Wednesday, July 14, 2010

craft in history--subversive embroidery

Subversive craft is all the rage right now. In order to keep a safe distance from our grandparent's generation new trendy crafters use irony to differentiate themselves. I would argue that to a large degree this is because we craft in a different context and for different reasons. Today's crafters have a diy attitude not out of necessity but instead to claim something we feel has been lost and also to provide an alternative to what the mainstream commercial world has to offer.

 not necessarily "subversive," but these are certainly not your grandmother's embroideries!
Click here to take a closer look

Although it may not look as subversive as the embroidery of today, the embroidery by Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th was far more subversive than any embroidery that I have seen.  Mary Stuart was queen of the Scots while her cousin, the infamous Elizabeth the great was queen of the English.  As in all the stories of royalty there were a number of power grabs going on between the two monarchs.  The "stuff you missed in history class" podcast mentioned that had Mary and Elizabeth not both been women they would have been married to one another in order to consolidate power, and prevent the continuous grabs for power.  The subversive embroidery comes into play when Mary's husband, an Englishman named Lord Darnley mysteriously dies in an explosion.  Mary is suspected of being involved in the assassination, and after marrying one of the murderers (under duress) looks even more guilty to the Scottish people.  The couple is imprisoned in Scotland.  Mary escapes to England, where she hopes her cousin Elizabeth with protect her.  Elizabeth instead imprisons her for her supposed crime.  Elizabeth fears Mary's claims to the English throne.  Elizabeth is the offspring of Henry VII's second marriage which many, especially Catholics claim to be illegitimate.

During her time in prison Mary had little to do but work on her embroidery.  The pieces look to be innocent enough often featuring animals.  However, there is said to be hidden symbolism in the embroideries, representing the life and times of Mary.  The symbolic embroidery that I heard about was was the one named "A Catte," but there are a number of other interesting pieces detailed here.

photo from
I love how in this age you could pretty much spell things however you wanted.  I think it gives writing a little personality (darn you Webster).  Mary's embroidered tapestry shoes a cat playing with a mouse.  The ginger colored cat is meant to represent Elizabeth, who still, as in her day is recognized for her ginger colored hair, while poor trapped Mary is meant to be represented by the mouse.  She is implying that Elizabeth is simply playing with her by allowing her to stay alive.

What strikes me about this piece of embroidery is that it was done at the time.  It was not done after the fact to be an historical reference, instead Mary was putting her feelings down on cloth.  Whether Mary was conveying what she really felt or trying to get a message to the outside world, Mary's embroidery certainly made a statement.

After a number of plots to get Mary on the throne were uncovered, Mary was sentenced for treason.  Elizabeth signed an edict for Mary's death, and she was executed in 1587.

Here's where I got my info.  Check them out for more on these royals:,_Queen_of_Scots

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