A deeper dive into ‘permission to play’

Making and remembering

This section is for those who would like to explore some theory on a deeper level and learn about the ideas behind ‘permission to play’. Lou Baker and Oliver Bliss share some of their academic research into queer and subversive stitch which has framed their thinking as they were planning the project. They hope to add more theory to this page as the residency progresses, and afterwards, so check back later too. 

During the residency Oliver and Lou have been exploring a lot of ideas and experimenting with their approaches to making. It has been richly rewarding for them to have time and space to test and challenge themselves to make new work. The residency has been an excellent testing ground for all the artists. They hope that ‘permission to play’ will enable more people to have a go at queering and subverting the expectations of stitch and take part themselves. 

‘Attitude is everything’

The ‘permission to play’ area of the gallery has a range of textile materials as a starting point to play, and to explore what can be done. Everything has been provided by local charity shops or seam members’ private stashes. Visitors have also been invited to bring materials from their own home they feel is representative of themselves that they are happy to let go of and contribute to this evolving work. 

Everyone is welcome to use the space as they please, experimenting with materials in a new way and seeing where their creativity takes them. As this is a research project, feedback is especially important, so Oly and Lou are also inviting participants to write their thoughts on a label to add to the installation. It will be exciting to see what people make, how the installation changes and what participants say about giving themselves ‘permission to play’. 

Lou and Oliver have divided their research into the following sections:

An installation and a sculpture: Lou has been experimenting with some of her parents’ old sheets

Subversive stitch (Lou Baker)

Rooted in second wave feminism, the term ‘subversive stitch’ was first introduced by feminist psychotherapist Roszika Parker in her book of the same name. Writing in 1984, she proposes that, stereotypically, work involving cloth, specifically embroidery, is expected to be a private pursuit, functional, decorative, finished, perfect, safe and benign. She also suggests that stitch has associations with domesticity, clothing, comfort and the body. Although Parker focuses on embroidery, the links between stitch, cloth and other textiles processes are clear. 

According to Parker, cloth itself is a gendered material; she analyses the gender divide between ‘high’ art and feminised craft (Parker, 2010, p5; Carson, 2000, p27). She proposes that cloth is a signifier of the private, and thus feminine, sphere (Parker 2010, p5). She discusses ‘the privatisation of female embroidery skills and their role in the inculcation of an ideology of femininity as devout, chaste, obedient…’ (in Carson, 2000, p27).

She also suggests that

‘…fine art was established as a public activity of high status associated with male professionals, while embroidery became a low status craft associated predominantly with women and domestic spaces’.


Parker also highlights various femininities connected with stitch which have potential for adding subversive meanings to its use in fine art.

Making together

Choosing to use cloth and stitch, with their associations with craft and the feminine, instead of the more conventional materials of fine art, is a way to intentionally subvert these expectations and provoke a range of conflicting responses. That cloth is an unconventional medium in fine art also adds to the meaning it conveys. Traditionally, hard, durable materials like stone, marble and bronze have been used for sculpture; the soft, impermanent nature of cloth evokes the human form and its mortality, revealing alternative meanings in its folds and surfaces (Barnett, 1999, p186). 

However, Parker’s introduction to the latest edition of her book, written in 2010, discusses some of the changes in attitude towards stitch in political, feminist and art arenas over the intervening 25 years. Highlighting the work of Tracey Emin, for example, she maintains that whereas 1970s feminists viewed the ‘personal as political’, Emin’s stitched work proclaims that the ‘personal is the universal’ (2010, pxv). 

Parker also says that she associates the later, stitched work of Louise Bourgeois, ‘not only with reparation, but with aggression and destruction’ likening it to what she calls ‘the dual face of embroidery’ which ‘historically, through the centuries has provided both a weapon of resistance for women and functioned as a source of constraint’ (ibid, xix). Despite the work of these two notable artists, the development of the craftivist movement in the last quarter century and other forays of textiles into the world of art, she still concludes that:

‘Change… is slow, and uneven… both feminism and embroidery continue to evolve, although tracing a pattern of progress which is less suggestive of a straight line than a spiral’.

(ibid, xxi)

Sloppy craft (Lou Baker)

The term ‘sloppy craft’ was first used by artist Anne Wilson in 2007. She described it as ‘a critical, content-driven decision to work ‘sloppy’’ (in Surette and Paterson, 2015, pxxv). She goes on to say that

‘(t)he term ‘craft’ has historical alignments with refined skill, mastery of technique and a striving for perfection’ so that ‘‘sloppy’ feels like the antithesis of what good craft should be…setting up a binary of opposites that draws attention to itself and defies and possibly flips established hierarchies of value’.


