Arachne’s Thread: Political Embroidery in Modern Cinema

The opening to Disney’s Encanto (2021) includes a shot of Mirabel pulling a stray piece of thread off her skirt. It’s a tiny detail, but I can’t stop thinking about it. There are several articles about Mirabel’s outfit online, particularly about her skirt, which she hand embroidered with different symbols to represent her family. Weights for Luisa, flowers for Isabela, a candle for Abuela, and so forth. Most of these discussions suggest that the designs are fun easter eggs for the viewer, or even a demonstration of Mirabel’s love and dedication to her family. Encanto is undeniably a fantastic film, and has been rightly celebrated for representation, score, and a thoughtful depiction of generational trauma. But what is also noteworthy about the film is the act of embroidery, the fact that Mirabel makes her own clothes, and more specifically, decorates them. If you have ever done a sewing project, you may recognize this little moment of Mirabel finding bits of thread on her outfit, because often when you are cutting and adjusting, string will get caught on whatever you are wearing. I end up leaving thread all over the house, just because it follows me around. This detail made me so excited, as it was the first time I had ever seen a film feature embroidery in a way that wasn’t dismissed or joked about.

The first embroidery I ever worked on was a hand-me-down. My Mom found it in some dark corner of her sewing drawer, it was partially done. It was mainly these faded gold outlines of flowers, some already started, others with no thread at all. I remember my Mom being confused at my wanting to embroider. I had never shown any interest in sewing before, I certainly couldn’t repair anything. Embroidery is different, however. It isn’t about fixing, it’s about embellishing. The needle doesn’t bring anything together other than thread on a single piece of fabric. It also never hides the thread, as you would if you were sewing an outfit. What is a tool for sewing is the focal point in embroidery. My Mom had started this floral project years before, back when she designed her own clothes, even had something featured in the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors film. Embroidery had been a starting point for her, something she eventually moved away from, mainly because it’s one of the only textile arts where you aren’t making a new thing. With yarn you can make a hat or scarf, with knitting a sweater, with sewing an outfit.

Embroidery as a Narrative Device

I can remember trying to knit as a kid while visiting my Nana, as I initially thought the sticks looked like vampire stakes. Then I discovered that it involved repetition and counting, neither of which are really my area. Embroidery decorates what you already have, and it’s not as precise as something like knitting or even cross stitch, which often comes with a detailed template and can be quite photo realistic. Embroidery likewise arrives with a rather complicated history in film, as it’s often placed in period films as a girlish and silly activity. It’s something for your character to put down either when someone enters the room, or when they hear a strange noise in the house, like in The Others (2001). Or it’s something for your rebellious protagonist to reject to establish that they aren’t like other girls. It’s not quite an old women’s activity, like knitting, but also not quite a protagonist activity. We often see it in very white hands as well, even though embroidery is a global art form with a diverse range of techniques, background, and culture, all of which is rarely shown in western media. In most iterations, it’s a delicate task for a delicate person, and never done for fun. You can imagine my excitement with Encanto when I saw a Columbian protagonist who loved embroidery and did it to show off her personality and cultivate her own style.

It’s important to note that although embroidery is rarely a narrative focus in film, it is absolutely everywhere in costume. You may have seen some of the detailed articles that came out during the Game of Thrones heyday, shedding a light on the embroidery artists who work on hundreds of outfits with varying technique for a variety of shows. They create these incredible embellishments that are so detailed, and yet, so rarely shown in full. There are a few moments where the camera will focus solely on someone’s outfit or design, but we never see these clothes being made. Characters just sort of arrive in these outfits, as if magically conjured, even though each garment has been meticulously designed for the character. Daenerys, for instance, wears dresses with dragon scale, which according to an interview with designer Michele Carragher, starts “quite subtly on the shoulder area and then growing gradually down the costume, becoming more pronounced as she and her dragons grow in strength”. These embroidery pieces become extensions of the character, and so aren’t just pretty, they tell you about the character using certain visuals.

