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Female Empowerment Through Artistry and Craft | Book Review

An artist shares examples from around the world
Shedding the Shackles, a book by Lynne Stein, offers examples of women's empowerment through artistry and craft. It includes a description of Kaross, a business in South Africa that employs 1,300 mainly women embroiderers.

Shedding the Shackles: Women’s Empowerment Through Craft by Lynne Stein (Bloomsbury, 2021) highlights women, individually and collectively, who have used their artistry and crafting traditions to significantly improve themselves and their communities. The author details how the women’s creative expressions help preserve cultural traditions. They also provide a source of income and even support the women on social and emotional levels.

More than two dozen examples of women and their crafts from around the world fill the the 192-page, hardcover book’s two main sections: Women and Craft; and Initiatives and Enterprises. Their handiwork ranges from colorful embroidery and quilting to crocheting, basketweaving, pottery making, and other traditional crafts.

An artist shares her appreciation

Stein, a textile artist and wide traveler, collects local crafts and cultural traditions most often preserved and practiced by women. She explains in the introduction that her appreciation of their work—and her interests in manipulating fabric and using reclaimed and recycled textiles and objects—motivated her to write Shedding the Shackles. She says some of her research for the book, released in late July 2021, was limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly after she contracted the coronavirus.

Three examples of empowerment

However, there’s no shortage of colorful images or descriptions of how women have made beautiful items. Their works can be functional, tell stories, pass on family histories, or even send political messages.

Arpilleras in Chile

For example, 3-D appliqué textiles created between 1973 and 1990 by women from shantytowns outside Santiago, Chile, depict their daily hardships and denounce ongoing human rights abuses and political violence. These arpilleras served as “a common visual language communicating the scale of these injustices,” the author explains.

Quilt making in Bosnia

Women's Empowerment example: Bosnia Quilts
The book describes how a women’s quilt-making collaborative in Gorazde, Bosnia and Herzegovina, has created much-acclaimed handiwork for years and earned worldwide respect.

Bosna Quilt Werkstatt, a quilt-making initiative begun in 1993 by an Austrian artist, served to help refugee women displaced by war from Gorazde, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Meant to be a temporary way for the refugees to deal with traumatic experiences, the quilting had a lasting impact. Refugees returned to their homes, but the collaboration endures, with some added members. Demand for their hand-quilted pieces remains as their work continues to gain acclaim. The book also delves into how the founding artist chooses the quilt designs and colors, working with the makers.

Sujuni embroidery in India

Sujuni embroidery is an example of a revived local tradition in villages of India’s Bihar state. The author chronicles several failed efforts and limited successes led by a few individuals to help empower the mistreated women through their Sujuni embroidery. Their handiwork depicts village life. Designs are outlined in chainstitch worked in dark-colored thread. The embroidery stitchers then fill those motifs densely with straight lines of running stitches made in colored cotton thread.

Celebration of women and a reminder

Stein’s examples celebrate rich crafting traditions. They may be sources of inspiration for those working for female empowerment through the use of artistry and crafting. But they are also a reminder. In many parts of the world, women continue to be oppressed and face a long battle for recognition and respect. That should be disquieting to all of us.


In addition to this wonderful book, if you are looking for Great Sewing Books, we have a collection of our favorites!

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