops that I have no idea what to do with 😂”. As a stay-at-home-mother at the time, as many #stitchersofinstagram are, producing a tangible product with social and financial value had a significant impact on my sense of worth. I only ever earned half the amount I spent on supplies, but for others selling their embroidery is much more successful. It is not surprising that part of the exchange of information and knowledge on Instagram, therefore, is increasingly about content creation, managing the algorithm (see Bishop), setting up a small business, branding and marketing, selling on Etsy (Robertson Embroidery), and generally the labour of creating on social media (see Duffy and Hund; Kennedy Arriving). As others have noted, craft is increasingly a “source of achievement and economic self-sufficiency” (Jefferies 28; Waterhouse), offering “lucrative opportunities” (Robertson Embroidery 87). The opportunity to sell embroidery is celebrated on Instagram as affirming and empowering, although it has been criticised by some.

Janis Jefferies argues that the crafting movement is being reconfigured by a neoliberal agenda, which celebrates self-employment and entrepreneurship in the new creative economy (26). Although she argues that this reconfiguration threatens to wipe out 40 years of feminist literature, I suggest that this movement is a contemporary progression. The second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s discussed by Jefferies achieved the phenomenon of moving women’s craft from the private, domestic sphere into the public sphere, and this has continued ever since. As Fiona Hackney writes, “we need to recognize the existence of a new super connected amateur who, informed by a wealth of on- and offline resources … as well as their individual life experiences and expertise, are equally active as they open up new channels of value and exchange by engaging in alternative craft economies and harnessing assets in often surprising, productive ways” (171). Women embroidering on Instagram and selling on Etsy are an example of this. Today’s #stitchersofInstagram are entrepreneurs and small business owners. Responding to a history of unseen, unpaid, undervalued domestic labour, selling “fancy work” on sites like Etsy continues to challenge traditional notions of amateur vs. professional and craft vs. art by generating income from craft. The fact that everyday ordinary women (many of whom are stay-at-home-mothers with small children) are successfully selling their embroideries, often through commissions from strangers, challenges the traditional lack of value associated with women’s craft. Rather than removing embroidery from its gendered identity, or erasing a rich feminist history, the current trend of women making and selling embroidery reflects a postfeminist (see McRobbie; Duffy and Hund) orientation which seeks to re-define women’s work and domestic work as tangible, valuable, paid work.

Conclusion

Embroidery continues to be a subversive act, bringing women together on Instagram from all over the world to share information and knowledge about the practice, and to share their experiences of life. Through sharing #embroidery on Instagram, women form deep connections and community with each other. This community works together to create a collective public voice and narrative about the issues facing our society. Embroidery offers a way to process and respond to current events and personal issues, acting as a form of personal and collective therapy. As I experienced, embroidery gave me a respite from my anxiety, allowing me to focus solely on my ability to create something with my hands. Sharing my creations on Instagram was affirming, connecting me with others, and giving me a sense of purpose, meaning, value, and worth. Through the connections I formed with others on Instagram I gained a deeper understanding of, and empathy towards, the issues facing our world. Engaging in the participatory collective of #embroidery offers women like myself the ability to engage with ideas and dialogue in a tangible way, through the act of creating permanent material artifacts. These artifacts are significant as unique personal and communal responses to a specific time in our history and socio-political context. Stitchers of Instagram continue to challenge the traditional tensions that surround women’s creative activities. By selling their work on sites such as Etsy as a collective, they blur the traditional boundaries of amateur vs. professional and craft vs. art. #embroidery is valuable not only because it represents an individual and collective contemporary (mostly young female) voice, but also because increasingly the artifacts produced out of this making are sought after, commissioned, paid for, and valued as art that people want to display in their homes.

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Author Biography

Ümit Kennedy, Western Sydney University

Dr Ümit Kennedy is a Communication and Media scholar with a special interest in identity and community online. Her research explores the convergence of the self with networked digital media such as YouTube and Instagram. Ümit is a researcher with the Young & Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University, and her work has been published in M/C Journal, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, and Life Writing.