When All is Done, and Said

All our words are never said and and all our work is never done . . . but we complete steps along our creative way.

I’ve made reference to and shown glimpses of this quilt I’ve been working on—and the top is finally finished!

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The impetus for the quilt came from the block-of-the-month (BOM) challenge my guild had this past year. The way the BOM works is that each month at a guild meeting, participants are given the directions for a new quilt block to make during the coming month. If one stays on track, by the end of the year one has done a good bit of work toward a finished project. I like finished projects as well as the next person!

And I liked the theme our guild chose: in light of this being the 100th anniversary of New York giving full enfranchisement to women, including the right to vote, the theme of our BOM was Women’s Suffrage.

The theme appealed to me a lot but I wanted to take it further and make my quilt more broadly about women’s rights. And I didn’t want to stop at the 9 pieced blocks that we received instructions for.

I reverted to my roots—my love of words, words that inspire, words that provoke, and words that maybe even foment change.

I chose 10 quotations from 9 women and one quotation from a man, Mitch McConnell, about a woman. I tried to be inclusive and choose from women of different eras and backgrounds.

For the embroidery, I used my tried-and-true freezer paper and computer printer method for transferring the designs to fabric—I wrote about it here.*

I ended up with 9 pieced blocks from the BOM challenge but needed one more for the design I wanted, so I added a block from a pattern called “Contrary Wife”–I figured many people saw the suffragettes as just that (it’s the block at the bottom left).

I sewed the pieced blocks and the embroidered blocks together in an alternating grid, with sashing. At some future date, I’ll hand quilt the whole thing.

I started this quilt well before the US presidential election and worked on it while I watched the voting returns, never suspecting the way things were going to turn out. I lost my way for awhile after that and didn’t work on the quilt for a good long time.

But as it turns out, I felt compelled to finish.

I’ve been thinking about a phrase I read somewhere—weapons of mass creation. Although the word “weapons” makes me uneasy, I do like the juxtaposition of ideas, that we can use the tools we have to build up rather than tear down.

And the tools, or weapons, I have are words, and needle and thread and shuttle and loom.

And I intend to use them–for my own comfort, for the simple joy of making, for the chance to make statement, subtle or less so, about the world I want to live in.

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*I’m thinking about doing another, even more detailed post about this, to encourage others to try the process of embroidering their own words on fabric. Would that be useful? If you have strong feeling, let me know.

 

Studying, One Stitch at a Time

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from the website of Aram Han Sifuentes

It’s a tried and true method of studying for the big test—write the important facts and ideas out, in longhand.

In an age of laptops and smart phones, writing by hand is decidedly “old school,” but good students will tell you that they spend hours before exams, re-writing their class notes, notes they took by writing them out by hand during class.

When we write something out, we study the words. Writing is relatively slow and it gives us time to think about the content. The effort involved in forming the letters creates a memory of what the words symbolize.

I believed this as a student and, later, as a college prof, I urged struggling students to try it.

Now, I never need to study for a big exam. But I still love powerful words, pondering them, and remembering their meaning.

I’ve told you about my inclination to preserve some of my favorite words by embroidering them on fabric. I’ll tell you more, soon, as this project is nearing completion.

If writing ideas out by hand helps one remember, the added effort of stitching them out really transforms the experience!

This idea is old school, too. We know that it was used in Colonial America when young girls made embroidered samplers, to combine learning the alphabet, numbers, a positive adage or Biblical verse, as well as sewing skills.

As the stitches form letters and the letters form words, the stitcher grows with the words.

You can only imagine how much I loved a story I came across recently, from the website Crosscut, that told of immigrants studying for the U.S. citizenship exam by . . . YES! Embroidering the kinds of questions and answers that might be asked on the test!

The project was created by artist Aram Han Sifuentes. Sifuentes, from South Korea, prepared for her own US citizenship test by embroidering a sampler of 100 questions and answers typical of the test questions, questions like, “What did Susan B. Anthony do?” “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” “What is the capital of your state?”

Having proved to herself that the process was effective, Sifuentes has since taught art workshops for immigrants that combine embroidery skills and civics. The students are mostly adults—one sampler on Sifuentes’s web page was done by a 77-year-old man—and, in addition to the embroidered words, many stitchers embellish their panels with other designs like the Great Seal of the United States or an image of Rosie the Riveter.

