During the pandemic, I’ve become a historic needlework podcaster, which is not something I ever expected to say, let alone write. But unusual times sometime lead to unexpected adventures. I started my podcast, Sew What?, for two reasons: the pandemic got in the way of my plans to volunteer in a museum alongside my PhD work, and I was tired of “capital H” historians making it very clear to me that my research on and interest in historic textiles wasn’t as valuable as the work being done in the fields of economic and political history. Sew What?, which is all about historic needlework and those who stitched it, launched in May 2020 and began its second season in February 2021. When I began my podcast, I couldn’t have imagined the objects I’d get to speak about and the people I’d be able to interview. Now, more than 30 episodes in, it’s still surreal (and very exciting) to call myself a podcaster whose show has been listened to on six continents and in 41 countries.
Sew What? has given me the opportunity to speak about pieces of historic needlework I’ve known and loved for years, like 17th-century frog pouches and an 1841 Guatemalan sampler at LACMA, as well as objects I knew nothing about before the podcast, like wartime knits and prison embroideries. And it has allowed me to interview scholars, museum workers, and artists the world over, both people I’ve admired for years and those whose work I didn’t know about before meeting them virtually. I owe much of the success of the podcast to my first interview, conducted with, Susan Kay-Williams, chief executive of the Royal School of Needlework.
Season 2 of Sew What? brings another 25 episodes and six months of research, writing, and recording—a daunting task made easier by interviewing and connecting to passionate textile researchers and makers. The new season covers needleworked objects from a variety of regions and time periods, from nalbinding to Wiener Werkstätte lace. The interviews have been, to be extremely corny, a dream come true. If you told April 2020 Isabella that she’d be interviewing Bisa Butler or some of the Gee’s Bend quilters, she’d never believe you.
When I started Sew What?, I was excited to publicly express my passion for needlework but expected my audience to consist exclusively of my mom. I was and still am amazed that thousands of people listen to the podcast and that it’s been used as a teaching tool in classrooms and an exhibition resource in museums. Not only is it immensely flattering, it also helps me feel like a part of the historic textile community I’ve loved from afar for so long. Discussing all sorts of objects from around the world means I can stitch together what was important to past needleworkers, like the desire to be remembered and the tension between regimented order and individual expression. I feel very lucky that by raising my voice, I’m able to give voice to the many forgotten girls and women (and some men, too) who stitched in centuries and decades past. That desire to tell stories through the study of stitch drives everything I do.
Isabella Rosner, who hails from Los Angeles, is a PhD student at King’s College London, where she researches Quaker women’s art before 1800. She is passionate about early modern women’s needlework and schoolgirl samplers, interests she channels into her podcast, Sew What?, which is about historic needlework and those who stitched it.
Listen here: Sew What? podcast website