We hope you are enjoying our focus on the achievements of women stitchers. Today, join us for a dive into the history of banner-making about a hundred years ago, as it was used by the suffragettes in their fight to gain votes for women.
The suffragettes had started to use calico banners with slogans printed or painted onto them, but it was not until stained glass artist Mary Lowndes (one of very few women working as an independent artist) established the Artists’ Suffrage League in 1907 that the movement’s banner-making was really taken to a high level. Using her artistic skill and her eye for colour and design, Mary directed her fellow protesters to make banners that were not merely communicating a message, but did so in a beautiful and striking style. She wrote a guide to the design and production of these banners, suggesting that the banner should evoke a desire not only to read it, but to ‘worship’ it.
The suffragettes had been stereotyped in the press and amongst those hostile to the women’s movement as wild, rebellious and unfeminine. The gorgeously stitched banners were intended to prove that women could have the vote and still maintain feminine characteristics like pursuing needlework. The use of rich colours and sumptuous fabrics such as silk and velvet was meant to draw the eye and provide dignity and grandeur to the processions, giving spectators a reason to want to come and see.
Mary was interested in medieval pageantry and often used heraldic designs to indicate where the protesters came from. In this way, she hoped to create an association between the suffragette movement and medieval values like chivalry and loyalty. Another popular type were banners celebrating great women of history (such as astronomer Caroline Herschel), to remind the public of women’s capacity for achievement and the fact that they deserved the vote. Women also created banners to indicate their profession. Mary was very conscious that the banners would be carried in the open air, and so suggested the addition of ribbons and tassels to flutter in the breeze, and shimmering fabric to shine in the sun.
The suffragettes used their beautiful banners and their smart and restrained dress (in the movements colours of green, purple and white, symbolising traditional values hope, loyalty and dignity, and purity respectively) to project an image of respectability and to create interest in their processions. Ultimately, of course, they succeeded in their goal through tireless efforts. Perhaps modern movements like the Fridays for Future protests might look for inspiration to the suffragettes’ protest banners. Maybe in a hundred years the protest signs of today may serve as inspiration for the movements of the future. Best get stitching!
You can see a really interesting video about the banners here.