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Isabella Rosner on Needlework and History's Hidden Technologies

  In this episode, we talk to Dr. Isabella Rosner, a curator at the Royal School of Needlework. And a research consultant at Witney Antiques. Isabella tells us about the complex relationship between sewing and embroidery and feminism. We look at embroidery as a technology and explore what feminist approaches to needlework can tell us about algorithms today.


Isabella Rosner is an art historian who studies material culture from the seventeenth through nineteenth century. Isabella is the curator of the Royal School of Needlework and a research associate at Witney Antiques. You can now access the digital archives of the Royal School of Needlework online at collections.royal-needlework.org.uk.


She specialises in the study of early modern women’s needlework, especially British examples, and schoolgirl samplers across all time periods. Isabella is a 2023 BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker and has recently completed her PhD at King’s College London, where she studied Quaker women’s needle, shell, and wax work before 1800. She was funded by KCL’s Centre for Doctoral Studies. The title of her thesis is ‘”Women Professing Godliness with Good Works”: British and American Quaker Women’s Art Before Ackworth and Westtown, 1650-1800’. For her PhD, Isabella focused on seventeenth-century needlework made by Quaker girls in and around London and eighteenth-century wax and shellwork made by Quaker girls and women in Philadelphia.


Her love of working with historical objects was sparked by her internships and positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Fitzwilliam Museum, and Colonial Williamsburg. Her passion for making historic objects accessible to all led her to create Sew What?, a podcast about historic needlework and those who stitched it. Isabella writes, directs, produces, and hosts the podcast, which has thus far had 75 episodes including discussions about Gee’s bend quilts, mourning hairwork, Māori weaving, schoolgirl samplers, and interviews with textile historians, makers, researchers, and museum professionals. Sew What? has had three formal seasons and now is releasing one-off episodes on a less regular basis.


Reading (and Listening!) List:


Check out Isabella's podcast,  Sew What?, and her BBC Radio 3 programs, 'Unravelling plainness' (listen here), ‘Stitching Stories’ (listen here) and ‘A Lively Tudor World' (listen here).


Stitching Freedom: Embroidery and Incarceration – Common Threads Press, published 16 February 2024 (click to purchase)


‘With Her Own Hair’: A Victorian Prisoner’s Art – History Today, 18 January 2024 (click to read)


TRANSCRIPT:


KERRY MCINERNEY:

Hi! I’m Dr Kerry McInerney. Dr Eleanor Drage and I are the hosts of The Good Robot podcast. Join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And how can feminism help us work towards it? If you want to learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, www.thegoodrobot.co.uk, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list by every guest. We love hearing from listeners, so feel free to tweet or email us, and we’d also so appreciate you leaving us a review on the podcast app. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode!


ELEANOR DRAGE:

 In this episode, we talk to Dr. Isabella Rosner, a curator at the Royal School of Needlework. And a research consultant at Witney Antiques. Isabella tells us about the complex relationship between sewing and embroidery and feminism. And we look at embroidery as a technology and explore what needlework and feminism can tell us about algorithms today. We hope you enjoy the show.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

So just to kick us off, could you tell us who you are, what you do and what brings you to thinking about feminism, gender and technology?


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Sure, I am Dr. Isabella Rosner, and this is the first time I can say that out loud in a podcast. That's very exciting for me. Um, I just finished my PhD at King's College London, and now I am the curator of the Royal School of Needlework and a research consultant at Witney Antiques.


But here I'm just talking as my own, my own self, opinions my own. Um, so basically, I am a textile historian who specializes in studying historical embroidery. So that means inevitably all of my work involves thinking about gender, because it's oftentimes, most of the time, women who did and do the embroidery.


So the fact that my work, I think, centers on women means that it's inevitably very informed by feminism. And actually, I was thinking about this when I was prepping these questions. Like, the most seminal text in the field of historic embroidery, even though it was published 40ish years ago, is a book called, uh, The Subversive Stitch, and it's a second wave feminist book by Rosika Parker, and her work 40 years ago, this seminal feminist text basically has dictated everything else that has happened in the field of Historical embroidery scholarship from that point on.


