Anonymous was an Embroiderer
Author: Sue Wood
Although shunned by the field of art history, the anonymous craft object, if it is beautiful enough and deemed important enough, may still find a home in the museum, contributing to our understanding of the diversity of human material culture. But what if all that remains of the work of a vibrant community of makers aren’t the objects themselves but colour slides, barely labelled or entirely anonymous?
This has been the fate of the field of practice known in nineteen seventies New South Wales as creative embroidery. Although creative embroiderers aspired to the status of artists and, indeed, some had undergone art school formal training, they operated outside of the mainstream art world using a medium associated with domesticity rather than ‘serious’ art. Creative embroidery attracted considerable public interest at the time. In addition to regular exhibitions, it was the subject of newspaper and magazine articles and even television programs (Wood, 2006). Nevertheless, the artefacts produced within this context did not achieve sufficient status at the time of their making to be collected and preserved within public institutions in significant quantities. The invisibility of their work means the contribution made by creative embroiderers to culture in their communities has been almost entirely forgotten.
The formation of the Embroiderers’ Guild in Sydney in 1957 provided a focal point for women interested in embroidery. Although the Guild was dedicated to promoting embroidery in all its forms, its founder Margaret Oppen was convinced that the craft should be forward looking and change with the times. She took every opportunity to promote modern approaches to embroidery. By the early 1970s there was a flourishing community of embroiderers in Sydney, who drew on contemporary subject matter, developed their own designs and adopted an experimental approach to their use of materials and techniques.
These embroiderers wanted validation from the broader community that what they were making was ‘art’ and, ideally, recognition from other parts of the art and craft community. In 1971 Ruth Arthur was quite explicit: “We would like to see embroidery accepted as an art form” (Anon, 1971). With its emphasis on colour and texture, creative embroidery was a long way from the conceptual art movement that emerged in the sixties and seventies. However, the embroiderers were thinking through making, rather than executing someone else’s design and they believed this made their work just as valid an art form as painting on canvas. As Margaret Oppen explained it, “In contemporary work the idea comes first, last and all the time. …Design goes on until the last stitch is ended off.”(Oppen, 1971) In order to differentiate themselves from traditional embroidery or ‘fancywork’, these practitioners came to describe their work as creative embroidery.
Creative embroiderers built a community of practice which displayed many of the characteristics of more organised art worlds, as posited by sociologist Howard Becker (1982). They produced work according to shared conventions which were initially introduced from Britain and gradually modified to suit local circumstances as more people became involved and their practice developed and matured. The embroiderers worked cooperatively in activities intended to expand and consolidate their emerging field of practice. They organised workshops and exhibitions as a means of educating participants and potential audiences about the conventions of creative embroidery. Engagement with an audience, or ‘distribution’ of their work, was important a number of reasons. Through exhibitions, a craft traditionally associated with domesticity was moved from the private to the public sphere. And while the embroiderers were realistic about their chances of making a living from their craft, the exhibitions provided opportunities for those who wished to find a market for the work they produced.
By the early 1970s group exhibitions regularly resulted in the sale of work and some of the better known practitioners were also exhibiting and selling through commercial galleries. Some works were purchased for display in public buildings; others found their way into public collections. There are a handful of pieces in the Powerhouse Museum Collection and a few in the National Gallery of Australia, moved there when the Crafts Board Collection was gifted to the gallery in 1980, although these works have rarely, if ever, been on public display in the decades since. The Embroiderers’ Guild of NSW also holds embroideries in its collection, focussing primarily on work by those embroiderers who were directly involved in the Guild.
