Skip to main content

The hidden history of needlework and rhetoric

ASU professor pulls together the strands of activism and handiwork to find voices of marginalized individuals through history

September 30, 2018

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

Needlework pieces are often seen as simple decorative heirlooms, but many were actually borne from matters of persecution and strife. 

In a computer lab at Arizona State University's Department of English last week, ASU Professor Maureen Goggin pulled up a presentation of early 20th-century needlework items made by feminists and suffragettes, exploring the symbolic meaning behind needlework pieces from throughout history. 

"What's important about this piece is that women during this time period were recorded by their prison number and not their name. And yet, this piece shows the names of all the women," GogginGoggin is also the director of writing, rhetorics and literacy. said, pointing to the item pictured at the top of this story. "The juxtaposition of decorative 'fancywork' and the vocalization of each women's name embroidered within the fabric exemplifies needlework as a space where both men and women can express themselves rhetorically."

Goggin said rhetoric is often seen as "empty words," but added, "Rhetoric has everything to do with how we communicate, and needlework was one way for many marginalized individuals to visually do just that."

It's a form of communication that has found renewed popularity among a number of activists today, but it's a practice with its roots stretching back into history. Next time you come across a piece of needlework, take a closer look and you may just find an abundance of subtext hidden within the fabric.

More Law, journalism and politics


Portrait of Jemele Hill.

Jemele Hill to deliver lecture on race relations at ASU

Emmy Award-winning journalist Jemele Hill will be the featured speaker at the 2024 A. Wade Smith and Elsie Moore Memorial Lecture on Race Relations, hosted by The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences…

Eli Rosenbaum speaking at a lectern

Retired 'Nazi hunter' on international law as deterrence against war crimes

When it comes to using international law as a deterrent to protect the national security of the United States, is all hope lost? The answer, according to Eli Rosenbaum — a decorated World War II…

Man working on a laptop at a table.

ASU launches MA in global security, with irregular warfare concentration

By Tony Roth In response to the evolving landscape of global security challenges, Arizona State University is launching a groundbreaking Master of Arts in global security, with a concentration in…