From Manbroidery to Sew Bros: the Masculinities of Needlework
Throughout time, men as well as women have wielded the needle. So why do men who stitch continue to raise eyebrows?
It’s December 2014. Jamie Chalmers, a tall, broad-chested man with a shaved head and a beard, mounts the TEDx-stage in the British village of Bedford. He is dressed in a black zip hoodie with silver graffiti lettering, the rolled-up sleeves exposing his muscular underarms tattooed with the letter ‘X’ in various sizes. A large screen behind him shows a red-and-black star emblem. Chalmers points at the emblem. ‘I made this. It’s a hand embroidery, it’s called ‘Obey’, and it’s based on the work of Shepard Fairey. It is five inches wide, it’s twenty-two stitches per inch. It took me about six months to make, and I went a bit mental in the middle of it, but I made it, because my name is Mr X Stitch, and I’m a manbroiderer.’ Shy laughter arises from the audience. Apparently, there’s something comical about the word ‘manbroiderer’, or the implicated idea of a large man like Chalmers wielding a needle. It’s clearly something the public is not used to seeing.
Chalmers is the founder of online needlework platform Mr X Stitch, which features a diversity of contemporary needlework artists and projects. Since 2012, the website has run a subpage called Manbroidery, where Chalmers interviews other male embroiderers about their work. The titles ‘manbroiderer’ and ‘Mr X Stitch’, the latter a reference to the hypermasculine X-men characters from the Marvel universe, seemingly earmark Chalmers and his male colleagues as a separate and rare species: the manly men who stitch.
Today, seven years after Chalmers’ speech, it looks like more men than ever practice needlework, partly resulting from the growing visibility of male needleworkers online and in the immensely popular British tv show The Great British Sewing Bee. More recently, the handmade aesthetics of upcoming menswear brands like Bode and celebrity looks such as Harry Styles’ patchwork J.W. Anderson cardigan have sparked an interest in DIY. Finally, much of it is related to the pandemic: the closing of clothing shops and confinement to homes drove women as well as men to online and offline crafts stores for materials to make, mend or embellish their own clothes.
However, that doesn’t mean there is gender equality in the world of needlework. Its spaces, from social media to sewing clubs and online crafts marketplace Etsy, are still dominated by women. Knitting or stitching men continue to be the object of mockery, as The Guardian recently reported in an article on the post-pandemic rise of the ‘sew bro’, the manbroiderer’s sewing sibling. Thabo Sabao, a male apprentice software developer who displays his self-made garments on Instagram, said about his love for sewing: ‘When I tell people, they may laugh because they think I’m joking or they look quite surprised by the fact I sew as a guy.’
In fact, the West has a long tradition of framing embroidering, sewing or knitting men as a joke, Joseph McBrinn has observed. McBrinn is the author of the recently published volume Queering the Subversive Stitch: Men and the Culture of Needlework, believed to be the first book ever about the cultural history of needlework by men. Needlework, which is strongly associated with femininity, has been employed in popular culture for centuries to designate men as infantile, effeminate, queer, or otherwise deviant from the heteromasculine norm. Take, for example, the Victorian print of a sewing match for men aboard a luxury ocean liner, where a row of stitching blokes serves as amusement to the lady travellers. Or take the charming Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, declared by J.K. Rowling herself to be the only gay character in the Harry Potter series, who in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince announces that he does ‘love knitting patterns’. Why are men who stitch considered such an oddity?
Sweet like a sample
McBrinn’s Queering the Subversive Stitch is a reaction to Roszika Parker’s book The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, which appeared in 1984. In this seminal work, which continues to be relevant today, Parker threw light upon the question of how needlework and femininity became almost synonymous with each other. She pointed out that contrary to popular beliefs, needlework is not a feminine craft by nature. In medieval Britain, for example, ‘both men and women embroidered in guild workshops, or workshops attached to noble households, in monasteries and nunneries’. Both genders, then, contributed what has become known as the Opus Anglicanum, the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk, silver and gold thread, which were used in religious or everyday contexts. At this point, embroidery was considered to be a major art form. However, from the sixteenth century onward, its cultural and economic value began to decrease. Embroidery became a domestic craft, increasingly practised by home-making women. The two became associated to the point where embroidery was used in schools to instil ‘feminine’ qualities in girls. It were as if through stitching samples, girls would become like their needlework: quiet, soft and delicate.
