Women crafting freedom

A tray with 19 colourful embroidered buttons

The Antonia Suardi collection showcases the creative independence and activism of embroidery.

Laura Fiesoli (opens in new window) (Museo del Tessuto di Prato)
Marta Franceschini (opens in new window) (European Fashion Heritage Association)

Often disregarded as ‘minor’, the decorative arts have historically been a vivid and diverse space where women could exercise their own creative freedom, steering away from cultural biases.

The decorative arts, especially textile design, weaving and embroidery, allowed women to shape their femininity and actively take part in creative and social discourse. These crafts were a way to re-evaluate the mundane and resist and re-imagine stereotypes.This is what, during the twentieth century, inspired the work of artists like Anni Albers, Loja Saarinen, Ruth Adler Schnee, and Sonia Delaunay.

12 different pieces of embroidery in different colours and patterns arranged on a black background

However, using craft to declare freedom and independence has older and stronger roots and was not reserved to women belonging to the avant-garde circles of Paris or the Bauhaus. Different areas around Europe saw the birth of women’s groups where activities such as weaving and embroidery became a means of expression, and a way to participate in the creative scene of their society.

At the beginning of the 20th Century many workshops led and organised by women sprung up across Italy. These cooperatives were often organised as a reaction to the industrialisation of women's craft products such as lace. Women who had been practising these crafts for over centuries decided they had to organise themselves into larger groups to promote their work internationally and stand a chance against the mass production and distribution of industrial textiles. The Industrie Femminili Italiane guild was one of these cooperatives, set up with the purpose of safeguarding and promoting the creativity of women’s traditional handicraft.

The Industrie Femminili Italiane was in charge of providing guidelines to other Italian craft schools, among wich the Ars Orobiae school in Bergamo, established in 1903. The Ars Orobiae was described as a group of workers working at home on behalf and under the direction of the Countess Suardi, and practising the reproduction of antique stitches and patterns applied to modern uses.

detail of fabric in a beige rough weave on a black background, decorated with orange, green and blue stitching in the form of starbursts.

The “Antonia Suardi Collection”, now conserved in the Museo del Tessuto di Prato, includes over 1.500 pieces of embroidery and lace from the personal collection of the Italian Countess Antonia Ponti Suardi (1860-1938). At the beginning of the Twentieth century, Suardi was one of the main supporters of the Industrie Femminili Italiane.

Like other noblewomen of her time, Antonia Suardi spent her life constantly putting effort into research and into the dissemination of the arts of embroidery and lace. Through the teaching of these ancient professions, her school aimed to encourage a new perspective of social emancipation for women. At the same time, the school kept traditional techniques alive that risked disappearing as mechanisation rose in popularity.

the inside cover of a book, covered in green felt-like fabric. On the left side of the inside cover are two pieces of paper pinned down with needles, one of them says 'Contessa Antonia Suardi'. The right side of the inside cover has several samples of lace and embroidery.

The Antonia Suardi collection dates from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth century and includes many different à jour works, laces and textiles together with artefacts preserved for educational purposes. These artefacts can be used as study material and as inspiration for current embroidery schools. The collection also includes documents, such as accountability books, receipts and photographs of ancient items, that testify to the educational activity of the school from 1904 to 1930. These samples and photographs of embroidery, accompanied by annotations detailing the names of the ancient patterns, can be considered particularly interesting to reflect on the processes and steps involved in the creation, production and sale of these materials.

These objects are invaluable in reconsidering the conceptual and material meanings of embroidery as an instrument for women to express themselves and fight for freedom and equal rights. Rozsika Parker argues as much in her book Subversive Stitch, tracing the relationship between the history of embroidery and the changing notion of femininity and female behaviour from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

 delicate silk-like white fabric in a tight weave on a black background. The fabric is decorated with white embroidery in relief, depicting flowers, leaves, and other floral patterns.

Parker considers femininity as a 'lived identity' that can be 'accepted or rejected, and believes that 'knowing the history of embroidery is knowing the history of women.' Even though embroidery was considered an important art form in the Middle Ages, practised by both men and women, this changed in the nineteenth century. From the nineteenth century onwards, embroidery was considered specifically feminine, a domestic activity, 'low' in the hierarchy of artistic endeavours.

Embroidery is traditional in the sense that it is repeated in the same way, and is produced with the same tools (needle and thread), even if it always leads to different results. The extraordinary stubbornness of embroidery, its resilience, its capacity to resist any definition demonstrates how the very act of embroidering (as a practice, and therefore as a craft) has played a central role in defining femininity through the centuries, and still does today, thanks to craftivist collectives reclaiming the use of embroidery and traditional techniques to ‘materially declare their feminist stances.

 close up of detailed lacework on a black background

This blog was written as part of the CRAFTED project, which aimed to enrich and promote traditional and contemporary crafts.