Beyond creating the means by which to help immigrants study, Sifuentes offers the finished samplers for sale on her website and, if they sell, she gives the money back to the stitcher, to pay for their application for citizenship. To me, this is an inspired and inspiring artistic project, one that makes a tangible difference in peoples’ lives.

It’s funny. I had begun to think of my own embroidering of quotations, about women’s rights, as a little frivolous, a little pointless. In the face of a reality that grows increasingly scary and a world increasingly unstable, my stitching felt quaint, tame, lame.

But now I’m seeing it a bit differently. Maybe, as I stitch these powerful words and absorb them and ponder their meaning, I am preparing for a big test, after all. A test of what it means to be an American woman in 2017.


I didn’t want to use a bunch of photos from other peoples’ websites but, really, go look at the links!

Fix It or Let It Be?

I have a lot more sympathy for medieval scribes than I once did. I always envisioned them sitting in a sunny room, enjoying the copying of a beautiful manuscript—pretty colors and interesting words.

Now I understand how difficult that is!

Those guys were probably the original copycats, reproducing books, in exacting detail, before the printing press was invented. Their job was not to create, not to express themselves, but to copy, exactly and precisely, what was in front of them.

When I started my reproduction of an antique redwork quilt last year, that was my intent—to try and copy it precisely. The quilt was made in the late 1800s, and bears the date 1889.

I am trying to use materials that are the same as the original—plain muslin fabric and a red thread that should eventually fade to the washed-out pink of the old quilt. I am using a light box to trace the old blocks onto paper and then from the paper to the blocks of fabric.

What I’ve found is this—it’s really impossible to make an exact replica of hand-done work. As with handwriting, our stitching skills produce a style all one’s own. My stitching is mine—and my 21st century aesthetic means I tend to produce smoother lines and rounder edges.

One of the decisions I am facing is whether to reproduce what are obvious mistakes in the original. I’ve read that medieval copyists were often illiterate and so, made mistakes in spelling and in reproducing words. If the scribe who came later, who was to copy that copy, realized the mistake, should he fix it or stay true to the artifact placed in front of him?

I’m working on a block now that has such a mistake—I’m sure of it. When the maker of the old quilt traced this block from whatever her source, she clearly missed a line that constituted the bottom edge of this leaf.

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So, should I fix it? Should I sketch in that curved line and then stitch it and make it right?

Or should I leave it, knowingly reproduce it in its incorrectness, to acknowledge the human-ness of the creator?

I’ve gone back and forth, and so far, I’ve left it as it was stitched on the old quilt.

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I know I always get a kick out of these little errors, this proof that the thing was made by a distracted flesh-and-blood woman, in between her chores. Maybe, as she traced the design, a baby was crying or she was rushing to finish before she had to milk the cows (cows don’t wait!) or start dinner.

But maybe that’s being condescending and unkind in a way, to see her mistake and not fix it for her . . .

I don’t know. I haven’t quite decided yet.

I realize that, in the scope of real world sturm und drang, this is an insignificant point. And yet, I find I need distractions from real life and from Twitter and from alternative facts . . .

So humor me—talk with me about insignificant details of an old quilt, made by loving, if imperfect, hands.

What do you think? Should I reproduce the mistake or fix it? What would you do?

“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Unfinished Object

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Is there a crafter alive who has finished every project she has started?

If so, I’d like to meet her; I’d like to shake her hand, and celebrate her fortitude and single-mindedness and self-discipline.

In the words of the legendary Bob Dylan, “It ain’t me, babe. It ain’t me you’re looking for . . .”

I’ve left so many things undone. Some have been too hard for me, some too easy, some just didn’t take. Some have been around so long that the colors and style are sadly out of date and some have been attacked by insects or mice or something else unthinkable. Some have simply fallen by the wayside when another shiny-new, exciting project has come along.

I’m not proud of this so most of my unfinished projects have been disposed of, gone and forgotten, so they can no longer haunt me and make me feel undisciplined.

But one piece endures—I love it in spite of its unfinishedness. I think it’s lovely just as it is.