Mirabel never sews in Encanto, but you can still see a sewing machine in her bedroom, and we get this little thread moment. There is a clear relation between Mirabel and her clothes, because they are not just her identity, they are how she designs that identity. Mirabel spends much of the film trying to support her community and stand out along with the rest of her superpowered family, and so it figures that her outfit is a very purposeful representation of who she wants people to think she is. There is a degree of skill and labour in it, and it’s not so much what the film’s creators want you to know about Mirabel, it’s what Mirabel wants you the town/viewers to know. Mirabel is kind of a chaotic person, and her outfit is filled with these bright colours and big visible designs, not tiny flowers like the hoop my Mother first gave me. That image of the proper Jane Austen-like lady and her tidy and small embroidery is nowhere to be found, and that is refreshing considering how unrealistic that image is to begin with.

Reframing Embroidery and Textile Art

I wanted to do embroidery because I have no artistic skill. I can’t draw, can’t paint, I don’t even like colouring books, but I do like tracing. I enjoy finding basic designs and adjusting them, in fact, there were several years where I gave everyone traced pictures as cards. I always felt guilty though, because I was just copying someone else. Anytime someone complimented me, I would have to remind them that I was just working from someone else, and I wasn’t really involved in the picture. That changed when I came across embroidery, because I learned how to find a basic outline and then how to make it my own with colour and thread technique. As I grew more comfortable, I began adding things to these designs, sometimes even while I was stitching. There is a degree of freedom with it, where you can improvise anything while working from a template. I got so comfortable that eventually I was able to make my own designs, and now I don’t feel guilty if someone compliments my work, because it finally feels like my work.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that every textile artist has a different preference with the back of their hoops. Some leave them very tidy, so they will cut the string before having to cross over to the other side of their design. Others are completely chaotic, to the point where it’s difficult to pull your needle up because there is so much thread on the other side from constantly crossing back. Some artists want to cover the backs, so they will either loop the fabric, half covering it, or they will stick a cardboard circle to cover it. Sometimes they’ll even put it into a proper frame, so you never see the back. I prefer to keep mine open, because I like to see my process, sometimes it’s more interesting than my actual design, more abstract. There is a process to whatever you make, and I want to be able to look back at that. Hence my enjoyment of this little string moment in Encanto, the process of embroidery, not just the product.

Another film which really emphasizes the process behind design and construction is Phantom Thread (2017), a film centered around a high-end designer and his production house. There are several scenes in this incredible and moving film which focus on the various stages of couture fashion, everything from the inspiration, the drawing, picking fabric, sewing, the modeling, and even what happens after a dress is sold. Each of these moments are significant, necessary, and fully illustrate how much work goes into an article of clothing, and that inadvertently criticizes the invisible labour found in so many other films and shows along with our current fast fashion world. I wrote a piece recently which included a discussion on historic fashion culture, and the community’s interest in projects like Gentlemen Jack (2019-) and Emma. (2020), two projects which often turn the camera towards garment’s sewing structure, or handmade nature. It’s one thing to say that a garment conveys something about the character just based on its appearance, another to say that it conveys something based on its very structure and composition. It’s a far more complex study, certainly a more nuanced kind that not everyone is going to notice. That might change if we saw more sewing in film, whether embroidery or just textile art in general. I think there is so much narrative and symbolic potential in it, because for an exceedingly long time, it was one of the few socially acceptable ways for women to express themselves.

Much like botany and entomology, which were ‘women’s sciences’, and thus often dismissed by male scientists, embroidery has historically held so much information. I have spoken before about *Theresa Kelley’s concept of the “edge of hazard”, in fact I dedicated a huge section of my thesis to it. What it essentially means, and this is a loose interpretation, is that many women couldn’t outright represent themselves without repercussions, and so they found alternative or acceptable means to do so, and thus slowly broadened what was socially acceptable for women. They created controversial and critical work in a medium that was often dismissed, sometimes one which continues to be dismissed.