Um, so I think everything is tied to feminism, everything is tied to gender, but also textiles, needlework, they're really tied to technology as well because technology is present in every step of the process of textile making, designing, material procuring. It's everywhere. It's just the kind of technology that people think about less frequently.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

This is so exciting and in preparation I have put on my very favorite thing which is, so there's quite a few brands that do dead stock re embroidery of wool or other kinds of pieces and this is a brand called Collina Strada and I'm just too in love with them. Um, it is way too expensive for my pay bracket.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

I love it though, it's so pretty.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yeah, there's actually this Italian brand, Vitelli, they're like, They're like, we are very left wing, pro trans, pro feminist, and we make wool things. And I was like, oh my god, it's

political wool!


KERRY MCINERNEY:

Love it!


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Political wool! Great band name, and also just really important and lovely and delightful to wear.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

True, exactly. Yeah. And it's shiny and I like shiny. Um, so if you're, if you're listening to this episode on Spotify, don't, um, switch to YouTube.


So can you help from this really interesting position that you work in answer our big questions, which are... What is good technology? Is it even possible? And how can feminism and embroidery help us get there?


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Okay, so I think it's going to be a struggle for me to answer this question, perhaps more so than other guests you've had on because I spend almost all of my time thinking about the past rather than the future, but also because, um, I think I grew up with an idea that the future and technology and innovation was bad because it meant a threat to the stuff that I loved, which was the past and how humans have interacted with each other for centuries.

My, I grew up the child of my dad, who I love very much, but who's very obsessed with the future and technology. And he would always talk about it. And I think he wanted me to really be on board. So he would say things like, Oh, but one day like Jane Austen will come back to life through virtual reality.


And I think he, he was expecting me to be like, Oh my God, cool. Yeah. Technology. Awesome. Um, but actually it just filled me with fear and dread. So it's, uh, exciting, but fascinating for me to be on this podcast right now. So good technology, I think. Is technology that improves lives without making anyone's lives worse?


It's not negatively affecting the environment and it doesn't cause us to lose kind of our humanity or like what it means to be human. I think technology and technological innovation has done a lot for the field of needlework of textiles of, um, what people wear and how they adorn their bodies and their surroundings. Um, everything, all of textiles, it's technology, basically.


I think thinking about textiles and needlework can help us think about a kind of technology before, uh, typical computers and before, um, the industrial revolution and before a climate crisis. And I think that maybe thinking about those kind of more basic foundational technologies would be helpful.


Because it brings us back to our roots and we can maybe use that kind of thinking to move forward instead of kind of digging ourselves into a deeper hole, I think with things like the climate crisis- that was a real ramble. I hope that made sense.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

No, it's really exactly why I wanted you on this podcast because so often we think of things like needlework as being very low tech practices for example I'm a ballet dancer, and I think it's a very highly feminized art form. And people always think of ballet as like, you know, I think not only very feminine, but also very low tech. It's just like you and a group of other women standing, holding onto a bar, you know, it's not understood as technical. And yet, when you look at the history of something like the pointe shoe, how that's fundamentally changed, you know, the entire art, but also it changes women's bodies, um, it's actually this very highly technical field.


So I just wanted to ask how you as a textile historian grappled with the framing of needlework, stitching as this low-tech field? And, I guess what, uh, textile historians like you are doing almost to challenge that particular assertion?


ISABELLA ROSNER:

I think that the way you frame that question is a really good one, because it's something that I oftentimes have in the back of my mind, but is not as present as I want it to be in my own work.


Technology has driven textiles for the entire history of textiles. every aspect of textile making, or wearing or using is technological. It's present in every stage of the process from the procurement of materials to the designing to the making. So I think that I and other people who think about textiles, who think about needlework, we think about it as this thing that's divorced from the larger technological changes that are happening in the world.

I think I think about the reflections of those changes within needlework. I think about how is the industrial revolution changing, um, what needlework people are doing, how is the printing press changing, what is happening after that in terms of textiles, but I don't make the connection as immediately as I should, as often as I should, but textiles, like every type of textile making is technological and technical, you know, weaving and knitting, crocheting, needle lace, these all involve code, you know, like even though the loom, the jacquard loom to make cloth.


Was considered the first computer, but when it comes to the needlework that I think about this embroidery that kind of drives everything that I am as a person, I guess, not to be dramatic, but, um, when it comes to that needlework, it's so present in every part of this process, and it's ...


Embroidery is less code based, it's more code adjacent, but it's about counting. It's how many threads of warp and weft, and those warp and weft threads are the threads that kind of go vertically and horizontally to weave together to create your fabric. So it's like, I have this piece of cloth in front of me and I want to create something with stitch.


