• The Good: Extremely engaging social and political history of sewing
  • The Bad: No footnotes, western-focus, no pictures
  • The Literary: A single thread, stitching together a tapestry of history

A history through the lens of needlework, Threads of Life is a survey of sewing throughout primarily Europe and the Americas, exploring social and political history through chapters like Power, Captivity, and Protest. Needlework is an ancient craft practiced all over the world that, in addition to its utilitarian uses, communicates power, identity, secret messages, and political propaganda.

There are so many great stories in this book. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Bayeux Tapestry is one the oldest and most famous pieces of embroidery in the word, telling the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, from the perspective of the conquering Normans. It’s 230 feet long and nearly 1,000 years old, having survived capture by Napoleon and the Nazis. The women who created it are unknown. On a linen background, they used just 4 colors of wool thread and four types of stitches to depict the visual movement of sailing ships, galloping horses, and advancing soldiers.

500 years later, Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland after the death of her French husband, her brilliant embroidered banners proclaiming her power and right as queen through her family’s’ coat of arms. But her short reign ended in numerous imprisonments totaling 19 years, and she turned to small embroideries to communicate messages for escape attempts and unsuccessful assassinations.

Cloth is easy to destroy if it proclaims an undesirable religious or political association, or to suppress a conquered people, whether a kilt in Scotland or the traditional cheongsam dress in China. But cloth is easily folded and hidden, as when the Catholic Church shipped out embroidered pictures of terrible living conditions of Chilean women during the Pinochet dictatorship, or when the suffragettes reclaimed large crafted banners as tools for their campaign, or in the huge 48,000-panel NAMES quilt memorializes those lost of the HIV AIDS pandemic, chosen to evoke a wholesome association with family.

Slow, methodical needlework has been shown to quiet the mind, treating PSTD for disabled soldiers in London and anxiety in Lunatic Asylum patients in he early 1800s in Germany. Quilts can be used as a way to help people with dementia rekindle memories through tactile textures.

The downside of this broad survey of the history of sewing is the lack of detail about any particular tidbit, but a bibliography at the end allows for further study. But as a self-proclaimed history book, more sources, specifically footnotes, are notably lacking. And although there are some eastern and indigenous examples scattered throughout, I would love to have seen more non-European chapters. Also, be prepared to stop and look up pictures on the internet of the embroidery described, as there are none included (at least in the Kindle version).

There are so many more stories I’d love to share from this book, including the (positive and negative) impacts of the Singer sewing machine or the contemporary textile art scene. Highly recommended for history buffs or anyone interested in the often overlooked sewing crafts!