“Don’t knit, stitch!” So went the battle cry of Lady Smith-Dorrien, principal of the Royal School of Needlework, who sent out the directive as a press release during the second world war. She regarded embroidery as an essential wellbeing tool. “She said that knitting could be done on autopilot,” says RSN chief executive Susan Kay-Williams of her predecessor. “With stitch you need to put in such concentration that the rest of your body and your mind are allowed to heal.”
Embroidery has certainly become more popular of late. Google has reported a 100 per cent increase in searches for embroidery kits since the lockdown in March. Crafts e-commerce website Etsy – now trading at near all-time highs after a spike in face mask sales – has marked a 77 per cent increase in searches for embroidery kits in the UK compared with last year. “It takes you to a different place,” says Auburn Lucas, tutor at the London Embroidery School.
The RSN, the LES and tutors such as Lucas and Danielle Clough offer classes for every level of embroiderer – from Jacobean crewelwork and whitework to silk shading and 16th-century canvaswork – while embroiderers like Sarah K Benning offer free live tutorials on IGTV. But some of the brightest inspiration comes from Instagram where #coronacrafting has become a gallery for enthusiasts keen to share their work.
Tessa Perlow (@tessa_perlow), who taught herself to stitch, posts images of strikingly bright pieces inspired by astrology and tarot, from wall hangings to shirts and decorative hoops. Parisian Pascale Nivet Bernetiere, of Celeste Mogador (@celeste_mogador), creates intricate embroidered brooches, while California-based Michelle Kingdom(@michelle.kingdom) offers dense, evocative compositions. Others use their work to comment on current affairs – New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast (@rozchast) sews vignettes of wry domestic scenes, while artist Diana Weymar (@tinypricksproject) is curating a global project of hand-embroidered Donald Trump quotes.
Mixed-media embroidery is also on the rise. In Melbourne, Laura McKellar sews floral masks and crowns on vintage portraits, while Mexican-born Victoria Villasana favours geometric embellishment on black-and-white photos. Novices can learn much by sewing samplers. The Fabled Thread was launched this month by a former investment banker who found in sewing “the perfect antidote to stress”. The kits feature Aesop’s fables and Victorian-inspired samplers that can be customised.
While it could seem a historically servile occupation, embroidery has long been associated with feminist endeavour. It was used by the suffragettes as a medium of protest – stitching the signatures that were not allowed on the electoral roll, and creating the Suffragette Handkerchief. In 2019, Gillian Wearing celebrated the centenary of women’s suffrage with a handkerchief embroidered with the names of 50 feminist campaigners. And at the 2020 Academy Awards, Natalie Portman wore a black Dior cape stitched with the names of female directors who had not been nominated.
Social isolation has helped to intensify the crafty trend. It makes you wonder what future works we’ll see. As Anette Millington, who teaches embellishment at Parsons School of Design, observes: “In a time when folks are living inside and counting the days until a new reality, embroidery is very much about record-keeping and journalling. It helps make sacred the mundane.”