How many threads am I supposed to cross with each stitch? How will I fit every, every, everything into this piece of fabric? Given the weave of the fabric, given the types of stitches I'm using, given what I'm trying to depict. It's all about math. It's about counting. It's about spatial awareness. And those, those variables, the kind of type of weave, the type of stitch, those are present every time you embroider.


But I think that technology is more present generally in every part of the process in terms of how materials are created and disseminated how designs are also created and disseminated and how kind of styles and trends and new processes move across the world. I'm going to talk about this later, probably, but like so much embroidery that came out of the early modern period, which is what I look at most came from technological innovations happening in Italy and Germany, and then England kind of was like, Oh yeah, us too!

And those pattern books, the books that are printed with. Lace designs and embroidery designs are created because of advancements in printing, they're spread around the world because of advancements in travel, in shipping, people are able to access them in a way they haven't before because of advancements in, um, you know, literacy that come with technology and all of these kinds of movements around the world and people are using materials that they never had a chance to use before.


They're using silk threads from Italy and Persia. They're using finely woven linen from the low countries. The world was expanding rapidly and I think needlework is actually a really helpful way through which we can understand the kind of extreme speed of global expansion.

Yeah, that's really fascinating.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

And those are such interesting examples of how certain kinds of technological changing in one industry is also kind of revolutionizing another really intimate sphere of women's lives. Um, but something that I actually also find really fascinating that gets overlooked is some of our origins of our understandings of resistance to big tech.


And I'm specifically thinking about the Luddite movement, are histories of textiles. So I was wondering. If you could tell us a little bit about that. And I'm going to give you a little spoiler. The reason why I'm interested in this is because we're having Brian Merchant on the podcast soon, who is the author of the book, Blood and the Machine.


Blood in the Machine is a history of the Luddite movement in the UK and relation to temporary resistance to big tech today. But yeah, I guess I was wondering if you could talk a little bit further about how the kind of dynamics of. Needlework as an industry, not only as kind of like this private or this domestic practice, is also shaping our understanding of new technological practices, that relationship between labor, technology, needlework. Just a small question for you.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Yeah. Ooh, much to think about. I think textiles are really interesting because they're so universal and so important. They have this kind of complicated but beautiful dichotomy between being a huge industry, a very, uh, violent and unkind industry.


And then you have this, you're right, this privacy, this domesticity, this small scale production. And how do you remedy those two things together? I find it, I have found it so interesting during COVID, um, how much embroidery was kind of taking hold. And I started a podcast during COVID. Every time I interviewed somebody, the question I asked at the end was, what do you think the role of needlework is in today's world?


And it was a way of trying to gauge what people who were invested in stitch were thinking about when it came to the fact that we were all stuck in our houses, we all were forced to live a much slower pace. Um, and it, everybody shared the same sentiments that needlework is restorative and calming because it's repetitive, it's, it's creative, it's private, it's the same movement over and over again, it's clean, you have to have clean hands, um, but it can also be social, you can be stitching with other people, and I think, I don't know, I don't really think this answers your question, but the role of labor in all of this is so interesting and the role of gender, right?


Because when it comes to the large scale textile manufacturers, that is less immediately like, oh, that's women. It's people of all genders in there. And in those spaces, there are pretty interesting gender dynamics as well about who is running a factory, who's working at the factory, that sort of thing.


Whereas with this, smaller scale production, everybody is stitching, it's still predominantly women, it's historically been predominantly women, in the English context, which is what I think about the most it was women who were wealthy enough to receive formal educations and to have access to materials. And then it became like everybody was stitching because it was going to teach you how to be a good mom, a good wife, a good housekeeper. And if you were poor, you would get employed in that. You would be a domestic servant and you'd be made to darn and stitch and whatever.


But now it's back to being this thing where the labor of textile production on a large scale is for, it's, um, it's not for everybody. It's, it's a terribly run industry, but the people who can stitch in their homes are back to being the people who have the time and the resources and the, the kind of leisure to stitch.


It's this interesting reversal. Clearly my thoughts on this are extremely jumbled, but I think that is also kind of accurate to textile production. Textiles have so many, um, puns and wordplay when it comes to like thread and weaving together and interwoven and tangled. And I mean, tangled itself is a textile thing, but I do think that the relationship between labor and class, location, access, and privilege in the space of textiles that's an incredibly tangled and complicated series of relationships.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean I didn't think it was, but now I'm like, ah, so many things. I was going to ask something like, you know, what's the difference between a woman in the early modern period, embroidering something and then somebody in quarantine or at home in lockdown, um, doing an embroidery, you know, how do those two women differ?

