Needlepoint, cross-stitch, and embroidery are all traditionally feminine pastimes dating to a bygone age, a perhaps gentler time. But a new book by a textile artist and teacher from Indiana tells the story of how a delicate craft came to play a mighty role in a turbulent, violent era.
In The Embroiderers of Ninhue: Stitching Chilean Rural Life (Texas Tech University Press, 2010), Carmen Benavente recreates Chile's volatile socio-political landscape of the late 1960s and early 70s from the perspective of an expat with great fondness for her native land.
Bringing Chilean Embroidery To 'The Crossroads Of America'
Benavente was born near Ninhue, Chile, into a family that had owned land since the 18th century. In 1961, she moved to Bloomington, Indiana with her five children and her husband, composer and IU Jacobs School of Music professor Juan Orrego-Salas. Having long been interested in textiles, Benavente became swept up in the international crewel embroidery revival of the early 60s.
Soon, Carmen had come up with her own twist on the wool embroidery technique. She submitted a notice to the local paper, advertising a crewel embroidery class she named after the twenty-one stitches she taught. Workshop 21 was born.
In the workshop, Carmen observed how the medium allowed for women from diverse backgrounds to express themselves. "I had someone who was from India, somebody Polish, somebody English," Benavente recalls. "[In their needlework] there was something so identifiable about their culture that I thought, I want to take this to Chile."
Stitching To Heal
On a visit to her native country in 1969, Carmen tried to persuade the government to sponsor an embroidery workshop as part of its cultural programming for women. The regime in power at the time was about to be voted out, though, and could not undertake the initiative.
By the time Carmen returned to visit her ailing father in 1971, things had changed drastically. When she arrived in Ninhue, she noticed graffiti on the wall of the post office that threatened, "Muera Benavente," or "Death to Benavente." In the new socialist order, her family was vilified. Their estate, Coroney, was slated for expropriation by the Allende administration.
After a sleepless night, Benavente resolved to reach out in the face of hostility. "That's when I hit upon the idea," she recounts. "I could invite some people to stitch."
Despite her family's disapprobation, Benavente persisted. After mass one morning, she invited some women to gather the following day to learn a few stitches. "I tried to explain to them that their little village was very important to me, had been very important to me, and that I was doing this in the spirit of giving thanks."
Although initially reluctant to create their own designs, the women overcame their artistic inhibitions to create images of the world they knew. In Carmen's book we see their colorful depictions of rural activity: the harvest, the hunt, a eucalyptus tree, a willow. Even the village's first tv set, installed in the municipal building, is depicted.
The embroiderers had undertaken their craft at just the right moment. Within six weeks, they were presented with the opportunity to exhibit at a new gallery in Santiago. The opening seems to have been the event of the social season. The first lady was there, as well as a number of high-placed government officials and members of the diplomatic community – not to mention the entire press corps.
"Everything is a shout of life, full of strength and color," one review read. "Each embroiderer has put her soul into her work." The show sold out in the first twenty minutes.
When Benavente returned with the proceeds, the artists were stunned. They were also launched professionally, and from that moment on each pledged to purchase her own materials.
A Lasting Legacy
Their work reached an international clientele that has continued to patronize them over the past four decades. Furthermore, the embroiderers' creativity and professionalism empowered them socially – not only in their personal lives, but within the global community.
In addition to helping to market their work, Benavente visits her friends in Ninhue regularly. She has pledged to donate proceeds of her book to reconstruction efforts of the village, which was damaged by Chile's massive earthquake in February 2010.