Coming full circle back to feminism, Elissa Auther, suggests that 
‘‘Sloppy craft’ was a new aesthetic in fiber arts’ (ibid, p5) which ‘followed a lineage back to 1970’s feminism’ by attempting to subvert the expectations of ”high craft’ through the use of dysfunction, the abject and the amateur’ (in Surette and Patterson, 2015, p37).
The concept of ‘sloppy craft’ has gained a broad appeal, so much so that it has been described by the craft historian, Glenn Adamson, as ‘postdisciplinary’ (ibid, p5) and is now used widely as a device to add meaning to art works across a broad range of arts practices by activist, performance, queer and Aboriginal artists, amongst others.   

Participants from the University of Bath Fine Arts Society

Working in a sloppy way is, however, just one of the ways to subvert the expectations of craft and, specifically, textile practices. The expectations of work with textiles can be subverted in many ways through: 

technique · colour · surface · form/formlessness · public/private (concept and installation) · touch · participation · scale · performance · activism · materials · unfinished/unravelling · clean/dirty

For more detail of these and other methods of subverting stitch in fine art, read Lou Baker’s Second skin; used clothing and representations of the body in the work of Louise Bourgeois and Christian Boltanski, and Critical knitting; knitting as a research method

As we know, throughout the history of art there have been many artists who have used cloth and stitch in creative ways to subvert the gendered, stereotypical expectations. Here are just a few of them:

Gees Bend quilters, Yinka Shibonare, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Nick Cave, Josh Faught, Ibrahim Mahama, Shoplifter (Hrafhildur Arnardottir), Faig Ahmed, Eva Hesse, Dorothea Tanning, Phyllida Barlow, Christian Boltanski, Judith Scott, Sarah Lucas and many, many more.

And of course, in his book, Queering the subversive stitch: Men and the culture of needlework, published in 2021, Joseph McBrinn builds on Roszika Parker’s feminist theories by viewing them through a 21st century queer lens. He says that he ‘seeks to extend the feminist debates…’ interrogating ‘the culpability of social practices (the culture of needlework) in the construction of gender (the masculine) by troubling orthodox histories of both’ (2021, p12-13). He goes on to highlight two main points – ‘the role of needlework in the making of modern masculinities through the exclusion, effacement and elision of men from its history’ and ‘the central presence of needlework in medical, legal as well as socio-cultural discourses that gave birth to modern homosexual identities’ (ibid, p13). 

One of Oliver’s experimental, queer assemblages

Queer theory in Arts Practice (Oliver Bliss)

‘Queer theory is a field of critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of queer studies (often, formerly, gay and lesbian studies) and women’s studies. The term can have various meanings depending upon its usage, but has broadly been associated with the study and theorisation of gender and sexual practices that exist outside of heterosexuality, and which challenge the notion that heterosexual desire is ‘normal’’.

Detail from Oliver’s previous work ‘Blue Angels’. Containing a found flyer from Canal Street with sewn materials and wire.

‘Following social constructivist developments in sociology, queer theorists are often critical of what they consider essentialist views of sexuality and gender. Instead, they study those concepts as social and cultural phenomena, often through an analysis of the categories, binaries, and language in which they are said to be portrayed’ (Wikipedia, 2022).

According to Jay Stewart:

‘Queer theory and politics necessarily celebrate transgression in the form of visible difference from norms. These ‘norms’ are then exposed to be norms, not nature or inevitability. Gender and sexual identities are seen, in much of this work, to be demonstrably defiant definitions and configurations.’

This idea was also supported by an influential essay by Michael Warner who argued that queerness should possibly be defined as ‘heteronormativity’; instead of those ideas, narratives and discourses which suggested that heterosexuality is ‘…the default, preferred, or normal mode of sexual orientation’.

In this context the word ‘queer’ is instead defined in relation to a range of practices, behaviours and issues that have meaning only in their shared contrast to categories which are alleged to be ‘normal’. Warner introduced this idea in 1993 in an edited collection Fear of a Queer Planet. He highlighted how social theory and most cultural assumptions about humanity are largely premised on heterosexuality (1993, p. vii-xxxi.).

Detail from one of Oliver’s experimental, queer assemblages

The term ‘heteronormativity’ in most contexts suggests that that heterosexuality is the only worthwhile, ‘natural’, and healthy form of sexual feeling and expression. It’s about the ‘straight perspective’ or experience which is deemed to be the default experience. It’s considered to be ‘normal’ by the majority. Queer experiences, however, sit outside of what is perceived as ‘normal’ because those lived experiences are so different or unusual. They challenge expectations of the ‘default’ milestones like getting a partner of the opposite sex, getting married and having kids. Queer is anything that goes against the grain or is a behaviour outside of those expected norms.

