A Case for the Veneration and Preservation of Hippie Embroidery

Frances Iverson. 1972, 10 x 5 in, embroidery. Courtesy of the artist.

Frances Iverson. 1972, 10 x 5 in, embroidery. Courtesy of the artist.

In the 1980s and 1990s, hippie craft faced a backlash from which it has yet to recover. The work, like the movement itself, became stigmatized as garish and stupidly cheerful, made by barefoot, doped-up mamas. One subgenre consigned to particularly harsh obscurity was hippie embroidery—images inspired by drugs, the sexual revolution, and the Age of Aquarius, lovingly stitched in rainbow colors on patchwork quilts, peasant dresses, and denim pant legs. Hippie embroidery suffered the double curse of being hippie and being embroidery, a craft still not given its due by the museum establishment. Neither reason is sufficient to keep hippie embroidery out of major collections. But hippie embroidery deserves even more than adequate preservation. It deserves veneration.

Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator and director of exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, writes in American Anthem that the inspiration for folk art is “often tied to critical moments in America’s history, especially times of war or national celebration, and to an individual’s personal response to those events.” Though hippie embroidery perfectly fits these criteria, it is almost entirely absent from collections and discussions of twentieth century art, folk or otherwise. The Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum limits its definition of 20th and 21st century self-taught artwork to “paintings, sculpture, and built environments,” while their 18th and 19th century Folk Art Collections boast items as diverse as samplers, quilts, furniture and paintings. An exhibition catalogue compiled by the same museum in 1998,Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology, in a “more measured, more balanced approach (…) essential to an understanding of the American experience in its fullness,” provides examples of objects and images made with paint, wood, tin, steel, tape, tubing, glass, bones and miscellaneous found objects, yet not one example of embroidery is given. Collections Manager of the Textiles Department at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum wrote in an email to me last year that of almost 1,000 needlework pieces, “we do have one macramé hanging from the sixties, but it wouldn’t be classified as ‘hippie’ because it is much finer work done by a very talented woman.” Twentieth century folk artist Grandma Moses, whose embroideries are very sophisticated, is nevertheless celebrated for her childlike paintings. In fact, her embroideries (not her arthritis) are credited for influencing the growing abstraction in her later paintings. Why is contemporary embroidery even less desirable than earlier examples?

The imagery of hippie embroidery advertised the embroiderer’s liberation from sexual and religious repression and celebrated fertility, enlightenment and joy. The earnest portrayal of these subjects points to a lack of irony in the genre, a sincerity that carries into the appropriation of ethnic imagery and needlework techniques. Though cheerfully naked Adams and Eves abound in hippie embroidery, Native American and Eastern religious images outnumber Christian symbolism. Along with Eastern and Native spirituality, hippie embroidery details the recovery and melding of Western goddess religions in the 1960s and 1970s. Earth mothers stitched moons in all the stages of a twenty-eight day cycle over pockets, lapels, and crotches. Various religious images were used indiscriminately, with mandalas made of space ships, Buddhas holding crystal balls and Jesus going to mosque. Although hippie philosophy advocates religious freedom and acceptance, its own cut-and-paste dogma was glowingly passed along. Embroidered clothing can be associated with the missionary zeal attributed to many hippies, as the message of peace and love can be read quite clearly on these functional everyday banners.

Engaging in its opticality, hippie embroidery exploits the possibilities of the medium. Needle and thread give pictures varying depth and texture, while stitches provide a quivering effect, allowing the images to move and change with the light. Around borders and within designs, colors are often arranged in gradated segments, creating graphic illusions. The popularity of condensed, hallucinatory compositions brought rounded animals, trees, mountains, and clouds into whirling hippie worlds. Mazes of repeating stitches for the eye to follow turn abstract when viewed up close. Though each embroiderer has a personal stylistic signature, visual similarities throughout the genre include psychedelic landscape compositions, gradations of color, and the sensual use of texture and material. The self-expressive aspects of hippie embroidery are evident in technique, meaningful imagery, and emotional commitment. There are hundreds of embroidery stitches, each with numerous variations. One embroiderer might use chain stitch, split stitch, French knots, or crewel work to complete a piece, or a combination of stitches might be used. Appropriated and invented iconography is chosen for its significance, either to the embroiderer or the person they are embroidering for. Quite often hippie embroideries were presented as intimate gifts to those closest to the maker, usually a spouse or child. Because clothing is highly personal it became a fitting canvas to givingly embellish while placing a mark of ownership in the era of free love. These handmade expressions require patience to complete, as the craft is tedious. In American Denim, hippie embroiderer Judy Reggio claims to have worked five hours almost every night for three months to complete a pair of jeans. This kind of commitment lasts longer than free love.