By the nineteenth century, ‘historians of embroidery obscured its past and instead suggested that embroidery had always been an inherently female activity’, Parker wrote. The idea that women were made for the humble and serene practice of needlework supported and sustained the – largely oppressive – Victorian stereotype of women as the ‘Angels in the House’. The idea that needlework was an essentially feminine craft remained largely unchallenged throughout the twentieth century. Yet, while embroidery was employed to inculcate femininity in women, the medium also offered a space to negotiate the terms and constraints of femininity. Needlework as an ‘essentially feminine’ medium was appropriated by women to challenge stereotypes through an art form that felt like it belonged to them. Suffragettes embroidered banners with feminist symbols and slogans. Artist Tracy Emin addressed taboos around female sexuality by stitching the names of everyone she slept with over a period of thirty years on a tent. In 2017, thousands of women wore self-knit pussyhats to the Women’s March organised after the inauguration of president Trump. The use of needlework as a feminist medium is also evident on Etsy, where the body positivity movement takes the shape of bestselling embroidery patterns of diverse breasts. However, while these works have opened up the question of what femininity is or could be, they have also bolstered the perception that needlework is female territory.
‘While Victorians cast women in the role of nature’s needleworker, men were erased from its history,’ McBrinn writes in Queering the Subversive Stitch. Nevertheless, he notes, several men did continue to stitch through the ages, even as they were deemed ‘effeminate’ and faced homophobic threats. What has been known of male needlework has often been framed in terms of work or therapy; of duty or solution rather than a deliberate pursuit. A popular example is that of the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry, a workshop that employed wounded veterans from the First World War, who could earn money through their embroidery. At the same time, their stitching served as occupational therapy against stress and shellshock.
However, men too embroidered for pleasure and, like women, some of them found in needlework a way to question their own identities and masculinity in general. For example, there was Ernest Thesiger, the founder of the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery industry. Thesiger himself worked as an embroidery teacher, but made it a point to emphasise that he also stitched for his own enjoyment, communicating that men had every right and reason to do so. After the Second World War, fashion photographer George Platt Lynes and his brother Russell Lynes, both avid embroiderers, challenged the idea that there was no room for ‘hobby crafts’ such as embroidery in the male-dominated realm of ‘high art’. George Platt Lynes embroidered abstract male nudes on cushion covers; Russel Lynes curated exhibitions that merged contemporary painting and craft, blurring the binary structures of highbrow versus kitsch, and masculine versus feminine. During the temporary ‘needlepoint boom’ of the seventies, several men wrote needlework books, such as former football player Rosey Grier. His Needlepoint for Men included needlework ‘photos, step-by-step instructions, and sample patterns for the crafty man’. In his writings, Grier – an exception in the male needlework scene, not being middle-class and white – recalled needlepoint’s masculine lineage by referencing men’s contributions to the Opus Anglicanum.
For men as well as for women, needlework became a means to explore their genders and sexualities, as well as the boundaries between art and craft. This exploration continues today with the work of artists such as James Merry. His meticulously handcrafted masks made for singer-songwriter Björk, inspired by flora, fauna and fungi, tread beyond the question of masculine versus feminine to the border between human and non-human. ‘I’m fixated on the idea of something from one world transforming into something from another world – that moment when it’s not quite clear which world it’s in’, Merry said to Dazed in 2017. This hybridity also characterises his work in the realm of fashion. Merry is known for adorning the logos on sportswear sweaters – symbols of speed and mass production – with embroideries of flowers and mushrooms, signifying the beauty of slowness and uniqueness.
Beyond the embroidery frame
Most of McBrinns book discusses needlework in various contexts, from the domestic to visual art and design. The world of dress and fashion, however, is largely omitted – perhaps intentionally because of its sheer scope. McBrinn does briefly address fashion, noting that ‘there is much focus on the male designer but little on the male embroiderer’. While there is certainly more attention for design than embroidery in fashion, the dual division between designer and embroiderer does not necessarily apply. Designers and tailors are themselves often skilled needleworkers, whether accomplished in plain sewing, invisible hemming or ‘fancy work’. This part of their expertise generally remains obscured, as male designers and tailors are frequently addressed in terms of the historically ‘masculine’ aspects of their profession: the conceptual work of drawing, the physical work of fabric cutting or the mathematics of perfect pattern making.
It is true that many designers and brands nowadays outsource needlework to either machines or ateliers. Yet even then, chances are it is done by men. Much of the embroidery seen on the catwalks and in clothing stores is made in Indian embroidery ateliers, where men make up the majority of embroiderers. This indicates that the scarcity of men practicing needlework is far from universal, but instead is both a cause and an effect of an explicitly Western construct which stubbornly persists. It is partly sustained by Western fashion brands that shroud their production chain in mystery and thereby keep any clothing makers further down the chain – including male embroiderers – from public view.
Concluding, men of all sorts have stitched, and stitch, across the globe. Though is not surprising that many needleworking men in the global north continue to feel the need to reassert their masculinity by calling themselves ‘manbroiderers’ or ‘sew bros’ – it is unnecessary. Moreover, it upholds the perception that as needleworkers, they are separate not just from women but also from other men and other embroiderers, which doesn’t normalise but rather peculiarises their practice. While needlework, perhaps more than many other arts and crafts, offers a means for everyone to repair done damage, beautify, explore creative freedom or come to terms with oneself.
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