Disrupting Domesticity & Reclaiming Ourselves: Storytelling through Stitch Upon a Duster

by: , December 13, 2021

© Mediating the Materiality of the Duster (2017) by Vanessa Marr.


Within this paper I will explore the power of craft as a language for storytelling and a force for disruption and transformation. The work I am discussing is set within the context of craftivism and autoethnography, the former being literally craft–activism (Greer 2014), and the latter a theoretical framework which connects the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social, and political. (Ellis 2004) I will explore the role of craft, specifically embroidered stitch, as a means of voicing the domestic experiences both of myself and of other modern women, whilst challenging the unequal expectations of time spent on domestic tasks that society still imposes upon women. (Gershuny 2018) Rethinking visual culture in terms of what is presented as ‘normal’ is crucial in addressing these inequalities. The role of the embroidered dusters as objects that are charged with narrative through the phenomenological process of their crafting, and the proclamations they state, is fundamental to this investigation.

About My Practice

My creative practice-based research transforms the humble yellow duster into a voice. Through the process of embroidery and fabric manipulation, which I define as drawing or sculpting with thread, I disrupt the traditional domestic materiality of the duster by transforming it from tool to storyteller. Upon it, and through it, I narrate my female domestic biography, redefining and reclaiming my domestic self through active phenomenological engagement with the cloth through stitch. (Marr 2019) (See Fig.1)


Fig.1. Mediating the Materiality of the Duster. Vanessa Marr, 2017. Duster and thread. Marks made upon a duster for one month, within and whilst contemplating my domestic space.


Since 2014, I have also invited other women to embroider their personal, domestic experiences and perspectives into a duster through an ongoing open call, which I promote via my own networks and social media. The resulting collection of over one hundred contributions, which usually manifest as embroidered words or images, is regularly exhibited as a powerful collection of voices calling for acknowledgement (see Fig.2). By joining theories of autoethnography, phenomenology and craft, this work embodies our innate female knowledge of domesticity and the host of patriarchal expectations that accompany it. It sits within the context of cloth-held proclamations made by artists such as Annette Messenger (1974) and practitioners who explore collaboration and sharing through the ‘domestic arts,’ such as Judy Chicago (1979) and Suzanne Lacy (1985-87).


Fig.2. Dusters created by project participants being hung for display at the University of Brighton’s Grand Parade site, Spring 2017.


Why Dusters?

I selected a duster because it is a cleaning cloth that is commonplace in the UK, and therefore provides both an immediate visual reference to its purpose, and the context for my subsequent discussion of domesticity. It is also a cloth that is mundane (much like domestic tasks), of low monetary value, with a lowly status that likely relegates its place in the home to the domestic cleaning cupboard. Conversely, it is striking in its vibrant yellow, pleasurably soft to touch, and when embellished with embroidery it is transformed into a beautiful object.

Whilst it is acknowledged that dusters are also used for cleaning purposes other than housework, and by both men and women, as Kirkham argues, the perceived common interrelation of gender and object is fundamental for understanding ‘the cultural framework which holds together our sense of social identity’. (1996: 4) The duster can be presented and explored as a female object because, as Kirkham also tells us: ‘relationships between objects and gender are formed and take place in ways that are so accepted as ‘normal’ as to become ‘invisible.’ Thus, we sometimes fail to appreciate the effects that particular notions of femininity and masculinity have on the conception, design, advertising, purchase, giving and uses of objects, as well as on their critical and popular reception’. (1996: 1) The duster falls into one such category. Underpinned by Barthes’ seminal work Mythologies (1957) as a theoretical code by which we read the social meaning of things and act out accordingly, she later notes that the binary appropriation of objects can also be subverted to ‘disturb the established order,’ which can then ‘be applied to the act of producing meaning’. (1996: 4) By positioning the duster as signifier for housework, I build upon this signified relationship to establish its role as a catalyst for feminine creative expression, and as a performer (protester) of feminine domestic stories, disrupting what society perceives as ‘normal’ behaviour with a duster. Within the context of autoethnography, this disruption becomes a political act that enacts my experience and entices change. Therefore, the female legacy of domestic tasks (Hochchild 1990), and the common use of this object, establish its position it as the carrier of women’s domestic voices.


Fig.3. Duster from the collection: Denyse Aresti, It’s a small world, but not if you have to clean it.


The power of the duster is also evident within Bennett’s idea of vital materiality and ‘thing power’ (2004), which explores our relationships with material objects, within which our humanness and their innateness can appear to overlap. After nearly ten years of crafting the duster, it has become an extension of my domestic experience, and an ever-present conduit to my creativity in this area. Bennett describes ‘thing-power’ as ‘a force exercised by that which is not specifically human (or even organic) upon humans’ that engages us in ‘modes’ that ‘modify’ our response to things. Simply put, myself and my participants are moved by an understanding of this object that combines its purpose for cleaning with other connections that are embodied in its ‘thing power.’ These include, for example, domesticity, femininity, power, powerlessness, gendered expectations, and memory, as well as a host of other interconnected personal material relationships. The act of hand embroidery is significant too, because it shares the duster’s signified relationship with power, described by Parker (1984) ‘as a symbol of … the ideal femininity’. (Kokoli 2016: 110) Additionally, its application within a community, as opposed to a fine-art (or fine-craft), context acknowledges embroidery’s assignation as an ‘amateur’ (Adamson 2007: 151) female craft technique, which has tended to downgrade its art status within widely held patriarchal perspectives, yet fuels its subsequent potential for subversion, as witnessed in craftivism. (Greer 2014)

The Autoethnographic Storytelling Power of Stitch Upon a Duster

Early on in my work with the duster I noticed that prolonged contact with it, through the slow process of hand embroidery, has an impact on the maker—both myself and others. Within the collaborative project, the participant’s responses often evolved, and at times their stories changed or even contradicted themselves.

