A view from my bookshelf. . .
Like so many of us, I have probably several shelves’ worth of books about embroidery scattered around the house. Some of them never make it back to the shelves because they are always beside me as I work (Barbara Snook’s “Embroidery Stitches” and Yvette Stanton’s “The Right Handed Embroiderer’s Companion“), some of them are put aside for study when I have leisure (when will I learn?), but the rest of them are shelved (not all in the same place) ready to be pulled out to give me entertainment and pause for thought.
One of those is Kathleen Mann’s “Embroidery Design and Stitches”, first published in 1937. Kathleen Mann trained at the Royal College of Art, but went to teach at The Glasgow School of Art, at about the time this book was published. Looking at the stitch diagrams and the design ideas she presents, they are very much of the Thirties, of a particular modern, exuberant style that occasionally is found in the designs in that stack of The Needlewoman Magazine that I inherited. So it is not surprising that in the text I find her bewailing the fact that so much of the embroidery of that time was backward-looking, expressions not of modern sensibility but of indebtedness to the past. Certainly if you look at some of the “Jacobean work” designs in The Needlewoman, some of them are rather stiff, dark and charmless. A little oppressed by scholarship, perhaps, like some of the authentic performance practitioners in the early music movement (for an antidote to that problem, if you like baroque music but don’t take it too seriously – get to a performance by Red Priest!).
When I look at “Constance Howard’s Book of Stitches“, further along the shelf, I find the stitch samplers illustrating it also speak vividly of their time – in this case the 1970s. Strong, bold, and abstract, often using heavy fabrics and threads – certainly much heavier than would have been used in the Thirties – and not quite so “careful”. Perhaps, more accurately I should say – the embroiderer clearly has a good technique, but chooses for the purposes of her sampler to vary the size and shape of some of her stitches, sometimes rather chaotically.
Then again, I have been reading one of Jill Paton Walsh’s “Imogen Quy Mysteries”, in which part of the plot turns on the dating of antique patchwork quilts from both the pattern and the fabrics used (print styles can be dated).
Suddenly I find myself thinking – what are we doing? What am I doing? If someone were to look at my embroidery in thirty, forty years’ time, how will it appear to them? Stiff, derivative and uninspired? Or will it speak of the times in which it was made? What is it that is characteristic of our time? When we look at a film made in the Eighties, we don’t need to see the end credits or look it up on IMDB.com to know that it was made in the Eighties, yet at the time, had we seen it, the clues we now use wouldn’t have registered at all.
Of course, we can learn an enormous amount about embroidery and embroiderers by studying and replicating past work. I don’t think Kathleen Mann would have disapproved of that, and I certainly don’t. I enjoy the exuberance of Jacobean work, and I am fascinated by the two online university courses I am following.
But it is an interesting question for all of us who create anything, all the same. Is my work modern, current, inspired by the past, or is it hidebound by the past, backward looking, a pale imitation of past glories?