snacktime! with isabella rosner
Isabella Rosner. Image courtesy Isabella Rosner.
What’s the best snack you’ve ever seen portrayed in stitch?
This is probably a really basic answer but it’s gotta be the slice of pizza stitched by embroidery artist ipnot. Is pizza even a snack? I’d eat a (gluten-free) slice of pizza anytime, so I’ll consider it a snack. I come back to ipnot’s pizza a lot because it’s just so mind-blowing. The melty cheese surprise when you pull the embroidered pizza away from the ground fabric looks so much like real cheese! Embroidery is magic.
How are you doing these days? What’s on your mind right now?
I am doing….fine. I feel okay right now but then I think about the state of everything and freak out, so I just try to avoid thinking about it. I’m just trying to carry on and focus on what I can control now and shut my clinical anxiety up. And I’m trying to focus on the good stuff, too—my mom gets her vaccine soon! It’s finally starting to feel like spring! I’ve been seeing A LOT of dachshund puppies!
Currently, I’m thinking about how I need to start my next PhD chapter tomorrow. That’s always a bit of a spooky thing, delving into a new chapter. I continue to feel like I have no idea what I’m talking about and some of the time I really don’t, since I haven’t yet been able to visit the archives I need to go to. But the chapter I’m starting is about 17th-century Quaker needlework in and around London, which is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time so it’s both exciting and scary.
I’m also thinking about the delicious gluten-free bagel I will shovel into my mouth first-thing tomorrow morning. These bagels are really good and I could eat about eight at a time but I limit myself to one so I eat them simultaneously really delicately and also like I’ll never consume a carb again.
You’re currently studying towards a PhD at King’s College London. What’s it on? How’s it going?
My PhD is about Quaker women’s art before 1800, focusing on 17th-century English needlework and 18th-century Philadelphia wax and shellwork. Basically, Quaker women’s art—specifically stitching—got really sombre and stylised and just a bit sad at the end of the 18th century. But before that it was BONKERS, like full-on some of the brightest, most opulent examples of decorative art I’ve ever seen. So I’m trying to figure out what happened, why Quaker aesthetics changed so much at the end of the 18th century.
And I’m trying to work out why Quaker women’s art was allowed to be so decorative in the first place, since Quakerism promoted plainness and simplicity from the very beginning. When it’s not my anxiety keeping me up at night, it’s these Quaker ladies and their stupidly decorative art. All I talk about and think about are these 17th- and 18th-century Quaker ladies who had names like Charity Corn and Jane Quitquit.
I go back and forth between thinking the PhD is going well and going terribly. I’m quite ahead on writing because when I started, I was writing quickly to work part-time at a museum alongside the PhD. Then the pandemic hit, so that couldn’t happen, which gave me a chance to slow down my writing a bit. So now I’m working at a speedy but more normal pace and am hoping to write first drafts of all my chapters by the time the archives I need to visit here in England and in Pennsylvania open, which I’m hoping will happen at some point in the distant future.
But like, who knows??? Will I ever step foot into an archive or library again??? Will my entire PhD be wild theories I wish I could substantiate through archival research but I can’t so now my thoughts and writing are just fully unhinged? Yikes.
What initially drew you to material culture histories? And who are some of your favourite contemporary practitioners?
I’ve always loved thinking about people of the past, but didn’t have a word to describe it until college. I called it social history or cultural history or just like, “I don’t care about wars or economics or numbers, I just want to understand how normal people in past centuries lived their lives.” I think I’ve always been fascinated by the richness of the human experience.
It’s so easy to forget that past people, just like us 21st-century citizens, had favourite foods and daily rituals and pet peeves and all of those little details that make us unique, dynamic individuals. I think studying material culture is a pretty good way to access the rich minutiae of the daily experiences of people decades or centuries ago. I just love people and all their eccentricities, and knowing that, no matter what outside forces change, humans have been essentially the same forever. No matter what happens, humans still want to be surrounded by beautiful, useful, intriguing things and they want to be remembered.
When it comes to scholars who study and write about material culture, I love the work of Amanda Vickery, Karen Harvey, Giorgio Riello, Arianne Fennetaux, and up-and-coming scholars like Serena Dyer, who just published a really wonderful state of the field article about material culture. And when it comes to stitchers and textile practitioners, my solid favourites are Hannah Hill (who goes by @hanecdote on Instagram), Bisa Butler, and Janet Brandt. They all do very different things—I love that variety.
Hannah Hill makes bangin’ hand embroiders. She made the embroidered Arthur fist meme that got super popular a few years ago. Bisa’s art is truly amazing and is all that I think about when I’m not thinking about Quaker women. She makes STUNNING quilts that celebrate Black individuals. And Janet Brandt takes historic embroidery motifs and styles and shapes and makes them modern. She does a lot of work with 17th-century caskets, taking that shape and making three-dimensional, brightly coloured, quirky embroidered narratives.
Are there any upcoming projects on your plate that you’d like to tell us about?
This is ongoing rather than upcoming, but there’s my podcast Sew What?, all about historic needlework and those who stitched it. I’ll be on some podcasts in the next few months, but the release dates haven’t been announced yet, so that isn’t helpful. I’m writing a few entries for the upcoming Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of World Textiles, which is a super exciting project to be involved in! I have an academic article coming out sometime this spring, a collaboration with a PhD student who studies sex magic in early modern England (and who is also my ex boyfriend’s former roommate, hilariously enough), and Costume Society UK blog posts that come out every few months.
So yeah, lots of balls in the air! The only way I know how to be productive in a pandemic is by doing a lot of stuff at once, because if I don’t then I am stuck with my thoughts and that’s when the pandemic dread sets in and we don’t want that!!!
Interview conducted late February, 2021