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Converging Lines: Needlework in English Literature and Visual Arts
III/ Widening Web

From Fiction to Video Games: Contemporary Needle Arts Across Genres

Amy D. WELLS

Résumés

L’objectif de cette analyse est d’étudier un corpus anglophone limité qui démontre comment les arts de l’aiguille, longtemps présents dans la tradition littéraire, sont encore présents dans la littérature anglophone du XXIe siècle, mais aussi dans d’autres genres, tels que les cahiers de motifs et patrons et les expériences numériques interactives. Il s’agit premièrement d’identifier la tradition de la protagoniste brodeuse ou tricoteuse, ainsi que le transfert de cet archétype sur le genre de fiction dédié aux polars « cosy », qui impliquent souvent les personnages qui pratiquent les arts de l’aiguille. Pour ce genre contemporain, les arts de l’aguille contribuent de façon importante à la trame, finalement constituant une partie de la stratégie narrative, allant au-delà d’une présence superficielle dans la mise en scène des histoires. De là, la distinction entre la présence de l’art de l’aiguille dans le genre de la fiction et le genre DIY peut être analysée. Ce travail se termine sur le cas d’étude du jeu vidéo Cross Stitch Casper, qui utilise un fond d’écran en points de croix. Nous concluons que la présence des arts de l’aiguille, à travers ces genres, confirme la place de ces travaux manuels dans la société contemporaine tout en démontrant comment leurs techniques, leurs expressions et leurs objectifs ont été mis à jour pour correspondre aux contextes sociaux du XXIe siècle.

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1Needle arts are enjoying a revival, particularly amongst the hipster generation. Without putting cross-stitch, knitting, and quilting all in the same (work) basket, these needle arts, along with crochet, are quite simply becoming socially acceptable again. Workbooks like Subversive Cross Stitch: 50 F*cking Clever Designs for Your Sassy Side (2015) have moved the historical needle working practice of cross-stitch from grandmothers’ dusty shelves to chic, hip wall art. Furthermore, there are now sub-genres of mystery literature where characters knit (“Knit Lit”) or quilt (“quilting mysteries”). Together, these publications indicate that the retro-attitude present in contemporary hipster publications and cozy literature reinvests the importance of crafting and DIY. Furthermore, needle arts have gone digital: not only are on-line groups and stores used to promote tutorials, trends, and supplies, but the visual appeal of ideas organized into grids and lines of “x”s attracts users from a variety of media design, and cross-stitch has even been used as the graphic backdrop for the 2013 video game, Cross Stitch Casper. The objective of this study is to examine a limited Anglophone corpus that demonstrates how needle arts, long present in literary tradition, are still present in Anglophone literature of the 21st century, but also in other genres, such as workbooks and interactive media experiences. Firstly, the tradition of the stitching protagonist and the transfer of this archetype onto the mainstream craft and hobby fiction genre will be discussed. The presence of needle arts in contemporary fiction demonstrates how the craft becomes intertwined with the plot, working as a narrative strategy, moving beyond just its function of décor or setting. From there, the distinction between the presence of needle arts in fiction genre and the DIY genre may be analysed, the latter also claiming a portion of the market as demonstrated by the popularity of 21st century workbooks, which weave sassy commentary with patterns, going beyond traditional grid manuals. A final aspect of the analysis will examine why and how needle art has been used for the multimedia adventure game experience of Cross Stitch Casper. The presence of needle arts across genres confirms the place of these crafts in contemporary society while demonstrating how the techniques, expressions, and objectives have been updated to correspond to 21st century social contexts.

1. The transition of needle arts from character context to narrative strategy in contemporary American fiction

2The presence of needle arts, such as knitting, crocheting, and embroidery, has evolved in literature across the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Most of us can call to mind some well-known needle-ing protagonists, such as Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (1813) and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (1927-1976). Both of these protagonists are situated within the context of doing handiwork, but in each case, there is not much detail given about what each woman is making. The needlework is part of the characters’ setting, and while readers can imagine them doing so, or see them doing so in film adaptations, the technical details of their projects remain unknown. Often, the characters are executing their work in a public domestic space, and this activity functions as their “cover” to observe and haphazardly participate in the action of the story from which they might otherwise be excluded. In the drawing room, Elizabeth “works” as others interact: “Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion” (Austen 32). A few pages later, she is still “at work”: “Elizabeth, at work in the opposite corner, saw it all with great delight” (37). Both of these extracts demonstrate how Elizabeth is doing her work in the company of others and how this activity functions as her front for participating discreetly in the scene. In the short story “The Tuesday Night Club”, Miss Marple employs the same strategy by being present in the conversation while knitting: “‘I mean,’ said Miss Marple, puckering her brow a little as she counted the stitches in her knitting, ‘that so many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply, you know, very silly’” (4). The conversation while knitting is a way for Miss Marple to express her opinion in a non-confrontational way framed within a feminized, acceptable activity.

