Embroidering domesticity onto a duster by Vanessa Marr

Writing for this blog has reminded me of Cyril Connolly’s famous statement, there “is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”, and I have to say that personally I cannot disagree more. For me the metaphorical pram (for my own four children have outgrown theirs) is the source of my art, and the hall it sat in, my home, is the focus of my work, both academic and creative. The pram is however, an object to be negotiated, as I shuffle past it with my intentions held high.

Promises and Expectation’s, Vanessa Marr 2014.

Back in 2012 I began to research the domestic origins of fairy tales and was inspired to learn of their original purpose as empowering female stories that women told as they worked, often with cloth and often with children under their feet. Elizabeth Barber writes of the practical sense it made for women to work with textiles; it can easily be picked up and put down again and doesn’t require full concentration to complete it. Interruptions, those endless demands that Mother’s experience for food, love, reassure and “Mum, where is my…?” are less intrusive if your mind can be in two places at once. I related strongly to the idea of creating alongside my children; trying to do it apart from them seemed too stressful and I already worked fulltime so I wanted to be with them. This was a turning point in my practice and I haven’t looked back.

Whenever I fold a fitted sheet… Duster Project submission by Lyn Dale, 2015. Text from poem Folding Sheets’by Marge Piercy

I mirror the way those women worked and create my art surrounded by family life. I stitch on the sofa in the evenings, in the garden, on the train to work, whilst the dinner cooks, and when I’m waiting to pick-up from after-school activities or appointments. My bag of stitching is ever present. My youngest daughter (now aged twelve) recently told me that when she was younger she would judge an amount of time by how long I’d take sewing because I was forever replying: “when finish this thread…” At aged six she sat alongside me and made her own versions of my fairy tale artwork, now she is glued to the sewing machine rather than her tablet. Each of my daughter’s is creative, no doubt due in part to the fact it has always been my go-to means of entertaining them and a means of me making alongside them too. For me Motherhood and art are a blend.

Dusters from the project on display for International Women’s Day at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, UK. 2016.

My first work in response to fairy tales was a collection of seven dusters embroidered with text and images in red thread called Promises and Expectations (2014). It explored the promises told to women and girls, for example rephrasing ‘Happily Ever After – to ‘This is not the End’, along with definitions of femininity, brutality and protectiveness. Inspired by this I opened a call to women everywhere to embroider their domestic perspectives and experiences into a duster. Six years later it’s grown to well over a hundred contributions. It has been exhibited widely in the UK, become the focus of my academic papers and recently accompanied me to a conference in Florida, US.

This project is ongoing but in response to the COVID-19 crisis I’ve called for dusters expressing the domestic experiences of lockdown too. Recent statics suggest that women in heterosexual households are spending considerably more time than their male partners supporting home-schooling and on the additional domestic tasks created by having the whole family at home all day. This is not to say that many men aren’t ‘helping’, but Mum’s role is so often at the centre of the domestic universe that the demands are largely falling on our shoulders. Two of my older daughters returned home for lockdown, so we expanded back to a household of the size I’m more used to. Calls of “Mum!” have become accompanied by a giggle as they realise how much they demand of me and contentment because they know I like having them home. Most of me finds it fulfilling but trying to focus on research for example, has been a significant challenge. The complete emersion that it requires is almost impossible to achieve; a single “Mum” is enough for me to lose my flow and the all-important thought that I needed to explore is forgotten. Thank goodness a lot of my work is practice based – it has to be! Frustratingly statics also show that submissions to Journals from women have significantly reduced, whereas men’s have risen. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who is doing the emotional labour here.

Domestic Bubble for COVID-19 lockdown call, Vanessa Marr, 2020.

Responses to the COVID call have just started to arrive as hand-stitching takes time and I launched it mid-way through because supporting my students with the change in teaching style (in loco mothering?) consumed my first few weeks of lockdown. So far, the pattern of content upon the dusters is familiar and quite similar to the main project. Rebellious nonchalance and humour are common as a means of coping with the extra demands. Poetry, images, ranting and celebration present a range of experiences. Running throughout though, as a constant undercurrent, is the domestic role of Mothers. I once surveyed this perspective during an exhibition of the dusters and without fail all respondents cited their Mum as their main domestic influence. Almost always people will tell me about their Mum when they discuss the collection. It seems we are anchored in the domestic space; our legacy as the foundation of the home with all its expectations seems inescapable. Rather than fight it, although there is plenty of scope for welcome change, for me art offers a way to embrace and reinterpret it. I do want to be the centre of my children’s universe. Even though three of them are now grown and I celebrate their independent lives, I still want to be their North, the one they can return to sustenance and comfort. “Mum!” might interrupt my flow but it’s also my reason for starting in the first place. I want to show them everything that a woman can be!

The yellow duster for me manifests all of this. It is mundane, it is often ignored, its tasks hold no capitalist values. However, it is comfort to hold and a pleasure to stitch. It has a purpose. When stitched in multitude with all of the project participant experiences displayed upon it, it is transformed and gives credit to the voices of women everywhere. When held in high regard it becomes a beautiful catalyst for change. The ultimate nurturer.

Domestic Academic. Featured on Greyson Perry’s C4 Art Club. Vanessa Marr, 2020.

I recently stitched my portrait onto a duster, it presents the different versions of me. The ‘me’ bit is the smallest, the Mother nurturer the largest, the stressed-out me in the middle, linking all of the roles I play (my daughter says I look cross!). It’s not always easy, but to me Motherhood and art are an essential combination.

To find out more about the Domestic Dusters and how you can participate in the project take a look at the website


By Vanessa Marr