But of course there's so many different kinds of women doing embroidery and you can't possibly make that kind of distinction based on time.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Yeah, I think that's an extremely important point and it feeds into something that I had been thinking about when I was thinking through the questions, and that's about needlework and textiles and feminism.


People have opinions about whether or not needlework is feminist, and oftentimes, particularly feminist people have used needlework, and I understand why they have taken, they've kind of harnessed the discourse around that and used it. As part of their art, but I think it's really complicated when we think about needlework and feminism, because I think we're conflating needleworks relationship to feminism with needleworks relationship to women.


And it's the fact that whether you like or don't like needlework doesn't make it a feminist act. Like needlework, people have made it. Such that it's either feminist or anti feminist when they talk about it. But for these girls and women of the past, we very, very rarely know what they actually felt about their stitching.


Their stitching survives more often than their emotions or their words about their emotions about stitching. Every so often, we'll get information about a woman not liking to stitch, not liking to embroider. And we get that in a memoir or a poem or a biography. Like, you know, in a written source. Or, um, we'll get information that a woman really liked to stitch in that same sort of written source.


But we don't know how they felt about it, and therefore, we can't make assumptions about whether or not this is a feminist thing. Just because some people liked this thing that other people viewed as oppressive, doesn't make it a feminist or an anti feminist thing. This is totally a rant, but I think it's relevant here.


Every so often, on the internet, an image of something will go viral and this image is a piece of fabric that's embroidered upon and it's made to look like an old schoolgirl sampler. And it will say something like, Edith Ann stitched this in 1848 and hated every minute of it or something. Like, it's always the name Edith Ann, and it comes up every so often, and I hate them.


Look at my hands right now. I hate them because, one, these things are so obviously fake, and it really brings the field of kind of textile history, needlework history backwards, because people who don't know what they're looking at are like, oh, that's real. And I hate that because it really does all of the brilliant scholarship a disservice.


I hate it for a second reason. And that's because a girl would not have stitched that sort of sentiment. She would not have written on a sampler. I hated this because she were, she was under the guidance of a teacher or her mom who would not have let her just kind of wild out and use these materials and just kind of take this formalized needlework training and be like, I'm out.


Wouldn't have happened. The third reason I really hate it is because not liking embroidery or making textiles is not immediately feminism. It, some girls of the past like to stitch.

Some of them didn't like to stitch. There was a range. It's what you're saying, Eleanor, of there are millions and millions and millions of opinions about undertaking this task so we can't say we just can't put one opinion on everybody. It's everybody. Every woman has their own life, their own experiences.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

That's really fascinating. And, you know, I completely understand that frustration with the trope of like, you know, the kind of feminist hating stitching hating the confines of domestic life. And again, my mom who I love is very much of this ilk. She really disliked sewing. She really hates handicraft.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

And I get it. Yeah.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

Again, I'm not saying that that's a bad thing. I remember a book that I loved when I was younger called Catherine called Birdie. It's a wonderful kind of children's book about this sort of very funky young female heroine. Yeah. I think set in like the middle ages. Uh, and one of her characteristics is she's very strong willed and she hates stitching. At one point she throws her needlework in the privy in the toilet and then has to go fish it out in disgrace. And this is a gorgeous book. I think it's also very emblematic though of often where stitching can sit in the feminist imagination.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Okay, so, yes, I, I really understand that sentiment and I really understand that reaction against needlework, especially from people who were out and about during the second wave feminist movement.


I get it. But I made this meme, I was looking about, I was looking at it last night because I was like, is this relevant here? And I think it is. So, a few months ago, when the meme format of Pedro Pascal, kind of like holding his chest from, uh, The Last of Us, you know that meme format? I've made a stupid tweet, but it feels real.


I basically said, I had that image and I said, me when historical fiction slash period dramas paint needlework as exclusively oppressive without giving credit to the many historical women and men who enjoyed stitching and who used it as a way to express their creativity, regain agency, seek solace, or learn geography, math, literacy, etc.


Um, and I think that sums up really how I feel. I think we just need nuance. Everybody's opinion is valid here. We just need to realize that all of those opinions are valid and that there's a large spectrum of them.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

And that's why I find like your analysis as well, bringing in kind of coloniality, race, gender, geography, technology, and again, specifically why this technological conversation is so important. It's because, you know, when you look at where do the threads come from, this I think is such a critical conversation that can yet take us beyond the ' this is oppressive', this is liberatory kind of binary.