Warner writes that:

‘People are constantly encouraged to believe that heterosexual desire, dating, marriage, reproduction, childrearing, and home life are not only valuable to themselves, but the bedrock on which every other value in the world rests. Heterosexual desire and romance are thought to be the very core of humanity. It is the one thing celebrated in every film plot, every sitcom, every advertisement. Nonstandard sex has none of this normative richness, this built-in sense of connection to the meaningful life, the community of the human, the future of the world.

Heteronormativity assumes heterosexuality is the main mode (if not the only mode) of sexual desire and expression. Behaviours and routines become developed into habits and assumptions about how people live their everyday lives. These routines and behaviours are then passed on each generation. Any person who then moves outside of this expectation can appear as something which is confusing or something that cannot be understood. These types of behaviour can also be perceived as a threat to an expected behaviour. For example, same-sex couples have historically and continue to be perceived as a threat to the institutions of marriage. Even though in principle those who want to be married aim to share the same goal: Showcasing to the rest of society that they are an exclusive couple in love.’

Warner (1999, p47).
More participants exploring the possibilities of queering/subverting textiles

However, the term ‘queer’ can also be defined in relation to a range of practices, behaviours and issues beyond sexual acts and same sex relations. It can demonstrate something which sits outside of binary categories which are alleged to be ‘normal’. Although it is still generally associated with gender identity and sexuality in everyday language, in academia there is controversy about its definition, including whether the word should even be defined at all or should be left deliberately open-ended. There are disagreements between queer theorists about what it is.

According to some theorists, queerness does not have a fixed reference point. Judith Butler, for example, describes queer theory as a site of ‘collective contestation’. They suggest that
‘queer’ as a term should never be ‘fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes.’ (Jagose,1997, p1)

Halperin suggests that ‘queer’ can also be used as a ‘strategic function’ that unsettles our senses (1997, p63) ; a strategy that describes a circuit of meaning-making that is highly dependent on our relational understanding of things. It breaks away from preset ways of being.

It is warned, however, that defining queer theory or conceptualizing it as an academic field might only lead to its inevitable misinterpretation or destruction. Queer theorists Berlant, Warner and Butler argue that its entire purpose is to critique academia, rather than become a formal academic domain itself.

A visitor adding their sculpture to the installation

This is a broadening out of the field that queer is concerned with, from a focus on the sexual body and sexual communities to a ‘horizon of possibility’ (Halperin, 1997, p79) based on deconstruction but also on discovering how the world and our knowledges of it are interlinked. The horizon is after all, a perceptual field dependent on where we might ‘stand’ and where we stand cannot always be triangulated.

Queer theory can be the lens used to explore and challenge how scholars, activists and the media perpetrate gender- and sex-based binaries, and its goal can aim to undo hierarchies and fight against social inequalities. A queer lens can also be used by artists, to provoke discussion about these same topics, but also, potentially, a broader range of issues. 

Subversive Behaviour in the Arts (Oliver Bliss)

Using craft to express queer ideas is decidedly intentional. As Jesse Harrod notes,

The politics of cloth seem inescapable, and material and technical histories are fundamental to my choices as a maker… The materials are stand-ins for political ideas, for people, for moments, for gender expressions.’

(in Chaich, no date, p vii)

During planning meetings for this residency, Lou and Oliver discovered that they’re both interested in subversive behaviour in the arts. Although they have different backgrounds and specialisms, they found that they’re interested in exploring similar themes within their work. They both acknowledge an interest in breaking away from traditional or expected routes of behaviour.

Oliver sculpting abstract body parts with tights and gloves

Carol Becker edited a provocative group of essays in the anthology The Subversive Imagination. The collection provides a range of insights into the role subversive behaviour plays within art:

‘…art is not only political in intention, but subversive in its means. It demands some transformation of social consciousness, and through this some transformation of the social world’ (1994).

In this same collection, Martha Rosler explores the roles of ‘place, position, power and politics’ and how they inform subversive behaviour. Ewa Kuryluk’s essay A Plea for Irresponsibility states her desire to move away from art being forced to be responsible or useful in some way:

At any given moment in history the world stands on its head. The belief in individual freedom has never been as strong as it is today. Yet the avant-gardist, blue birds, and lonely riders who refuse to subscribe to some goodness or truth, seem to be an endangered species…’ (p.01)

Lou becomes a living sculpture as part of ‘Made flesh’

Playing and Exploration

During A Visible THREAD research residency, both Lou and Oliver will be experimenting within their practices and asking audiences to join them in this process. Visitors are invited to give themselves permission to play, subverting the expectations of stitch and making something to add to the collaborative sculptural installation, ‘permission to play’.

