Stitching the Self
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Stitching the Self

Identity and the Needle Arts

Johanna Amos, Lisa Binkley, Johanna Amos, Lisa Binkley

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eBook - ePub

Stitching the Self

Identity and the Needle Arts

Johanna Amos, Lisa Binkley, Johanna Amos, Lisa Binkley

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About This Book

The needle arts are traditionally associated with the decorative, domestic, and feminine. Stitching the Self sets out to expand this narrow view, demonstrating how needlework has emerged as an art form through which both objects and identities – social, political, and often non-conformist – are crafted. Bringing together the work of ten art and craft historians, this illustrated collection focuses on the interplay between craft and artistry, amateurism and professionalism, and re-evaluates ideas of gendered production between 1850 and the present. From quilting in settler Canada to the embroidery of suffragist banners and the needlework of the Bloomsbury Group, it reveals how needlework is a transformative process – one which is used to express political ideas, forge professional relationships, and document shifting identities. With a range of methodological approaches, including object-based, feminist, and historical analyses, Stitching the Self examines individual and communal involvement in a range of textile practices. Exploring how stitching shapes both self and world, the book recognizes the needle as a powerful tool in the fight for self-expression.

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Part One

Emerging Identity: Reconsidering
the Narratives of the Needle


The Identity of an Embroidering Woman: The Needle Arts in Brussels, Belgium, 1850–1914

Wendy Wiertz


A drawing dated 1889 depicts a girl quietly sitting in front of a window (Figure 1.1). Her head bent, her eyes fixed on her hands, she is fully concentrated on crocheting a fine ribbon. Likely, she does not even notice her mother sketching her rapt form. This girl is Riri d’Ursel, the later Countess de Boissieu (1875–1934), and the daughter of the high-ranking Duchess d’Ursel, née de Mun (1849–1931).1 This private moment of a hand-working daughter captured by her mother is but one of the many nineteenth-century visual examples of girls and women embroidering, knitting, crocheting, tailoring, and dressmaking.2 According to these images, the hands of girls and women never stopped for a moment’s rest. As Rozsika Parker has demonstrated, such images contributed to the stereotype of femininity: silent and still, confined to the home, and committed to a family.3 Is this the only narrative? In this chapter, I question this visual stereotype by investigating if and how needlework fostered new identities among girls and women, focusing on those of the upper and middle classes in Brussels during the period 1850–1914.
The first part of this chapter focuses on Belgian women’s education in the needle arts during the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Drawing upon educational manuals, magazines, books, and visual culture, which offered a prescription of the curriculum for home and institutional education, I demonstrate how home tutoring and schools employed the needle arts towards different goals, both domestic and professional. In the second part, I examine the career of one of Belgium’s most well-known needlewomen, Hélène De Rudder, born Du Ménil (1869–1962). She is a clear example of an embroideress who transformed from a craftswoman to an artist. In the third and last part of this chapter, I concentrate on how the needle arts were employed by other women, the status of needlework, and how these skills could lead to new identities as (semi-)professional craftswomen and teachers, thus showing how women stretched the prescribed boundaries of femininity. This chapter is set within the context of Art Nouveau’s celebration of the decorative arts, as well as a shift in education policy.
Book title
Figure 1.1 Duchess d’Ursel, née Antonine de Mun, “Riri à la fenêtre du salon d’Hingene s’essayant à faire de la mignardise. Juillet 1890.” Pen and ink drawing, 260 × 165 mm, Album 1888–1891. Brussels, private collection, 35r. © Hingene, Kasteel d’Ursel, Stefan Dewickere.