Unfortunately, recognition at the time was no guarantee of preservation, as the following examples demonstrate. In the mid-1960s the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board acquired a large appliquéd wall hanging by Heather Dorrough, for display in the organisation’s head office. The work was exhibited in the Fourth International Crafts Exhibition in Stuttgart in 1969 and reproduced in Patricia Thompson’s Twelve Australian Craftsmen in 1973. It was a significant work of the period but has subsequently disappeared; its fate is unknown. Cascade, a large embroidery made by Heather Joynes, was another piece with a high profile. It was exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW in the early 1970s and formed part of the Australian display at the 1974 World Crafts Exhibition in Toronto, Canada. Later, faced with the problem of storing a six foot high work, Joynes dismantled the piece, recycling some of its elements and discarding the rest.
The majority of works sold in the 1970s passed into private hands and many more works remained in the possession of their creators. While it is possible that many have been preserved within the domestic sphere, being passed on as family heirlooms, others are likely to have been lost or destroyed. It is not uncommon to come across a vintage piece of creative embroidery in an op-shop or second hand store, unsigned and unidentifiable. Whether lost, discarded or kept safe in by their owners, the embroideries have disappeared from public view. As Becker explains, “what is not distributed is not known and thus cannot be well thought of or have historical importance”(Becker, 95). This has been the fate of creative embroidery.
A small number of embroiderers did become well known within the embroidery community, but most maintained a relatively low profile. It might be possible to take a Vasarian approach and construct ‘lives’ of the best known creative embroiderers. However, as Helen Topliss has argued, to do so is simply to “co-opt a female artist into male history” (Topliss, 10). Whereas the mainstream art world was (arguably still is) male dominated and very competitive, the art world that developed around the practice of creative embroidery was an inclusive one. The embroiderers who achieved a public profile developed within a community of other practitioners, influencing and in turned being influenced by those around them. To focus on the life and work of a limited number of individuals would imply that the women who achieved a high profile were formed in isolation, when in reality they developed and matured within a vibrant community of practice.
In terms of cultural preservation, creative embroidery is in a double bind. Although historians are accustomed to using visual images to provide evidence of material culture (Burke, 2001), art history requires artefacts: objects which can be held and touched, traded, collected, put on display. Where there are no ‘heroic individuals’ for whom it is possible to construct the kind of biography demanded by traditional art history, there is no incentive to collect and preserve the work that was produced. And in the absence of the work itself, it is difficult to argue for the significance of an individual maker, or for the value of the field as a whole.
In my earlier work on creative embroidery in NSW (Wood, 2006), Becker’s approach of studying structures and interactions instead of individuals and objects made it possible to document the emergence of this very lively art world based around the practice of creative embroidery. Documentary and oral sources made it possible to write about what embroiderers did, but limited access to original works meant the embroideries they made did not feature significantly in this account.
An alternative source of evidence
There is, however, a source that could be used to fill this gap. Today concerns about copyright are such that photographing work in exhibitions is generally not permitted, but in the sixties and seventies it was common practice. Key players in the embroidery community photographed their own work, work of their students, and work from exhibitions they had seen. The favoured mode of documentation was the 35mm slide, which was suitable for teaching purposes or for reproduction in print publications. As a consequence of my previous work, several hundred of these slides have been given to me by women who knew of my scholarly interest in creative embroidery. The boxes and folders containing them have been shuffled from floor to shelf and from one office to the next, kept safe because of their value as a visual record of creative embroidery. The two collections of photographic slides form a substantial body of evidence, outnumbering extant and accessible embroideries by an order of magnitude. However, the inconvenience of viewing the images on a light box or projected, one by one, in a darkened room limited their usefulness. Now, however, digital technology has made the images much more accessible.
The slides come from two sources. The first group comprises around 250 slides gathered by Cynthia Sparks, who was best known as a teacher of embroidery. One of Sparks’ key contributions to the spread of creative embroidery was a series of embroidery workshops she taught at the University of New England Summer Schools, together with Pat Langford and Heather Joynes. Cynthia Sparks’ slide collection, almost all from the nineteen seventies, includes images of work by expert practitioners, intended to demonstrate to students the possibilities of the craft, and images that document the work produced by students in these workshops which ran annually between 1969 and 1979.
