Slipping through the eye of a needle

Sewing is sweatshop labour. Rows of machinists with hair tucked in. Blindness from Ayrshire white-work, back rooms and back pain. Low wages and exploitation.

Sewing is tapestry kits, cheval sets, crinoline ladies with laisy-daisy gardens, pull-string shoe bags made at school, two left sleeves cut out of material that cost you a fortune.

Sewing is pulpit falls, meticulously pieced church banners and cross-stitched kneelers.

Sewing is feminist art with cloth and thread dis-sarayed with purpose and vengeance, it’s high fashion with beading for beauties, it’s exquisitely wrought minatures by Embroiderers Guild members, it is a solitary pastime, a single person’s art.

Needle Works is a community business formally established just over a year ago in Glasgow to dispel the public stereotypes of sewing and sewers and change peoples view and expectation of this most artistic of crafts and most creative of arts. To make of sewing a gregarious, public, collective, creative and challenging medium with social and public aims.


It began, as an idea, in 1984–the year of The Miners Strike–when Clare Higney, a community artist, was asked to help get local people involved in the traditional MayDay march in Mansefield, Nottinghamshire. She hit on tempting them in through banner-making, inviting local groups–the youth theatre to the Gingerbread Group–to make a banner about themselves to bring on the procession. But this was 1984 and by the time MayDay came to strike was in full flood and the Notts. Miners Wives Support Group as well as the striking miners groups all has urgent need of banners for their cause and so the work continued, more banners got made with more to show and more to say.

That experience left a curiosity about what historically, and now, was or had been done through sewing, for social and political causes. Clare Higney searched the libraries for evidence, but banner books dealt only with heraldry or painted trade union banners and sewing books with ecclesiastical or decorative work and the odd exception of a civic quilt depicting a town or city’s architecture. Frustrated, Clare Higney applied to The Arts Council of Great Britain for a research grant to explore–what she called–The Social Uses of NeedleWork. That research opened her eyes and unearthed an extraordinary range of activity, a rich seam of potential–the work of Judy Chicago, the Chilean Patchworks, Thalia Campbells peace and political banners, the banners of the Suffrage movement, the Ribbon project in the States, the weaving at Greenham Common, the anti-pollution Hudson River quilt, the Glasgow School of Art Embroidery at the start of the century even the citation of Mary Queen of Scots embroideries in her trial–all signified that sewing had social roots in communities and causes and that there was a new flowering of such work today.

Clare Higney decided to make a major turn around. To leave her arts consultancy work in England and return to Scotland, where she was born, to establish some form of sewing organisation which would build on past roots and promote the social use of sewing. Working with Housing Associations, Peace Groups, Community Groups in local centres, hospitals and youth clubs she created a portfolio of sewn community work, designing and making with groups, which won popular approval. With a grant from the local authority and The Gulbenkian Foundation she then embarked on a feasibility study on making of the demand for such a work a community business through which training and job creation for those most in need of opportunity could be set up. The study gave positive results and, initially working through the Enterprise Allowance Scheme and then with the support of Strathclyde Community Business NeedleWorks was created.

In 1990 NeedleWorks is well established with a reputation for quality, breadth and innovation. It operates with a team of 5 full-time, 2 part-time and one trainee, only one of whom has ever had a formal education in textiles. It is both a community and a commercial organisation with NeedleWorks Ltd. being the body which undertakes community projects and NeedleWorks Enterprises Ltd working to commission and in-house manufacture.

It seems extraordinary to many people that the work has managed to become so well established in such a short space of time, that there is constant demand for the team’s talents and that the organisation seems to be able to initiate demand rather than follow it. The only way it can ex explained is by describing some of the work that NeedleWorks has fostered or is servicing, it is the uniqueness of the approach which makes it appealing.