3Readers do not know what either woman is making, and the absence of particulars about their work indicates that the needlework itself is not relevant to the story. The only detail provided in “The Tuesday Night Club” is that Miss Marple is knitting something “white and soft and fleecy” (2). And as for Elizabeth, her work is left without commentary: “In a few minutes he approached the table where she was sitting with Kitty; and, while pretending to admire her work said in a whisper, ‘Go to your father, he wants you in the library’” (246). Indeed, in this last scene, the type or pattern of “work” is of little consequence to the plot of the story. Yet, enthusiastic readers have an appetite for more details about these characters’ work, to the point that there exists several 21st century pattern workbooks, some based on Jane Austen’s own work, but mainly based on period research and creators’ imaginations. These include Austentatious Crochet: 36 Contemporary Designs from the World of Jane Austen (2011) by Melissa Horozewski and The Best of Jane Austen Knits: 27 Regency-Inspired Designs (2014) by Amy Clarke Moore. Austen purists may obtain a kit “based on” her own sampler from the Jane Austen website (www.janeausten.co.uk/product-category/clothing-and-costume/arts-crafts/). According to its description,

The design of this kit is based on precise details taken from Jane Austen’s Sampler and adapted for an oval composition. Although the date on the actual sampler reads 1797 it is thought that this was altered from 1787 which would have indicated Jane did the stitch work at the age of 12.

4The availability of these patterns, both historically accurate yet not precise to the literature, and then a specific author-oriented kit, demonstrates how readers are paying attention to the characters’ needlework, even if it is not highly detailed in the actual literary work.

5This passion for and interest in protagonists’ specific work is also found as a special topic for the September/October 2010 Piecework magazine. “Discover Needlework in Literature!” is the theme for volume 18 of the bimestrial publication, with cover catch phrases such as “What Would Miss Maple Knit?,” “Purses to make from Jane Austen’s Sewing Box” and “10 Literary-Inspired Projects”. Editor Jeane Hutchinson and her staff collected patterns to accompany needle art-inspired literary works; notably, Austen and Christie are both represented in the magazine. The magazine also includes “Deadly Yarns and Knitted Fictions,” in which Jo Turney also evokes the transition of the role of needle arts studied here:

Historically, knitting and murder have been linked in literature through the writing of Agatha Christie (1890-1976), in particular the ways in which knitting is portrayed as an innocuous pastime undertaken by clever but nosy old ladies such as Miss Marple. Contemporary knitting mysteries, however, portray knitting as active, aggressive even, often featuring murder victims skewered to death with knitting needles or restrained or smothered with knitting yarn. […] In new knitting mysteries, the ghost of Marple lingers. Knitting however, is not merely an aspect of iconography, as with Marple, but a central theme running throughout each of the novels. In some, a description of the knitting of a particular item runs parallel with the narrative, so as the story unfolds, the knitting grows. (20)

6Knitting’s role in contemporary mysteries is more active and more closely linked to the plot of the story. Furthermore, as the mystery itself is solved, a knitting project advances towards completion. In response to the question “What Would Miss Marple Knit?,” Turney responds, “A shawl, of course!” To complete this article, Piecework reprinted a pattern for a shawl that originally appeared in Weldon’s Practical Needlework Shawls in Knitting and Crochet, published around 1930 in England. Iva Rose Vintage Reproduction brought out a reedited version in 2010. With the patterns calling for “Miladi Cuddley Art. Silk and Wool”, one might imagine this shawl could have been something “white and soft and fleecy,” but one cannot know for sure that it is what Miss Marple was knitting in “The Tuesday Night Club.”

7Piecework also offers extracts from Jennifer Forest’s book, Jane Austen’s Sewing Box: Craft Projects & Stories from Jane Austen’s Novels (2009). This workbook pairs projects with extracts from Austen’s novels, offering readers the opportunity to recreate historically accurate accessories from the Regency Era. Pride and Prejudice is mentioned in reference to several projects, including that of making a letter case and netting or knitting coin purses, the latter of which was equally presented in the Piecework volume on needlework and literature (42, 85). In addition to providing patterns and technical information about the Regency Era, Forest explains the role of “work” in Austen’s fiction, emphasizing how readers may pick up on social cues by contextualizing the needlework. For example, if Elizabeth is doing her needlework in public, it is therefore fancy work:

While plain sewing was kept from sight, completed within the family circle only, fancy work was performed in the company of visitors and guests. It was a sign of the skill and leisure time enjoyed by the women of the family, wealthy enough not to need its women to work on menial tasks, or at least not to knit their own stockings. (Forest 17)

8Although there are still no detailed specifics about what “work” she was doing, readers can be sure that, if she is doing it in front of Mr. Darcy, it is leisure work and not clothes mending. Forest speaks to the example of Elizabeth specifically:

“Elizabeth is also only too aware of the value of women’s work in providing her with an acceptable distraction in times of social need, such as when she does not wish to engage Darcy in conversation.” (19)

9Like Miss Marple, the Austenian character uses her needlework to be present and observe.