The second, much larger, collection belonged to the Creative Embroidery Association, an organisation formed in 1973 to support those embroiderers with professional aspirations. This group also held regular exhibitions, conducted workshops and circulated travelling suitcase exhibitions throughout New South Wales and beyond. The collection of around a thousand slides covers the years from 1973 until the early 1990s, providing a record of the work of individual members and some of the more significant exhibitions mounted by the group.
The labelling of the slides varies considerably, ranging from those that identify maker, title and date to those with no identifying marks at all. Some slides are labelled with the name of individuals who could be described as ‘known’ embroiderers, women with a high profile at the time and about whom a significant amount of information exists. An example is Pat Langford, whose work is represented in both slide collections. Langford came to Australia from the UK in 1960 and almost immediately began to establish a career in Sydney. She held her first exhibition in 1961 and exhibited regularly over the next 40 years. Langford was the subject of numerous magazine articles, wrote several books about embroidery, and is represented in the collections of the Powerhouse Museum, the National Gallery of Australia and the Embroiderers Guild of NSW. She cannot be said to be anonymous.
Other embroiderers are ‘known’ because their involvement in creative embroidery was significant enough that they are mentioned in documentary records from the time. However, information about their life or career is limited and the whereabouts of most of their output is unknown. Strictly speaking these people are not ‘anonymous’ either, but so little information is available that it is difficult, if not impossible, to construct a detailed account of their career in embroidery. Examples here are Jean Vere, who served a term as chairman of the Embroiderers Guild and participated in high profile exhibitions in the early 1970s; Vivien Hadgkiss who was notable for her association with the Macquarie Galleries; and Ruth Arthur, who was one of the few embroiderers to produce three dimensional works in the nineteen seventies.
A significant proportion of the slides are labelled with the name of what we might describe as ‘unknown’ embroiderers; that is, individuals who do not appear in documentary records and about whom little or no information can be ascertained. Some are represented by multiple slides; others by just one or two. It is impossible to know the extent of their involvement in the creative embroidery community and whether they produced many works or only those captured in the slides. Nevertheless, these images add breadth to our understanding of the field. Finally, there are slides which do not identify the embroiderer at all. Among these are many of Cynthia Sparks’ slides which name the workshop context in which an embroidery was produced, but do not name the person who made it. The makers are anonymous but viewed collectively, these slides provide insights into the nature of these workshops and their outcomes.
Aside from the question of identification, there are other issues to consider when using the slides as a data source. Choices will have been made about which works to photograph and which photographs to keep. Nevertheless, by comparison with other forms of visual images the slides are relatively objective. Whereas paintings and photographs of people and events are inevitably by the perspective of the maker, these images were intended simply to represent the embroidered work as accurately as possible. Almost all works are depicted frontally and the embroidery fills the frame. When extraneous detail appears – the edge of a chair, the background on which the work is hung – its presence is incidental and does not affect the interpretation of the image except, perhaps, by providing some clues about the size of the work, or as evidence of lack of access to professional photography.
The quality of the images varies considerably, influenced by the conditions under which the image was captured and the skill of the photographer. Some are well- framed, sharply focussed and retain their colour well. Others are more amateurish: poorly framed or out of focus. In some cases, the slide has faded or the colour balance shifted. For example, although Prawle Point, one of Cynthia Sparks own works, appears from its slide record to be executed in pinks and blues, a magazine article describing the creation of this embroidery indicates that the work was actually stitched with gold thread and tan leather on a blue-green background (Sparks, 1982). Even where the colour remains clear and bright, there is no certainty that the slide accurately captured
the colour and tonal balance of the original work.
