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Volume 86 (2017)

Materiality, Affect, and the Archive: The Possibility of Feminist Nostalgia in Contemporary Handkerchief Embroidery

July 22, 2019


This paper examines contemporary needlework on vintage handkerchiefs, identifying a new genre of feminist needlework and considering the ways in which these works reveal the possibility of a feminist nostalgia. These works complicate the dichotomy between simple embrace or disavowal of the value of historical needlework, both of which rely on the essentialized connection between needlework and normative femininity. Looking to the work of Leslee Nelson, Joetta Maue, Allison Manch, and Ke-Sook Lee, I argue that the materiality and history of the handkerchief form render it a mediating object, one that enables an affective and physical engagement with an unwritten archive of women’s labours and sentiments. The handkerchief provides contemporary needleworkers with a way of exploring the feminine legacy of embroidery in new ways, as the handkerchief form evokes its historical relationships with remembrance, exchange, coded communication, sexuality, embodiment, and the regulation and subversion of gendered norms. Through the medium of the handkerchief and process of embroidery, these makers engage with femininity as a historical substance, something repeated in performance and sedimented in material objects and gestures, and as an archive they can intervene upon and find themselves in relationship with.