10In this way, there are stitching protagonists whose unidentified pieces do not seem to contribute any level of meaning to the plot or narrative. Readers’ reception and their fandom are responsible for the development of patterns related to the literary texts. Before transitioning to more contemporary literature, one further early 20th century example of how the details of handiwork contribute to a plot may be mentioned: Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of her Peers” (1917) or Trifles, in which two women find clues through the accused’s quilting that indicate she might have, after all, killed her husband. Notably, the seemingly innocuous sentence “Do you suppose she was going to quilt it or just knot it?” makes subtle, ironic reference to the knotted rope around the deceased husband’s neck. (25). Through their shared knowledge of female quilting practices, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are privy to information regarding Mrs. Wright’s guilt as they can read clues from her sewing. This is one example where the technical details of the needle art are part of the plot of the story—ultimately, the condemning evidence will go overlooked by the official authority of the male sheriffs.

11The selected American literary corpus for this study, demonstrating the importance of needlework in contemporary fiction, includes Penny Reid’s Friends Without Benefits, Knitting in the City Book #2 (2013), a romance, and Mary Marks’s Forget Me Knot, Quilting Mystery #1 (2014), a cozy mystery. As readers move forward to contemporary 21st century literature, needlecrafts have taken on a new importance in stories, and the “cozy genre” has established a hard-core base of admirers. Considered to have existed since the late 20th century, Kristen Houghton defines “cozy mysteries” as being “a sub-genre that downplays sex and violence” (Houghton). In her article, “The Immense Popularity of the Cozy Mysteries,” she explains why this genre is so popular:

There’s a formula to the cozies that work very well drawing readers back again and again. The amateurs in such stories are nearly always well educated, intuitive women. Books, especially in series form usually have the story line relate to the detective’s job or hobby. […] Today’s cozy mysteries are popular because readers feel connected to the characters who seem like someone they would want to have as a friend. (Houghton, emphasis added)

12Stereotypically formulaic, cozy mysteries respond to readers’ expectations by employing strong, amateur, female protagonists. The critical element for maintaining a successful following is the implication of a job or hobby in the plot; in the case of the corpus here, the hobby involves needlework. Author Mary Marks has confirmed that “needlework in contemporary American literature is so well represented in cozy mysteries, it comprises a whole sub genre” (Marks interview). Furthermore, reading about characters who practice the same hobby make it possible to project one’s self into the story, indeed creating the desire to be friends with those characters and practice the hobby all together. The “cozy” subgenre in detective fiction is a literary niche for those readers who want to relate to characters practicing needle arts. Progressing through both of these indicative novels, it is evident that knitting and quilting are integral parts of the plot in each book. Across both texts, the needle arts are used to promote female solidarity through the creation of a community, sharing one’s own creations is part of the experience, and finally, in contrast to the tales of Elizabeth Bennet and Miss Marple, readers get lots of technical details about the characters’ handiwork.

1.1 Female community

13Although there are the long-standing traditions of sewing bees, quilting circles, and stitch-n-bitch groups, these contemporary literary works show how collaborative practices have been updated. When confessing to a romantic interest about her knitting night, Reid’s character Elizabeth Finney is concerned about how it might look:

“[…] When is the last time you had fun?”

“Last Tuesday.”

“Oh yeah? What did you do?”

“I went to my…knitting…group.”

I realized, just as the words left my mouth, how lame and sedate that sounded. He probably pictured me sitting in a reindeer sweater, drinking tepid peach-and-mango tea while exchanging cocktail recipes.

Doh!

Non-knitters just didn’t understand the dynamics of a knitting group. It wasn’t just a good time or a fun time; it was the best time.

Ooooh, okay. I didn’t realize that you are part of a knitting circle. I stand corrected.” His smirk intensified, it was an intensa-smirk, and his eyes glowed with plain enjoyment at my expense.

“You have fun scheduled for every Tuesday night.”

“It’s not like that.”

  • 1 As a Kindle edition has been used for Penny Reid’s Friends Without Benefits, location rather than p (...)

