31st May 2020: Embroidery is a MESHWORK

Reading more Tim Ingold today and I have hit upon his concept of the MESHWORK – this way of thinking has shifted my entire perception of embroidery and has quite an important implication for my research.

Ingold begins by asking us to think of a thing (organism, object, whatever) as a movement – not an entity with a Boundary between itself and everything outside it through points of connection (NETWORK) but as trails of interwoven lines (MESHWORK). As Ingold had argued earlier in the book, thinking about things as discrete entities allows no logical room for the fluid, porous interactions that occur in real life – think about it – I am not a being with the definable edge where I stop and everything else begins, I absorb food, excrete, breathe, cause things to happen, even my mental conception of myself is constructive purely from my past experiences. If Instead we think about the relationships between things as trails of movement, then there is no “logical inversion“ of internal and external – “things are their relations”. Ingold points out that things, particularly organisms, are far more complex than a single trail – they extend along multiple pathways in their interactions with the world, interlacing and knotting to form the meshwork. The environment is itself not a surrounding but a “domain of entanglement” – inhabiting the environment is a movement through the meshwork and, in so doing, contributing to its texture, thus “these beings do not exist at locations, they occur along paths”.

This idea of the meshwork seems to me to be a description of embroidery. Each visible stitch is not a distinct thing but a visible point on the pathway of the thread. I also found the root metaphor Ingold used in describing the tangle of the meshwork to be resonance with the structure of embroidery, with the path between visible stitches being tangled and hidden on the underside of the cloth. Further, the idea of the environment as itself a meshwork that we contribute to by our movement through it, is an almost perfect description of the relationship between thread and cloth when stitching. The path of the thread is guided and supported by the weave of the cloth (itself a woven meshwork of threads – perhaps we could even extend this to the spinning and dying?) and, in doing so, the thread becomes part of the fabric structure – we can see this in the distortions left in the fabric when the threads have fallen away. Finally, as I have suggested before, embroidery (or sewing) is the material trace of the act of stitching and it strikes me that Ingold’s idea that things exist in movement and it is the trails of that movement that formed the meshwork, echoes this idea of embroidery as a material trace. It seems to me that my notion of embroidery being a four-dimensional thing is captured in Ingold’s idea of the meshwork – embroidery exists in space as a tangle of threads and cloth, and as a trail of the movement (time) of the stitcher.

It strikes me that, in thinking about embroidery as a meshwork, there are two immediate implications for my research. The first concerns the study and reconstruction of historical Blackwork objects. As I realised very early on in my research, attempting to follow the stitch paths of the original embroideries proved to be almost impossible due to the tangled threads on the underside of the cloth. However, if we take Ingold’s idea of a meshwork as an interlacing of movement through life, then it would seem to me to be a futile exercise to try and replicate another’s movements (a past we cannot know). Perhaps, instead of being overly concerned with trying to replicate a path, I should simply use the visible occurrences of the surface stitches as a guide to my own movement. The second point is something I realised before this research even began (explored in the sampler/sampler project) that it is not the surface pattern but the thread path of stitching I am interested in when thinking about digital models…

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