A particular example of this a lady who stitched two contrasting dusters within days of each other. (Fig.4) The first duster reflects upon a group discussion where the invisibility and thanklessness of domestic tasks were discussed at length. Upon further contemplation, she stitched another duster within which domesticity has transformed into invisible threads that hold the family together. This transformation either suggests the need to conform within group discussions where feminist ideals were generally held in high regard and ‘rebellious nonchalance’ reigned supreme, or that the contemplative time spent with the object at home supported more reflective and positive thinking. Whether conscious or not, she clearly related the invisibility of the duster to domestic tasks. Many participants tell stories of how their efforts are taken for granted and go largely unnoticed. The visual language of the duster provides a way for them to story this experience, within a space where their concerns are acknowledged.


Fig.4. Dusters from the collection: Invisible and undervalued versus Invisible threads holding home and family together by Catherine Finn.


As Sherry Turkle explores, David Mann writes that language can be a ‘liminal object, standing outside and within the self; a vehicle for bringing what is outside within’. (2007: 316; Mann 1994) The unique combination of language and duster is even more powerful. Words are the natural first step to tell a story, but the power of the object lingers and can engage those who would not consider themselves to be storytellers. It has the capacity to reach the maker phenomenologically through touch and stitch, so that their experience becomes words, becomes stories, becomes embroidered manifestations of their storied experiences. The duster’s subtle powers of liminal subversion, transform it into a storyteller.

I exist in the liminal

The space in between

The lines of days spent

Wiping dirt

Well versed in stanzas of the household day

Those smeared edges,

Run rings around my head

© Vanessa Marr 2019

The narrative expression of domestic experience through craft deserves recognition as a legitimate process of storytelling that records and visually manifests a host of worthy experiences. Methodologies such as this are, of course, the very essence of practice-based research, of making to know, as evident in my practice. Autoethnographic theory broadly accepts creative outputs as a means of enticing change (Ellis 2004), but the current focus is predominantly on creative writing, which Richardson presents as ‘creative analytic’ and a ‘mode of reasoning and a mode of representation’. (1997: 28) My study extends this further through stitch-drawing onto to an object (duster), which acts as a catalyst to ‘reason’ our expression, tied to the context it represents (domesticity), then exhibited as a ‘mode of representation’ of both the process and voice. Furthermore, by placing this study within an academic context, it is possible to bring the dusters credibility, contextualising them within a wider school of thought that acknowledges the legacy of their application, challenges the gendered context of their role, and simultaneously acknowledges their power as a political act.

The collaborative nature of the workshops and the touring exhibition of the growing duster collection build upon this experiential knowledge to entice the discussion and sharing of personal experiences, which in turn connects the stories to wider cultural and social issues. It gives voice to an experience that is undermined, reduced, ignored, and largely assigned to a gender who have been persuaded that it is even more than duty, (Fig.5) that it is in fact intrinsic to womanhood. Based on my experience with the ‘Women and Domesticity – What’s Your Perspective?’ project I am uniquely placed to be autoethnographically creative in this way. The shared and collaborative legacy of, that project enables me to support others to do the same. I also know from a multitude of responses to the project when it is exhibited that it is accessible, and that it starts conversations and facilitates further sharing of stories. (Fig.6)


Fig.5. Duster from the collection by Jackie Batey, Call of duty. An implied battle between ‘tea and buffet parties’ and ‘domestic help’ that questions the role of domesticity in modern day life.


Fig.6. Vanessa (far right) in lively discussion, sharing dusters and domestic experiences, with visitors during the first exhibition. Studio 11, Eastbourne, February 2015.


In Evaluating Ethnography, Laurel Richardson begins with the statement: ‘the ethnographic life is not separable from the self’. (2000: 253) Similarly, Sarah Pink writes that: ‘researchers are in some ways always part of the lives and world they are researching’. (2012: 31) Domestic experience is common to us all: in the home we can research the life we live. My personal experience as a woman, wife, and mother, has inherited expectations of a domestic life that have become indeterminably bound to my other roles as a university lecturer, friend, artist, and maker. As I type I am interrupted by the need to tend to the meal that I am slow-cooking for dinner tonight. The noise of the washing machine whirs in the background, and I will take a break to hang the next load of washing on the line. A pile of half-stitched dusters nestles behind my laptop, part of a teetering pile of books and notes. Writing, teaching, making, caring, working, cooking, tidying, remembering to pick up some milk while I’m out: this is the ethnographic life I lead; one that is not ‘separable from the self,’ one that is as much a part of me as my academic aspirations.

