Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England

By Braaten, Ann W. | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England


Braaten, Ann W., Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England By Susan Frye Published by University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA (2010) $65.

Reviewed by Ann W. Braaten

In Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England, Susan Frye provides an understanding of the lives of early modern English women through her analysis of the "media that they used to express those lives." Their media, which Frye calls textualities, include both verbal and visual expressions (e.g., writings, paintings, and embroidery). The women whose writings and artifacts are examined lived from 1540 to 1700, during the English Renaissance, from the reign of Henry VIII through Charles II.

Frye skillfully examines the written words and material objects produced and used by women from this time. Her analysis includes "not only their manuscripts and printed writing but also their paintings, houses, rooms, walls, drawings, and especially their textiles." By including products made and used by women, Frye opens new angles for understanding these women.

According to Frye, surviving texts that women wrote and the textiles they embroidered provide narratives about their identity, families, and lives. " Text' and 'textile' are derived from the Latin textus, from texere, to weave, meaning that which is woven. Traditionally, women wove or embroidered cloth to communicate a story . . . ." Women from the ruling, upper, and middle levels of society are featured in the first three chapters; the last two chapters examine two plays and one romance novel.

The first chapter, "Political Designs," focuses on royal women's work, including Elizabeth I, Mary-Queen of Scots, and Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth and Mary were cousins and queens; Bess, an ally of Elizabeth's, cared for Mary during her 30-year house arrest as Mary vied for Elizabeth's throne. The textualites made by these women show their considerable intelligence and careful designs that helped indicate their identities as royal women. The chapter makes one wonder about today's celebrities and what textualities they use to express their identities and their family or group memberships.

The second chapter, "Miniatures and Manuscripts," examines the work of women who were professional artisans at court. These women lived "at the periphery of power [and] created their own verbal and visual texts in order to attract patronage." They were members of families who had workshops that produced illuminated manuscripts, miniatures, and embroideries for royalty. Their experiences document the transformation in the way in which the printed word was put on paper. In the 14th century, manuscript production moved from religious houses into family run workshops.

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