Creativity and Embroidery: A therapeutic combination

John Craske Dunkirk
Part of ‘The Evacuation of Dunkirk’
John Craske
Embroidery (painting in wools). Unfinished.
So often in our modern world working with our hands is undervalued. With the recent financial crisis and extensive recession – ‘How much?’ is so often the primary concern. However, the creative process can not be viewed in monetary terms alone. The value of creating/making/producing a piece of work with your own hands can be extremely rewarding in other ways. The process of making can be intellectually stimulating. It can provide a forum for collaborative and communal working. It can bring personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement. And, for many people the activity of creative handwork is therapeutic.

Craske Dunkirk 2
A recent exhibition “Frayed: Textiles on the Edge” at the Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, shows the value of creating hand-stitched work during times of stress and anguish. There is more information about some of the pieces and how the exhibition was curated on their blog.

Craske Dunkirk 3

“The Evacuation of Dunkirk” woolwork by John Craske is a long and narrow piece of calico (I estimated about 4 metres by half a metre) embroidered with images showing the British forces being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. Stitched between 1940 and 1943, John Craske called his work “painting in wools”. It is a piece created, developed and stitched during times of personal illness and mental strife.

Craske Dunkirk 4

Born in Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast in 1881, John had worked on the boats until he was called up for the army in 1917. Not long after this he caught flu which resulted in complications and an abscess on the brain. From this time onwards he suffered from comas and periods of debilitating depression and was often housebound. During these episodes he painted, but as his health deteriorated he spend longer periods confined to bed and at the suggestion of his wife, Laura, he began stitching his pictures instead.

Dunkirk Rescue Craske

These photographs do not do justice to the whole, long work which sadly remains unfinished as John Craske died in hospital in 1943. However, he has left us with a beautiful, delicate, almost shimmering interpretation of a traumatic moment in history.

Nowadays, in Western culture embroidery is viewed as a woman’s hobby with a long tradition of ladies occupying themselves with their needles. However they are part of a continuum stretching far back to when both sexes stitched. Opus Anglicanum (English work) is a type of fine needlework known across medieval Europe. Much of it was silk vestments embroidered with gold, silver-gilt and silver thread, and, it was created by men and women. The names of some of these embroiderers, both male and female, are recorded in contemporary documents.

The Syon Cope on display at the V&A, London.  Made in England 1300 - 1320.  Linen, embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread.
The Syon Cope on display at the V&A, London.
Made in England 1300 – 1320. Linen, embroidered with silk, silver-gilt and silver thread.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

7 thoughts on “Creativity and Embroidery: A therapeutic combination”

  1. What a beautifully poignant tapestry and story to go with it. The detail is amazing and John Craske clearly cared a great deal about the subject for such painstaking detail to be sewn. I’ve long loved fabric art (like yours) and have some framed pieces (mostly embroidered) around my home.

    1. I’m not sure what the critics in Canada think about fabric/textile art, but here in the UK it is a fringe affair. Back in 2011, there was a Tracey Emin retrospective showing some of her textile art. She sometimes uses embroidery to work intimate statements and personal memories into her art. I’m hoping there will be a wider interest in textiles following Grayson Perry’s work with tapestry.

      1. Yes it always seems to take a male to validate an art… Here too it is undervalued by its association with woman’s work. There is a great little textile museum here in Toronto that occasionally has contemporary exhibits. Some of my favourite framed pieces originated from a seamstress who decorated her work with embroidered scenes. People started buying her clothes for the scenes and she was then picked up by a gallery her name is Rosita Johanson (1937-2007).

    1. I know, I know. Actually when I wrote the post I had a paragraph about the Bayeux tapestry, but deleted it. I deleted it because the more research I did about it’s commissioning and production the deeper I found myself mired in all the various current theories. Fascinating, but too much academic detail for my post. But you are certainly right about the urge to compare.

      1. The Bayeux is such a constant source of debate and I must admit I’ve fallen far behind. It was the similarity of the subject matter with the beach landing that struck me, although I suppose one was an invasion and the other a retreat – the mirror image aspect is appealing

      2. Yes, I think somebody could write a good Art History Masters’ dissertation looking at these two pieces within the framework of your mirror image proposition.

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