I am not a stranger

In this land of pots and pans.

I know the depth of the kitchen cupboard

The reach across the work surface

The capacity of the fridge freezer.

I know this terrain like the back my hand.

My age spots, scars and wrinkles

Stain a pattern of time that has become undone;

Lost hours of my life

Spent with the push and pull of the hoover or broom,

Wiping, scouring, polishing and sweeping away the years.

I am not a stranger in this land

I am myself.

© Vanessa Marr 2019

I am also aware that I am not alone in this life of blurred lines and expectations, which so often conflicts with the feminist ideals I try to instil in my daughters. As I peg out the washing, I see other women like me over my neighbouring fence tops, pegging out clothes in the sunshine before dashing out to a day of work or errands. Because I am not alone, because this female experience is shared—albeit divided by the walls and fences of modern living—I want my story to be heard among the voices of many. This is not just my autoethnography, it is also the autoethnography, the personal domestic story, of much of womankind. By investigating a relationship and an experience that is common to my collaborators and myself, I can complete a study that is by its nature collaboratively autoethnographic. I have insider knowledge. These are my experiences, the women in the project tell their experiences; these might not be your experiences, but this is our autoethnography.

We meet across the garden fence.

In parallel lines of domestic bliss.

We plant our gardens with flowers and washing lines,

Where we peg the truth of our intimate lives

On lines strung taught in the sunshine.

Stained smalls, caught tight between clenched teeth and wooden fingers,

Fight the warm breath of the wind for freedom.

© Vanessa Marr 2019

Can Craft Tell Stories?

The link between story and handicraft is broadly understood, as witnessed through work by artists such as Tracy Emin, who offers insights into the personal spaces she inhabits, such as her bed (1995), and Louise Bourgeois who, amongst other powerful work, embellished an apron with the perceived disappointment of her own gender. (1992) These examples of their work present stitched phrases that tell their stories upon cloth objects, which in turn hold and contextualise them. Likewise, the embroidered dusters from my own work and that of project participants often include stitched text that makes strong narrative statements.


Fig.7. Duster from the collection by Kate Chapman: 1940-2015. This stitcher’s domestic narrative is told across the duster, reflecting on her changes of perspective over 75 years.


It matters that the dusters are hand-embroidered, not machine-stitched. Crafting by hand draws the stories out. In Evocative Objects, Sherry Turkle asks: ‘[w]hat are the stories we like to hear?’ Usually, it is those that comfort us, ‘but theory can help us to see things anew.’ Telling stories through craft processes can play the same role, i.e., to allow us to ‘see things anew’. (2007: 323) The tension between the familiarity of textiles and their use for protest in craftivism is precisely why they have impact. We associate textiles with comfort—wrapping ourselves in them for warmth is a basic human need—therefore the idea that they can be a form of activism, which is often associated with aggression, seems contradictory.

Collective Voices

The collaborative ‘duster project’ pivots around individual responses to the duster, created as an object of self-expression. These different stories provide insight into the domestic expectations, values, and legacies that inform the sense of self of over one hundred different women, presented with humour and honesty.

I accept submissions from everyone who enters without a screening or selection process in order to obtain an authentic voice, although I acknowledge that my own self, network, and the context of my call have some influence on those who choose to participate. I meet women to stitch dusters online and through in-person workshops, via an open call on social media, and through sharing this research at academic events. The ‘rules,’— a red thread and a yellow duster—are mostly adhered to, and provide visual cohesion when the collection is exhibited, but I am quick to state there is no ‘right’ response. At the heart of the project there is freedom and a safe space to ‘speak.’ Apart from one exception, where someone submitted a huge pair of knickers that they apparently use to dust, the duster anchors these stories together. A selection of perspectives is explored below: 

Rage: A shared sense of anger at having to do the cleaning is frequently expressed, particularly so in the case of the duster stitched with the words: Nonchalance, Irritation, Industry, Rage. (Fig.8) Its maker resents the fact the job is assumed to be her responsibility, and not that of other family members. Patterns of behaviour were also evident: she pretended not to care, but eventually conceded and so cleans under a cloud of burning anger.


Fig.8. Duster from the collection by Amy Mallett, Nonchalance, Irritation, Industry, Rage.


Celebration: Some participants tell stories that reflect joyful acknowledgement of the pleasure that domestic tasks can bring, as with the duster below, embellished with a flower of pink feathers. It is quite simply fun and bright, stating there is ‘so much fun with a feather duster’. (Fig.9a) Another participant told of how, when in full-time work, she employed a cleaner, perceiving the performance of domestic tasks an impossibility due to lack of time. Upon retirement she enjoyed performing a task she defined as ‘domestic’—making marmalade. (Fig. 9b)


Fig.9a. Duster from the collection by Judith Berill, Pink Feathers.


Fig.9b. Duster by Bridget Carpenter, A luxury for working people.


