Cloth Makes the World: Two Great Reads

I speak the language of cloth. And I assume, if you are reading this, that you do too. We are familiar with the mythic stories of thread and weaving, know that the discovery of how to add strength to fibre by twisting, and how to interlace fibre to create forms that could hold water and protect the body, were foundational to civilization. We can tell knitting from crochet, silk from linen, tapestry from embroidery. We gather together in groups with others who speak the language, to honour and replicate and build upon the skills and knowledge.

We are the natural audience for the two books pictured above. We probably already own classics like Elizabeth Barber's 10,000 Years of Women's Work or Cloth and Human Experience (A.B. Weiner and J. Schneider, Eds.) or The Subversive Stitch, by Roszika Parker. These are just three excellent overviews of the cultural, social and political aspects of cloth, and many authors since have relied on these as a base for their own explorations. How much more can there be to say? Of course, there is quite a bit!

Clare Hunter's lovely Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle goes over some familiar ground, but her writing is fresh and her deep emotional connection to stitching gives an extra resonance to the stories she tells. Her research is thorough, but never dry. I felt an instant kinship when I read that she dreams of cloth, as I do. Hunter is someone who understands the essence of cloth through years of working with it, experiencing the transformative power of making and the integration of mind, body and spirit that stitching can offer. She goes beyond the academic, adding a warmth and passion that, I think, could reach a wider audience. This would be a great book to share with the non-stitchers in your life - her storytelling is generous and compelling. Widely available, I got my copy through Book Depository.

Tanaka Yuko's The Power of the Weave: Hidden Meanings in Cloth uses a completely different, though no less compelling approach. She too begins her collection of essays with a dream of cloth, but it is cloth integrated with animals and plants, trees and birds. An anthropologist, Yuko looks at how spinning and weaving are symbolic of our engagement with nature. In a fascinating section on cloth and the human body, she discusses the erotic aspect of cloth, something I don't think I have read about before, although I have certainly experienced it. It isn't clear whether she works with cloth herself, but her thorough knowledge and sensitive writing give her discussion of the most mundane of stitching tasks - darning - a beauty and depth of meaning. The Japanese appreciation of the imperfect and the mended, as well as exquisite skill and precious materials, counterbalance each other throughout the book, offering much food for thought for the textile artist. Well worth the hunt to find it - my thoughtful friend Jean-Pierre Antonio came across it in a Okayama bookstore and sent it to me, but you might be able to find it through used booksellers.

Books such as these strengthen the connections between those of us plying our craft around the globe. Clare Hunter is from Glasgow, Tanaka Yuko from Yokohama - I am on a little island off the coast of British Columbia. And you might be in Italy, or Australia, or the American South. Quietly, and persistently, the work of our hands holds meaning, creates beauty, expresses love. We are all in this together!


  1. I look forward to reading both of these. Thanks for the review!

  2. I must confess to having read none of these books......yet......have just ordered The Subversive Stitch, very much looking forward to that! thanks once again for useful, insightful advice

    1. The Subversive Stitch is such a classic! Hope you enjoy it.


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