“Then tell me about it.” (1668-1677)1

14Although she is uneasy that it sounds “lame” and “sedate,” Elizabeth explains how the knitting group is the “best time”—not necessarily corresponding to preconceived notions of what women do together when crafting. Rather, through their needlework meetings, the female characters create a network of positive support and comfort. Whether it is the calming effect of “yarn petting”, or having glasses of wine, the time together is used to relax. Furthermore, the group is solidary, and Elizabeth refers to her knitting group as “my girls:”

At present, as it was Tuesday night, I sat in my apartment—surrounded by my girls, stewing in my mood—knitting. I was finishing Angelica’s sweater, sitting on my big sofa during Tuesday knit night. (4805)

15Later on in the text, she states: “Some of my frayed nerves were calmed by the realization that my girls would be going with me” (7894). The knitting group is composed of grown women, but the use of the contemporary and informal phrase “my girls” in Friends Without Benefits: Knitting in the City Book #2 underscores the sense of belonging shared by the members, speaking directly to the need for female camaraderie. In addition to this need, another reason Elizabeth is so happy to have her ‘girls’ with her is that they support her emotionally and physically:

“Whatever you decide, about Nico, that’s your business.”

Fiona’s soft voice helped melt some of the cold rigid anxiety in my bones.

“But, no matter what, no matter if you tell that sexy Italian dreamboat to hit the road and no matter if you quit your job to become a belly dancing figure skater, there are six women here who love you and support you in all things.”

Fiona pulled back, snagging my gaze with her large, elfish eyes.

“No matter what.” (4935)

16The caring is genuine, the kind many readers would want to relate to—unquestionable moral support. The benefit of this support group is obvious when Elizabeth decides to ask her group to help her decide what to do: “At last, I decided that I would let my knitting group help me decide what to do. I wasn’t operating in my right brain anymore. I needed some perspective from an unbiased audience” (5854). Reid’s character seems to rely on her knitting group as characters from previous centuries might rely on their sisters or families. Penny Reid has commented on the use of the knitting group in her romance novel:

I chose the knitting group as a backdrop because I was always told to write what you know; I knit and I’m a member of a knitting group. I’ve been disappointed by the lack of strong female friendships, relationships, and non-familial support networks within modern literature, especially when my own experience is the opposite. (interview)

17Through her own writing, Reid has surpassed this disappointment by putting forward the example of a strong female support system, and the knitting group is shown as a way to reinforce the positive power of a female community in her work.

18Martha Rose, Mary Marks’s protagonist, feels the same way about her quilting group: “For years, Tuesday mornings were sacred. No matter what, my friend Lucy, her neighbor Birdie, and I spent the day together working on our quilts” (3). The time spent quilting together is a priority for Martha, as she equates it with a holy practice. Later on in the novel, when considering a romantic relationship, she inquires: “My daughter, my uncle, my quilting, and my friends were my life. Why would I want more?” (84). She is reflecting on how her life is fulfilled through her craft, and that maybe she does not really need a love interest after all. Her quilting community is in part responsible for her sense of fulfilment and independence as a single woman, providing her with a raison d’être separate from the traditional female role of wife.

19In this way, Reid and Marks are demonstrating the bond female characters create through the shared experience of needlework. Furthermore, the knitters and quilters displace themselves as a group to tackle the action of the plot, and the groups establish a closed system of character development – each character has their role in the group, and in Reid’s corpus, each member of the knitting group has a dedicated novel.

1.2 Gifting a personal creation as an expression of generosity

20Not only do the women share support amongst themselves, readers witness characters giving and gifting their personal creations as an expression of generosity. Reid’s Elizabeth tries to remain as anonymous as possible, but she gets a “thrill” from seeing her work on newborn babies at the hospital:

I avoided Meg, ate in the doctors’ lounge, and knit a baby hat. Between large projects I frequently knit hats for the hospital’s newborns. They were fast, and I had the pattern memorized. It also gave me a little thrill to see the hats on the infants as they left the maternity ward. (3783)

21The baby hats are a charitable act on Elizabeth’s part, but she also just enjoys making things for pleasure. Her testimony is a reflection of many crafters’ practice of alternating big and small projects, often executing the smaller ones on autopilot with patterns memorized. In another example, she selected a pattern for a child’s sweater, and then quickly the right child for whom to make it:

I started mentally sizing her up for a hand-knit kid’s sweater; I’d placed it in my Ravelry queue two weeks ago. At the time, I’d added it for no reason at all other than I loved it, but now I was happy that I did. It would look lovely on her, maybe in purple hypoallergenic yarn, like bamboo, or maybe linen. (3831-3832)

22This passage reveals a great deal about the knitter’s passion for her craft as she explains how she loved the pattern without even knowing for whom she would make it. There is a reference to specific fibers, and, as discussed below, her use of an on-line website (ravelry.com) to obtain patterns and supplies. Her creative process is paired with the emotional experience of sharing with an ill child the sweater she makes. Mary Marks’s quilter Martha also gives of her works charitably. When a foundation for blind children organizes an auction, Martha Rose offers to pitch in:

I actually have a small quilt I can donate. You should be able to get a few hundred dollars for it.” The quilt was a wall hanging I’d entered in last year’s show, featuring a center medallion with appliquéd fruit in a basket and borders pieced with one-inch patches. The thing was only about thirty inches square but represented dozens of hours of stitching. (247)

23Martha Rose is willing to give of herself for the benefit of others. Both of these characters express generosity by gifting projects they have made. In the 21st century, clothes and household items are no longer hand-made by necessity, but by the desire to do so. Considering the time and effort required to quilt and knit, by giving their creations to others, the characters are truly giving the gift of themselves. Each character is making a contribution and valorising her artistic expression, and ultimately, herself.