Rebellious nonchalance: In another very common story, traditional values of pride in the home are replaced by an attitude of rebelliousness. Participants tell tales of domestic avoidance, asking: ‘Why should I clean? What is cleaning? I don’t do it and I don’t care!’ I would question just how dirty these people’s houses are (I have visited some of them, and they seemed tidy to me), so I suggest it may be more a case of pretending that domesticity is not for them because it does not sit comfortably with their feminist values. They also imply a sense that domestic chores are imposed upon them, rather than them being a something they would choose to do for their own state of mind or personal pleasure in a clean home. Choice is pertinent to perspective.


Fig.10a. Duster from the collection Ironing is Pants by Jill Tattersall


Fig.10b: Dusting, what’s that? by Ashley Scrase.


There are also stories that recollect and reflect on family experiences. The duster ‘memory’ tells the story of the embroiderer’s mother, who found domesticity transformed from a perceived pleasure (she enjoyed caring for and feeding her family, alongside her job as a teacher) into a bind when her husband developed dementia and she became housebound as his caregiver. Most participants cite their mother as their most important domestic influence.


Fig.11. Duster from the collection, Memory by Christine Chester.


In a mother and daughter paired response, two dusters tell the tale of the husband, or father’s, missing underpants. (Fig.12) One duster asks: ‘Where are my underpants?’ whilst the other duster replies: ‘I am not the keeper of your underpants!’ Although presented humorously it apparently resulted in quite an argument! Responsibility for items that have been laundered often falls to the one who washes them, rather than the owner of the clothes. Many women have said they relate to this.




Fig.12. Duster from the collection I am not the keeper of your underpants! by Pip and Linda Carter.


Time, or lack of it, is a reoccurring narrative. ‘I simply don’t have time for this’ (Fig.13a) was stitched quickly in wool rather than embroidery silk, its creator stating that she felt the latter would take too long. The embroidered object became the visual embodiment of her busy lifestyle. Interaction with the duster was both chore and art, and it fell into the same category of haste through necessity. The clock (Fig.13b) holds a simple story of being forever stuck at ‘on,’ and never having enough time for herself.


Fig.13a. Duster from the collection I simply don’t have time by Ali Trott.


Fig.13b. Time by Felicity Truscott.


These are just a tiny fraction of the stories that are bound in the red thread of the hand-stitched dusters. There is a powerful narrative stitched into each one, which longs to be heard. I have noticed that participants almost always tell me stories when they present their completed duster to me, wanting me to understand why they have selected certain words or images, and likewise what making it has meant to them. These expanded and explanatory stories from the participants are a part of human nature, but the dusters also speak clearly without it, because their craft process tells a story too. Typically, words, phrases, or images are chosen but the nature of the crafting process (time and available space) condenses these narratives. We also read the crafted, tactile, and visual stories, those told through the skill of the maker, the puckering of the fabric, the choice of stitch and application—these, too, hold narratives. (Fig.14) The choice of words is important, but the combination of craft, story, and duster is uniquely expressive, much more so than if simply written or told. When hung as a collection for exhibition the result is a multitude of stories—voices that resonate and conflict, celebrate and complain, each of them authentically using craft to tell, or ‘charge’ the object with narrative power.


Fig.14. Dusters from the collection, telling stories through application and form by Sarah Welsby and Philippa Lyon.



In addition to the duster’s storytelling ‘thing power,’ combined with the legacy and application of craft in storytelling, the repetitive sequence of the stitching process and the necessary length of time it takes to do so by hand, facilitates a phenomenological understanding of the object that supports a unique form of narrative expression. It is transformed into a catalyst for ‘self-creation,’ combining ‘intellect and emotion’ as a ‘marker of connection’. (Turkle 2007: 5)

Give a woman a duster and she will assume you wish her to dust with it. However, it has become evident through the collaborative duster project that if you give a woman a duster, a needle, and a strand of red thread—in itself a symbol of feminine power (Gordon 2011)—whilst asking her what she thinks, that because of its ‘naturalised’ state (Turkle 2007: 311) she will instinctively connect the dots and tell you a story about her everyday experiences of the household chores. Tell her it is activism, and she will use it to metaphorically shout. (Fig.15) Furthermore, because the dusters are exhibited and discussed, this gives their ideas merit and, as a part of a larger project, reassurance in solidarity: a modern revival of 1970’s collectivist events, such as The Women’s Postal Art Event (1975-79).


Fig.15. Inspired by Suffragette banners, to be suspended from a wooden spoon: Domesticity is not a Female Word. Vanessa Marr, 2021.


I also run workshops that support the phenomenological exploration of the duster through touch, using sensation to evoke domestic memories and experiences that lead to a deeper investigation, combining craft with reflection. These haptic-inspired outcomes are more sculptural and less literal in their narrative form: the scrunched-up bundles of frustration, dusters torn to shreds, carefully bound, stitched or folded, tell their own silent tales. (See Fig.16) Several contemporary textile artists also bind stories with processes of stitch—for example Alice Kettle and Hannah Lamb, who hint at expansive narratives through the application and form of their work. Is this enough to tell a story? Or should the ‘live’ stories that accompany craft be captured and presented in a more literal form?


Fig.16. Dusters layered with cleaning other cloths, stitched, then torn to shreds. Vanessa Marr, 2019.