Kelley spends much of her discussion on botany, and how women did these fascinating and in-depth studies on plant life often through botanical illustrations, which were just seen as pretty, not scientific. The same goes for embroidery, everything from the very flowers that were being depicted. There is an entire symbolic language in these works, one that only women would really know because, for the most part, they were the only ones doing embroidery.

My favourite trend in modern embroidery is where textile artists will do these beautiful floral designs and then embroider a swear word. There is also vulgar and political embroidery, designs which feel even more shocking because they’re embroidered, which comes with a certain white and ‘proper’ reputation. It’s still popular to dismiss embroidery, despite these artists, and arguably that dismissal is connected to a broader dismissal of ‘women’s art’. Women are not the only people who embroider, just the type most often associated with ‘embroidery’, and those who have historically been pushed to that art form. In fact, that historic dismissal has expanded through our media, further perpetuating that embroidery is a delicate hobby reserved for some vague Victorian era. You could read further into the symbolic aspects of that, the fact that embroidery makes do with what it has, just adding thread to whatever fabric you have. That alone feels like a reflection of Kelley’s “edge of hazard”, as though both the technique and subject walk that line. And yet, historically, embroidery has told stories. Take the legendary Bayeux Tapestry, a 70-meter-long embroidered tapestry which details the Battle of Hastings and the events leading to that battle. It’s both a historic military piece, from roughly the 11th century, and an artistic piece, one which is often believed to have been created by women. There might only be three women depicted in the piece, but it was most likely constructed by a group of women, possibly nuns. The information in it is crucial to our modern understanding of this war, and the propaganda happening after. Embroidery, here and elsewhere, is a language, and a very female-centric kind just because women were often pushed to it. You can see that resentment quite literally sometimes, as young girls learning to embroider occasionally stitched messages about how much they hated it. Those that went along with embroidery were just as resilient, simply in what they decided to depict and not. It’s disappointing to see this trend of dismissing embroidery continue in modern media, because that really just perpetuates an old stereotype in only finding value in certain, often more masculine, restrictive forms.

It’s also dismissive to see embroidery and sewing only in the hands of some white Victorian woman, instead literally any other woman around the globe. Take Policarpa Salavarrieta (1795-1817), the legendary spy and seamstress from Colombia, who used sewing, and inherent dismissal in that occupation, as a disguise to listen in on royalist’s conversations, and then spread that information to Revolutionary Forces. Sewing of all kinds has power, and so I am happy to see that this skill is becoming more complicated in film. It’s the only hobby that involves stabbing, if that is a selling point. It also gets referenced in a lot of religions and mythologies, especially Greek. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur has a specific point about following thread. The only way Theseus escapes the labyrinth is by unraveling Ariadne’s thread (you’ll notice that it isn’t called Theseus’ thread), which might feel like a simple solution, but it’s the only solution. Thread is given the same respect and power in the story of Arachne and Athena, where thread and weaving become a revolutionary and critical tool.

Mirabel’s skirt and designs are never outright mentioned in Encanto, but this small and realistic moment alludes to Mirabel’s work. It does more than just convey that Mirabel loves her family and is creative. Now I should note, since Encanto is Disney’s most popular film in years, her outfit will be mass produced in factories with huge embroidery machines, and thus lose everything that makes Mirabel’s outfit in the film so important. The outfit might be anti-fast fashion there, but not in our world. The designs are not unapproachable though, so it’s possible that some viewers might be inspired to embroider their own clothes. To take what they have and make it into more, like Mirabel does and what textile artists have done for generations.

*Kelley, Theresa. Clandestine marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

**An important note:
There have been multiple walkouts at Disney this past week in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, following the Disney corporation’s apparent lack of action against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill . Here is a link with more information, it feels necessary to include this with any current discussion about their films.

***The featured picture is of a small embroidery piece I finished in December 2021, based on Midsommar (2019). I made it as a gift, and based it off a few different designs online.