Monday, October 7, 2019

The Difference between Embroiderers Yesterday and Today

Five Senses casket in Tent Stitch.  Linen
is currently not made anymore so can't
sell this design with a casket.
The caskets in progress by my students and my Harmony casket have been attracting a lot of attention lately, so of course I am getting quite a bit of email.  Most want the tent stitch casket that I can not provide at this point (There is a tent stitch Trinket box still available) because the linen for it has been used up.  (I still have enough remnants to make about 40 of the Silken Trinket boxes).

When I suggest that the stumpwork casket is open for registration - I always get back this answer:
"I am afraid that it will be too much for me to do stumpwork"
It was shocking this weekend as I got that response from no less than a half dozen people who I am sure weren't sharing emails.  

So here we go - a bit of my stitching philosophy which is wrapped up in my life story.  The sentence I keep getting is part of a pattern of comments I get often that really get me going.  As you well know, I am not a well behaved woman... so I keep making some history.

Small Silken Trinket Box in Tent Stitch - 
I grew up in negative town, USA.  A place that told kids they didn't have anywhere to go and weren't good enough.  That had double effect for me as I was dyslexic and wasn't remediated (meaning no one sat me down and painstaking taught me phonics for years to rewire my brain).  If you hadn't mastered reading, you weren't good for other stuff.  Somehow between my parents and my own stupidity I stopped listening to them somewhere around 4th grade.  I did the unthinkable - I tried things that people told me I couldn't do or that I wasn't good enough to do.  As time went on, those who told me I couldn't or wasn't good enough kept at it but I started proving them wrong.  I developed a pretty healthy distain for formal education - which is hilarious as I went on to get a doctorate.  But actually the engineering fields are a place to thrive if you ignore the standard wisdom of "can't or not good enough".   I don't have a lot of love for "the right way to do it" - what I do have is respect for is "If you want this effect, this technique may get the best result".  That doesn't stamp out innovation and creativity.

So the mantra became "I'll try it" vs. "I need to learn it (usually from someone else who is an expert)".  I became largely self taught - often by examining the embroideries up close myself with a magnifier.  I don't have Royal School Credentials, I am not a Master Craftsman, no City and Guilds...  I will admit that I had some mentors who pushed me hard in Japanese embroidery but I never finished beyond a few levels.  I took the lessons and said "I'll try it".   I bought books.  Lots of them - mainly for the pictures as reading is still hard.

Looking at the historic embroideries very carefully taught me some VERY important truths.

Most historic embroiderers sucked.  Really.  They did a poor job at it.  They violate every RULE that a 21th century embroiderer is taught.  Why?  Because most of them were middle schoolers.  Know a middle schooler who is an expert at anything or follows the rules????  Nope.  It was her class project - a badly paper-matched volcano and her parents loved it.  But those elementary and middle school girls stitched with gusto and it shows in the raw creativity behind it.  But today we look at their samplers and their caskets (almost always as a tiny picture in a book) and we swoon and since we never get up close to them - we IMAGINE how perfect they must be.

"They were experts"

Nope, they just TRIED IT.  And often pretty badly to be honest.

So we get to my massive problem with 20th century embroidery.  I am going to say some things here that will ruffle some feathers - please don't take it as a direct criticism of an organization - I have no problem with what several organizations are doing and applaud them highly for their outreach and continuation of the craft.  What I have a problem with is the fall-out that is unintended by what they are doing and I just wish they would realize that and do a little to mitigate the fall out.  They don't intend it, it is the naysayers that create the problem and often the demons are inside us all.  I am talking about the dominance of our formal embroidery teaching institutions (there are several) such as the Royal School of Needlework, Lesage, Hand and Lock, and the Japanese Embroidery Center in our collective psyche.

These institutions are very, very important commercial embroidery houses - and that says everything.  They have moved into the hobby embroidery market for several reasons, obviously because they care about the teaching and extension of the craft but also in order to make up the shortfall in the need for custom embroidery by church, custom orders, and couture and thus stay afloat by making money from the hobby embroidery market.

The problem comes in that the style of embroidery taught comes direct from their mission - to teach a group of people to a skill level where their embroidery is indistinguishable from one another.  That is their bread and butter.  There is only one way to do anything in Japanese embroidery because otherwise you could tell how many people stitched that Obi or Kimono.  The Royal School wouldn't be the Royal School if Kate Middleton's wedding dress had a mis-mash of skills all over it - it must be uniform.   The same with Hand and Lock and Lesage for Haute Couture work.  It is all about commercial production of big pieces by many hands in a way that no one knows how many did it.

And that is the problem with how the average stitcher interprets it - they don't know that the real background story is commercial embroidery commissions.  Their stuff looks perfect because it has to so others will pay thousands for it.  Instead stitchers think that it is "THE RIGHT WAY".  And unless you have decided to ignore the "You aren't good enough" thoughts and outright comments, you look at things and decide that "it will be too much for me".   What that is really saying is "I don't think I can live up to that level of stitching perfection because I haven't been studying for years".  This has also rubbed off from all the City and Guilds, and Master Craftsmen programs, and classes by the Japanese Embroidery center and Hand and Lock (and it goes on) where it is a single minded pursuit of PERFECT.  For some of those programs that is the point, to become a master at it.  Sure, I don't have a problem with that - what I do have a problem with is the thousands of women who think they can't because they can't live up to that level.

I can not tell you how often I get an email from someone who wants to take a class and they actually give me a run down of their 'credentials'.  Such and such class from such and such organization.  I kid you not.  I almost want to hug the lady and say that it will be ok - I don't have any of them myself.  That she can isn't too late to realize that she 'can'.   I can help her with a 12-step program and soon she too will be carefree trying new threads and techniques and inventing some herself - and enjoying herself with new creativity.  I couldn't care less about what credentials she has - all I care about is that she wants to try it.  Ok - it does help if you can thread a needle.  But that is my highest bar because that is pretty hard for me to demonstrate from here.