The Role of Craft in Storytelling

As part of a project attempting to record the stories that accompany handicrafts, Rosner and Ryokai created a digital means of doing so using augmented knitting. They have developed a technology named Spyn, ‘a system for knitters to record, playback, and share information involved in the creation of their hand-knit artefacts’ (the project attempts to record the stories and spaces that accompany the process of craft through narration whilst craft is in action: the participants literally speak while making). Rosner and Ryokai (2018) write in justification of their method that, in their opinion, ‘a handmade object itself cannot tell those personal stories of its making; it can just hint at the human energy poured into its creation.’ They also claim that ‘information associated with handicraft is linked through intangible means: tacit knowledge and socio-cultural context encrypt a textile.’ This is partly true, in that we cannot exactly know the story of an embroidered duster’s making, or even the story behind it, unless we are its maker. The ‘socio-cultural context’ certainly ‘encrypts’ it, but the textile still holds its own visual narrative, independent of voiceover, data, or supporting text. Those of us working in the Arts are more used to interpreting these subtle nuances of visual narrative, but the ‘tacit knowledge’ is always there—whether consciously or unconsciously recognised—because the embroidered dusters employ the semiotic language both of a ‘female’ craft process and that of a textile intended for cleaning. Storytelling through craft is not as simple as stitching whilst telling the story of its making, nor, in this case, as perceiving the duster as a storyteller alone. Story and process join, one evolving in response and relation to the other. The embroidered duster, the final crafted piece, is also a story about the past, the artists who have claimed stitch as a methodology, and the idea of turning these ‘feminine skills’ into a means of activism. The story it tells is one of: ‘Look at me! You thought I (both woman and duster) was just for cleaning, but I am not!’

The narratives charged within the duster, through the process of crafting, tell of the experience of its making, but also the personal knowledge of being a woman, ‘giving form’ to the relationship she has with her duster because of the history and culture it is rooted within. Craft in this research context is often defined as ‘making to know’ but also, as Tim Ingold has it, as making to tell. (2013: 109) He writes that: ‘what remains unspoken need not be left unvoiced; nor need what remains unwritten be left without inscriptive trace.’ In other words, it does not need to be literally told as words. It can be ‘told by hand’ through the ‘subtle clues’ we have learnt to read within our environment. (2013: 110) Crafted stories transcend the need for a literal story; instead, they manifest it, allowing opportunities for empathy and engagement that go beyond that which is verbal. As Patricia Rodriguez writes in Power of Making: ‘[o]nce you outgrow the discipline of the warp and weft, your thread starts telling stories’ (2011:11); and once you know the rules you can break, remake and craft your own autobiographical ‘knowing’ into them.

At its core, the practical aspects of craft are about making, usually with our hands. (Fig.17) Daniel Charney writes that it ‘is one of strongest of human impulses and one of the most significant means of human expression’. (2011: 7) According to Adamson (2007) craft can also be an idea. His definition of craft as an ‘amalgamation of interrelated core principles’ supports the notion that story and experience can manifest through and because of it, for as he notes, it is ‘organised around material experience’. (2007: 4) This capacity for making with thought and imagination is one of the things that makes us human; likewise, storytelling and the role of retold and imagined narratives are a means of making sense of the world around us. Leanne Prain writes that: ‘[n]arrative is the binding thread of human experience, and stories are the medium we use to know one another and ourselves’. (2014: 9) Both craft and story are rooted in our nature as humans. Join these twins of process where ‘mind, body and imagination are integrated’ (Margetts 2011: 38), and they can become a powerful storyteller, enabling expression, understanding and change.


Fig.17. Hand-stitching What is a Woman’s Work? Vanessa Marr, 2016.


Craft changes the duster into an artefact worthy of display. Like Karl Marx’s table (1976 [1867]), it comes alive, embodying its relationship to power. The power of thing that had the power to tell a woman to do the dusting is transformed into a power that tells her she has a story to tell. The context of the duster project shares this story, giving her a voice, which through exhibition is acknowledged, and through knowledge starts the chain of change that craftivism provokes. In short, the duster subverts its own purpose and turns it on its head.

 Domestic Expectations

Hochchild’s Second Shift (1990) discusses the lingering expectations on women to do the majority of the household chores, an issue that the 1972 Wages for Housework campaign had sought (unsuccessfully) to resolve. More recently, Hanauer’s (2002) collection of essays documented women struggling with the reality of doing it all, and Stack (2019) discusses the issues of paying other women to take on domestic tasks, while also juggling day-to-day domesticity alongside work, and the implied primary female responsibilities of childcare. Contemporary advertising, which still reflects the legacy of 1950’s government campaigns to put women’s work back into the home after the World Wars (see Fig. 18), does much to support the view that housework is primarily a woman’s concern. (Greenhill 2018) The collective voices that gather together upon the dusters challenge the domestic myth of the ideal woman who is completely satisfied with making and maintaining her home. In his book Mythologies Barthes establishes myth as a type of speech defined ‘by the way in which it utters [its] message’. (1957:13) We receive these myths daily, often through advertisements that use images and messages to build complex narratives, which are then woven into our society. Crafting the dusters is a means of exploring the complexities of how and why this myth survives, because it references both the past and the present, the historic legacy of stitch on a relatively modern cloth, in the context of current experiences.


