There's a scene early in A Game of Thrones that has always stuck in my craw. In Arya's first POV scene, she's stuck with her sister and Jeyne Poole practicing embroidery, and she absolutely hates it. She wants to be out learning to sword fight with the boys, but because she's a girl she has to learn needlework instead (hence why she eventually names her sword Needle). If that were all there were to the scene, I wouldn't have a problem. Yes, it's outrageous that Arya's forced to engage in an activity she dislikes because of her gender. I felt the same way whenever I had to play football in gym class. Down with gendered activities.
But the conflict of the scene isn't merely that Arya hates embroidery--it's that her sister and pals love it. They think it's an important skill to have, as do Catelyn Stark and Septa Mordane. This is the first scene where we get a good look at Sansa as a character, and her love of embroidery is supposed to be a clue that she's a frivolous airhead who's been cloistered away and doesn't understand the Real World. Martin's taking advantage of the common metonymy that uses "embroidery" to mean pointless and extraneous--Arya's interested in practical skills like sword fighting, while Sansa only cares about useless things that will leave her ill-prepared when the shit hits the fan.
The whole framing is sexist. It treats "manly" pursuits as the only ones that matter, and says that a woman can only be important if she enters the masculine realm.
And sure, in this particular case knowing how to embroider does Sansa no good in the long run. But consider, if all of civilization were to collapse tomorrow, knowing how to solve a quadratic equation would do you no good, either. That doesn't mean, though, that algebra is a useless skill in the macro sense. Same with embroidery.
It's easy to dismiss embroidery as mere frippery. And yet, do you own any T-shirts with writing or pictures on them? Well guess what--before modern manufacturing, if you wanted an image or slogan on your clothes, embroidery was the best way to do it.
You've no doubt heard the saying, "A woman's place is in the home." Social conservatives treat this as an ancient truth, that a woman's duty is to look after the household while her husband goes out to earn money, but the idea only dates to the 19th Century. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it would've made no sense whatsoever.
That's because in traditional economies, everyone's place was in the home. The household was the basic unit of industry. When a blacksmith or a cobbler finished their work for the day, they didn't walk across town to their house; they went upstairs. They lived in the same buildings as their workshops. The idea of going somewhere else for work would've been ridiculous.
And it wasn't just men who engaged in economic activities at home. Women were part of it too. Some activities were unisex, and some were gendered. One of the main professions for women was textile work--everything from spinning raw materials into thread and yarn, weaving it into cloth, sewing the cloth into clothing, and, yes, embroidering the clothing with decorations.
In the earliest economies, this may've been done for sheer self-sufficiency, with perhaps a bit of barter between neighbors, but once mercantile exchange developed, households could sell their excess wares for money. This sort of exchange must have developed with the first civilizations, because just as a city can't survive without food from the countryside, they need clothing too. By the 2nd Century BCE, particularly desiresome materials like silk were being traded on a transcontinental level.
At first this trade would've been willy-nilly, with merchants buying up whatever households had produced in excess, but over time traders realized it'd be to their benefit if they could control what was being produced, that way the market wouldn't be glutted with one product when demand was for another. So they began contracting with women to make specific things. They might ask one who was particularly good at spinning to produce so many skeins of yarn by the end of the month, which they would then distribute to women who were particularly good at weaving to turn into cloth, and then to dyers and seamstresses until they had finished goods.
Eventually these merchants, who were called factors, realized it'd be even more advantageous if they didn't have to run around the countryside distributing materials, but instead gathered a bunch of women at a central location where they could work together. Hence, factories.
In addition to simplifying the logistics of their work, factories had another advantage for merchants. A woman sitting at home could do textile work at her convenience--while watching a baby, or waiting for dinner to cook, or in the evening while sitting around the fire with her family. But if she had a headache, or wanted to go for a walk, she didn't have to work. For the women, this was a great way of doing things, but from the merchants' perspective it meant they weren't producing as much as they could. That changed with factories. Women were expected to arrive at sunup and work until sunset, typically without a break.
Productivity soared. Prices fell.
But it also changed how society perceived textile work. With working conditions so poor, women only worked at factories if they absolutely had to. Anyone who could afford otherwise, did otherwise. At the same time, now that store-bought clothes were cheap, women who stayed home had no need to engage in textile work. If they continued to do so, it was as a hobby that only produced things for their own family and friends. This is why nowadays we perceive things like knitting, crocheting and, yes, embroidery as dilettantish.
The upshot is that by the late Victorian era, the household had become a wholly private sphere divorced from the economy. Only the very poorest women had to leave the home to work. As memory of the Pre-Industrial era faded, it became accepted that women had never participated in the economy and their place was solely confined to the domestic world. And despite George R.R. Martin writing supposedly strong female characters, this is a myth that he perpetuates with his treatment of embroidery.
Now a noble family as rich as the Starks wouldn't be selling Arya and Sansa's handiwork to some rando merchant, but that doesn't mean their work lacks economic value. If Ned wants to recruit a particularly renowned knight, lets say, then being able to offer a fine coat embroidered by his own daughter would be a powerful inducement. And of course for Jeyne Poole and Sansa's other less-than-noble companions, being able to embroider is a necessity so they have some way of bringing in money for their eventual families.
And due to the issue of inheritance, for noblewomen of lesser standing than Arya and Sansa, knowing embroidery is still important. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire follows the same basic principles as Western European nobility. That means that when Ned dies, Robb (and later Bran) inherits the title, the power, and the land. The other kids get what's called a courtesy-title--i.e., they're entitled to be called Lord Rickon and Lady Sansa, and they get all the social courtesy due to nobility. But. If they don't marry someone who has a noble title in their own right, their children will be commoners. Well connected commoners, yes, probably with a nice bit of inheritance to be sure, but commoners nonetheless. This is what's known as "gentry".
For a lesser noblewoman like Jeyne Westerling, or one of the innumerable Frey daughters, there's a good chance they wouldn't be able to marry a titleholder. Maybe they'd end up with the third or fourth son of a major lord, or maybe just a knight. In any case, that would put them in a position where being able to produce embroidery would have economic value, and being able to pass it on to their own daughters would be vital to ensuring their financial well-being. (Male children would of course have more options open to them, including military service, the law, the priesthood, and in the case of Westeros, becoming a maester.)
Far from frippery, embroidery is a valuable skill for women in Medievalish societies. Catelyn isn't being frivolous for wanting her daughters to learn it. And more to the point, Martin's decision to frame it as an inferior skill to sword fighting reflects a worldview that elevates destructive masculinity over productive femininity. While Arya deserves the opportunity to choose her training, we shouldn't applaud her for wanting to pursue the martial arts over embroidery, nor should we see Sansa as shallow for choosing otherwise.
-by Sean O'Hara