Sundress Reads: Women’s Work

A book cover featuring fabric embroidered with flowers. There is an embroidery hoop in the center of the image. Inside the embroidery hoop, the words "Women's Work" are stitched. In the bottom right, the words "Madeleine Barnes" are cut out of newspaper clippings and pasted in.

How to even start explaining Madeleine Barnes’ poetry chapbook, Women’s Work? It’s certainly a challenge, considering the unique nature of the collection. All of the words are taken from sewing manuals and advertisements, rearranged into cut-up poetry that often seems to span multiple pages. However, the words are far from the only important part of the poetry on display here; each page features a scanned image of the author’s own embroidery, sometimes along with superimposed images from other sources. The embroidered patterns on each page, alongside the words taken from other sources, combine to give further meaning to both the patterns and the words.

The very first page of the book sets some precedents right away. Instead of seeing the full embroidered image, the author has chosen to scan the backs of the pattern, showing us the stitches most viewers of the physical embroidery would never see. This continues throughout the chapbook, with almost every embroidered image being the back of a pattern, and leaving the reader to guess at what each pattern represents. The first cut-out phrase is one of the longer ones, reading “The long winter evenings give a woman a splendid chance for sewing or embroidery; but her eyes suffer from the strain unless she has a good light.” This sets a tone immediately: this collection is not interested in the beautiful visual splendor of an embroidered pattern, but in the difficult work behind it—the titular “Women’s Work.”

This is immediately followed up by a page featuring images of women modeling plain white dresses, but one is turned away from the camera and the other is posing with her head tilted and her hands on her hips. The text reads “we’re disobedient”, and is followed on the next page by an image of fabric almost fully covered in stitches in a circular pattern with the words “and durable.” Building on the idea of the book, we see women beyond the boxes tradition forced them into, not obedient and fragile, but disobedient and durable.

A later page features a pattern that almost looks like a finished image in itself despite being the back of a pattern; the threads are sewn into thick, heavy shapes and lines, almost giving the appearance of a pair of flowers on grass and all in warm, sunset colors. The text on this page reads, “What a wealth of warm hospitality this picture reveals.” Ironically, the text that was almost certainly once describing the front pattern of an embroidery now describes the back: the meaning of the warm hospitality changes to represent the care put into the structure of the pattern.

Among the second half of the chapbook is an underlying theme of anatomy. Patterns are overlaid with images from what seem to be very old medical diagrams of the hands and arms, and in one case a (rather outdated and inaccurate) drawing of the stomach and womb. The most striking example of this is a page with a pattern of red and yellow threads with a superimposed image of the ligaments and tendons in the human hand. The threads follow the path of said ligaments, curving through the wrist from the arm, up through the thumb, and transitioning from yellow to red thread at the tip of the thumb as it leaves the hand entirely and spills out onto the other hand in the image, as if the thumb was bleeding. The words here are from three different cut-outs: the first reads “Pattern repeated on formal lines”, the second “Gathering stitches irregular”, and the third “If the thread breaks short, open a few stitches.” The message seems to be about injury and strain, the bleeding thumb and the in-text visual of formal lines becoming irregular and breaking stitches all conveying that message. The anatomy theme also fits the whole chapbook; we see the “anatomy” of the embroidery (the backs of the patterns) compared to the exterior and interior images of the female body.

Finishing the chapbook is a black fabric with white stitches, alongside an uplifting message: “Come along, I’ve” “had dangerous” “adventures”. This feels like a sign-off from the author and creator of the patterns we’ve been seeing, an acknowledgment of the experience of creating the chapbook, and I’m happy to say that this incredible project lives up to that sign-off entirely. Women’s Work is a work of visual art as much as a work of poetry, and I’m happy to highly recommend it.

Women’s Work is available at Tolsun Books.

Gray Flint-Vrettos is an aspiring author and a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in English and Creative Writing, and minors in Theater Arts and Film. He has a long history with theater, having appeared in multiple productions both on stage and behind the curtain. Currently, she’s focusing on getting involved with publishing and writing her first book.


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