Alongside this participatory project, Lou and Oliver will also be playing critically as they develop their own work.

Lou will experiment with ways to install some of her hanging sculptures, including two new bodies of knitted work. She will use various hanging devices so that she can trial immersive environments. She will also be stitching in the gallery, developing a new sculptural installation using a collection of sheets and towels that belonged to her parents. She will be making subversive sculptures alongside visitors as part of ‘permission to play’.

Oliver Bliss is going to trial different techniques within his sketch book to help develop future work. He is going to follow examples of other artists’ practice to inform how he creates work.

These approaches include:

Tactile drawing: drawing objects or scenes through the process of being blindfolded and touching objects. This is an exercise described by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern in ‘Drawing as a Language’. He is also going to follow the exercise created by quilt maker Helen Parrott which encourages experimentation and plays with mark-making to inform marks in future creative projects.

Drawing from memory: Janette Barne draws from memory, using erasers to change the quality and feel of an image:

‘I use charcoal and compressed charcoal as these are very flexible materials that allow for change and a build-up of ideas, so the drawing has a visible history. Instinct, speculation and memory are key components in this process…’(in Becker, 1994)

Music Painting: Naomi Kendrick uses music as a starting point in the images that she creates. ‘Drawn to the Beat’ was a participatory music drawing event using Silent Disco technology. The Band on The Wall club space was transformed into an enormous drawing surface for the night and participants were invited to be part of creating a new piece of work alongside the artist, to the soundtrack of a silent disco.

The start of an ongoing conversation – Lou Baker and Oliver Bliss

Oliver and Lou hope that this will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation. Working alongside one another in the gallery, with the other artists and with visitors, they feel confident that new ideas and inspirations will emerge. Underpinning their practice-based research with academic theories will transform their queer and subversive rule-breaking into ‘critical play’ and bring depth to their collaborative and individual work.

Lou and Oliver warmly invite participants to be involved on their own terms, and encourage them to consider some of the approaches outlined above, if they need a little steer. They look forward to seeing what will happen as their collaborative ‘permission to play’ sculptural installation changes and grows and to the development of the threads of conversation!


Barnett, P. (1999) ‘Folds, fragments and surfaces: towards a poetics of cloth’ in Hemmings, Jessica (ed.), 2012, The Textile Reader, Berg: London, New York pp 182 -190
Becker, C. (1994) The subversive imagination, the artist, society and social responsibility  London: Routledge
Butler, J. (1993) Critically Queer, Available at: http://everydayexpeditions.oucreate.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Criticially-Queer.pdf (Accessed: 27 February 2022)
Carson, F. (2000) ‘Feminist debate and fine art practices’ in Carson, Fiona and Pajaczkowska, Claire (eds), 2000, Feminist Visual Culture, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press pp 25-35
Chaich, J. and Oldham, T. (no date) Queer threads: crafting identity and community New York: Ammo
Flanagan, M. (2009) Critical play Available at: http://mitp-content-server.mit.edu:18180/books/content/sectbyfn?collid=books_pres_0&id=7678&fn=9780262062688_sch_0001.pdf (Accessed: 3 March 2022)
Freud, S. (1919) The Uncanny, Available at: https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf (Accessed: 20 July 2020)
Halperin, D (1997) Saint Foucault: Towards a gay hagiography, Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/MHASFT (Accessed: 2 March 2022)
Jagose, A. (1997). Queer Theory: An Introduction Archived 2022-01-26 at the Wayback Machine. United States: NYU Press. 
Lorenz, R. (2012) Queer Art: a freak theory, Available at: https://www.transcript-publishing.com/media/pdf/9a/5e/2a/ts1685_1JaY0eWiLe02uc.pdf (Accessed: 28 February 2022)
McBrinn, J. (2021) Queering the Subversive Stitch: Men and the Culture of Needlework London: Bloomsbury
Parker, R. (2010) The subversive stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine, London and New York: Tauris
Patterson, E. and Surette, S. (2015) Sloppy craft: Postdisciplinarity and the crafts, London: Bloomsbury
Warner, M. (1993) Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory,  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Warner, M. (1999) The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Wikipedia, (no date) Queer theory, Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer_theory#:~:text=Queer%20theory%20is%20the%20lens,and%20fight%20against%20social%20inequalities (Accessed: 20 Feb 2022)

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