A view from my bookshelf. . .

Two Of My Books

Two Of My Books

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’sThe 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?


  1. Mam says:

    Eek! daughter mine!

    Though perhaps my search for “integrity” in my paintings is the same thing.

  2. Susan says:

    Hi Rachel,
    I’m here getting to know you through your blog…and this latest question intrigued me.

    To me, the study of historical techniques provides me a gold standard for embroidery. When I look at 18th to 19th century ecclesiastical embroideries…or royal fashion…or embroidered Japanese kimonos…all housed in museums now…I can see a mastery of technique that is hard to find in today’s world. And so, I seek to learn, to improve, to stitch and fail, and stitch again. I study these techniques just so that I can create work that has significance in my own life. Creating pieces that are based on traditional styles is what I learn on…

    Personally, I think we will look back at this time in our history and feel that we’ve gone through a Renaissance of sorts in needlework. Just look at the quilting industry…it’s been absolutely amazing what has been happening in the past 20 years all the way to the present and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon.

    Likewise, this time seems characterized by mixed-media techniques…some doing it exceptionally well and others not so well….

    I see artistic photography soaring to new heights like never seen before…I know less about painting but it does seem, as a whole, because of the internet, groups are sharing knowledge and techniques at amazing rates…and there are MORE people tapping into their creative energies than ever before.

    I feel like this time is alive and we are flying. But then, I’m an optimist…*smile

    Have you ever seen the jacobean quilts of Pat Campbell? I believe she added something new to the genre with her bright colors and stylized motifs…I’m sure there are thousands more.

    Good luck on your journey. It seems like you are really enjoying it. And that’s what life is all about. xo Susan

  3. Susan says:

    Oh boy. That was long. sorry.

  4. This was a great post. I now want to check out both Red Priest and Jill Paton Walsh! And, yes, very interesting questions. I think films, for instance, are dating more quickly these days as technology changes more quickly (think of the size and functionality of mobile phones five, ten, fifteen years ago).

  5. Jan says:

    My needlepoint is definitely influenced by the past – the Berber have been in Morocco for centuries. I have learned from all my reading that when I finish a project and get it framed, that I should write on the back when it was stitched, what threads were used, and who stitched it. I’m also including a small photo of the original Berber piece that inspired it. This will help others in the future to appraise the piece. I think this is a very good idea, since my work isn’t inspired by the present at all. I love to study and work on antique textiles and rugs from all over the world.

  6. The question of work reflecting the age in which it was designed is an interesting one. Even when we stitch something that has been copied from a historical source we do so with fabric and thread that has been produced in our own time and this marks it as different from the original. But, I think the same thing has happened down through the ages.

    Maybe we notice the difference more in our time because the rate of change has increased so much across so many different fields. And then there is the question of lost skills or level of skills. This will also be reflected in the work that makes up ‘the current style’. Then there is the whole process of globalisation and the sharing of knowledge and different cultures via the internet. This also has to play a part. As with most things we build on what has gone before.

    Will my work look dated when looked at in ten years time? Probably yes, but looked at in 60 years time? Who knows.

  7. Elmsley Rose says:

    Wot Susan said

  8. Elmsley Rose says:

    OT : My mails are bouncing again. Says “Blocked” in the failure message again so I’d say it’s the same problem as last time.

  9. Lady Fi says:

    Good questions! I think that many films, pieces of art etc. were forward-looking in their day. It’s only with hindsight that we can characterize them as part of the era.

  10. Janice says:

    Very interesting, Rachel. I agree with Susan that we’re seeing a Renaissance – not only in needlework, but in craft and creativity across the board. I also agree with Carolyn that we’ve lost a lot of skills and know-how. And I would also say that attention spans are not what they were, and perhaps the styles that typify ‘today’ are more carefree, less precise. I think also we are less limited by geography. Wherever we are, we can incorporate elements of East and West in our work, as well as mix our media. I worry about the attention span / information overload situation (that I see in my own kids) but as far as creative styles are concerned, I love being around here and now.

  11. This is an interesting question.

    I think it can also be broken up regionally, despite the “world-wide-ness” of the internet. Apparently some people outside of Australia seem to think Australia is awash with wool embroidery. Umm… no, its not. Maybe it was 10 years ago, but we’ve moved on from there! What is the current “Australian style”? No idea!

    Interesting question though…