In December 1941, when Nazi guards saw Major Alexis Casdagli’s intricate cross stitch of swastikas and eagles they considered it to be so delightful that they framed it and sent it on a tour of four other prisoner of war camps. The British officer was then commandeered into leading a cross-stitch class for forty other fellow POWs interred with him in Warburg-Dössel. In spite of these circumstances Major Casdagli was quietly pleased. Into the seemingly unremarkable border of his craftwork, in a series of discrete dots and dashes, he had cunningly stitched ‘Fuck Hitler’ and ‘God Save the King’ in Morse code.
And so began the anarchic history of Subversive Cross Stitch.
Julie Jackson was not a prisoner of war, separated from family for four years and routinely starved. Julie Jackson was in a regular job in a regular Texan town, but was being bullied by her boss. One day, at her wits end, she stopped by a craft shop on the way home and picked up a sampler. After stitching the ornate border of pink flowers Julie Jackson went rogue.
“I decided to stitch the word ‘Fuck’ right in the centre,” said Julie. “It felt so great!”
The juxtaposition of the petite and the profane was so popular with colleagues and friends that it inspired her into weeks of prolific subversive stitching.
The simple expression of ‘Fuck’ led to a pastel coloured ‘Go Fuck Your Self’, and later ‘Fuck The Dumb Shit’. Once a floral frame or line of ducklings had been completed, Julie threaded whatever felt right: ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ or ‘Bitch, Please!’ or simply ‘whatever’.
“Embroidery is such a traditional craft,” says Julie, “and, especially if you're stitching in public, the sentiments you're stitching are your little secret. You may LOOK very innocent and charming, working away in silence, but if they only knew...”
But the purpose of Julie’s efforts is not to shock or cause offense. There is a multitude of ways in which subversive cross stitch is different from an angrily scrawled expletive, which can be quite impetuous and rash. Stitching the words ‘Fuck Cancer’ takes time and determination and a very certain sense of purpose. And therein lies one of its most immediate pleasures. Catharsis. Release.
In addition to the private satisfaction and amusement that this version of the craft can bring, sharing the resulting creations is irresistible. And if there is one thing that the world wide web has taught us over its brief history, it’s that no matter how peculiar or esoteric your interests or desires are, there is a reassuring/disturbing number of people out there who share your passion. Once Julie Jackson uploaded pictures of her craftwork onto the internet people began emailing her for patterns, and then began breaking the rules themselves. It wasn’t too long before the chic purveyor of eccentric taste that is Graham Norton featured subversive cross stitch on his show, and subsequently became the proud owner of ‘Homo Sweet Homo’, stitched and framed by Julie herself.
And then came a publishing deal with Chronicle Books to include her patterns and instructions into a book: ‘Subversive Cross Stitch: 33 designs for your surly side’. Better still, the book was released in Holland. Which meant that a team of academics had to find a Dutch version for every sweary English idiom like ‘Keep Dat Ass Busy’. Unfortunately the inspiration for the technicoloured ‘Pussy Got Me Dizzay!’ sampler came too late for its inclusion into the book, and subsequent translation into Dutch.
Article Continues Below >
In the meantime, it has become clear that, from cupcakes to comic books, old-fashioned hobbies are being revitalised on a huge scale. Stitch and Bitch circles are bringing together a new generation of young knitters, and websites like Pintrest are devoting pages to ingenious and creative takes on traditional crafts. What sets Julie Jackson and Subversive Cross Stitch apart is the challenge of making something that undermines and contrasts with the nauseatingly twee patterns of the past, and that is witty and refreshing – in a small space. And what keeps Julie going is reading through the submissions from her online community on the group’s Flickr page. One of her recent favourites is a sumptuous and ornamental piece, full of small birds, which reads ‘Nightingales Are Dicks’.
As with many large groups of enthusiasts, subversive cross stitchers sometimes wonder what they could create if they were to join together on a large scale project. Regular cross stitchers have set the world record for the largest ever piece of stitching with a 9.20m x 4.05m depiction of ‘The Battle of Grunewald’. Using 150kms of thread they produced an elaborate, epic and bloody copy of the painting by Jan Matejko, replete with horses, guns and death. If Julie Jackson could find the time and volunteers, she would be tempted to break that record with a defiant 10m x 5m piece which would simply read ‘Fuck War’.
And with the new found celebrity that has come with creating this unique community and business, Julie Jackson is now aware that she has a public image to maintain. As somebody who has found fame with her sharp and irreverent use of words she is now aware that that there will be interest into her last statement to the world that will be stitched onto her tombstone. What does she want her epitaph to read?
“Because, you know, I'm dead? Seriously? Fuck. Who's going to mind the store?”
Join in the anarchy at subversivecrossstitch.com