21st June 2020: Things coming together

I have to admit, I have been struggling these last few months. It feels like I’ve been treading water, things have been slow – my activities have consisted of some simple stitching, a few drawings and very slowly reading a single book.

But today, while reading Chapter 17 “The texture of Making” (Being Alive, Tim Ingold), I realised a few important things that I’ve been edging towards this entire time.

This is still a bit tangled in my head but I’ll try to write this down as coherently as I can.

Let’s start with the basic premise that this research is about materials and the way they are formed into things. I’m not thinking here about the historic Blackwork artefacts as objects but starting from the point that they are formations created with materials by skilled makers. And in my very simple stitch exercises I’ve been studying the materials and my own way of working with them. I’ve been noting how the threads are guided and supported by the weave of the cloth, the variations in texture, how they tangle up and interlace as the embroidery builds up, paying attention to how my hands affect and are affected by the act of stitching… this is all actual, practical and physical research into the concepts described by Ingold. And it’s through the physical experiments that I’m getting a better understanding of the historic Blackwork – the irregularities in the stitch, the ‘messy’ backs and distorted holes (which I think are formed form a combination of stitch tension and a mismatch of needle/thread thickness and cloth weave). But it’s not just been the stitch tests. I’ve been making detailed tracings and diagrams and have noticed these irregularities in trying to draw them – to say nothing at this stage about the ‘quality’ of the digital photos I have been working on.

This close study and my own tests seem to be real examples of what Ingold describes as wayfaring:

“Practitioners … are wanderers, wayfarers, whose skill lies in their ability to find the grain of the world is becoming and follow its course while bending it to their own evolving purpose.”

And this is what I realise I’m doing when I studied the historic Blackwork. I’m looking at someone else’s path, one that I can understand because I am following a similar practice, but that it would be utterly futile to try and replicate – my materials and my physical skills are not the same – even getting identical materials and tools would yield different results. In really basic terms, the work is counted thread but the slightest variations in materials and skill make exact replication impossible.

I also think this idea of the maker responding to and working with the materials might say something about the making of patterns on cloth. The overall outline is drawn on, and (probably) a choice about stitch and pattern is made in advance – but it is only in the process of making the embroidery that these are decided upon… I’m explaining this badly – perhaps an example.

I draw a motif outline onto the cloth and decide on the pattern fill – this might be one I have drawn or one from the sampler. But I might start stitching the pattern repeat a few weave threads in any direction which would slightly change the overall embroidery. And this also has a bearing on the edges of the design – the drawn outline is often thicker than the cloth weave and doesn’t follow the grid, so a decision is made during the stitching about where to apply the last stitch in the row – it might go into the drawn line or slightly over it or you might decide to do a half stitch (Blackwork patterns on fine weave cloth usually have repeat geometric patterns that are worked over multiple weave threads) so the pattern hits the line without going over the motif edge. Finally, you apply outline stitching and, again, small decisions are made in the process. You might have to deviate slightly from the drawn line to cover the pattern or make a more pleasing line, or you might have to adjust the stitch length to navigate a corner of the motif design. This is what Ingold means by improvisation. Of course, some sort of plan is necessary and this planning is dependent on the makers knowledge of process and materials, but in the act of making there are ‘micro decisions’ made that are usually in response to the behaviour of the materials, tools and, by extension, the body of the maker.

What this means is that my ‘reading’ of the Blackwork is not, initially, as an object but as a record of that improvisation. And I need to articulate that I cannot replicate the object exactly (nor do I want to) but that the making of a new embroidery (same outline and choice of pattern fill and stitches) is the reconstruction of the more fundamental thing – the process of making.

To stay with the materials just a bit more, there is the idea of Ingold’s about the temporality of materials the echoes my own. Time of making, time of use, and time of decay – all this is grounded in the materials.

There is also a key thing here about the materiality of the digital and physical – that the improvisational nature of working with materials can’t be captured digitally (or maybe that’s now ‘sort of‘, I think of the digital drawings I’ve been doing) which means I need to think some more about the use of digital and still believe there is something really important here.

Finally, the whole process of making tentative sketches and embroidery and reading Ingold, has led me to the concept of wayfaring or wandering as a methodology – the whole process of my practice and research has been one of wandering, finding a way through, pursuing dead ends and improvising.

Okay. All that was quite garbled – but I think I’ve got down most of the key ideas I’ve been thinking about these last few months. The thing is, I thought I was lost and just wasting time but in actual fact I think I’ve just been wandering….

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