In 2016, women quietly took to embroidery to express their deepest concerns and deal with their anger in a constructive way. (I mean, if stabbing an inanimate object repeatedly doesn’t show some kind of anger, I’m not sure what would.)
It didn’t take long for others to catch on to what quickly became a silent battle cry for resistance. Now, hundreds of women around the globe are using a needle and thread to voice their opinion.
Jess de Wahls
From the veteran stitcher and artist, Jess de Wahls of Big Swinging Ovaries—an 11-day exhibition of hand-sewn relief portraits made from recycled clothing—to newer embroiders like Lauren Tyger, Agostina Spagnoli, and Fernanda González, each of the women below fell in love with embroidery following a significant turning point in their lives (de Wahls was inspired to take up embroidery when her goddaughter was born, while González uses stitching as a way to reach others after facing sexual assault). Although their stories are different, each woman we spoke to below has found a way to encourage and inspire those who are unable to speak up—to help raise their voice and turn art into a form of resistance.
Jess de Wahls
Berlin native Jess de Wahls moved to London 14 years ago only to fall in love with the city where she now runs a tiny hairdresser out of the Cabaret dressing room at Soho Theatre. Whenever she’s not at the theatre, you can find her working in her home studio creating one-of-a-kind pieces embroidered with a pro-feminist message.
“I came to feminism relatively late, for reasons too long to list here, but when I finally did at 27, I went for it,” de Wahls says. “It was a bit of an awakening, to realize that my art, which I had always done, could be used to actually work through, and express how I see the world, which ultimately helped me o connect with some wonderful people in the process. I think I just had enough, of people telling me, that things won’t change for women anyway, no matter what anybody did. So I thought…’I’ll show you!’”
de Wahls says her love for embroidery grew after the birth of her goddaughter. “That’s when I started to create plush ‘monsters’ from recycled clothing,” she explains. “I enjoyed working with needle and thread so much, that the monsters became much more elaborate sculptural pieces, which I now call Retex Sculptures (recycled textile sculptures) mostly of women who greatly inspired me when growing up, and those have become a thing in their own right over time. Retex Sculptures then became more and more intricate still, which is when embroidery became a much more prominent feature in my work, which has since taken over pretty much entirely as my preferred medium to work in.”
Fernanda González is a literature student working on ending her senior year with more than a grad cap embellished with tassels—González is hoping to ignite a fire in the hearts of her fellow students and educators.
“I discovered feminism—or maybe it discovered me? I don’t know yet—a few years ago, and I’ve been working on informing myself and being as inclusive as I can,” González says. “The moment when it really clicked for me that there were more problems than I was acknowledging was when I was sexually assaulted; I felt like there had always been a huge group of people who I had never bothered to listen to. From then on, I tried to be vocal about everything for the people who couldn’t.”
See more of González’ work at @occasionalembroider.
“Embroidery is clearly associated as a gentle, safe hobby,” Lauren Tyger, who has been bouncing from state to state in hopes of educating others in leadership, and most recently, feminism, says. “If you look at what modern embroidery (#modernembroidery) is trending daily, it’s anything but safe or gentle. Modern embroidery artists are pushing boundaries, being vulnerable and strong, and in some cases using their privilege to bring issues of inequality to light.”
Tyger’s obsession with “sassy sayings cross stitched or embroidered on a hoop” began at a young age (she was only eight when she quilted her first quilt). But as she got older, those so-called sassy sayings morphed into powerful think pieces.
“I’ve seen something like this floating around the internet recently: it’s not enough to be not racist, you must be openly anti-racist,” she says. “When those appointed to positions with literally the most power in the country say openly racist things and disgusting comments about women, we no longer have a choice to stay quiet. I want to use my privilege to amplify the message of intersectional feminism and bring people into the conversation who might not have been before—even if it’s just through social media posts or needle and thread.”
See more of Tyger’s work at @stitchshopbytyger.
Agostina Spagnoli is a drama teacher, a seamstress, and most importantly, a feminist. “Feminism runs through me since I was a little girl,” she says. “My family is kind of a matriarchy, and it has been like that for generations. Women in my family are empowered, independent and uniques in their professions. With embroidery, I’ve discovered a new language in which I can express myself, using traditional tools, such as threads and needles. For me, it’s a way of living—a way to express myself, my thoughts, my ideology, and my soul.”
See more of Spagnoli’s work at @eltallerdelacolo.