Narrative needlework: From the Bayeux tapestry to contemporary textile artists

Narrative art is an art that tells a story, either as a moment in an ongoing story or as a sequence of events unfolding over time. Although there are some common features to all narrative art, different cultures have developed idiosyncratic ways to discern narrative action from pictures. Narrative artwork can depict continuous scenes, a single event, or several scenes at the same time.
  • The Bayex tapestry (actually it is embroidered linen) is a form of continuous narrative, that tells the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. It is nearly 70 meters long and 50 cm wide. Above the scenes there are explicative titles, which makes the story even more clear. This elaborate textile could be rolled up and transported from residence to residence and from town to town. The Bayeux tapestry is the only surviving example of Middle Age's narrative needlework. 
The picture of Halley Comet appears in this scene and it is the first known picture of the comet. "BayeuxTapestryScene32" by Image on web site of Ulrich Harsh - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Mola Art is used to describe a cutwork and applique technique made by an indigenous tribe in Panama: The Kuna Indians. The first molas were almost exclusivelly geometric but gradually they developed into narrative panels. Kunas do not have written language, fact that partly explains the neccessity of storytelling through embroidery. 
Mola made of cotton. A man with sword riding horse and plants around horse. Image source: British museum.
  • Hmong embroidery. Traditionally, hmong embroidery is used as a form of decoration on clothing to make it bright and beautiful.  From traditional textile decorations on clothes, they developed tapestries or story cloths. These tapestries first appeared in the 1980s when the Hmong people lived in the refugee camps. There was little opportunity to make money, so the women used their embroidery skills to earn income to support their families. On the story cloths, the women depicted the war experience through embroidery needlework, and similarly the village life that the Hmong were once familiar with when they lived in Laos.
This story cloth depicts the Hmong creation story. A long time ago, a brother and sister survived a great flood. They were carried on the water in a big drum for many days until the water drained away. When they got out, all beings and animals were dead. They walked, searching for people, but could not find anyone. As they grew older, Brother Na thought that in order for there to be people, he ought to marry his sister. She refused because he was her own blood and flesh. He insisted again and again, so they called upon Yawm Saub (God) for advice. He appeared and told the brother to carry a male millstone and the sister to carry a female millstone to the top of the mountain. He instructed them to roll the millstones down the hill, and if the two landed on top of each other it must be fate. Image source

Narrative needlework by contemporary artists

  • Embroidering Grimm's Fairy Tales by Mika Hirasa (Micao).
  • "Entrapment" by Christina Maiwald. The artist portrays historical or political figures and moments in history, politics, entertainment in a frequently humorous way.  
Entrapment, 2013. Cotton, thread. 22" x 24". Image source
  • "Escape from the wild child" by Kent Henricksen. In Henricksen’s canvases, gods and thieves, ladies and marauders, angels and tricksters are brought together and transformed through the use of silkscreen, embroidery, and gold leaf.
    Escape from the wild child, 2014. Silkscreen and embroidery thread on camvas, 18'' x 22''. image source
  • "Story of an evil nanny and 3 children" by Aya Kakeda. Aya Kakeda is a Japanese artist who uses embroidery to narrate her own whimsical stories. 
Story of an evil nanny and 3 children. Image source
  • "I want to leave but I stay" by Anna Bonarou. The hero of the story is a human being that wants to leave and change but finally he remains stack in the same place.
    I want to leave.... but I stay. Hand- embroidery on white canvas.
  • The stitches speak (Tanko Bole Chhe) by Nina Sabnani. The stitches speak is an animated documentary which celebrates the art and passion of the Kutch artisans associated with Kala Raksha. The film traces multiple journeys made by the participants towards defining their identities and towards forming the Kala Raksha Trust and the School for Design. 



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