For 1990, Glasgow’s year as City of Culture, NeedleWorks–in partnership with Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries is undertaking a massive community sewing project to create 12 permanent fabric calendar hangings capturing the spirit and personality of the city, entitled ‘Keeping Glasgow in Stitches’ The work is being done in public in the main hall of Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, three days a week right through the year and involves hundreds of people of all ages, both sexes, black and white, able bodied and disabled at varying levels of sewing skill from beginners to textile artists. Scottish artists–painters, embroiderers, printmakers, cartoonists are involved in the design. To give an example of the work within the project the June panel, with its theme of A WOMAN’S LIFE, is pertinent. This was begun by running a writers workshop for women Liz Lochhead, poet and playwright. The text from this with other contemporary writing from Glasgow women was used as the stimulus for a design workshop headed up by another Glasgow women artist, Sam Ainsley whose own one-woman show is being held in the Museum and Art Gallery in June. Then with Sandi Khielmann and Lorraine Davin of Glasgow’s Textile Studio and Kim Paterson of NeedleWorks another set of women are interpreting the design into fabric and thread with this particular panel having a heavy reliance of haberdashery items! ‘Keeping Glasgow in Stitches’ is not just sewing it involves felt making, lace making, fabric painting, printing, weaving, spinning and dyeing. Half way through with five panels completed it is emerging as a glorious work full of mood, vibrancy and talent and will be a lasting legend to Glasgow’s year of 1990 and the contribution of women within it.

From the large and expansive to the smaller and more specific. In Aidrie and Coatbridge NeedleWorks are working with a group of elderly women on a banner commemorating the exchange of friendship albums between the women of these areas and those in Leningrad during the Leningrad Siege of the 1940s. This banner will go to Leningrad in September with messages of friendship from people of all ages and this new correspondence will be the basis of a second banner hopefully made jointly by the people of both countries.

Or one could look at a project, funded like the Leningrad Album project by Social Services. where a group of mentally handicapped adults have made a set of folding screens with life size dancers from the ’20s to now. The screens with have both a practical and decorative use within their somewhat drab institution.

From a history hanging for Niddrie Castle made by local people to silk banners for a childrens dance project in Dunfermline Abbey for their Arts Festival, from a series of 7 community banners made with the housebound, mums and tots groups, girl guides and school children in the East End, one of the poorest areas of the city, to a fashion textile printing project with young unemployed on the theme of Glasgow, to ‘Mixed Threads’ a long term multi-cultural sewing project which NeedleWorks initiated–the range of the work demonstrates how far-reaching the medium can be.

Not only far-reaching in projects but also in trading. NeedleWorks makes to commission trade union banners and company banners for conferences and trade stands. It is creating the embroidered hangings for ‘The Art Lovers House’, a brave venture to build a house which the Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed but which was never constructed. And it is also busy bringing out its own first collection of table-linen and wall hangings for retail.

As a community business NeedleWorks insists on its priority to create jobs for those most in need. It aims to be popular in its designs to be accessible and for its work to be appealing. It also wants to stretch the public’s idea of what sewing is about. Last year it mounted a major exhibition ‘A Stitch in Time’ in the Social History Museum of Glasgow, the Peoples Palace. With quilts from Soweto, a parish textile map from Wiltshire, pieces from ‘The Names Project’, patchworks from Chile and weavings from Yorkshire is attracted over 100,000 people in the two months run. Next year it plans a new experiment ‘Textures of the City’ a non-illustrative project, again with community groups, where they will work with textile artists to realise their sense of the fabric of their city.

NeedleWorks tries to be progressive, tries to find for each group a special way of creating a work of relevance and truth but it does so with humour and a watchful eye on the real world so that the creative experience is both challenging and possible for all those involved.

Clare Higney. Trained at Bristol Old Vic as a Theatre Director and, after 3 years in theatre became the first Director of the Salisbury Arts Centre. Was Arts Development Officer for Northampton Development Corporation before setting up her own arts consultancy business in London. Is now Creative Director of NeedleWorks.