1.3 Technical aspects

24Finally, these two texts give us plenty of technical details about knitting and quilting. Readers do not have to ask what would Elizabeth knit or Martha quilt, because often times, they cite the tools and the patterns they use. Both texts help readers understand the time and effort required to do such projects, and Marks directly addresses the “value” of a quilt when three quilts go missing from the annual quilt show. In a display of male misunderstanding, Detective Arlo Beavers makes the awkward mistake of calling the quilts “blankets:” “Why do you think someone would steal them? How much could a couple of blankets be worth?” Martha responds, “For your information, those quilts are legitimate works of art. Only the artists didn’t use paint, they used fabric” (37). This scene reflects the classic plight of valorizing women’s work and artisanal production. Yet, according to the novel, one of the quilters is able to sell her creations for ten thousand dollars (23). Monetary value aside, Martha Rose explains: “Sewing through the three layers of the top, batting, and lining produced a bumpy texture—a real testimony to the hundreds of hours spent sewing. A quilter left her very essence in the texture of her quilts” (63). These works are highly personal and expressions of who a woman is: the time invested to create them renders the quilts priceless.

25Readers understand more about the characters and their needle arts as they encounter the details of the tools that the women use. In Reid’s Friends Without Benefits, Elizabeth speaks of Addi Click knitting needles and “plarn,” a specific brand of connected knitting needles and a type of yarn made from plastic grocery bags (2929). Mary Marks’s Martha Rose evokes the pattern “Corn and Beans,” and lists all the sewing notions in her box, which includes “an emergency pack of M&Ms” (7). But Martha Rose gives even more technical details by calling upon a special quilting software to help solve the “who dunnit” mystery:

‘Well, let’s look in BlockBase to make sure of the name.’ I booted up my laptop and opened the software program containing a database for thousands of traditional block designs. I typed in Cat’s Cradle in the search box, and up popped a picture of Claire’s block. ‘Look how many names this block has. Cat’s Cradle, Double Pyramids, Dove at the Window, Flying Birds, and Wandering Lover.’ (86)

26This group of women of a certain age use technology to up their crafting game. Jo Turney has pointed out this same characteristic in knitting mysteries: “women in contemporary mysteries are amateur experts. […] These modern detectives have useful and rational skills, which perform a vital role in solving a murder” (21). The characters combine their quilting expertise with computer know-how, demonstrating that the two are not incompatible regardless of age or gender. Furthermore, specific female knowledge of quilting is required to solve the case.

27Another example of needle art technique in the same novel is when Martha gives details about the type of soap used by quilters:

Washing quilts with ordinary detergent faded the colors and weakened the cotton fibers. Serious quilt owners tried to use a pH neutral soap if they had to wash their quilts. Orvis, a gentle liquid soap, was originally developed for shampooing horses. Used to be you had to go to the feed store to get Orvis soap, but now it was also available in quilt stores. (Marks 139)

28The quilting community has shared amongst its members this tip for using horse shampoo on their quilts, and by mentioning it “in passing” in the novel, it is a way to pass along advice to readers. Mary Marks also includes a short passage on quilting tips at the end of each of the Quilting Mysteries. These “how to” segments contribute to keeping readers hooked on the series.

29In a final example of technical matters, readers will note how, in addition to quilting together with her friends, Martha Rose has a dedicated sewing space. In the same vein as A Room of One’s Own (1929), where Virginia Woolf presents the argument that a woman must have a dedicated space and financial stability to write, needle workers in contemporary fiction also have sewing rooms of their own. Elizabeth Bennet and Miss Marple work out in the open, whereas Martha Rose can work in a separate space, demonstrating the luxury of her 21st century sewing practice. Marks pens two distinct passages on quilters’ sewing rooms. The first is the lavish sewing room of the dead victim:

The wall facing the backyard was all windows, flooding the space with natural light. No wonder Claire chose this room as a studio. Fabric colors were truest in natural light. An old wooden sewing table sat under the windows next to an upholstered chaise longue, the perfect spot for sitting and quilting. White floor to ceiling shelves and cabinets lined two of the walls. The third wall was painted white and featured a white quartz counter spanning the entire length. The counter was empty except for two sewing machines, a CD player, and a green cutting mat with one-inch yellow grid lines. The drawers beneath contained every gadget and notion a quilter could possibly want. There were several things a serious quilter needed besides fabric, needles, and thread: a reliable sewing machine, a rotary cutter, a cutting mat, an acrylic ruler, sharp scissors, a good thimble, a steam iron, and a wooden hoop. Claire’s sewing room was a warehouse of quilting supplies. (64-65)