This kit depicting scenes from Aesop’s Fables came out in 1979, the same year I finished a cross stitch sampler. I imagine I felt flush with that success and wanted to keep the feeling going.

This was back when crewel embroidery was cool and you could buy beautiful kits, complete with good instructions and quality yarns.

This project was big and ambitious and gorgeous—I thought so then and I still think so 37 years later.

And yet I didn’t get far with the project. I can’t remember why but it was right when I started grad school and had bought a spinning wheel and . . . who knows?

But I got far enough that I have thought this unfinished object was still worth seeing. It doesn’t make me feel bad in its incompleteness. In fact, I kind of like the effect of one bright, embroidered panel against the subtle line drawings of the other panels.

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It’s been with me all these years and has hung on a wall most of that time.

I’ve never intended to finish it and wouldn’t have known where to begin, even if I was inclined.

And, yet, weirdly, recently, even as I had the idea for this post in mind, I came across a plastic bag, in a plastic bin, in an overcrowded garage, along with other unfinished projects.

And look what was in it . . .

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Yes, the directions and the yarn. Is this a sign of things to come?

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my unfinished object?

Do you finish everything? Do your unfinished projects ever make you happy, just as they are?

It Makes Me Warm and Tingly

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photograph by Joseph Turp

A lot of things make me feel warm and tingly.

You already know about many of them. Handmade makes me warm and tingly. Anything to do with words gets me pretty excited. I love history and tradition and human symbolic behavior.

Another thing that makes me feel all warm and tingly is Magna Carta.

Huh?

That’s right. An 800-year-old document gets me excited and when that document gets incorporated into a modern artwork, a huge piece, hand embroidered by hundreds of hands, working cooperatively? Well! Tingle, tingle!

Magna Carta is 800 years old this year and that has gotten lots of people thinking and talking about what it has meant, to England, to the United States, to democracy and justice.

Magna Carta may mean something different to each individual. I like what it meant to my American forebears, how it influenced the Revolution, and our Bill of Rights. I like that it seems to have led us toward equal justice under the law.

To me, it means that no one is above the law—too important to be bothered by the rules that bind the rest of us—or beneath the law—too unimportant to warrant protection from unfair bias and arbitrary persecution.

So, how about this embroidery?

My pal Gallivanta steered me toward a story that blew me away. You can read about it in detail elsewhere; think of this little post as a “heads up” to go look at the links I’ll include at throughout!

Magna Carta (An Embroidery), undertaken by British artist Cornelia Parker, has it all. The work was commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford, along with the British Library, after having been chosen from a group of proposals.

In a nutshell, the project is a facsimile of the Wikipedia entry on Magna Carta, replicated in the most minute detail in hand embroidery, and crafted by over 200 stitchers from all walks of British life. The finished piece measures 4.9 feet wide by 43 feet long (1.5 m × 13 m) and has been on display in the British Library (and will be until July 24—there’s time for you Brits to see it!)

This project moves me in so many ways!

Parker combines the gravitas of history and tradition with a 21st century flair. The meaning and value of Magna Carta has been constantly re-interpreted and re-negotiated over the years so it seems especially appropriate that Parker chose to make her text a screenshot, taken on June 15, 2014, of the Wikipedia entry for Magna Carta.

Because Wikipedia is crowd-sourced and constantly amended by people like you and me, the articles constantly re-negotiated in a largely democratic way, it reflects not official truth but a communal representation of what Magna Carta meant on its 799th anniversary. It seems fitting that an historical document so often adapted to the needs of different people and times is offered to us in a format that is constantly open to our adaptations as well.

Parker also made a conscious choice to take the digitized word and transform it by hand crafting. When the words and images of Wikipedia are translated into embroidery, they are elevated in ways that ask us to re-see and re-think words that may have lost depth of meaning. The stitchers certainly had plenty of time to consider the words they worked on, sometimes as few as one or two. As viewers, we ponder the stitches, as individual as the stitchers who made them, and see the words, as if for the first time.

And consistent with Magna Carta’s principles of justice, fairness, and equality under the law, the embroidery work was done by a large group of stitchers, a group as varied as the peoples Magna Carta has been held up to protect and represent.

