Needling Women: The Transgressive Power of Needlework

Sarah Bower

A tattoo artist at her work.

A tattoo artist at her work.

One of the epigraphs to my novel, The Needle in the Blood (Snowbooks UK, 2007 / Sourcebooks Landmark US, 2012), which was inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, reads: ‘Has the pen or pencil dipped so deep in the blood of the human race as the needle?’ Olive Schreiner’s answer to her rhetorical question is an unequivocal ‘no’.1 Writing has been confined, for most of our history in the west, to women from very narrow sectors of society – principally the religious and those enlightened elements of the aristocracy which believed in educating their daughters. Although women writers were rare, women as storytellers were not. Old wives told tales designed to guide young women through the thorny knots of courtship, marriage, child-rearing and how not to alienate your mother-in-law. Mothers spun cautionary tales for the children at their knee, just as they spun their yarn. In his play, The Old Wives’ Tale, written around 1590, George Peele says, ‘A woman without a tongue/Is as a souldier without his weapon.’ In English, we speak of spinning yarns and weaving plots. Because storytelling is perceived as a female occupation (as Liz Lochhead has it, ‘Women waffle and witter/Men talk.’), because it takes place when women are gathered together as they are when doing their needlework (one thing Schreiner, in a letter of 1898 to Mary Sauer, says she could still do while pregnant and ‘mentally so lazy’), the two activities have become intimately associated in our narrative and linguistic consciousness.

Embroidery, and needlework of all kinds, has been perceived for many centuries of western history as feminine, and largely a domestic activity. There is an implication here that needlework is undervalued, not high art, but practical craft. In the Middle Ages, as now, however, the picture is more complicated, and the complication arises – as so often – from the cultural vortex of the Victorian era into which the medieval art of embroidery has been sucked. The first histories of the craft of embroidery were written by the Victorians, who imposed upon the narrative their own notions of what constitutes masculinity and femininity. The true history of the Opus Anglicanum, the early medieval golden age of embroidery, was obscured, leaving us with the persistent image of woman as both image and creator. The world of Ivanhoe is full of ladies at their needlework, producing images of other ladies, flower gardens, myths and biblical scenes for altar cloths. This vision ignores the fact that, in the early Middle Ages, when the Opus Anglicanum was the haute couture of embroidery, women worked in, and even ran, professional ateliers. Women’s needlework was not just a domestic craft, but high art with an international reputation, and women played a full part in spinning the yarns of the great narrative embroideries of which the Bayeux Tapestry, although incomplete, is the finest and most comprehensive surviving example.

It was a woman who inspired me to write my novel – not the mysterious Aelfgyva, who stitched her way into my story later, but the anonymous woman fleeing a burning house, dragging a child by the hand. I heard Simon Schama assert that this image was the first in western art to show what war does to civilians and, with ‘reconstruction’ in Iraq in full swing in the early years of this century, similar images were on the TV news most nights. His words, and the image which inspired them, brought the Tapestry to life for me.

Very little is known about the origins of the great embroidery we call the Bayeux Tapestry, which makes it, of course, an even more attractive proposition for the novelist. We do not know who commissioned it or for what purpose, nor who made it, although it was almost certainly made in England rather than Normandy. From the 1720s, when it was re-discovered by Bernard de Montfaucon, until the 1950s, when the art historian Francis Wormald proposed a monastic atelier, it was assumed the work had been made by William’s queen, Matilda, and her ladies, or by Harold’s sister, Edith, the Confessor’s widow. While both theories are now thought to be unlikely, the personal engagement of both women – their amateur rather than professional status, if you like – illustrates the chameleon power of narrative embroidery. For one queen, it is a celebration of her husband’s triumph, for the other a memorial to her dead brother.

Because of the frequency with which he is portrayed in the Tapestry and the flattering nature of these portraits, Odo of Bayeux, William the Conqueror’s uterine brother, is now widely supposed the most likely patron of the work and, once I began reading what little biographical material there then was about Odo, I was captivated. A man of such violent contradictions seemed tailor-made for the kind of psychological examination which is the novelist’s privilege and which the Tapestry, in its margins, also attempts. As for the conditions under which the work was done, however, I took greater liberties. Power, we know, is all about sex. Gender politics is specific but all politics is sexual. So, while the smart money is on the Tapestry having been made in the atelier of Saint Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, by male monastic embroiderers (more talk than waffle), I decided to give the worldly and attractive Bishop Odo a workshop full of women, headed up by a lesbian nun, and see what would happen. Quite a lot did.