30The defunct wealthy woman has created a quilting paradise for herself, and readers sense Martha’s awe at the luxuriously outfitted and organized space. The room is full of light and very bright, with white paint, white cabinets and shelves, and a white, quartz counter. One of the only colours mentioned, in fact, is that of the green cutting mat with yellow lines, a tool that any quilter or sewer would recognize from their own supplies. Next to this pure working space, there is “every gadget and notion a quilter could possibly want,” and Martha enumerates them. By calling the sewing room a “warehouse,” readers understand the extent of available supplies it held, as well as the desire to create within it.

31Towards the end of the novel, Martha and her friends clean up her own sewing room. Her workspace is similar in some ways, yet different from Claire’s, the wealthy victim:

By noon the three of us had cleaned and organized my sewing room. I stood back to admire our hard work. We’d sorted through all the sewing notions in the cardboard box. Scissors, rotary cutters, my collection of antique pin cushions, thimbles, needles, binding clips, and dozens of other sewing accessories had been put back in their proper drawers. My reclaimed fabric sat neatly folded on floor to ceiling shelves along one wall. One whole shelf was filled with just the blues (I have a weakness for blue), from robin’s egg polka dot to a deep indigo fish batik made in West Africa. The year before I painted the room a soft dove gray—a nice neutral background for the rainbow hues of my fabrics. The whole effect was calm but cheerful. “My sewing room has never been so neat.” I smiled. (326-327)

32While both sewing rooms lodge similar sewing notions, the difference with Martha’s sewing room is the colours. Unlike Claire’s sterile white room, Martha’s sewing room is filled with colours, more precisely, blues and grey, through the presence of her fabrics and the colour of the walls. Readers come to understand that the colours used to describe Martha’s sewing room are also applicable to her own personality: “calm but cheerful.” Overall, these dedicated sewing spaces reinforce the role of needlecraft in the characters’ lives and their independent capacity for claiming a sewing room of their own. Furthermore, organizing her space brings pleasure to the character.

33From the mentioning of plarn to Block Base to the sewing room of one’s own – all of these examples demonstrate the attention to detail offered by Reid and Marks in their respective works that helps us to understand that the needlework is an integral part of the story, not just an accessory or setting. Rather, the presence of needle arts contributes to the narrative strategy by creating a female community of knitters and sewers, giving the women the opportunity to generously share their creations, and explicitly stating the tools and strategies used in the creation of handmade work. These women express their agency through needle arts.

2. Needle arts in other genres via internet presence

34Drawing from the basis of needle arts in literature, the manners in which needle arts are being represented in popular culture, predominantly through websites, may now be considered. A 21st century craft revival has been taking place, and in particular, the Internet and access to virtual communities and tutorials are increasing live communities of crafters (Simon 148). The connection can be made between this craft revival and hipster culture in part because of the spurt of DIY publications from 2005 onward (as indicated by a bibliographic study), the subversive cross stitch movement, and the specific targeting of some craft kits to the hipster population, through distribution channels such as Urban Outfitters and Target. Both Julie Jackson, founder of Subversive Cross Stitch, and Leslie Simon, author of Geek Girls Unite (2011), have spoken to crafting as a community and making a craft your own. More recently, in an article titled “How wool got cool” (2015), Rosie Ifould cites a range of knitting practices that includes “Protest Tapestry,” “Faux Taxidermy,” “Science Knitting,” and the case of the “Graffiti knitter.” Some 21st century needle art practitioners are being drawn to these crafts for political reasons. Ifould cites Sarah Corbett, founder of the Craftivist Collective (UK), who explains: “craft is great for slow, gentle activism.”

Fig. 1: Crocheted Pussyhat, January 2017

35Movements like the 2016 Pussyhat Project (knitting or crocheting a pink square hat that, when worn, makes cat ears) motivate those who wish to participate in the political protest aspect to learn the required skills, or to reach out to a friend or family member to help them out. Needle arts have leapt from the page onto the screen, as seen through the changing social position of being perceived as a “geek,” the Subversion Cross Stitch Movement, and the use of cross-stitch visuals in the video game Cross Stitch Casper.

