Women and Needlework in Britain, 1920-1970

Elizabeth Robinson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis addresses needlework between 1920 and 1970 as a window into women’s broader experiences, and also asserts it as a valid topic of historical analysis in its own right. Needlecraft was a ubiquitous part of women’s lives which has until recently been largely neglected by historians. The growing historiography of needlework has relied heavily on fashion and design history perspectives, focusing on the products of needlework and examples of creative needlewomen. Moving beyond this model, this thesis establishes the importance of process as well as product in studying needlework, revealing the meanings women found in, attached to, and created through the ephemeral moment of making. Searching for the ordinary and typical, it eschews previous preoccupations with creation, affirming re-creation and recreation as more central to amateur needlework.
Drawing upon diverse sources including oral history research, objects, Mass Observation archives, and specialist needlework magazines, this thesis examines five key aspects of women’s engagement with needlework: definitions of ‘leisure’ and ‘work’; motivations of thrift in peacetime and war; emotions; the modern and the traditional and finally, the gendering of needlework. It explores needlework through three central themes of identity, obligation and pleasure. Whilst asserting the validity and importance of needlework as a subject of research in its own right, it also contributes to larger debates within women’s history. It sheds light on the chronology and significance of domestic thrift, the meanings of feminised activities, the emotional context of home front life, women’s engagement with modern design and concepts of ‘leisure’ and ‘work’ within women’s history.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Vickery, Amanda, Supervisor
  • Hamlett, Jane, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Dec 2012
Publication statusUnpublished - 2012


  • needlework
  • knitting
  • crochet
  • sewing
  • embroidery
  • feminist history
  • craft
  • domesticity
  • second world war
  • twentieth century
  • Women's History
  • women's magazines
  • leisure
  • leisure history
  • thrift
  • history of emotions
  • history
  • Oral History
  • making
  • hobby
  • Gender
  • modernity
  • tradition

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