Screw perfect.  If I had waited to be perfect I would be dead.  My brain is not wired to be perfect - it is in fact very imperfect.  I will never read well.  Period.  I am over that and I use other skills to get through the day.  I will also need an editor badly for formal books. Again, not perfect and that won't hold me back from teaching and writing.  I am often scared and put things off because of it, you bet I do.  But then after a day or so of that, I resolve to pull on 'my big girl undies' and go out there and TRY.  I do things that scare me (ok, I did back off that clift climb this summer - that was just crazy crud).

The other thing that I think of when I get that phrase in an email is - geez, they must think I am a horrible teacher that they need to come knowing how.  I am not sure what drink those 17th century girls did that magically turned them into stumpwork doers.  It was their first stumpwork project (and if you could use a magnifier you can tell!  My advice - do the back first.  ha ha).  Yes, this will be your first stumpwork project and yes in places you can tell or you can use a drawer in it to place the leaf you screwed up or the petal that didn't work out, and then move on to version two of that which will be so much better.  I can't take my teaching projects online and publish them into a book because I use too many pictures to show how something was done - too expensive to publish.  I also often include the whoops stuff - often because it shows how to fix it, what not to do, and that I (the expert) am human and am trying too.

One grade-A dog butt that has nothing to do with the presentation topic.
Good lordy...
Recently I had the opportunity to show two videos of my robot team the night before the first competition when they were nine to a new coach who was lamenting the progress of her new team of 9-year olds.  She was thinking it would be a one time thing as they just weren't making great progress.  By the time she had watched the kids spend 5 minutes practicing a 2.5 minute robot run, falling down on the floor, grabbing the robot and breaking it, standing monotone giving a presentation, giving each other rabbit ears, realizing that one boy had stuck a picture of a dog butt in the presentation and hearing my plaintive instructions in the background being totally ignored - she was absolutely crying on the floor laughing.  That is when I turned to her and said - nine years later that hot mess was the World Champions.  They went from sucked to something because they wouldn't stop trying.  I never choose my team kids for skill - I only choose them for heart.

And really, if I can turn a bunch of fart-joke boys into World Champion roboticists - why can't I teach you to do stumpwork?  :-)

In the awesome words of Auguste Gusteau from Ratatouille - "Anyone can Cook"

...if they try.


  1. Bravo. Too many people are daunted by the thought of trying something new. Too many people scream "Perfection, only Perfection" at the expense of inclusion. And too many people think that they can only follow directions, at the expense of blossoming their own creativity.

    Babies are not born knowing how to run marathons. There are lots of steps between the toddler and the Olympics. And there is no reason to assume that only Olympic level performance is worthwhile. Get out there and jog! Take a slow stroll down the block, or just between the living room and the kitchen if that is the challenge for you. But don't immediately assume "I can't do it" or "I'd never have the patience for this." I guarantee that even the simplest of stitched pieces can bring joy. Give it a try.

  2. SO glad to read this! I am also largely self taught, have a small array of stitches I can do and lived in the land of "can't do this" for decades. But - I took a deep breath and signed up for the Harmony In Nature casket. I've never done Stumpwork, or Needlelace, eyes are not perfect, hand eye co-ordination not the best at my age (69), but I'll be darned if I let the chance to create something this wonderful slip away. Take the plunge. Create. Explore. Feed your spirit.

  3. What a breath of fresh air! Thanks for putting those thoughts into words of encouragement and 'you can do it'. I love the analogy of your robot team.

  4. Well said. I am also mostly self-taught, but I have had the chance to take classes with the RSN (and others). I appreciate their ability to teach the technical aspects of a particular technique and I think they do an excellent job. However, I often think of the RSN as presenting 'a' way of doing something, but not necessarily the 'only' way of doing something. What I find especially helpful in classes is having critical feedback which is something I would lack if I were completely self-taught. No matter what, though, everyone should try new things. What's the worse thing that could happen? It's only embroidery!

  5. This is so true Tricia, us stitchers try for perfection and perfection isn't always possible. I've just been struggling with a biscornu, which because of the fabric count, I had to stitch with two strands of thread. Almost gave up several times as I couldn't get my stitches neat enough, but I persevered and the biscornu for all it's flaws looks great.

  6. In the quilt world, there's 2 sayings - "done is better than perfect", and "if you can't see it from 10 paces on a galloping horse it don't matter". Maybe the hobby embroidery world needs to adopt those? I haven't seen any antique needlework in person which are held up as the ideal results, so I'll go from the quilt world - yes the perfect masterpiece quilts are gorgeous. But the ones that make me happy are the ones with mismatched points, the single odd bit of fabric, the bits pieced together to get a piece of fabric large enough, etc.

    I'm not sure if the answer is that we need to take a really close look at antique works to see the imperfections, or if we need to stand back and look at our own work to see how good it really is. Maybe some of both?

  7. Amen. From another dyslectic embroiderer with a doctorate :). Who giggles a lot when enlarging pictures of 15-16th century embroideries and spots the fudges!

  8. YES!!! I've seen examples of historical pieces where the work is horrible! I did find that your instructions are amazing, and definitely have helped me try new techniques- I actually like chain stitch (doing the 'backwards' method works better for me) now, and detached buttonhole finally made sense!

  9. My question to those who moan about all of their mistakes. .. "whay would you honestly say, if I just made that?"

    Any chance of selling the 5 senses *pattern*? No casket, no fabric, no fibers? Lol. That would be the only way I could afford it. I have RA, and my hands are borked (or warped and disfigured), but dammit, I can still stitch!

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