2.1 Craft revival: the geeky girl as domestic goddess

36In Geek Girls Unite, Simon defines a geek as: “A person who is wildly passionate about an activity, interest, or scientific field and strives to be an expert in said avocation” (3). In this way, the term “geek” has gone from insult to a reclaimed social status. Simon proposes a taxonomy of Geeky Girls, and she includes the Domestic Goddess amongst them, citing Martha Stewart, Wendy Mullin, Faythe, Levine, and Vickie Howell. Just like the cozy book previously cited, Simon promotes the importance of shared crafting time:

[…] things like stitching circles and craft groups can provide a much-needed social connection to the like-minded outside world. Nothing sparks a true friendship better than bonding over embroidery thread and stitching together bracelets to celebrate newfound bestiehood. (145)

37Simon touches upon two important ideas here: “much-needed social connection” and “like-minded outside world.” Despite the use of the Internet to find fellow geeks with whom to craft, the emphasis is on sharing time directly with other people. Simon’s book and others are working hard to make DIY and crafting “cool” again. Some publications focus specifically on “geekcraft,” such as Susan Beal and Jay B. Sauceda’s World of Geekcraft: Step-by-Step Instructions for 25 Super-Cool Craft Projects (2011). There is also Star Trek Cross-Stitch: Explore Strange New Worlds of Crafting (2013) by John Lohman, which combines science fiction and cross-stitching. The DIY trend also puts forward the concept of customization of clothes, accessories, and home décor as a way to counteract industrialized mass production of goods. Stitchers can combine ideas and patterns to form a unique combination in their creations, as suggested by workbooks like Point de Croix Custom/Kustom Cross-Stitch (2014). Thanks to the change in societal attitudes and the publication of manuals, women (and men) practicing needle arts in the 21st century are becoming less shy about doing so.

2.2 Subversive cross-stitch

38There is not yet a cross-stitching mystery or romance series, but cross-stitching has been undergoing a hip revolution, becoming cool again. The term “subversive cross-stitch” was first coined by Julie Jackson, who has a website and two published workbooks employing the same term. At subversivecrossstitch.com, Jackson explains that the trend began in 2003, as a way for her to deal with a difficult work situation:

At my wit’s end and in dire need of some art therapy, I stopped by a craft store on the way home from work one day and picked up an ornate sampler—I hadn’t done any cross stitch since I was a kid. Once I finished the intricate border of pink flowers, I decided to stitch the word “Fuck” right in the center. It felt so great, and the idea was born!

39The main definition of subversive cross-stitch stems from Jackson’s own experience: a traditional cross-stitch pattern (which may include a sampler, an intricate border, or cute animals) is tweaked to include obscenities, sassy expressions, or shocking phrases. In addition to working with needles, thread, canvas, and x-grids, the gross difference between the traditional and homey images and the words is what often pleases practitioners of the craft. Fans of the workbook Subversive Cross Stitch: 50 F*cking Clever Designs for Your Sassy Side (2015) have met virtually through independent on-line groups. One such group is a closed Facebook group with over 10,864 members at this time. In addition to its workbooks, the website subversivecrosstitch.com continues to offer kits and patterns which combine snarkiness, politics, and technology. A 2017 kit, the “Don’t Freak Out” project, includes bright red fabric, blue thread, and 3-D glasses to see the finished project in a new way. The tagline for the kit suggests: “It’s a great way to distract yourself from the news of the day and remember there’s still a lot of fun to be had in this old world!” As Jackson proposes what might be “the world’s first 3-D cross stitch kit,” she is encouraging stitchers to have fun despite the current political climate. The innovative 3-D approach definitely subverts this cross-stitch pattern from classical 20th century designs. Furthermore, this stitching trend would not be possible without the Internet interface, or at least not at the same scale.

2.3 From textile fibers to fiber optics: The case of “Cross Stitch Casper”

40Finally, a last example to conclude this rapid survey of needle arts across genres is that of the adventure video game “Cross Stitch Casper.” The game is based on cross-stitch style graphics, and the story is quite dramatic, raising awareness of poor living conditions for children: a young boy suffers from the hands of his alcoholic father, his mother is dead, and the farm where he lives explodes in the end.

Fig. 2: Opening screen of Cross Stitch Casper

41The game’s introduction uses an Old English-style font, and the color palette of the game is just two colors: an off-white canvas with gray “thread” in a monochrome stitch style. The sparse graphics and fonts are blocked in squares like a cross-stitch chart, and there are large bold lines.

Fig. 3: “Home Sweet Home” in Cross Stitch Casper

42A “Home Sweet Home” sampler hangs inside of Casper’s house, an ironic touch considering the depressing living conditions of the young boy.

Fig. 4: The well and graveyard in Cross Stitch Casper

43When Casper goes outside, he is near the well and the graveyard, which again reinforces the somber setting of the game. Game frame after game frame, the character and the player both seem caught in a framed cross-stitch work.