This commitment should also outlive discredited grand narratives of art history. Pre-industrial European embroidery is valued for its relationship to monumental architecture, furniture, and artisan craft, realms of the expert or master craftsman. When embroidery moved into the domestic sphere of leisure in the nineteenth century its reputation shifted. Recently reexamined to a small extent by contemporary collectors and academics, nineteenth century embroidery had consistently been marginalized not only for its association with femininity but for its use of pre-drawn patterns. Modernism’s esteem for artistic self-expression and disdain for frivolous domestic labor labeled embroidery a decadent craft unworthy of critical attention. Like Victorian embroidery, hippie embroidery is decorative, domestic, and primarily made by women, yet it is self-expressive. In some ways more aligned with painters, hippie embroiderers draw their own personalized compositions from a philosophical and stylistic movement. Therefore the rejection of hippie embroidery must be credited to its gendered persona. As Rozsika Parker suggests in her fabulous book The Subversive Stitch, “(e)mbroidery, by the time of the art/craft divide, was made in the domestic sphere, usually by women, for ‘love.’ Painting was produced predominantly, though not only, by men, in the public sphere, for money.” With the proliferation of ‘male’ craft in the hippie era, such as woodworking, leatherwork, and even embroidery, hippie men made things at home for love, and were thus feminized. The craft retained its stigma, assigning ‘feminine’ attributes such as sweetness, passivity and insignificance to the women, and men, who pursued it. As long as embroidery remained an emotional gesture, the medium’s creative and conceptual significance would be discounted. But embroidery’s rare association with love is what makes it unique and appealing.

Sixties and Seventies feminist artists Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago, among others, brought embroidery into the galleries, pointing to its historical association with repression and feminine ideals. In this way embroidery’s signification was subverted (in the gallery context) while its aesthetic meaning was discounted and its emotional value trivialized, if not by the artists then by critics and historians. Excluded from mainstream art establishments, hippie embroidery maintained its connection to love and craft while presenting political images in a day-to-day forum, visible and effective on a grassroots level. Distinct and visual in its fashion and functionality, embroidered clothing was an important marker of hippie status, a political tool and a means of expressing individuality as well as affiliation with the group. It is in the separate spheres of self-expression and solidarity, each underlined with love, that hippie embroidery maintained its subversive power, uniting the counterculture in a true manifestation of peaceful protest. Like holding hands and communal singing, embroidery could be intimidating in confrontations with the Man. Of his embellished shirt, hippie Roland Jacopetti says in Native Funk and Flash, “(it) carries power because power has been invested in it – a circular flow of energy. It can be astonishing to watch a heavy ego-player or profiteer-type have to face that shirt and begin to sort of curl at the edges.”

Hippie embroidery documents and narrates an era of optimism, love and casual good faith, and is always instilled with emotional intention. Before these objects are lost to over washing and deterioration, I hope that this needlework will be reconsidered as a unique expressive genre worthy of preservation and study. The most compelling aspect of hippie embroidery (outside of imagery) is the sincerity and care with which it was made. In his 1975 book American Denim, Peter Beagle insists that with hippie craft came the idea “that the imperfect work of a single human being’s hands is of value,” and that this idea “outran and outlasted the head shops of Haight-Ashbury to work its way into the heads of the hippies’ parents, their younger brothers and sisters, and the people who always called the cops on them and chased them out of their stores. For abused, nonproductive grasshoppers they gave more meaning back to the concept of honest artisanship than many a Congressman talking about work ethic and the dignity of labor. And they did wear such pretty clothes.”

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  1. By Arteries – Hippie Embroidery on November 27, 2009 at 1:02 am

    [...] you are interested in the importance of the genre as an art form, go read this. I personally take exception to this line “These handmade expressions require patience to [...]

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