Embroidery, as a decorative textile skill, has been valued for centuries. During the Middle Ages in Europe, it was considered a craft and was largely under the purview of craft guilds. It was also a tradition almost exclusively the domain of female practitioners. In agrarian cultures, women were responsible for picking and processing cotton and linen, spinning wool from sheep, collecting natural sources of pigments to dye their materials and constructing the wearable items. It was after the mechanization of textile production that needle arts — embroidery among them — entered the realm of craft leisure. By the 1950s, textile artists emerged and the debate over craft or art ensued. That discussion continues today. The current exhibit at Southern Vermont Arts Center will not settle that debate but will offer viewers a broad spectrum of embroidery techniques and styles, as well as a narrative that speaks of the female experience.
When British textile artist Kirstie Macleod conceived the Red Dress Project in 2009, it was a feminist statement. It was performance art: she placed herself inside a Perplex cube just about large enough for her to sit in with a voluminous period dress and engaged in embroidery. Hardly the invitation for the classically defined sexualized male gaze. Her art invites the broader female gaze centered on aesthetics and experience.
Today, that red dress has traversed the globe and more than 380 embroiderers have created personal narratives in the delicate work of stitchery. Many of the women (and two men) who have worked on the dress are from vulnerable environments of poverty or abuse. With initial funding from Dubai in 2009 to take the project global, Macleod was able to make the dress into a piece of collective art. The dress components (about 20 kilos of red Dupion silk in 73 panels) travelled across seven continents, 51 countries and provided an outlet for personal expression and some income for these embroiderers, 60% of whom were from vulnerable communities. An international group of textile artists also worked on the project, as did artists whose first familiarity with needle and thread was this endeavor.