Wednesday, June 25, 2014

June 24: Handwork

My first memory of knitting is vivid. Even 28 years later, I can recall what I was wearing, where I was sitting, the sound of the brown acrylic yarn squeaking across the yellow plastic needles. But I don't have the same sort of recollections about embroidery. Knitting was something I had to be taught, repeatedly, but embroidery feels like something I just did. 

(It can't be true, though: I remember having to get my mum to thread my needle for me again and again, sometimes three times in five minutes. She must have demonstrated the stitches for me over and over, too.)


Our house was never short of craft supplies. We had all the usual suspects: scissors and paper and crayons and markers (x-acto knives and crazy glue, too, if you knew where to look). But there was other, better stuff: a seemingly bottomless button tin, scraps of fabric, yards of yarn, and a stash of old embroidery kits – and the freedom to make something with it. 

I loved the old embroidery kits. They came in crackly cellophane bags, with colour photos that heavily featured the rich golds, bright oranges and sombre greens of the 1970s. The canvas was sometimes badly creased and yellowing around the edges, and the crewel wool sometimes had a musty smell, but that didn't diminish the pleasure I felt in stretching the fabric across the hoop or organizing the yarn, looping short strands through the colour card and matching the names and numbers to the chart. I could make it take all afternoon.

Indeed, I spent hours deciphering those charts, practicing the stitches, threading (and re-threading) my needle. If I think back to the summer vacations of my childhood, I remember swimming lessons in the morning, lunch eaten in front of "The Price is Right," and afternoons spent perched in the rocking chair in front of the living room window, stitching away. I watched avidly for the leaves on the maple tree out front to flip over in the wind, signalling rain on the way.

At some point I ran out of crewel kits (what were they? I remember a rose, stitched in shades of dusty pink, but that's it) and moved on to embroidery. The images were more modern and the embroidery floss was a treat compared to the scratchy crewel wool. There was a sprig of wildflowers framed in blue; a cheeky sparrow, framed in faux wood grain. But the choices were limited. I remember standing in the hobby shop and surveying a rack of kits: the only choices, variations on country geese and Ziggy cartoons. My interest waned.

In the years that followed I learned to knit (again), learned the basics of sewing, taught myself patchwork and quilting. For a long time I ascribed to the "beautiful use" school of thought—the idea that things should be both beautiful and useful (but mostly useful). Quilts were made to be slept under, socks were meant to be worn. I didn't have much time for decorative stitching. Embroidery was relegated to fixing holes in otherwise-fine shirts, stitching labels for quilts and putting noses on stuffed toys.


Of course, enthusiasms ebb and flow. Lately I've been drawn back to embroidery. In recent months, knitting has started to feel like work and sewing projects are driven purely by need. I want to reclaim the other side of creativity, the act of making for the sake of making, creating because that's what hands are for. I've been inspired by the Great Tapestry of Scotland (this commentary is wonderful); by the work of the craftspeople at Alabama Chanin; by the class I took with Joetta Maue, who opened my eyes to the idea of embroidery as art and craft; by the sampler above, from Rebecca Ringquist, which encapsulates so much of how I feel about crafting these days.

And so I'm back to sitting by the window on a summer afternoon, watching the maple leaves for the first hint of rain, quietly working my needle and thread.


  1. {\rtf1\ansi\ansicpg1252
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    \f0\fs26 \cf2 \cb3 \expnd0\expndtw0\kerning0
    \outl0\strokewidth0 \strokec2 Really enjoyed this memory and insight about love of making things. And thanks for pointing to Kate Davies' posts on the Great Tapestry of Scotland. Had been meaning to read them, and of course they're wonderful. :)}

  2. I can distinctly remember my grandma teaching me how to cross stitch - it was my gateway drug into the crafty world! I struggle, too, with making things just for beauty's sake over utility. These are good thoughts.


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