As any student of art history knows, scale is another victim of the reproduced image. Very few of the slides are marked with dimensions. Although a viewer familiar with the materials and techniques used will gain some sense of the size of the original work, photographic slides give little sense of the visual impact of a large piece of work, or the intimacy of a small one. Similarly, in a medium where the haptic qualities of the work are central to the meanings it conveys, important information is lost in a photographic reproduction. A slide shows the work under one lighting condition – and not always the best one. Where transparency or the reflective qualities of the materials used contribute to the meaning of the image, this is a drawback. However, although the physicality of the medium is lost, visual texture is evident in a photographic image. Once scanned, it is possible to significantly magnify the images and thus gain some clues as to the tactile qualities of the original work.
To facilitate this investigation, the slides were scanned at high resolution so they could be viewed on screen, enlarged to focus on details, or printed out. The images discussed here have been selected from those which can be dated with some degree of confidence to the nineteen seventies and, mostly, represent the work of lesser known or completely anonymous embroiderers. They are organised into several sets, each of which provides insights into the practice of creative embroidery. The first set of images (Set 1) has been selected to provide an overview of the practice of embroidery – twenty works made by twenty different individuals, of varying degrees of anonymity. The second set collects together works made by four embroiderers who were well known in the 1970s but whose reputation has faded. The third set contains works produced at a summer school in embroidery in 1978.
Set 1. An overview of the field of practice
Set 2. Works by lesser known embroiderers
Set 3. Workshops
So bearing in mind the limitations discussed above, what can these slides tell us?
The first thing evident from the slides is the sheer volume of work that was produced over the course of a decade. There is some duplication but, even so, but the collections of slides record hundreds of original works created over the course of a decade. As they come from just two sources, it is reasonable to assume they represent just a portion of the total volume of work that was produced.
We know from documentary sources the embroiderers aspired to be making art and the images provide evidence of this. Almost all of the embroideries depicted were intended for the wall, stretched over board, framed, or in the form of soft hangings. That is, they are aesthetic rather than functional objects. There were some exceptions. The Creative Embroidery Association slides include images of appliquéd and embroidered clothing by Heather Dorrough and Heather Joynes, but these form only a tiny proportion of the collection. Although the emphasis on picture making suggests a relatively conservative view of fine art, the presence of soft hangings indicates that embroiderers were aware of contemporary practices such as the use of soft sculpture in Pop Art. Similarly, the prevalence of abstract or semi-abstract imagery reflects trends in the broader art world. It is plausible to conclude that the increasing acceptance of abstract art had a significant influence on the development of this work. There is no evidence that creative embroiderers engaged in any significant way with contemporary art theory and criticism and it is unlikely that any had read Clement Greenberg. However, Greenberg’s formalism and his emphasis on the materiality of painting opened up possibilities for those working in a medium that does not lend itself to the creation of pictorial illusions.
Embroiderers cast their net widely when it came to subject matter. Documentary evidence tells us the Captain Cook Bicentenary in 1970 and the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973 helped to generate interest in Australian themes (Wood, 2006). This interest is clearly evident in the slides. The Australian landscape, flora and close-ups of natural objects appear most often, but there are also images of iconic Australian activities, including shearing, bushfire fighting, waterside work and mining. Others drew on more personal experiences, such as travel and everyday life.
Although the slides provide extensive information about what the embroiderers were depicting, they mostly show finished work. While we know from sources such as her book Embroidery From Sketch to Stitch (1996) that drawing was an essential part of the process for Pat Langford, who had formal training in art, the slides offer limited insights into exactly how other embroiderers gathered and manipulated their imagery, but there are some clues to show that photography was used as source material. Among the notations on a slide of work titled Bark, made by Ruth Arthur in 1972 is the note ‘From Close Focus’. Close Focus: The Colour and Texture of a Continent, published in 1970, was a book of photographs by Hal Missingham, at the time Director of the Art Gallery of NSW. Bark was adapted from a photograph of driftwood washed up on a beach in Queensland. Having tracked this image down, it became apparent that at least one more of Arthur’s works was drawn from Missingham’s book. An untitled work from 1976 is closely adapted from a photograph of foam receding from beach near Sydney. In his introduction (p.13), Missingham explains how his photographs are sometimes used as source material for drawing and paintings, a comment presumably interpreted by embroiderers as tacit approval for them to use his photographs – and others – in a similar way.
