It isn’t breaking news that women artists have long been undervalued and cast aside by our historically male-dominated culture. Due to this same misogyny, mediums considered domestic or female-centric—like the textile and fiber arts—have been unjustly looked down upon and disrespected for centuries.
Art historian PL Henderson has dedicated her career to rewriting this narrative, shedding much-deserved light on female artists throughout history.
Back in 2016, Henderson first harnessed social media as a tool to educate the masses about women’s art when she launched her @womensart1 project on Twitter. Her account has now amassed a robust fanbase of over 400K followers and has cultivated an active and celebratory educational community. With her work through @womensart1 as a springboard, Henderson has just published her first solo book, Unravelling Women’s Art: Creators, Rebels, & Innovators in Textile Arts.
Did you know that knitting was used as a spying device in wartime? Do you know why dress design was critical for the Suffragettes or why spiders have been emblems for centuries? Henderson unravels these histories and more in this much-needed text. She provides a unique overview of textile art production, including embroidery, weaving, and soft sculpture, among others. She also conducted over 20 interviews with contemporary textile artists in its pages, unearthing insights into their practices, themes, and personal motivation.
Henderson talked with us about her new book, reflecting on these stories that have gone untold for too long.
What brought you to this project?
The book came about as an expression of my research on women artists over the past five years for my social media project. Because I write for a living anyway, for magazines, and contributing to the books of others, aiming to become a solo author was always a thought.
The area of women in the arts, historically and globally, is still a fascinating one. There is still so much to uncover due to how culture has often side-lined their achievements and talents. I believe people are intrigued by exposing hidden stories and want fresh areas to explore.
I wanted to create a book accessible to a range of people, including those interested in history, arts, textile arts, or women’s experience, that was engaging and, like the Twitter account, reflected an eclectic range of insights.
What is it about textile and fiber arts that interests you so much?
Some people can name five or more women painters, but can they name a single historic embroiderer?
Focusing on textile arts was an idea born out of a need to narrow down the huge area of women’s entanglement with art. I also knew from feedback on social media that this was an extremely popular area. It’s a genre that is often culturally associated with women and allowed me as a writer to offer a hopefully fascinating overview of their cultural, social, and political relationship to the practices involved.
As the book’s title suggests, I aimed to present some amazing female creators, rebels, and innovators as central to unraveling this often undervalued or obscured area.
What are some of the most compelling stories you learned in conducting the interviews and research for this book?
The chapters relate many stories ranging from the thought-provoking to the bizarre. They include how textile arts aided early midwifery, their use as a spying device during wartime, or how dress styles helped present Frida Kahlo’s politics. Often the movers and shakers of important art movements were textile artists; I also look at how symbolism and motifs in textile art often related to women’s roles and status.
The artists from countries as diverse as Iran, Finland, Japan, and Peru, while highlighting diversity in terms of ideas and practices, also reflect what often unites women working in the genre, like generational skill sharing. I was particularly honored by the contributions from artists of Indigenous heritages who, like other interviewees, relate their own important stories, which are well worth reading.
What surprised you the most in writing Unravelling Women’s Art?
That researching and writing 2,000 words a day for a deadline, contacting and negotiating with hundreds of artists, searching and collecting images, thinking about titles and covers, creating interviews, and dealing with contracts wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped!
The book also made me reassess my own connections to the art form. I was surprised by the lack of credit I’d given my mother and grandmother for their skills in creating clothes and furnishings, typically lost in domesticity.
What has the experience of curating @womensart1 on Twitter been like for you?
It’s helped me create a positive focus on art, in contrast to the antagonism which often pervades social media. It started as a feminist undertaking but has morphed into a form of community almost. That has been the case since the pandemic. People who were isolated said they found the account a bit of a lifeline, so it’s great to know you’re doing something not just entertaining but helpful.
Who are some of your favorite artists of all time, and why?
Frida Kahlo, for her absolute sassiness and resilience in the face of adversity, bears mentioning. Faith Ringgold, as just one of the US artists whose activism helped open gallery spaces to more diverse artists. The Glasgow Girls, The Guerrilla Girls, Artemisia Gentileschi—too many to mention!