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POLY-COTTON POWER: The feminist use of textiles for political protest in Britain from 1981


Almost as distinct as our ability to que and make tea is our Great British ability to have a good old moan. Reductionist stereotypes aside, the UK has a long standing history of protest as a response to civil unrest, particularly when it comes to Women’s concerns and Women’s voices. Commonly a textile element is utilised in the act of protest Whether this is a banner, patchwork flags or embroidery on a jacket. A traditionally feminine gendered skill set, textile skills of sewing, knitting, patchworking, even the materiality of fabric are often monopolised by women taking part in political protest. In a reactionary manner these women take the materials forced upon them by years of marginalisation and the belief of a woman’s realm being the home to create artwork that rejects this. The accessibility and material intersection of textiles with artists, crafters and hobbyists makes it one of the most diverse artistic mediums available.  This article showcases four British makers from the past 50 years that have utilised textile based work as a vehicle for their political voice.


A prime example of textile based protest, Thalia Campbell’s banners chronicle the events of Greenham Common in a vivid pictorial manner. Campbell’s family were of a socialist background and she was inspired by her grandmother’s interests in ecology and arts, as well as her grandmother’s experiences witnessing suffragette action. As a result, Campbell was politically conscious from a young age. When joining the Greenham movement Campbell put this political drive and her arts degree to work creating a series of banners used to adorn the fences surrounding various bases throughout the march.  Symbols of femininity, community and peace populate Campell’s work alongside statements supporting the Greenham cause. Campbell’s motivation for her banner-making stemmed from a desire to “document what we had been talking about, document what we’d done and what women in the past had done and where we were going, and why we were doing it”. This desire to document and depict the events of Greenham harken to Campbell’s banners holding a tapestry-esque function. Whilst at the time they were active-agents in the Greenham fight now that that purpose has been fulfilled they took on a new life as pictorial signifiers of the events that took place. 




Thalia Campbell, Banner (1981), Textiles, 1650 x 1210 mm        © Amgueddfa Cymru - Museum Wales



Thalia and Ian Campbell, Banner (1981),  Greenham_Common_Peace_Camp © Four Corners Books, 2021

Campbell was not the only Greenham woman to take up textile work. Monica Sjöö, a swedish-born artist, spiritualist and eco-feminist, also utilised textiles as a vehicle for her protest art. Sjöö was heavily involved in the Greenham Women's Peace Camp and the Women for life on Earth movement. Sjöö’s 1982 piece “Lunar Child of the Sea” Women for Life on Earth, whilst originally an oil on masonite painting, featured as a banner for the June Women’s March to Brawdy. This march was a section of a larger protest from Cardiff to Grenham RAF camp, where American nuclear weapons were planned to be stored. The banner itself evokes Sjöö’s own views of human interconnectivity placing concepts of land and womanhood at its’ core . The angelic wings on the foetus combined with the presence of the umbilical cord and the red oval encompassing the figure present, at bleakest, the idea that this child is dead before it has even been born. This further insinuates that by storing and entertaining nuclear weapons the British government is actively preventing the sustainability of life on earth.  The bold simplicity of this piece makes for a striking image when seen in its element at the Brawdy march.




Monica Sjoo, Lunar Child of The Sea // Women for Life on Earth (1982), Oil on Masonite, 1220 x 1220 mm  © The Estate of Monica Sjöö.     





© The Estate of Monica Sjöö. 

                           

Banner making for marches and parades is not the only way textiles have been utilised by women for protest or political comment. Women’s textile use also functions within institutional spaces as fine art pieces. Quilt, applique and patchwork techniques are staples of Tracey Emin’s works. Currently within the Tate’s collection, Hate and Power Can be a terrible thing (2004) exemplifies this. Believed to be critiquing the Falklands war, the pink blanket is adorned with a British white ensign which usually flies on royal navy ships and yachts belonging to British royalty. Inflammatory statements made from hand-cut letters such as ‘you cruel heartless bitch / you have no idea of faith’ and ‘i hate women like you’ occupy the space below the ensign. This appropriation of the ensign married with the statements embodies a sense of outrage and disgust at Margaret Thatcher’s decision to go to war with Argentina. The positioning of the ensign above these statements connotes that the national sense of pride associated with this symbol is at risk. Instead of being a symbol for great leadership the actions of the government in the Falkland Isles and the backlash against these actions jeopardises its’ status.  Furthermore the use of  traditionally feminine textiles, adorned with a pink hue and floral patterns, to critique the political actions of another woman is instrumental to the works functionality. 








Tracey Emin, Hate and Power can be a Terrible thing (2004), Textiles, 2700 × 2060 × 3 mm  © Tracey Emin


Fast forward 10 years to 5th August 2014 and we arrive at the first meeting of the Profanity Embroidery Group (PEG). PEG was set up by artists Annie Taylor and Wendy Robinson gathering both “novice embroiderers, but experienced swearers'' and “novice swearers, who were experienced embroiderers,”. In 2023 the group collaborated with The Domestic Dusters Project (TDDP) ,devised by Vanessa Marr, RSA in 2014. The project aim was to ‘give women a voice in domestic contexts where they are otherwise silenced, unheard, or ignored, through the power of hand-stitching upon a duster.’ TDDP first and foremost utilises an accessible mode of making and expression that allows the voices of everyday women to enter a wider art world context that, despite recent advancements, is still a patriarchal realm. Thus by appealing to the gendered aesthetics of domesticity and textile, PEG and TDDP transform these dusters making them just as powerful as any banner or blanket. Furthermore, the use of recognisable pop-culture symbols within PEG’s dusters such as, Freddie Mercury in the ‘I Want to Break Free Video’ and Lord Kitchener harken to postmodern methods of appropriation art. Whilst the imagery is still true enough to the original to maintain it’s recognisability the new domestic context of the yellow duster rewrites these images into the wonderful sweary, domesticity-critical landscape of the PEG embroiders.  





Image Courtesy of The Domestic Duster Project https://domesticdusters.wordpress.com/duster-exhibitions/






Images courtesy of PEG Embroiders 





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