Subversive Cross Stitch Is Older Than You Think

For as long as I’ve been cross stitching, there have been snarky cross stitches, NSFW cross stitches, postmodern cross stitches, tongue-in-cheek cross stitches, and even just the plain old retro cross stitches. These designs are great, but they serve a purpose; to subvert. But what exactly does that mean, and is it as contemporary as we’d like to think? I say no.
 

Subversive
[suhb-vur-siv]

 
adjective

  • Seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.

 
Its important that we start with a definition, or more specifically the definition of the word. Whilst you probably think you know what something is, its actual definition can be wildly different, take the humble cross stitch sampler for example.
So subversion is to undermine the power and authority of an established system or institution. This can take a whole or part of a cross stitch, but as many know it, a sampler of some type.

Modern Trends

In modern times, subversion can be highly varied. It can tackle major injustices, racial freedoms, or it can be a simple subversion of the common cross stitch. For most, this is the vast majority of cross stitch samplers, but even ones that aren’t made to be incongruous or shocking are still subversive.
 
In the below example someone has taken on the home sweet home cross stitch sampler trope, a highly traditional design, and subverted it by pushing a very modern video game aesthetic on top. This in itself does subvert, but the very nature of the work, a vault under the ground where the inhabitants are trapped for hundreds of years, pushes that envelope even further, mocking the original intentions.
 
Whilst this is far from the most subversive cross stitch, it does go to show that subversive cross stitch is very popular. This increase in popularity does mean its more obvious to the everyday cross stitcher, but in order to be a video game cross stitch, it needs to be contemporary.
 
But does it get older than this?

Fallout 3 Home Sweet Home Sampler Cross Stitch (source: reddit)
Fallout 3 Home Sweet Home Sampler Cross Stitch (source: reddit)

Second World War

With our second example, we throwback to the second world war, a time where you probably didn’t expect cross stitch to be popular, but with thousands of prisoners of war across Europe, cross stitch was a popular pass time. In reality, the British government supported this, indirectly, as they sent supplies that were tools for escape, however that didn’t stop POWs having their fill of cross stitch.
 
One such example is the fantastic work of Alexis Casdagli. At first glance this is a very Nazi loving sampler, a sampler so impressive to the nieve Nazis that they took this apparent pro-third Reich sampler around Germany to show off in other prisons. They were at the time, the authority, the established system, and Alexis subverted them in a way they didn’t even know. Around the edge reads simple morse code, familiar to all British troops at the time, with very subversive statements like “God Save The King” and even a swear word; “F**k Hitler”.
 
This is a sampler that not only subverts the authority of those in power but flys under their radar, hidden from view, meaning the Nazis spread the subversive statements to other prisoners of war.
 
But does it get older than this?

World War 2 sampler by imprisoned POW Major Alexis Casdagli
World War 2 sampler by imprisoned POW Major Alexis Casdagli (source: Victoria and Albert museum website)

19th century

The last example we have today is a fantastic cross stitch sampler by a young Elizabeth Parker in 1830, and whilst being one of the most intimate works you might have seen, is also strong in subversion. This was a time when cross stitch samplers were expected of young women when they were intended to show off their skills for a future life of marriage and to strengthen their bond with God. This was a time when young women couldn’t write and mental health was far from understood. Elizabeth subverted this expectation.
 
The opening passage of this sampler reads “As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully entrust myself.” from the very opening passage she is showing a wildly different take on a sampler, something at the time so traditional and expected. She subverts the very position she is put in, not being able to write, yet still about to form words.
 
She goes on, in a lengthy passage, I would suggest anyone reads, stitching about her treatment that is “cruelty too horrible to mention”, her thoughts on suicide and her lack of resolve with God. This all coming from the mind of a 17-year-old girl. But this isn’t pure rambling, this is staged, planned, thought through. Her words are clearly well chosen, and the design clearly planned. Her placement of nothing but red letters on white linen makes the words so much more dramatic, a color that wasn’t well used in samplers of the time. She even ends the whole passage with “what will become of my soul” followed by a large blank space, urging the reader to ponder on what happened to her.
 
This sampler is a diary of such, but I would argue that its one of the most subversive pieces you’ve ever seen, and whilst it doesn’t have that meme-worthy snarky snippet of modern stitching it’s subversive all the same.
 
But does it get older than this?

Linen sampler embroidered with silk, by Elizabeth Parker, Ashburnham Forge, Sussex, England, about 1830. (Source: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Linen sampler embroidered with silk, by Elizabeth Parker, Ashburnham Forge, Sussex, England, about 1830. (Source: Victoria & Albert Museum)

Earlier

Sadly, we don’t have any examples of subversive stitches before the 19th century, but let me be clear; we barely have any cross stitches before this time. The 19th century was a big boom time for cross stitch history where cross stitch became mainstream, thanks to cheap wool and cotton imports. However that to me, leaves the query open, for whilst we don’t know what came before, we do know subversive cross stitch is far older than we imagine.

 

 

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