At first glance, the jacket looks like a cloth around your grandmother might have hung on the wall above the kitchen clock. It has the same delicately embroidered border and the same brightly colored threads. But instead of asking visitors to âbless this mess,â it’s a portrait. The threads are layered together, creating an eye-catching image of a cartoon lion, complete with a spiky orange mane and a blue and white headband. The medium is the same, but it is definitely not your grandmother’s cross stitch.
The artist of this piece, and dozens of other couture pieces, is Emma McKee, also known as The Stitch Gawd. Working in Chicago, McKee is credited with bringing the world of cross stitch to the hip-hop scene. The jacket with the lion emblazoned on the back, for example, was worn by Chance the Rapper during its Coloring book tour, and that’s just one of the jackets McKee sewed for Chance. She’s also made clothes for Kendrick Lamar, SZA and others, and is entering the world of oversized artwork, like a recently commissioned display case made of embroidered laces for an Adidas store in Chicago.
As a craft, cross stitch has been around for centuries. One of the best-known tapestries, Bayeux Embroidery, is a massive 70-meter fabric depicting the Norman Conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings, and dates the craft to the 11th century. But today, artists such as McKee are popularizing and reorganizing the practice, creating subversive, feminist, and often sexualized pieces that appeal to society’s expectations of young women. There has been an increase in cross stitch and embroidery in McKee’s hometown, with several colleges introducing cross stitch into their art programs and art collectives hosting pop-up craft circles.
Among the earliest examples of cross stitch were samplers from the Victorian era: strips of linen where artisans could practice their basic stitches, often containing the alphabet, floral designs, or simple passages from the Bible. Sewing was mostly done by women and was often trivialized as a frivolous hobby. But the delicate embroidery also served a larger purpose.
“[The samplers] helped young women develop their literacy skills, their needlework skills. It was all part of growing up and becoming a desirable partner, âsays Sarah Quinton, curator of the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. She has also seen an increase in the number of women entering the trade recently, in part because of its simplicity. âIt’s not intimidating. It’s not a huge techniqueâ¦ so it’s very accessible to a lot of people.
Since those first samplers, the basics haven’t changed much. A pattern is created on a grid and drilled into the fabric with overlapping stitches, creating a small X – the cross. The simplicity has allowed today’s artists to explore a wider range of subjects. Instead of Bible passages, artisans quote BeyoncÃ© or post feminist hashtags. But with each new exploration of the art form, there is a direct thread to the past.
âI think women today, young women in particular, stand on the shoulders of women from previous generations,â Quinton said.
McKee agrees. She sees the new wave of cross stitch as a way to rebel against the idea that craftsmanship is not ârealâ art or work. âWe like to denigrate women’s work, we like to put it in the craft space. It’s a cute little hobby, not serious work or effort.
Across Canada, women are using cross stitch and needlework to challenge these traditional ideas about gender work. From small-scale craftswomen building a following on Etsy and Instagram to professional artists showcasing collections in galleries across the country, Canadian women use the traditional crafts of their grandmothers. to highlight the problems of women today.
Arianna Richardson, Lethbridge
Richardson learned to embroider in cross stitch at the age of 8 from his grandmother. Today, as a professional artist and costume designer, Richardson still uses the techniques his grandmother taught him, but as a way to highlight the differences in their work – and in particular, the choice of sew, knit or stitch at all.
“[My grandmother] would do that stuff for free, and because it was kind of expected of her, âRichardson said. “I choose to do this activity which has been placed on women in a way that keeps them oppressed.”
It is this idea of ââinvisible and unappreciated feminine work that Richardson explores in his art. Under the pseudonym The Hobbyist, Richardson uses artisan techniques such as sewing and weaving on an unconventional scale. Rather than knitting a scarf or tea towel, Richardson knits poster-sized wall hangings. In a recent installation in Halifax, Richardson created a series of life-size trash cans, woven together from garlands, polyester and discarded scraps of fabric.
âIt kind of gets absurdly big and really in your face,â Richardson said. âMy work is always hyper-decorative and really alive. “
For Richardson, synthetic fabrics, along with garlands and sequins, are a direct rejection of the current Instagram trend for organic linen and wool, or what she calls “a pure material fetishization.” Instead, his work highlights the false opulence of his materials, juxtaposing them with the often picturesque technique of craftsmanship.
Tatum Lawlor, Vancouver
Opening his Etsy store, Crxss Bxtch, in 2015 was an opportunity for Lawlor to turn his artistic hobby into a side activity. Combining cross stitch with embroidery, Lawlor has a delicate touch, often working on very small scale pieces: a two inch patch emblazoned with “Beat it, Creep!” illustrates his style. While the work is meticulous, it’s also meditative, part of what she describes as her self-care regimen.
From the start, Lawlor imbued her work with feminist themes, such as body positivity. A bestseller on her page is a hoop model called Breast Friends, featuring a dozen intertwined breasts of all shapes and sizes. Many of her other works are even more explicit about the female body, using intentionally provocative language that might prompt some grandmothers to do a double take. A four-inch embroidered round usually costs $ 30 in Lawlor’s store, and she often receives positive messages from her customers.
“On the surface, I think people appreciate the humor in the juxtaposition of obscene language with an art form that is traditionally very polished, âLawlor said. âIt’s about developing an art deeply associated with women throughout history and using it as a form of social commentary. I choose words that I think will help defend my not-so-secret feminist agenda. “
For Lawlor, the evolution of cross stitch was a move from ornamentation of objects to the expression of values. She uses her art to explore themes of activism, feminism and sexuality.
As for censorship, Lawlor has only censored herself once in her work: when she named her shop Etsy.
Brette Gabel, Toronto
When Gabel began working with embroidery, tailoring, and tailoring a decade ago, she created art meant to challenge and overturn traditional expectations of femininity. But since then she has also found joy in the craft itself.
“What about just, like, being proud of the craft for the sake of the craft?” Gabel asked. âThere are no rich white people telling you what you can and cannot do and what doesn’t. It’s for the people.
Now Gabel is delighted to use artisan techniques in his artistic practice. Mostly a quilter, Gabel pays special attention to the little details – like creating her own fruit and vegetable dyes to color her own fabric piece by piece.
In a 2016 installation, Gabel produced a set of six quilts, each featuring the international maritime symbols of MAYDAY, the Distress Call. Each quilt has been meticulously cut and sewn to the size of a baby blanket; Gabel used the project to overcome the changes and challenges of new parenthood.
âIt was kind of a cry for help in all its forms,â Gabel joked.
But the covers are also decidedly humorous, and that’s part of what attracts Gabel to this type of work. Using female traditions to comment on contemporary women’s issues – from body image to motherhood – is not just subversive. It’s an opportunity for artists and consumers to laugh and find common ground.
âIt’s rude and it’s pissed off, but it’s funny,â Gabel explained. “We need to be able to express how we feel, but also to laugh at ourselves for what hurts and what is fearful at the moment.”