Only a handful of slides are marked with the size of the work represented. Red Rock, made by Vivien Hadgkiss, is one of the few for which size is recorded. In the old measurements, it was 22 inches wide and 5 feet high. Sybil Orr’s work was even larger. Although the slide included here does not indicate dimensions, in 1976 the Tamworth City Art Gallery acquired a work of hers which was 98 x 294.5 cm. It is possible by studying the materials and techniques used to estimate the general size of the embroideries, many of which appear to be A2 size or larger. This, too, can be linked back to the embroiderer’s aspirations for their work to be seen as art.
For most people, the term embroidery conjures up images of domesticity – table linen, d’oyleys and duchesse sets. They do not think beyond this conventional view. So perhaps the greatest usefulness of these slide collections is in demonstrating visually just how different creative embroidery was from traditional forms of needlework. The images show that creative embroiderers used a diverse range of fabrics and thread, supplementing conventional embroidery threads with knitting and weaving yarn and string. Many pieces include beads, stones and other found objects. Embroiderers were experimental in their use of stitching and the way in which they combined techniques, approaches that are commonplace today but in the sixties and seventies. Some of these characteristics can be linked to external influences such as the publication of Kathleen Whyte’s book Design in Embroidery in 1969, and visits to Australia by British embroiderers including Hannah Frew in 1970 and David Green in 1976. Frew’s visit generated considerable interest in the technique of goldwork, while Green’s use of printing in combination with embroidery is also evident. Regardless of the initial impetus, a spirit of experimentation is evident throughout.
By sorting and grouping the slides in different ways, more can be learned. In the same way that those who study medieval illumination can identify the hand of a particular artist, where it’s possible to identify a reasonable number of embroideries by one person you can tell something about individual aesthetics – subject matter, technique and style – and, perhaps, the development of an individual’s practice over time. From the selection of works included here, it is easy to see that while the work of Ruth Arthur, Shirley Barton, Vivien Hadgkiss and Jean Vere conformed to the general characteristics discussed above, each woman was attracted to different themes and approached their work in an individual way.
Even the completely anonymous slides are potentially useful. The final set of slides considered here (Set 3) comes from Cynthia Sparks’ collection. There are no markings on the slide mounts to indicate who made the works. However, they are identified by numbers in a manner that is not seen on any of her other slides, suggesting that they belong together as a group. Two of the slides are marked with the notation ‘Armidale Theatre Year’, while another, completely different in that it depicts a stage scene, is similarly marked. It is reasonable to conclude that all these works were made in the University of New England Summer School in 1978, which was based on the theme of theatre.
These images, and other collections identified with the context in which they were made, provide evidence of approaches to teaching at the time. Although based around a similar theme, the techniques used vary considerably, demonstrating that in the 1978 workshop at least, the focus was on the theme rather than specific processes and that those attending were free to take their ideas in whichever direction they chose. This was a very different approach to the more formulaic methods of teaching commonplace in many embroidery classes today. As well as this photographic record of the summer schools, Cynthia Sparks kept a written record of attendees. Some of these fragile documents are annotated with brief notes about the work individual students made. It may, therefore, eventually be possible to identify the makers of particular works and, since many women were repeat attendees, to track the work of individual makers over time.