Fig. 18. Duster collages, created from post-war magazine advertisements. Vanessa Marr, 2017.


The female relationship with domesticity is complex; a mix of often-silent pressures supported by the legacy of ‘women’s work,’ a patriarchal, capitalist society that depends on free labour and women’s righteous desire to care for our homes and families, whilst also maintaining the autonomy of our own selves. Stitching mirrors this complexity, and utilising it for activism allows us to challenge what is perceived as worthy and of merit ‘democratising [the] feminist impulse that honours multiple voices and processes and opens up rather than shuts down’ (Loots 2016: 389) conversations that enable academic discourse to go beyond ‘conventional male dominated narratives’. (Moriarty 2020: 110)

Personally speaking, craft enables me to manoeuvre through the resentment I experience when domestic tasks default to me because of my gender; for the ‘personal [to become] political’ (Holman-Jones 2013: 289) through a process that offers the opportunity for reflection and the enticement of change. My stitched methodology makes the ‘process of reflection’ through stitch into a physical thing. In heterosexual households, women still complete on average 60% more domestic chores than their male partner. (www.ons.gov.uk) This is an act of oppression that craft can uniquely voice because of its shared female legacy with stitch (Parker 1984) and cloth (Barber 1995). Through stitch upon a duster, I challenge this status quo and lift the domestic acts of everyday life, experiences we all share whatever our gender, towards the academic recognition they deserve as an ethnographic record of lives lived.



Fig. 19. Can you hear me scream? Vanessa Marr, 2021.


Crafting Objects From Everyday Life

As I have discussed, because it is commonplace, the duster already exists as part of our inner life as an object we read and understand the purpose of. It is not strange or foreign, it just is—usually under the kitchen sink and ignored, which brings power to its change of use. It is this very change that ‘defamiliarizes’ it. ‘What is it doing there, presented like that?’ or ‘why are you presenting it to me for this purpose?’ we ask, and through this question we begin to engage with the story it can tell. Turkle writes on the discussion of familiar objects: ‘One role of theory… is to defamiliarize them… It enables us to explore how everyday objects (such as the duster) extend the reach of our inner sympathies by bringing the world within’. (2007: 307) With the duster, this shared familiarity extends, entices, and connects those who tell their stories through stitching upon it, as well as those who ‘read’ them in exhibition.

Turkle also writes: ‘theory defamiliarizes objects, objects familiarize theory’ (2014: 307), therefore this joining of two seemingly separate entities, leads them to support each other in recognition of what is often termed ‘the everyday.’ Everyday stories have worth through their very nature. Stories of adventure and fantasy have their places for sure, but the everyday is one thing we all have in common. The starting point for each of us is our home, our domestic context. It is precisely through this connection: home—domestic—chores, that we connect to the duster, which enables them to act as a catalyst for evoking stories on this theme. By taking it one step further with craftivist tactics of stitch, and provocative proclamations and a focus on gendered inequalities, we connect the call for change to an aspect of everyday life that we can all tell a story about.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Certeau discusses the idea of ‘space as a practiced place…constituted by a system of signs’. (1984: 118) Within the home these signs are largely either domestic or related to the people who inhabit that space. The duster is one of these signs, established through knowledge and recognition of its use to clean the domestic space, the home. The phenomenology of the duster can be determined through what Merleau Ponty (1945) defines as our experience of living in the world—in this case a domestic one—thus enabling our reflection and examination of the daily rituals that take place there. The fact that the object, the duster, is in the space within which its operation is attached (i.e. cleaning), also determines the type of stories that are linked to it. The space tells its stories through this object, the object literally ‘awakens,’ becoming an active participant in the story.

In one sense the duster becomes a character, playing the role of housewife. Through phenomenological engagement with the object, women see themselves in this protagonist. They identify with it, express empathy, and experience a connection to space and experience made possible through the characterisation of the duster. I call this ‘relatable phenomenology,’ or ‘craft-ethnography:’ the means of relating space and personal experience through an object, that acts as a catalyst for storytelling. Bring stitch into the mix, with its own legacy of female work, and it enables a release of narrative through engagement that connects to the same legacy that is held within the duster. In each instance, this is the oppression of women towards certain ‘female’ skills and tasks. (Fig.20)


Fig. 20. Duster from the collection by Cary Norman. It holds of the story of when she asked her then-12-year-old son to set the dinner table, and he retorted with: ‘It’s women’s work’. He never said it again!


As Certeau writes, stories can ‘organise the play of changing relationships between places and spaces.’ This change in relationship requires an action for reflection, which stitch—or craft—provides. These stories represent a ‘vast and enormous corpus,’ a map of our lives, our experiences, a unique story of our domestic home space, or as Cvetkovich defines it, a story of ‘everyday habit’ that is released through craft’s unique connection with space through our senses (1984: 118). We touch, smell, pierce, and experience home through an object that belongs there; we stitch the dusters with messages and images, we sculpt, twist, and embody them with thread, binding it with experiences from the most intimate of spaces: home. (Fig.21)



Fig.21. Duster from the collection by Michelle Pannell: Home is where the Heart is.


