Originally published at: https://disabilityarts.online/magazine/opinion/connected-by-threads/
For her Covid Commission Gill Crawshaw has created an illustrated essay which tells a story of disabled women and textiles. She makes connections between textile art created by contemporary disabled women artists and needlework produced by women incarcerated in institutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Textiles and needlework have long been part of the fabric of disabled women’s history. From the workhouse and asylum through to occupational therapy in hospitals and day centres, and even in the home, needlework has been an activity intended to keep disabled women busy and quiet. But some women found a voice in their sewing. Far from being silenced, textiles gave them the freedom to express themselves in a way that they could control.
Lorina Bulwer, Untitled, no date. Woollen yarn on re-used cotton fabric. Photos courtesy of Thackray Museum of Medicine.
Raisa Kabir, NO PROTECTION, 2020-21. Tufted woollen yarn. Photo: Tiu Makkonen.
Mary Frances Heaton, Untitled, around 1852. Linen with cotton thread. Photo courtesy of the Mental Health Museum.
Faye Waple, Reductivism, 2014. Cotton thread on canvas.
Today’s disabled women artists are continuing this legacy. They are embracing the possibilities of textile materials and techniques while at the same time subverting them to confound expectations and as a way to protest. Many use traditional techniques, learned in childhood, which connect them to previous generations or to their community. Like those women in workhouses and asylums, they find textiles to be well suited for communicating complex, sometimes difficult, ideas. They are drawn to textiles because they are versatile, portable and include materials and equipment that are affordable and close to hand.
Connected over many years, disabled women have blended their creativity, textile skills, and understanding of materials with insight and experience. The art which emerges shows their resistance, resourcefulness and resilience.
This essay aims to show connectivity between one generation and the next, highlighting kinship, shared practices and traditions, driven by Gill Crawshaw’s curiosity about disabled needleworkers and textile artists. To this end she focuses on the lives and work of disabled women in the UK, many in the north of England.