Clare Hunter – Thread’s of Life – Book Club – March 2020
Clare Hunter started her professional career in theatre before becoming involved in arts promotion, consultancy and community arts. In the late 1980s, she established NeedleWorks in Glasgow, an award-winning community sewing enterprise, which she ran for a decade. She continued a career in sewing running community sewing projects and curating textile exhibitions in Scotland. In 2013 she embarked on an M.Litt. at the University of Dundee, being awarded Distinction, and began work on her first book Threads of Life. It was published by Sceptre of Hodder & Stoughton in 2019, was chosen by Radio 4 as its Book ofthe Week, reached the Sunday Times Best Seller list and was a winner of the Saltire Literary Award for First Book. In March 2020 the bookseller Waterstones chose it as its Book of the Month in Scotland. Clare Hunter is currently working on her next book which will be about Mary, Queen of Scots and her textiles.
I have recommended your book to many people but I always struggle to describe it or to categorise its genre, if this is even possible! The book is multifaceted and covers the historical ( at all levels, global, micro and personal), social and anthropological aspects of sewing and embroidery as well as many others. How would you summarise it briefly for someone who hasn’t read it?
Threads of Life is a book of stories, the stories of people across cultures and centuries who have used sewing to make their voices heard: documenting their history, declaring allegiance, asserting their identity and mourning their dead. From WW2 prisoners of war to Mary, Queen of Scots; from WWI disabled soldiers to peace campaigners the book explores the surprising, often moving, purpose of peoples’ needlework.
I know you have said that in our society today, we have lost the visibility of sewing and embroider and yet the Royal School of Needlework reports that their classes are oversubscribed. To what do you attribute this comeback and do you think its visibility will return also?
There are all kinds of sewing classes and projects running throughout the country and elsewhere in the world, some linked to the need for people to support one another or be supported themselves: in refugee camps, rural areas, community centres and care homes. There is sewing with others in mind – quilts for the homeless, clothes for premature babies, memory patchworks for people with dementia. For those wanting to mix their sewing with sociability today, there is a very different kind of sewing bee with members drinking cocktails rather than cups of tea to keep the creativity flowing. The biggest change has been through social media. Now people can contact and connect with each other without leaving the house and share ideas worldwide. There is an explosion of sewing blogs, youtube videos and online forums. Of course, this makes it less visible in the public realm but it is astonishing what is happening. One of my favourite sites is https://thesewcialists.com which is full of stories from different people who tell about how sewing helped them when life got tough.
As a linguist, I love that you describe embroidery being used a medium of language and as a method of storytelling, something we really value as the Begg & Co brand. Could you give us some examples of this?
Needlework is a language that can tell us stories if we know how to read its pictures and designs. The 900-year-old Bayeux Tapestry is the most celebrated embroidered narrative to survive in Europe but, through centuries, there have been countless others: from the stories of terror and escape sewn by the Hmong refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s, to the creation myths embroidered generation upon generation by the Miao in China, Scotland own Great Tapestry of Scotland which involved over 1,000 people sewing down Scotland’s story.
Our customers come from many countries. I understand that your book is being published in Italian this year, are there plans for it to appear in any other languages?
I have been very lucky not only to find a publisher here in Britain but also in America and Holland and the book is due to be published In Italy this summer and in China at the start of 2021. Each publication has a different cover and that's really interesting for me.
Your ambition was always to write a book and this is your first. Who are the authors who inspired you?
Edmund de Waal The Hare with AmberEyes was an early inspiration. He is a ceramicist and while the book traces the story of his family through a set of tiny Japanese carvings, you can tell through his writing that he is a maker himself. He makes you feel what he sees. Others have been Robert MacFarlane for the way he ‘feels out’ landscape; Tracy Chevalier who always has a maker at the heart of her novels; Kassia St Clair who has written so brilliantly about colour and cloth and Esther Rutter for her great book, ThisGoldenFleece, on wool and knitting.
Your next book is about Mary Queen of Scots. Embroidery was important for her, though this is scarcely mentioned in history. In what way was it important?
Embroidery became very important to Mary, Queen of Scots when she was in captivity in England. With her letters intercepted and sometimes her writing forged, embroidery was indelible, unable to be censored or altered, and it allowed her to smuggle out coded messages to her supporters and to ‘write’ a sewn autobiography in embroidered cameos of symbolic meaning to leave to her son James VI so that he ‘heard’ her own testimony.
You personally love and wear colour. What role do accessories play in your wardrobe?
I was brought up by a mother who never left the house without a hat, gloves, scarf and pearls. I have inherited her faith in the transformative power of accessories, sometimes even buying clothes with my accessories in mind rather than the other way around! While I rarely wear hats I do have a couple of berets that I have appliquéd with birds and leaves which I am very fond of and, in winter and autumn, I am never without a scarf indoors and out, some which I have sewn or knitted myself. My workshop is a shed in the garden so it can get very cold and I need a scarf to keep my brain warmed up for writing. My latest triumph is a blue tweed scarf and matching hat I made from a remnant I found in a fabric shop. I just loved the colours and the fabric too much to let it pass me by.
And lastly, if you could recommend a Begg & Co scarf which would it be and why?
You have so many beautiful scarves to choose from in such gorgeous patterns and shades. They are collector items. You Staffa Volpi reminds me of a Scottish beach at sunset, your Wispy Kelsey of the wildflowers verges near our house in spring but if I had to favour one it would have to be your Kishorn Washed Green Stewart because green is my favourite colour, because I’ve always had a soft spot for a bit of tartan and because Mary, Queen of Scots would never forgive me if I didn’t support her family!