IN 1572, an embroidered cushion was cited as evidence in a trial of treason against Elizabeth I of England. Still in existence, it displays a lace-cuffed hand emerging from clouds, wielding a sickle, to cut back a dying vine. A banner reads in Latin: “virescit vulnere virtus”, translated as “virtue flourishes by wounding”. A personal monogram and the arms of Scotland reveal its maker’s identity: Mary, Queen of Scots.

Recently forced to abdicate her throne and flee into captivity in England, Mary sent the cushion to her prospective fourth husband the Duke of Norfolk. He was involved in a plot to overthrow her royal cousin, perhaps with her collusion. The embroidery’s symbolism communicates its subversive intent: Elizabeth, unmarried with no children, is the dying vine. The wronged Mary, fertility proven by the birth of her son James, is the pruning hand bringing fecundity and a secure succession to her nations.

But the plan did not come to fruition. Norfolk was executed; Mary would remain imprisoned until her own beheading in 1587. During these long years, embroidery was one of the only means of expression Mary had. It was a form of emotional regulation and a conventional woman’s task. Yet it was also, as Clare Hunter explores in her recent book Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen Of Scots And The Language Of Power, her own “testimony”.

READ MORE: The debauchery, scheming and murder mystery in the last years of Mary, Queen of Scots

Hunter states that, through hundreds of pieces of painstaking needlework, the marginalised Mary “insisted on her presence and preservation, asserting her worth and power…”.

The deposed queen’s surviving works are a collection of flora and fauna, frequently inspired by Renaissance emblem books. They feature highly personal metaphorical and heraldic associations. Self-pity merges with a mordant sense of humour: in one cruciform panel, on display in Holyroodhouse Palace, a ginger cat steps on the tail of a mouse, a criss-cross pattern behind evoking a net. This image is frequently interpreted as a caricature of the notoriously prevaricating red-haired Elizabeth, toying with Mary’s life.

During Mary’s epoch textiles were sophisticated, portable, and luxurious articulations of power in Europe, more valuable than paintings. Over subsequent centuries, embroidery came to occupy an ambivalent position, characterised as “craft” as opposed to “art” in an inherently gendered bias. Yet Hunter’s textile biography of the iconic Scottish queen reveals the power of embroidery to act as an alternative kind of communication, with the potential to disrupt dominant narratives. The medium has become part of a strong tradition of activism, its often-collaborative nature celebrating collective endeavour and solidarity.

It seems fitting then, that a modern interpretation of an expansive national story for Mary’s kingdom takes embroidered form in the Great Tapestry of Scotland, based on designs by Andrew Crummy. It consists of 165 panels stitched by over 1000 volunteers, Hunter among them, across almost 200 locations. Shown at Holyrood in 2014 and now on permanent display in Galashiels, the Tapestry interweaves historic landmarks with the lives of ordinary people.

Mary has her own panel. She is shown in the act of sewing with a hoop frame, bordered by references to her embroideries. The importance of Scottish textiles is commemorated: tartan of course, but also waulking, tweed, fair isle knits and paisley patterns. The last historical event depicted is the Scottish Parliament’s reconvening in 1999 after more than 200 years. It shows a globular purple thistle and two hands holding needle and thread, conveying a sense of both repair and creation.

Tzipporah Johnston’s embroidery work ‘reclaims a sense of 
joy and fascination in her perspective on the world’

Edinburgh-based artist Tzipporah Johnston (whose work is shown above) also uses embroidery as a form of communication. A member of the Society for Embroidered Work, seeking to elevate the status of embroidery, Johnston recently co-created NEUK Collective, advocating for neurodivergent people in the arts.

In a world that pathologises neurodivergency, Johnston writes that her Museum Of Monotropism is meant to “communicate something of my interior experience – autism from an autistic perspective”. By doing so, she reclaims a sense of joy and fascination in her perspective on the world, while also exploring its challenges.

Its title referring to autistic hyperfocus on special interests and tasks, the series includes embroidered “amulets” alongside collections of found objects. These include eyes embellished with patterns of beads, gorgeous but slightly unnerving works reminiscent of holy objects. With them, Johnston intends to evoke the “pain and intensity of eye contact and the kind of attraction-repulsion I feel towards eyes as a result”.

Johnston feels a deep empathy for the use of amulets across history, “physical defence[s] against the scariness of the world, and a way of exerting control over the terrors of life”. In her Amulet Against Estrangement, two hands are separated, placed inside their own black frames. Yet they are linked by a crimson thread. “I do crave connection,” Johnston says, “but the reality of actual people is often quite difficult, quite overwhelming. Sometimes it’s easier to make that connection at a slight remove through objects. I have quite a big collection of amulets and charms. Each one of them is a record of someone’s hopes or fears or wishes.”

This concept of self-protective amulets, and what they communicate about human vulnerability, provides a poignant insight into Mary’s own needlework. Her constant creation of embroideries alluding to her predicament, past, and family connections perhaps constituted her own assortment of amulets.

The tactility of Mary Queen of Scots’ textiles only heightens their charisma as her testimony, demonstrating her determination to keep impacting the material world, however risky that proved for her own life.

Johnston suggests that it is this tactility, and embroidery’s relationship to care, that heightens it appeal. In such intensive work, with the maker hunched over, considering every stitch, “there is a sense that when you hold it you are holding someone’s hands”.

In fact, the repetition of hands in the imagery of all these works is striking, from a queen’s sixteenth-century cushion to a national community project and contemporary art. It accumulates an inescapable feeling of intimacy. They seem to represent the power of embroidery as both individual and communal creative expression across history: a gift passed from hand to hand.