I went to see the Black Atlantic exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for anyone who's based in Cambridge, it's phenomenal. The curators did an incredible job. Definitely go and see it. But what is, I think, one of the many powerful things about that exhibit is it really traces how technological innovations that were happening in the UK were either developed explicitly for colonial and enslavement, colonial purposes and enslavement, or contributed to the mass scaling up of a lot of these violent practices. And so I think it was, it was really important, I think, to hear about how those kinds of practices were also impacting needlework as well.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

And I mean, we see reflections of that all over the place when it comes to needlework. Like a good example is the fact that by the time you hit the 19th century, even in England, obviously in America, but like, even here, you have schoolgirls practicing their stitching on samplers, but the material they're using is no longer linen, it's cotton, and all of a sudden you have cotton threads, you have all of this cotton out in the culture when it comes to textiles, and that's because England was importing cotton that was originally picked by slaves in the United States.


And of course it was shipped elsewhere to be produced, like to be woven, spun and woven into cotton fabric. I'm biased, obviously, but I think textiles reflect everything. They reflect huge issues in race, class, kind of colonialism, imperialism, like all of the kind of interpersonal and international dynamics that happen around the world can be reflected through textiles because every person on the planet is engaging with fabric.

The nature of that engagement might be different, but there's no one who is just free of a woven, knitted, felted material.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yeah, I'm enjoying how now, because of the need to be environmentally conscious, there is a drive to rethink textile. And there's no bad reason to reclaim taking textiles, seriously.

The old fashioned view that textile is for women is still around so much that Kerry and I had an agent for a book and he absolutely hated a bit in our book talking about people who were knitting algorithms.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Was this person like, cause it's not universally relatable cause it's for women or like what?


ELEANOR DRAGE:

He sent us an email basically breaking up with us. It just triggered something inside him. He just absolutely hated it.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Go for it, Kerry.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

That's why I loved when you were talking about kind of these code adjacent practices, because someone once told me they went to a computer science conference and the presenter put up a pattern on the projector screen and it was, you know, like many of the dynamics of the computer industry today, it was a very male dominated audience. Everyone was umming and ahhing, and then one of the only female participants put up her hand and said, Oh, that's a knitting pattern. And you know, and just the reframing of that immediately as a coding language.


So if you've had exposure to that, very recognizable whether or not you can knit it. Again, I'm a shocking knitter. I love it, but I'm terrible, but I know what it is and what it's asking me to do. And it's just amazing how that gets erased as a knowledge or as like a coding language.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

I agree wholeheartedly, because that stuff is straight up code. Even, I said earlier that needlework is more like code adjacent. I feel like I need to add some nuance to that, because there are instances of embroidery also being just obviously code. And like, one of these examples is Berlin Woolwork, which in like the mid 19th century, around like the 1830s and 40s, dominated needlework across the board in Europe and the Americas, everybody all of a sudden was stitching Berlin wool work. And it was basically like our needlepoint. It's canvas work, you're using either tent stitches or cross stitches. And one of the reasons why that was so successful so immediately is because coming out of Berlin were single pieces, printed pieces of paper with designs on them that had a code.


It was the design, but you had, like, it's squares. You had different colors of squares or different patterns within all of the squares so you know what you were stitching. That is just code moving from paper to canvas. And that is one of several reasons why that style took off so much that people were then scared that traditional hand embroidery techniques would be lost.

That is how widespread it became. And that was women primarily, but like, basically everybody invested in a paper based code that turned into a textile code. So yeah, I'm actually ready to fight that dude.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

We love that. I also think it's, you know, so interesting when we think about stitching as well as this kind of communication, which you've talked about so much.


But, um, before we close. If we start in that conversation, I think we will literally talk for the rest of the day. I know I'm hopefully seeing you this Saturday at the knitting and stitching show.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

I'm not going to be there. I'm so sorry. I'm going to hit you up.


So we can, yeah. Eleanor, do you live in London as well? Sorry, I'm gonna be quick about this. We should just hang. I'll text you and we can coordinate a hang.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

We'll make it happen. Unhinged V&A tour. Uh, I'll set up the group chat. It's gonna happen.

Okay. Thank you so much. I'm sorry I'm not gonna get the show.


I'm actually really sad about it.


