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UW Professor’s Book Looks at Women’s Needlework from New Perspective

April 25, 2011
Fiber art
This Bible cover, "Abraham Banishes Hagar and Ishmael," is among illustrations in UW Professor Susan Frye's book, "Pens and Needles - Women's Textualities in Early Modern England." This was a common needlework theme of that period. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

A visit to Hardwick Hall in central England while researching Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots sparked 10 years of research and writing for Susan Frye's latest book, "Pens and Needles - Women's Textualities in Early Modern England."

Frye, a University of Wyoming Department of English professor, has studied Shakespeare and his times and has previously written a book on Queen Elizabeth I. She takes a new look at that period and the way its women used needlework, art and writing to reshape their roles in society. Frye's research spans the ruling, merchant and landed classes.

Frye was researching Mary, Queen of Scots at Hardwick Hall, built by Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, where Mary was held as a prisoner by Bess on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. Frye was struck by the copious amounts of needlework produced by both Mary and Bess during that period, much of it having strong political undertones. Bess has long been known as a letter writer, but Frye began to see something more as she viewed the tapestries and commissioned art.

Frye says the tapestries created by Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick are an example of how something as ordinary as needlework could be used to influence a woman's world. Despite being imprisoned in Hardwick Hall, Mary, with the aid of Bess, produced piece after piece of needlework bearing her own political emblems and mottos which became subversive gifts and subtle communications to her supporters and young son.

Commissioned art from the period often places the subject of the portrait in a position that shows the power that person had or wished to have, Frye says. She adds how the proliferation of printing shops brought writing and needlework within the reach of the merchant and working class women with relatively inexpensive books and needlework patterns printed directly on cloth. Women of lower classes were thereby exposed to some of the same things that upper class women had long had access to, influencing their worlds, too.

Frye's research came with challenges.

"The first challenge was just getting to the material in Scotland and England from Wyoming," she says. "The second was sorting through the vast amounts of research that accumulated. There is a full book's worth of research for every chapter."

Each chapter could be seen as a small book in itself, with the chapters held together by the common theme of women's work. The result is a picture of women using art (both original and commissioned), needlework and writing to influence the world around them.

Peter Parolin, head of the Department of English, Bill Gern, UW vice president for research and economic development, and Oliver Walter, College of Arts and Sciences dean, all supported Frye's project and helped make the book possible.

Embellished with beautiful plates of artwork, needlework and manuscripts, Frye's work is a fascinating examination of women's work in times past. According to the London Times Literary Supplement, "...Susan Frye's book is most fascinating in drawing out the histories and texts, both written and sewn, of less well-known women, and showing that they saw their needlework as equally articulate, valuable and artful as their words."

While the book is written for a scholarly audience, Frye says, "I think there will be some crossover with people interested in the history of needlework."

For more information, call Frye at (307) 766-2289 or email

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