The best books about needlework (and one about knitting) that will surprise and move you

Who am I?

I have sewn since I was a child, taught by my mother to keep me out of mischief. From having the best-dressed dolls in the neighbourhood I graduated to making my own, sometimes outlandish, forms of fashion and then became a banner maker and community textile artist. Sewing is in my DNA and I love the tactile, rhythmic soothe of it. But I have long been curious about how, in the many books are published about needlework, very few ever mention why people sew. This is what fascinates me, the stories of sewing, because it is through its purpose that we discover the spirit that lies within it. 

I wrote...

Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle

By Clare Hunter,

Book cover of Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle

What is my book about?

You might have never sewn, might have hated sewing at school, or might think it is something only women do but Threads of Life will change your idea of why sewing matters. Tracing the stories of people who sew – through centuries and across cultures – this is a book that explores the political, social, and emotional significance of needlework. From the shell-shocked soldiers of the First World War to women smuggling out patchworks to tell of atrocities in Chile during Pinochet’s Reign of Terror; from the intricate pictorial quilts made by 19th-century tailors to the therapeutic needlework undertaken by those suffering from mental or physical frailty you will find moving and heroic tales of how people have used needle and thread to find a voice.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske

Why did I love this book?

This is a rare and poignant insight into a man’s needlecraft and it was a delight to read. Julia Blackburn sets out on a mission to rediscover the neglected embroideries and forgotten story of the Norfolk fisherman, John Craske, (1881-1943). Her research leads her to many dead ends and unexpected encounters and, along the way, she experiences and shares her own story of loss. I love this book because it takes me into the world of the sea captured in the fishing folk Blackburn meets and introduces me to Craske’s mesmerising embroideries made under tragic circumstances.

By Julia Blackburn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Threads as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the East Anglian Book of the Year 2015

John Craske, a Norfok fisherman, was born in 1881 and in 1917, when he had just turned thirty-six, he fell seriously ill. For the rest of his life he kept moving in and out of what was described as 'a stuporous state'. In 1923 he started making paintings of the sea and boats and the coastline seen from the sea, and later, when he was too ill to stand and paint, he turned to embroidery, which he could do lying in bed. His embroideries were also the sea, including his…

Book cover of Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes

Why did I love this book?

This is a surprisingly gentle memoir by the curator of fashion at the V & A Museum in London. She uses her own wardrobe to unfold the story of her own life. In exquisite prose she traces how, whether homemade or haute couture, what we wear catches significant moments in our lives and archives personal memories. It made me think of my own clothes in a different way and understand why I couldn’t throw out those that remind me of people I love and my own joyful or sad events.        

By Claire Wilcox,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Patch Work as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'I am overwhelmed by this book. It is an absolute masterpiece. A book of such beauty and profundity, of such poetry in its emotion and observation ... I found my sense of life transformed by her writing as I often find it transformed after the exhibition of a great artist' LAURA CUMMING

Claire Wilcox has been a curator of fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum for most of her working life. In Patch Work, she steps into the archive of memory, deftly stitching together her dedicated study of fashion with the story of…

Book cover of Worn: A People's History of Clothing

Why did I love this book?

This is a brilliantly researched book which allowed me to accompany Sofi Thanhauser as she travelled across continents to unearth the origin and the fate of fabric production.  It made me realise the terrible damage done to our environment and to communities through colonialisation, exploitation, industrialisation, and our throw-away economy. Tracking how craft is being replaced with slave labour, how traditions are being eroded, and local economies destroyed in the pursuit of cheaper and greater textile production, Worn is not a comfortable read, but it is, for me, a reminder of the human cost involved in most of what I wear. 

By Sofi Thanhauser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Worn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A sweeping and captivatingly told history of clothing and the stuff it is made of—an unparalleled deep-dive into how everyday garments have transformed our lives, our societies, and our planet.

“We learn that, if we were a bit more curious about our clothes, they would offer us rich, interesting and often surprising insights into human history...a deep and sustained inquiry into the origins of what we wear, and what we have worn for the past 500 years."
—The Washington Post

In this panoramic social history, Sofi Thanhauser brilliantly tells five stories—Linen, Cotton, Silk, Synthetics, Wool—about the clothes we wear and…

Book cover of The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine

Why did I love this book?

I read this book in the early 1980s when it was first published and it changed my view of sewing and made me understand its cultural importance and how its value has been diminished over the centuries. It is a seminal landmark feminist book, the first to ever explore why sewing is perceived as just women’s work. Parker debates the nature of women’s embroidery through time, the dutiful and the radical, the artistic and the unacknowledged and if it hadn’t been for this book I would never have become fascinated about people who sew not simply to decorate clothes or their homes but to campaign, celebrate, conserve their stories and make their mark.    

By Rozsika Parker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Subversive Stitch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rozsika Parker's re-evaluation of the reciprocal relationship between women and embroidery has brought stitchery out from the private world of female domesticity into the fine arts, created a major breakthrough in art history and criticism, and fostered the emergence of today's dynamic and expanding crafts movements.

The Subversive Stitch is now available again with a new Introduction that brings the book up to date with exploration of the stitched art of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, as well as the work of new young female and male embroiderers. Rozsika Parker uses household accounts, women's magazines, letters, novels and the works…

Book cover of This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain's Knitted History

Why did I love this book?

I am a very poor knitter and admire those who can knit up a jumper that is not embarrassing to wear. Esther Rutter is an expert and enthusiastic knitter and, in this book, she travels through Britain setting up her own challenges to knit something that echoes the traditions of the places she visits. There is a jumper from Fife in Scotland and a crocheted bikini its borders, Viking socks, and a Welsh cap: each one requiring hours of toil, each one accompanied by frustration and setbacks as stitches are dropped, the yarn snags and patterns are misread. As she journeys and knits, Rutter reveals the history of knitting, wool, and patterns place by place. I loved her perseverance, I relished her discoveries and I learnt enough about the knitter’s craft through time and today to make me want to get out my own knitting needs. 

By Esther Rutter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Golden Fleece as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over the course of a year, Esther Rutter - who grew up on a sheep farm in Suffolk, and learned to spin, weave and knit as a child - travels the length of the British Isles, to tell the story of wool's long history here.

She unearths fascinating histories of communities whose lives were shaped by wool, from the mill workers of the Border countries, to the English market towns built on profits of the wool trade, and the Highland communities cleared for sheep farming; and finds tradition and innovation intermingling in today's knitwear industries. Along the way, she explores…

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