KERY MCINERNEY:

No, I am. Okay. Um, but before we end, we did in our last episode, our favorite language fact with Becky Woods, who is also a New Generation Thinker like Isabella and is a linguist. So now we want to do our favorite fabric or needlework fact from everyone here. So we're going to start with, uh, Eleanor, do you want to go ahead with your favorite needlework or

fabric fact?


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Absolutely not!


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Oh my God. That is like the biggest ask. I cannot believe...


ELEANOR DRAGE:

She's so mean. She did it I think this last time as well.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

So in New Zealand your pad, like your sanitary pad comes with a sticker printed with facts like trivia. So you'd always like learn a lot when you peel it off. And then I came to the UK and I was devastated. That's just like a general complaint. So whoever makes sanitary pads here, where's my trivia?


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Kerry needs the facts.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

I do. I really enjoy learning things about elephants.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Okay. I actually do have facts. I cannot believe you sprung that on me, but I do have that. I have two, if that's okay. And one's going to be like vaguer and more related to technology and one's going to be just for fun. Okay. I was talking about these pattern books, right? That came out of 15th and 16th century Europe. And one of my favorite facts about those things is they totally changed the game when it came to European women and men engaging in embroidery and lace making. But their impact was such that when you look at 19th century Guatemalan samplers being made in colonial Spain, Guatemala, right? A Spanish colony. Um, you can see 16th century Italian lace patterns. Um, On the samplers, and I love that because that so clearly shows it's the travel of imagery and ideas via people, uh, and print, and that is layers upon layers of technological innovation going on there. And I think that's so interesting. And then my just like fun little factoid is. I previously always thought that cross stitch was like a pretty classic stitch all over the world. I would think about Russian folk dress and be like, yeah, cross stitch word, right? Like white linens with like red stitching.


Cool. Turns out, no, cross stitch came to Russia via a soap manufacturer in the 19th century. Um, and speaking of period pads that have facts, the soap came with cross stitch patterns.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

What a legacy.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

What a legacy, like the impact.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Okay, I did some Googling and um, I spent a lot of time watching these videos by a guy called, uh, Loïc Prigent to try and like, make my French better, and he interviews the sewers, the couturiers, these amazing women who sit at the top floor of the Chanel house on, rue Cambon in Paris, in their white medical robes.


And Karl Lagerfeld will just come and just dump a picture on their desk and they would have to translate it into a dress.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Iconic.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

I know. And apparently for, for each, um, thumb, you know, a thumb, each seam thumb, know what that is? No? It's like the bit at the end that needs at least 10 stitches. But all the haute couture has to be done by hand, of course, it's like no machines at all. I think the cheapest thing they were doing was like a hundred thousand for like a dress and each button was a grand. Cost a grand or, yeah, the reality of like the glamour behind these brands is these incredible like amazing women who cry during the fashion shows who are like sewing on the model, like fiddling around with them as they go on to the shows, and I now desperately want to stitch, but my mom said that was going to send me to stitch in school, and I hadn't come across you and the relationship between feminism and needlework yet, so I was like, if dad goes, I'll go.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Classic. But I feel like your fact is really good because it actually speaks to the value of, like, the labor value of stitch in all capacities, whether it's regular sewing or embroidery or textile making, whatever. Like, I think that the world of fast fashion and just having so much stuff available to us makes us forget that for most of human history, textile labor was extremely valuable. So like at all, most given points in time, textiles were the most expensive thing you could own. That's why like beds were so big and had so much stuff going on because it was a way to display your textiles. It's why in the 18th century, these dresses got so wide with panniers it's to show off your textiles.


You know, when. Uh, the Royal Collection was valued in 1649, I think, after Charles I. Um, the most expensive things in the Royal Collection were the tapestries, like textiles. That is such expensive labor, but now we have she in halls, so you'll never, people now cannot comprehend how valuable that labor is.


So great fact!


ELEANOR DRAGE:

No, it was a gateway fact to make way for your much better fact. Thank you so much for joining us today, it was a real honor.


ISABELLA ROSNER:

Thanks for having me! I apologize for my rambles, but it's just because I'm excited and you've given me so much to think about.

ELEANOR DRAGE:

This episode was made possible thanks to our previous funder, Christina Gaw, and our current funder Mercator Stiftung, a private and independent foundation promoting science, education and international understanding. It was written and produced by Dr Eleanor Drage and Dr Kerry McInerney, and edited by Eleanor Drage.


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