Throughout the history of art, decoration and domestic handicrafts have been regarded as women’s work, and as such, not considered “high” or fine art. Quilting, embroidery, needlework, china painting, and sewing—none of these have been deemed worthy artistic equivalents to the grand mediums of painting and sculpture. The age-old aesthetic hierarchy that privileges certain forms of art over others based on gender associations has historically devalued “women’s work” specifically because it was associated with the domestic and the “feminine.” (Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art )
In the 1970’s I had the good fortune to see Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party when it was in Boston. The thirty-nine place settings celebrated a variety of incredible women – writers, scientists, activists, artists – and reflected the history and geography of each woman with media associated with women’s crafts. (Click her for more on The Dinner Party) It was an exciting and inspiring exhibit and I came away with a new appreciation for my grandmother’s needlework and etched metal trays.
I felt some of that same excitement and appreciation for the art women create as a part of their everyday lives when I recently discovered zhen xian bao – the Chinese Thread Book. These paper and cloth constructions were created by village women to hold their needles and embroidery threads. This folk-art form came close to being lost, but is now being recreated by a number of paper and book artists. Ruth Smith’s and Gina Corrigan’s book A Little Known Chinese Folk Art: Zhen Xian Bao is frequently cited as thorough resource. While I have not been able to locate an affordable copy of the book, Smith’s article on foldingdidactics.com gives a good overview and has some photos.
Continued research on the structure lead me to a wonderful website: Playful Bookbinding and Paperworks: Chasing the Paper Rabbit . Book artist Paula Beardell Krieg has a number of posts on creating a thread book and is an excellent teacher. Her written and video instructions are clear and well-organized. If I lived closer to Albany I would certainly be looking for her workshops! And the site is full of other interesting posts as well.
I’ve spent the week studying her techniques and trying to make my own thread book. As with many paper/book projects the type of paper makes a big difference in the final results. My favorite “go-to” paper – lokta- proved to be a little too thick for my liking. I was happier using mulberry and a marble momi for the upper layers, saving the lokta for the “big box” base.
I had to take a deep breath before cutting into the stash of “good papers” but once again found inspiration from Krieg and her posting “Cutting up Beautiful Papers.”
You can see photos of the two thread books I made this week in the Gallery. Now that I have the basics down, I’m eager to vary the structure and see what else is possible.
And to all my friends who create beautiful art based on the craft of women’s work: thank you!