In her examination of 1930s-1950s home textile crafts, author Rosemary McLeod argues that needlework should be seen as a tribute to the hard work and self-sacrifice of women in the domestic sphere: a “parallel culture” equally as important as the male world outside the home.  Although her focus was on work from the early-to-mid 20th century, little has changed in the gender balance of the craft today and it remains an almost-universally female sphere. In “Stitch”, Ann Packer’s 2007 examination of New Zealand fibre artists, only one of the 55 artists featured was male. In a New Zealand setting, the association of embroidery with female labour is inherent, and therefore work by male practitioners cannot help but be seen in this context.
By Jane Groufsky
The associations with quiet labour and the interior space were maintained when embroidery was encouraged as a form of therapy for wounded soldiers in WWI and WWII. Hospital-bound men, many of whom were suffering from shell shock, were encouraged to create pieces of “fancywork”  as a meditative activity which could also help with the regaining of fine motor skills. As one contemporary account put it: “Thus the needle, so long employed for putting something into him, is now being used, and with excellent results, in getting his worries out”. 
Surviving examples include delicate, feminine articles using conventional embroidery patterns, like the silk apron stitched with pink flowers by Fred Hansen of the New Zealand Engineer Tunnelling Company in Arras, France; others chose to render in embroidery the badge of their division, or patriotic symbols. As a patient at Brockenhurst Hospital in 1918, Rifleman Alfred Vincent New stitched a composition featuring kiwi, tiki and fern motifs and the New Zealand flag crossed with the Union Jack.
Reception of these articles was generally one of surprise that such fine work could come from the hands of men. Soldiers’ work at the 1921 Manawatu Show attracted a “[sym]pathetic interest” noting that “….the soldiers have shown that they are just as capable as doing really artistic work as any woman is” . The contrast was particularly heightened by the hyper-masculine space of the battlefield that these men had so recently occupied, and was a further example of the disruption to gender roles that occurred in the wake of WWI.
Although a 1923 New Zealand Herald article proclaimed needlework as a “new hobby for men”,  embroidery has never truly taken off as a male pastime, and in general has not moved from the guild sphere to the gallery as successfully as other textile practices such as weaving. In choosing embroidery as their artistic medium, male practitioners enter the contested space of art versus craft, where textiles in particular have suffered from their association with “women’s work”.
Malcolm Harrison (b.1941 d.2007) was an extremely successful textile artist who showed nationally and internationally, bringing the textile medium out of the idea of utility or past-time and into the realm of art. Harrison received early acclaim in the field of textiles from his award-winning entries for the 1961 and 1962 New Zealand Gown of the Year. In the following years he continued to work in fashion before he shifted to a focus on quiltmaking in the 1970s, and then eventually embroidery, often combining the two. His work Rainbow Babble (1990) is a chaotic assemblage of appliqued elements with a fragment of machine-embroidered cursive script: “colour my face any way you want – for the reality you see is not the real in me”. With its autobiographical focus, the embroidered text in this work echoes the schoolroom sampler but completely departs from the objects' didactic function and form. His work was personal, but sometimes inscrutable – curator Simon Gerrard has described how Harrison “hover[ed] at the half-open door of the closet” , growing up in the decades prior to the Homosexual Law Reform Act of 1986 and never publicly discussing his sexuality. In his “Exquisite Mysteries” series of nineteen small tapestries, the title refers to the incomprehensible (to Harrison) values of New Zealand society. The title could equally be a warning the viewer that these works are ultimately subjective, stitched with motifs which function as coded symbols.
The commonly-drawn connection between homosexuality and effeminacy is heightened through the use of a soft, tactile, and historically (in a Western context) female craft.  Contemporary artist Areez Katki does not refute this aspect in his 2019 exhibition “Bildungsroman”, an introspective homage to the female influences in his life and examination of his personal heritage. Katki utilises the textile skills learned from his female relatives to illustrate his history and identity as a queer Parsi artist. In “Panel VI – Blue Bathing in Pink” from his “Parsi Colony Series” (2018), he centres the chain-stitched maternal figure in the Mumbai bathroom of his childhood, with the tiles he describes as “musk pink” forming a grid which speaks to the demarcated societal roles of men and women. The domestic space is also crucial in “In Small Places (Farokh & Sohrab)” (2018): fragments of interior spaces where he has felt safe are scattered around the embracing male figures, and in this work Katki says he “didn’t try to hold back on tenderness and affection for the male form”. 
The notion of embroidery belonging to the interior is shattered by Jay Hutchinson, whose stitched renditions of rubbish are connected to their original context – through printed textile reproductions of the surface they were found on, through documentary photography, or even, in one case, through the extraction and display of the section of fence under which the rubbish was found. Hutchinson is interested how rubbish performs “interventions in the street, and interventions in the everyday” . By carefully recreating detritus encountered on his walk to work, he uses embroidery to record a paradoxically laborious snapshot of the habits and values of those passing through the area. Rather than deviating from embroidery’s decorative origins, his work reminds the viewer of the design considerations which shape consumer products and how these remain true even when discarded.
Embroidery contains what design historian Joseph McBrinn describes as “essentialist notions of femininity—in their association with amateurism, leisure, and domesticity” . The gender associations of embroidered art will always be present, and work produced by men cannot help but be perceived as either subverting or celebrating these issues. Regardless of whether male practitioners are actively engaging in conceptual conversations about gender with their work, embroidery is at its core a practical skill which is tied to notions of mending and care, essential to everyone.
Header image: Fred Hansen, Embroidered silk satin apron. Gift of Eileen Tiller, 2008. Te Papa,
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.