Women’s stories are subversive. They are all about cheating husbands, dodging dictatorial fathers, stealing the march on wicked stepmothers. They are full of deceit and trickery, sharp wit and rumbustious bawdiness. And it is these aspects of the Bayeux Tapestry – what Andrew Bridgeford has called its ‘hidden history’ – that makes it most enticing to this 21st-century woman storyteller. Even today, women remain liminal to history. When Christine Lagarde became Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund in 2011, the press was more interested in her synchronised swimming than her professional credentials. Margaret Thatcher is defined by her handbags and Theresa May by her shoes. There is still a sense of patronising establishment amazement whenever a woman takes a top job in industry or the City.

The margins are where the Bayeux Tapestry becomes interesting. Its main narrative is one of male power, conventionally exercised through military and diplomatic means. In places, it is literally a parade of big swinging dicks. In the top and bottom margins of the work, however, very different stories unwind. Here there are hymns to the life lost in the trauma of war, the ploughing and sowing and harvesting. Various representations of Aesop’s ‘Fable of the Fox and the Crow’ tell a cautionary tale that runs counter to the narrative of conquest, expressing a mischievous resistance to the new regime. There are bodies broken in battle, but also priapic lovers whose jolly lewdness testifies to the indomitability of life. Even though the Tapestry is undoubtedly a narrative of conquest, it is so much more. It is a rebellious and transgressive work that defiantly thumbs its nose (and other parts of its anatomy) at the establishment. It’s clever, rude and funny, teeming with life even while it treats of death. This is no work of domestic piety, but the most powerful account we have of a seminal moment in our history.

Today, a massive heritage industry surrounds the Bayeux Tapestry. You can find its images reproduced on mouse mats, ties, tea towels and cushion covers. I once possessed a makeup case featuring Harold with the arrow in his eye and still own a mug on which Odo is displayed presiding over the feast at Pevensey. More interesting is the way its threads connect to more contemporary works. Narrative embroideries have been made to record the evacuation of Dunkirk (by John Craske) and the D-Day landings (the Overlord Embroidery, designed by Sandra Lawrence and made by a team of women embroiders from the Royal School of Needlework).

Most significant to my mind, however, is what some critics have described as the ‘appropriation’2 of embroidery by Tracey Emin. The sense that she has appropriated these ‘domestic’ forms arises from her status as a serious artist. Her needlework – which is made not just by her but by an atelier, exactly as the Bayeux Tapestry was – is exhibited in art galleries, not so much because it is perceived as high art, but because its creator falls within the Young British Artists movement. Never mind the provocative beauty of her work or its unflinching story-telling, its status remains troubling, transgressive and much argued about. Well, good. If needlework becomes absorbed into the artistic establishment, it will be in danger of losing the power it derives from the margins.

Needlework itself has its margins. In 2014, a survey concluded that there were now more tattooed women in America than men. One of the most sought-after tattoo artists at work today, Kat Von D, is female. The designs for the Overlord Embroidery were applied to the virgin linen using pouncework, a system of inking and hole-punching which is exactly the same as tattooing. Tattoo art is needlework, and it is also vividly narrative. To have the name of your child or your lover tattooed on your body tells a story. To be prepared to go through the hours of pain and discomfort needed to transform your back into an artwork or sheath your arm in a sleeve tells a story. This is a triumphant appropriation, in which the pricked finger moves centre stage and the needleworker becomes her art. She is no longer making art in the service of the domestic, but in the service of her own body, for her own pleasure. For the tattooist and her ‘canvas,’ the needle is truly and literally in the blood.


  1. Schreiner, Olive (1982). From Man to Man, or, Perhaps Only. London: Virago, p323.
  2. Hemmings, Jessica (2002).

About the contributor: SARAH BOWER is the author of The Needle in the Blood (Susan Hill Award, 2007) and Sins of the House of Borgia (Toronto Globe and Mail bestseller). Her latest novel, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It?, was inspired by the history of Palestine since 1948.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 78, November 2016

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