The Place of the Needle Arts in Young Women’s Education

“Faut-il conclure de là que l’industrie féminine (je parle évidemment ici des femmes privilégiées que la nécessité de gagner leur vie n’oblige pas au travail) est dans le marasme? Certes non […].”4
Alma, author for the women’s journal Bruxelles Féminin, was delighted to observe that Belgian girls and women still practiced aspects of “feminine industry,” including the needle arts, in 1904. These “modern Penelopes,” as she called them, were women whose privilege freed them from work, and who chose to use their time wisely, not wasting their efforts on grand art. As she stated, “Le nombre de jeunes femmes et de jeunes filles qui chez nous, occupent leurs loisirs à exécuter des ouvrages délicats, artistiques et pratiques, croît chaque jour. Ce sont là passe-temps très intelligents et beaucoup plus intéressants […] que les essais infructueux de grand art auxquels se complaisant encore quelques snobinettes.”5
Many women, however, not only chose needlework, the so-called feminine industry, but combined different techniques. The aristocratic sisters Marie (1848–1925), Jeanne (1850–1926), and Henriette (1855–1940) Countesses de Villermont, who were tutored at home in Brussels and at the Belgian countryside, were three such women. Drawing, painting, and playing music, as well as sewing and embroidering, were all part of their education. They also received a lesson in making bobbin lace.6 The sisters learned these skills from their mother and governess. The eldest, Marie, later recalled in her memoirs, “Ma mère dont les doigts de fée étaient infatigables n’aimait rien tant que de passer de longues heures de la journée sur la terrasse du château à broder, faire de la tapisserie, ou coudre pour les pauvres.”7
In addition to the instructions received from their mother and governess, the sisters de Villermont could consult printed examples in magazines or pattern books. These pattern books existed from the early-sixteenth century. Drawing and painting manuals only appeared from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, demonstrating that the needle arts were an important pastime centuries before drawing and painting, and remained so during the nineteenth century.8 Almost all girls and women from the upper and middle classes learned embroidering, knitting, crocheting, tailoring, and dressmaking. They learned the skills at home from female relatives, governesses, or received lessons from private teachers and at school.
The schooling system in Belgium during the second half of the nineteenth century was characterized by the Schoolstrijd (School War), an ideological, pedagogical, and financial conflict between Catholics and liberals. This conflict changed the schooling landscape. During the first half of the century, girl’s education had been mainly entrusted to congregational schools and private pensions; however, after 1850 non-confessional schools were founded. All institutes included needlework in their curriculums, and whatever the school’s ideology, the vision of women’s social role remained the same: “as domestic helpmates, women played a critical role in the family, showcasing their husbands’ success and ensuring the family’s biological and ideological continuity.”9 Écoles ménagères (schools specializing in domestic science) were particularly focused on teaching young women how to run a household. These schools targeted two groups of women: those who would go into service, and, preferably, those who would marry, settle, and become devoted wives and mothers. However, this bourgeois ideal of the angel in the house, promoted by books, education manuals, magazines, and visual culture was not possible for everyone: some women had to gain a livelihood because they remained unmarried or because their fortune declined.10
Different educational systems could prepare women for a profession, but none explicitly advertised this goal. This changed with the creation of the école professionelle. In Brussels, the first professional school for girls was founded in 1865 and was later called école Bischoffsheim after its most important initiator, the banker, liberal politician, and philanthropist Jonathan-Rafaël Bischoffsheim (1808–1883). The institute was modelled after the French Élisa Lemonniers’ professional schools for poor girls and proclaimed a number of revolutionary objectives for the period.11 Aside from the secular nature of its teachings, it declared the importance of a general theoretical level of instruction for future women artisans, organized apprenticeship training outside of the workshop, and legitimated the principle of paid work for women. These objectives constituted a total break from the dominant ideal of the angel of the house.12
Stressing the legitimation of the principle of paid work for women was new and contributed to their emancipation. The Brussels professional school offered a mixture of theoretical and professional lessons permitting their students to choose from technical drawing; embroidering; manufacturing clothing and lingerie; painting on porcelain, glass, and fabric; fabricating artificial flowers; and accounting (Figure 1.2). Unlike its French counterpart, the école Bischoffsheim predominantly recruited lower middle-class students. To be recruited, the students had to fulfil a number of conditions: the girls had to be twelve years old, finished primary school, and they needed to pay a small enrolment fee. Later, efforts were made to include girls from the lower classes. The school proved to be a success, and by 1900 around forty-eight such professional schools existed in Belgium, though of varying quality.13
In the same decade that the first professional school for girls opened its doors, the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts considered the integration of the applied arts. Auguste Orts (1814–1880), a lawyer, liberal politician, and the chairman of public works for the Brussels City Council,14 raised the issue of admitting women in this field. He argued that women could earn a living through the applied arts, including the needle arts, before they married. If there should be financial difficulties after marriage, they could continue working without having to leave their home. In this way, they could fulfil their roles as wives and mothers.
Book title
Figure 1.2 La classe de broderie à l’école Bischoffsheim, c. 1903. Photo Gautier, in Anonymous, “L’École professionnelle Bischoffsheim,” Bruxelles Féminin, 1 December 1903, 8–9. Free of copyright.
One supporter of Orts’s idea was the painter Louis De Taeye (1822–1891). He drew attention to the fact that the expense of educating women in the applied arts was less than when men attended the program. According to De Taeye, this was...

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