44It might seem surprising to find the cross stich media in the domain of adventure games, and the game’s designer, Daniel Batliner, has explained his choice was more about style and stereotypes than promoting the craft of cross-stitch. Batliner’s first attraction to the cross-stitch style was its simplicity:

Wanting to practice/learn a little more programming, I decided to create a tiny game. I’m not good at drawing (at all), so I looked for a way to get around “painting” by reducing it as much as possible towards something like a “pixel.” […] it should stick out and hopefully remain in people’s head. First ideas included mosaic, lid-windows-in-a-skyscraper-front, […] guess it wasn’t so hard to come across cross-stitching at that point. (Batliner interview)

45There was a desire on the part of the game designer to try a new programming skill, and in this way, programming in cross-stitch is like a type of virtual needlework. The game visuals are represented on with “x”s, just like a work of cross-stitch. The coding of the “x”s corresponds to making the stitches, embroidering the style into the video game experience. In addition to its ease of use, Batliner states that he equates the “Home Sweet Home” feel with the West:

I had very little knowledge about cross-stitching as a cultural “asset”, maybe except local traditional border embroidery (Alps). And I noticed that I had a lot of stereotypes when thinking about the cliché Wild West cross-stitching (“home sweet home”). (interview)

46Bearing an older vision of cross-stitch décor in mind, he feels that using the cross-stitch design emphasizes the discrepancy between a cozy, vintage Western atmosphere and the depressing story:

Having those stereotypes seemed like a perfect setting for drama. Just by using cross-stitching as graphics, a whole world is created in the player’s mind. And then I splash on some harsh reality that’s in contrast to that home-sweet-home-mentality. Actually quite like “The Subversive Cross-Stitch Movement”, […] using cross-stitching as [a] stage and fill[ing] it with opposing content […] I mainly used the strong associations the style awakes. (interview)

47As Batliner explains here, cross-stitch is equated with a specific atmosphere in players’ imaginations, and again, this home feeling is juxtaposed with the game’s storyline. The contrast is similar to that seen above with the Subversive Cross Stitch movement. According to game review websites, the design is quite appreciated by players, but the slow pace and the depressing story line result in mixed reactions (rockpapershotgun.com). As the cross-stich sampler-looking frames contribute to the spatial, temporal, and emotional settings of the game, ultimately, the programmer’s experience is a type of virtual needlework from which players benefit.

48The selected examples and extracts put forward here confirm the presence of needle arts across genres: they are present in 19th, 20th, and 21st century literatures, in romances and cozy mysteries; DIY workbooks, manuals, and pattern books; on-line crafting communities; and interactive action video games. There has been a transition of the role of needle arts in fiction, and they are now an integral part of the plot, not just an accessory to the décor or context. Through details related to the technical aspects of the arts that are applied to plot turns and twists, knitting and quilting are generating books and audiences within the cozy and romance genres. The presence of needle arts in popular culture media, including DIY books and updated “sassy” workbooks, promotes the value of crafting with a group and bringing mutual support, both emotional and technical. The fiction and the DYI books also advance the valorisation of women’s work, contributing to overturning the “woman as crafter and man as designer” status quo in the needle arts industry. Uses of cross-stitch such as that in Cross Stitch Casper open up the possibilities for this ages-old craft, and enthusiasts can hope to read more about cross-stitchers in fiction soon. As demonstrated in this analysis, these various genres share similar aspects in their approaches to needle arts as they emphasize community building and working on new technical skills. Furthermore, contemporary needle arts are adapted to the current, early 21st century social context by promoting interactivity in both virtual and physical spheres, tackling political issues and angst, and reacting against social issues. In this way, the current craft revival is leading to literary evolutions and political revolutions. Even though there remains plenty of work (in and out of the basket) to be done, Elizabeth Bennet and Miss Marple would certainly look on with delight at the social progress obtained by Elizabeth Finney and Martha Rose through their needle arts.

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Bibliographie

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Notes

1 As a Kindle edition has been used for Penny Reid’s Friends Without Benefits, location rather than page numbers have been used for referencing.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: Crocheted Pussyhat, January 2017
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/6977/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 133k
Légende Fig. 2: Opening screen of Cross Stitch Casper
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Légende Fig. 3: “Home Sweet Home” in Cross Stitch Casper
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/6977/img-3.png
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Légende Fig. 4: The well and graveyard in Cross Stitch Casper
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/6977/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 1,2M
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Référence électronique

Amy D. WELLS, « From Fiction to Video Games: Contemporary Needle Arts Across Genres », E-rea [En ligne], 16.1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2018, consulté le 17 janvier 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/6977 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6977

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Auteur

Amy D. WELLS

Université de Caen Normandie, France
Équipe ERIBIA
amy.wells@unicaen.fr
Amy D. Wells is Associate Professor of English at the University of Caen, Normandy. Her current interest in needle arts has resulted in the publication “Teddy Bears, F-Bombs, and Captain Kirk: Subversive Stitching and Other Evolutions in Contemporary Cross-Stitch,” Transatlantica 1, 2015. She is also co-editor of the collection Déclinaisons des espaces féminins de l'après-conflit (PULIM 2017).

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