18th June 2020: Thinking about stitching and embroidery (mental meandering)

I’ve been musing this morning while lying in bed and drinking coffee, about some really basic things.

What is a stitch?

A stitch is a thread pulled through a surface using a needle at two points. By making multiple stitches with the same thread, surfaces can be joined together, or the stitches can form a decoration on a surface.

There is an obvious utility to the first use – joining flexible surfaces together allows us to create body coverings necessary for variations in our environment. Sewing needles are some of the earliest tools discovered. Although other textile technologies are ancient (as evidenced by findings of loom weights), the needle came first – it’s most probable that the earliest stitches were made with animal sinew used to piece together skins with bone needles.

So, what about the second use of stitch as a surface decoration? Well, there may be some overlap with utility stitching. A simple running stitch (the threads going in and out) is not a particularly robust stitch. By doubling back or creating more complex loops, you can create far stronger joints between the cloth (and I’m using cloth here in its broadest term to cover any flexible surface made of skin or fibres that may have been woven, knitted, knotted or felted). There is also evidence of more elaborate stitching being applied to seams (the joins between fabric surfaces) which, though they look purely decorative to our contemporary eyes, and served an originally utilitarian function. It was believed in many cultures that ‘bad spirits’ or illness could enter the body at points of juncture. Clothing offered some protection, but seams were vulnerable points. By stitching elaborate seams, you could strengthen these weak joining points. I’ve read that some believed the ‘bad spirit’ would get confused in the looping threads or that this was a form of sympathetic magic – the extra time and care taken in forming these more elaborate stitches providing the protection.

And so, we come to embroidery. I think there’s a few ‘functions’ of embroidery. The first is practice (and I mean this in terms of training). Making complex (or even simple) stitches is a highly dextrous skill requiring a familiarity with the behaviour of the materials, feeling for tension of threads and cloth – balancing the distance between stitches and the amount of pull (too much and the threads will break, either in making or use, too little and the joints will be weak) – and skilled control of a very small tool (needle). Embroidery, then, is an ideal training exercise for developing these skills, without the risk of a badly executed seam failing in use.

The second ‘function’ of embroidery is as a decorative technique. And there’s a lot to unpack here. Humans are animals that make decorative things (didn’t I hear on a podcast that our earliest examples of art predate our development of agriculture by thousands of years? Meaning decoration is more fundamental to humans than establishing a reliable food source!). This is work beyond ‘mere’ function.

It might be spiritual or cultural or simply aesthetic, but the act of decoration indicates something about value and time. I’m thinking about how something is deemed to have value and I think it’s a combination of materials, time spent in making and the skill of the person making it – and all these speak to a bigger idea of time. Materials are valued for their rarity – time spent in looking for or processing (I’m thinking here about spinning, weaving and dying cloth). The time spent making is pretty self-explanatory. While the skill of the maker is also about time – time spent in acquiring, developing and refining a skill, and this in itself sits within a longer time frame of previous generations developing and passing on a skilled technique.

So, in thinking about embroidery as a surface decoration, the embroidered cloth is a display of time and, therefore, value. And here, I think, a distinction occurs between what I shall describe as ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ embroidery – though I am fully aware that these are blurry, overlapping definitions. Essentially, a professional embroidery is created for another person in exchange for money (or other economic compensation). The person commissioning or buying the work of the professional embroiderer is displaying their economic power in being able to pay for the embroiderers time and skill (and, of course, materials). The situation of ‘amateur’ embroidery is a little more complex. On the one hand, the ability to spend time in making embroideries can be seen as an indicator of higher economic status – the time does not have to be spent in the work necessary for survival – I’m thinking here about the general historic cultural view that embroidery is a suitable pastime for a ‘lady’. But the making of embroideries, as already noted, could also be seen as training for more utilitarian sewing – the type that would be essential – and there is also the ‘function’ of embroidery as a display of care (perhaps linked back to a notion of protective, sympathetic magic).

So, embroidery can be viewed as a display of economic status, both in the commissioning of professional works and the ability to engage in non-essential work, and it can be seen as a method of developing an essential skilled technique, and as an expression of love and care. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine even those of the lowest economic status finding a few moments to use the skills developed for survival to add a little decoration to a garment or blanket for a loved one…

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