Parker drew her stitchers from many sources and walks of life, from peer to prisoner, choosing people who represented groups, like convicts and barristers, that have been associated with Magna Carta.

Over 200 stitchers contributed and the majority of the text was done by prisoners from the social program Fine Cell Work (which deserves a blog post of its own!) The Wikipedia images were re-created by members of the Embroiderers’ Guild, from across the UK. Some of the stitching is expert and exquisite, some is rough and labored. The fabric holds stains, from tea and blood. It is not even and pristine and perfect, any more than is history itself.

Parker invited royalty to contribute but they declined. Other high-profile stitchers contributed, often by stitching words of their own choosing. Lord Igor Judge, who was Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the head of the judiciary, from 2008 to 2013, and Lady Judith Judge stitched the words, “Habeas Corpus.” Edward Snowden chose to stitch “liberty,” and Julian Assange, chose one of the instances of “freedom.”

The project seems to me to take the iconic and make it real again, to take the digitized and modern and make it warm and human. The varied stitches in the piece remind us that real people held the needles and that real people both shaped these words originally and are affected by them every day. It reminds that a word such as “freedom” will look, and mean, differently depending on who is uttering or crafting the word.

I hope you’ll go look for yourself. I have no access to photos other than those I can poach from the internet and I don’t like to do that (too much!) You can see many images typing the words “magna carta an embroidery images” into your search engine.

But, really, the best place to see and hear the story is in the video shared by Gallivanta. I predict it’ll make you feel warm and tingly too!

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photograph by British Library

The One That Got Away: A Pansy-Strewn Tablecloth

IMG_7422One of the best things about selling vintage linens is that I love what I sell and get to scout for beautiful items to pass along to others.

One of the worst things about selling vintage linens is that I love what I sell and, in passing them along to others, I sometimes really regret letting something go.

Such is the case with this wonderful tablecloth. IMG_7406Never mind that I have no room to keep it, it doesn’t fit my décor or lifestyle, or that it would be better appreciated by someone else—I still wish it had stayed mine.

I am not a pink and purple kind of gal. I rarely, if ever, would have a reason to use a cloth like this and don’t have a table it would fit on. It only made sense to sell it.

It sold with a couple of days of listing and the new owner was eager to get it.

But the minute I got notification of the sale, I experienced the worst seller’s remorse.

Part of the reason was the quality. The embroidery was stunning and done so perfectly. My grandmother always said that the mark of expert embroidery was that it looked nearly as good on the back as it did on the front.

The front of the tablecloth is shown on the left; the back is on the right.

The front of the tablecloth is shown on the left; the back is on the right.

Additionally, the linen was heavy and dense, with a beautiful sheen, and the hem was finished with delicate hemstitching, a detail that adds such elegance.

The other reason I’m sad to have let the cloth go is that I had learned a bit of its story from the woman who sold it to me. I rarely get any provenance for the vintage linens I buy so that’s always special—the cloth had been made as a gift for the owner’s mother. It was made in Scotland and brought to the United States in the early 1950s, when the woman emigrated.

And the pièce de résistance is that a man created the beautiful embroidery!

It makes me inordinately happy when I hear of a man excelling at work that is stereotypically “women’s work” or, for that matter, a woman doing work we associate with men. I love the idea that a person gets so much pleasure and satisfaction from an activity that they persist even though others may think them odd.

I know men, including my husband, who love working in textiles—they ask why should women have all the fun?!

In addition to the quality of the tablecloth and the detail that it was made by manly hands at home, the fact that a man made this lovely piece for a woman, who brought it with her to America, also allowed me to indulge in a little speculation. He must’ve cared for her very much—making this tablecloth was not a done on a whim! Did he love her? Did she not love him? Why did she leave Scotland? Did they stay in touch?

Sigh.

Knowing a tiny bit of the history of this tablecloth captured my imagination. The fact that I’ll never know the rest of the story is fine by me—the story in my head might be better than the truth.

The tablecloth has gone to its new home. I wrapped it carefully in tissue paper and put it in an envelope. I told the new owner what I knew about the history. I wanted to lecture her about using it carefully and cherishing it, but I exercised self-restraint.

It’s hers now.

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