Il Sangue delle Donne – research

Research is a crucial part of my creative process. I spend a lot of time reading about my subject, researching techniques and making samples. In the case of Il Sangue delle Donne I have been reading about historical attitudes to menstruation, and finding out how women managed their periods in the days before disposable pads and tampons. Unfortunately nearly all of my books are still in storage so I have had to rely on internet research, which is a bit patchy, and, not being an academic, I can’t access academic research papers and journals. However I found some excellent material (in particular an excellent article by historian Sara Read), so much that I think this will become a longer-term project investigating these aspects of women’s physical experience and I will do more in-depth research and writing. In the meantime I have an artwork to make in the next week! So my brief historical research has me thinking of:

  • shame
  • silence
  • taboo
  • labelling, especially labelling women as weak, susceptible and constitutionally degenerate in the words of Henry Maudsley, arguing in the nineteenth century that women should not have access to education because in his view they were bed-ridden for a week every month…
  • menstrual blood was known for hundreds of years as ‘flowers’, an image which has stuck vividly in my head and wll be used in my piece for this exhibition.

I was surprised to find that the phrase ‘suffer and be still’ was written by a woman, Sarah Stickney Ellis, who used it in 1845 in one of her very popular conduct books for women. I had assumed it was from the Bible (confusing it with ‘be still and know that I am God’ in Psalm 46) or by a male writer on morals and the place of women (although there were plenty of those as well). This is another avenue I want to explore as Ellis was a very successful writer, as well as the wife of a missionary and a stepmother, and she eventually founded and led a school for girls. So clearly all was not subjugation and weakness in her view of women.  I will be using her words in this project, as they are so powerful and resonate on so many levels, and looking at her and her work in more detail in the future.


I’ve also thought a lot about my own experiences. As I suffered from endometriosis and adenomyosis, and eventually had a hysterectomy, I was a bit concerned that my feelings might be too one-sided. After all I used to almost pass out with the pain, and I had a lot of fertility problems, so my feelings about menstruation are predominantly negative. So I asked friends on social media about their feelings and it was the same – about 90% negative (words like agony, surgery, infertility, shame, anxiety, exhausting). The only positive comments were about menstruation being a sign of fertility, but then that same sign is a cause of great grief and despair to a woman desperately wanting to be or to stay pregnant.

In practical terms I have been experimenting with inks to find a satisfactory one for blood and Encre Sennelier in 635 Carmine is perfect. Also testing threads to see which weight works best and so far Caron Wildflowers 219 Cardinal and Weeks Dye Works 1333 Lancaster Red are leading the pack. I’m using DMC cotton perle 8 in 310 for sutures but I have some vintage black linen thread somewhere and if I can find it I will try that as linen has a better feel, in my experience! And I was very pleased to find I had not forgotten how to suture.