The need to find and define a space, a home, with walls or at least a delineation of ownership, is a basic need of all living beings. As humans, we go beyond the animal need for shelter, towards comfort, intimacy and a definition of taste or size that also reflects our personality and status. However, whatever the simplicity or grandness of our home, the ‘uncommon value of our protected intimacy’ (Bachelard 1958: 3) is the core value that defines the space we personally inhabit. This domestic habitation, or ‘domain of intimacy’ (Bachelard 1958: 12) is experienced both in reality and in virtuality, within walls that are both imaginary and real. On the one hand, our experience is tangible in terms of everyday life­—we eat, clean, work, relax, and spend time alone and with family or friends in our homes—but it is also a space that we experience phenomenologically through the intimate values of our inside space, through our conscious and unconscious experience of knowing it.


Fig.22: My favourite leather armchair—a place to sit and stitch. Vanessa Marr, 2020.


Reaching into this space is not uncommon within the artworld, particularly with women artists who often respond to the legacy of the gendered ownership of this space. The contextualisation of craft work should not however be limited to those whose work hangs in esteemed galleries. It is also important to connect with the here and now. Stitch is a task that can be completed alone, yet it also holds a legacy of shared female labour (Barber 1996), as women have joined together for centuries to share a largely textile-focused workload, childcare, and companionship. 

 My fabric collage (Fig.20) tells the visual and tactile story of time spent in my favourite armchair, but the actual experience of sitting stitching here goes beyond the description I have attempted to capture, which is made up of textures and things. It is more like the experience that Bachelard (1958) describes as the ‘poetry of space.’ He argues that the ‘thread of narrative’ that brings together a ‘community of memory and image’ where ‘memory and imagination [are] associated’ (1958: 5) exists as form of poetry, which ‘touch[es] the poetic depth of the space of the house.’ We hold this both consciously and unconsciously.

Bachelard (1958) argues at length that this poetry, or deep phenomenological understanding of space, is realised through our dreams and recollections of home during childhood, but for me, as a woman, it is bound up with more than that. It is bound up with gendered domestic expectations (cleaning, feeding the family etc), but also a primal need to personally identify with the space I call home in a way that it becomes part of my story. I have lived in many houses (Fig.11)—some I have loved and others I have not—but the common factor in the spaces I feel ‘at home’ in is an unconscious knowing of belonging, of comfort that goes beyond a physical experience. This symbolic ‘poetry’ of existence is where ‘a poet’s word because it strikes true, moves the depth of our being.’ The poetic narrative of my home space is also the poetic narrative of myself as a space that archives my possessions, tastes, actions, and family life—the story of myself.


Fig.23. All my homes and houses (details) Vanessa Marr, 2021. Stitched from memory, I’ve used detail, or lack of it, to visually story the homes that I remember the most.


Poetry is usually understood to be words (Fig.24), but the rhythm and syntax of my needle and thread also mimic this form. The formation of my stitches gathers like words, with spaces and lengths of line, formed expressions and pauses for thought and effect. Each of these stitches patterns the poetry of narrative in my domestic space. Bachelard (1958) also writes that ‘we cover the universe with drawings we have lived,’ just as I cover my duster cloth, which speaks of my domestic space, with stitches. Whether literal representations or phenomenological drawn-stitched experiences, my space, these forms of poetry, embody the virtuality of my home. The process of making within the home is an important part of the manifestation of my experience. It stills me, locates me, places me in a moment of time that is defined by the rhythm and the story of my stitch.


Fig. 24a: Duster from the collection: I am Here by Melanie Smith and 24.b: We are but dust and shadows by Karen Morgan. Some participants wrote poetry in order to tell their stories (upper image), whilst others borrowed poems that enabled them to tell their story through the words they found (lower image).


The Act of Embroidery for Disruption

When preparing for the craft of embroidery, one must first gather a needle and thread. The needle is our tool for embellishment, its application requiring an act of damage, of piercing the cloth as part of the action of making. Sewing is fairly unique in this process: weaving, knitting, and crochet, for example, require the twisting, binding, and linking of thread to produce their various outcomes. As anyone who has used a needle will know, it must also be handled with care, for it has the power to draw blood. In the forward to her famous book The Subversive Stitch, Roszita Parker quotes Olive Schreiner as asking: ‘has the pen or the pencil dipped so deep in the blood of the human race as the needle?’ (1984: ix) in doing so eloquently recognising the role of stitch in both educating and simultaneously oppressing women through the act of embroidery. It is no coincidence that Craftivism claimed its power, turning the tables and transforming the needle from oppressor to voice.

The voice of craftivism draws blood, but not through violence or aggression. It bleeds as women do, for a purpose: to birth, to cleanse, or to make something new. Craftivism is the act of making something with an activist purpose, either to start conversations that lead to change (Greer 2014), or to directly confront decision makers with a quiet form of protest (Corbett 2017). However, unlike artivism or more typical activism, it does not seek to clash with the ideas against which it protests. Instead, it uses what Sarah Corbet describes as ‘graceful activism’ (2017:107), creating alliances rather than battlefields. It is worth noting that a needle is used to create and repair, for piercing does not necessarily mean destruction. As Louise Bourgeois famously said: the needle ‘claims to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.’ (Bourgeois 2016: 526: Robert Stoor) Embroidering for activism is making with our hands, our bodies, with the purpose of enticing a response that challenges society and finds a new way of doing things. With our needle we can re-make and mend. As Betsey Greer writes, making ‘reminds us that we have power’. (2014: 8) The needle is a tool for disruption, for healing, for storytelling, and for investigation.