My purpose here has been two-fold: to expose a selection of work produced within the context of the creative embroidery world during the nineteen seventies and in doing so to make a case for the value of slide images as evidence of practices in material culture. Creative embroidery is just one of many forms of craft practice which operate on the margins of the mainstream art world. The marginal status of the crafts means that the artefacts produced within crafts communities are rarely preserved in the public sphere. Consequently, over time the link between the maker (who) and the made (what) is broken. In the case of creative embroidery, this disconnection places at further risk our knowledge of a little known genre of Australian textiles. But where individuals and organisations have kept photographic records of their work, all is not lost. Ironically, the digital technology that has made slides obsolete also provides a means of preserving these records and offers new possibilities for their use. As this case study demonstrates, the digitisation of visual records of craft objects opens up new fields of enquiry, revealing new information about the techniques and ideas explored by practitioners and about the context in which they worked. In the case of creative embroidery, an online database of images would restore the visibility of this lively form of embroidery practice and, potentially, increase the chances of learning more about the women who made the works. Where photographic records are still extant, the same
methodology could be applied to other fields of craft practice.
Anon. ‘A stitch in time – past and present.’ Daily Telegraph, 18 February 1971.
Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Burke, Peter. Eyewitnessing: The Use of Images as Historical Evidence. London: Reaktion, 2001.
Missingham, Hal. Close Focus: The Colour and Texture of a Continent. Sydney: Ure Smith, 1970.
Oppen, Margaret, ‘Traditional and Contemporary Embroidery.’ The Record, No 117, November 1971, pp.9-10.
Sparks, Cynthia. ‘Embroidery – Blue Mountains and Prawle Point.’ Fibre Forum, Vol 1, No 3 (1982): 33-34.
Topliss, Helen. Modernism and Feminism: Australian Women Artists 1900-1940. Roseville: Craftsman House, 1996.
Wood, Susan, Creative Embroidery in NSW, 1960-1957, PhD thesis, RMIT University, 2006. https://researchbank.rmit.edu.au/eserv/rmit:6253/Wood.pdf
Set 1. An overview of the field of practice
030 Robin Jeffcoat, Rainforest, 1972
023 Mardi Holcombe, Caves, 1973
078 Eveline Cook, Lichen Log, 1974
012 Sybil Orr, Reflections, 1975
107 Judith Dyer, Cossack Dancers, 1975
131 Jane Evans Fire fighting, 1975
179 S Walsh, Fertility Goddess, 1976 (made at Armidale)
211, Linda Watt, Flowered Landscape, 1976
026 Jane Evans, Tree Bark, nd
081, Mavis Buffet, no details
057 Cheryl Sly, Aboriginal Carving (check Jan Messent book)
095 Janet McCulloch, Umbrellas, nd
096 Patsy McEvoy Shearer, nd
108, Dora Dreyfus, nd (made at Armidale)
112 Nell Hopkins, nd
198 Lynn Brown
083, Audrey Bernays, People
094, Elizabeth Jeneid, Wharfies, (made at Armidale)
Set 2 Works by lesser known individuals
070 Bark from Close Focus, 1972
002 Sun, Moon and Earth, 1974
001 Porpita 1974
004 Untitled 1976
007 White circles, 1977
034 Paddington Houses, 1973
297 Maroubra Caves, 1974
280 Aztec calendar 1974
281, Untitled 1974
278 Things, nd
009 Gremolata Macrostachys 1975
267 Red Rocks 1975
263 African Landscape, 1975/76
268 Sea Fringe 1977
269 Sea Country, 1977
011 Kangaroos in the Bush 1970
008 Emus 1970
005 Mount Morgan Copper and Gold Mine
215 Landscape 1976
003 Whooping Cranes 1979
Set 3. Work made at the University of New England summer school in embroidery in 1978
About the Author
Susan Wood is a senior lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture in the School of Communication and Creative Industries at Charles Sturt University. She teaches subjects on nineteenth century European art, the history of modern design, the history of photography, and the relationship between art and the book form. She is currently the Acting Head of School for the School of Communication & Creative Industries. Susan’s PhD thesis is titled ‘Creative embroidery’ in New South Wales, 1960-1975. Her current research projects are a biographical investigation of Ann Gillmore Rees, an English/Australian designer and printmaker, and the cataloguing of the sketchbooks of the artist-embroiderer Pat Langford. Susan Wood is also a practising visual artist who has exhibited in Australia and overseas.