The legacy of embroidery as ‘gloriously old-fashioned’ (Parker 1984: xvi) underpins its use as a popular craftivist tool of choice. We take this skill straight from the history books and claim it as our own. In both this century and the last, from Suffragette banners demanding equal voting rights, towards much of the art created for the ICA Feministo exhibition of 1977, and the recent stitched responses to the #Metoo movement, this skill, traditionally passed from grandmother and mother to girl-child for the purpose of homemaking and making pretty, now holds status as a symbol of power.

Embroidery’s ‘implicitly gendered hierarchy’ (Kokoli 2016: 2) can place this power directly in our hands. The subversion of a skill that has kept our head bowed in apparent compliance for centuries, linking us so closely to our ‘powerlessness’ (Parker 1984: 11), now brings women together in collaboration. ‘As craftivists, we foment dialogue… It turns… our work into vessels of change’. (Greer 2014 :8) Through the process of making, we acknowledge the shared legacy of stitch that once bound us, through patriarchal constraints, to roles of servitude and submission, and transform it into an action that gives others permission to do the same. As feminists we can show ‘that the personal [is] the political—that personal and domestic life is as much the product of the institutions and ideologies of our society as is public life’. (Parker 1984: 205) The strength of a riot is in its numbers as well as its violence. We have the numbers, but our strength comes from a legacy of stitch that is more powerful than aggression. This legacy of stitch is our shared narrative, our uniquely feminine story.

In Conclusion

Ainslie Yardley (2008) writes of a ‘methodological bricolage,’ positioning the researcher as a ‘maker of patchwork’ and ‘weaver of stories’ to assemble a ‘theoretical montage’ that is essentially ‘multi-layered.’ This analogy fits well with my process and begins to provide a potential model for my approach with the dusters. It requires the piecing together of theory and ideas, which I stitch together through an analytical process that requires active and practical investigation. The stitches I perform join ideas together as literal threads and, as with patchwork, different pieces and positions perform different relationships. Yardley also acknowledges the challenge of this approach as a design problem, which is likely to have multi-layered solutions—multi-layered in this sense can mean one on top of the other, but also multiple possibilities. When crafting myself and my domestic experience through the dusters, or working with others to do the same, this multi-layered, multi-faceted approach is appropriate because this is the reality of domestic life as it is lived. The domestic me is not a neatly-pieced, perfect quilt, and neither are the stories myself and the project participants tell. The reality is more like a Gees Bend quilt: an imperfectly beautiful architecture of design where lines can bend, and intersectional relationships become a possibility. Its pattern or language is layered with meaning, at times fraying at the seams or challenging new directions and alternative points of reference. I am constantly reordering and reorganising my domestic space, the nature of my practice-based study, and the way I curate the duster exhibitions; the challenge lies in uniting them.

In The Language of Touch, Mirt Komel writes of the relationship between ontology and touch, noting that ‘language determines being in an affirmative, productive, or constructive manner’ (2019: 56); in other words, if it is ‘affirmative, productive, or constructive,’ then it is language. My stitch is therefore the language of my analysis, and investigation can and should be read as storytelling in forms that are both visual and textual.

The boundaries of my research are defined by the duster, which anchors it to the domestic theme through its own object-related ontology and my subsequent, and necessary, haptic phenomenological investigation of its tangible voice. My autoethnographic approach also defines the research limits of my personal domestic experience, although it is noted that by virtue of the fact that I am married, with children living at home, my family also impacts my study. My craft-based research desires to be methodological, visible, and tangible: I need to show as well as tell. Through ‘active partnership,’ object ‘play’ and craft with the ‘thing carries the idea,’ (Turkle 2007: 308) my involvement with the duster enables action, understanding, and a conscious and unconscious investigation that embodies my lived and remembered experiences at a level beyond words.

My studies, both personal and collaborative, seek to ‘view’ and contextualise the stitched expression of the female domestic experience through the analytical lens of theory by investigating practices of autoethnography, drawing and phenomenology, feminism, literature, and craft. As Richardson concludes: ‘[c]reative arts is one lens through which to view the world; analytical… is another. We see better with two lenses. We see best with both lenses focused and magnified’. (Richardson 2000: 255) Turkle’s ‘notions of things in a culturally specific world’ (2007: 336) supports the duster’s capacity to help us to view things through more than one lens, and for our stories to challenge the status quo. Because the duster it not usually embroidered and hung for exhibition with proclamations demanding change, this change, this uncanny use of the object, facilitates stories that help us to see things differently. The change made to the duster through craft and story can be read as a cultural shift—a shift in our understanding of the object and its purpose, one which disrupts our notions of domesticity through storytelling.


Fig.25. Dear Duster. Vanessa Marr, 2020.


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