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Book Club: Stitched By Hand
I am an embroiderer.
I can spend an entire day with needle in hand and have only one stitched petal of a flower to show for it. One exquisite petal, but still.
In this age of “Made in China” there are very few women willing to dedicate their time to embroidery, which makes my love for it all the greater – and my love for the art form extends beyond practical application to the collection of all things needle.
I have just finished reading The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. The memoir traces a collection of Japanese netsuke inherited by the author back through five generations. De Waal claims that how objects are handed on is all about storytelling. Sometimes objects are given for a reason... they have special significance to the giver; they will be well cared for by the receiver, etc. But all too often, objects are found having lost their records of ownership; having lost their stories of creation altogether.
Though I am driven to collect works of exquisite craftsmanship, I have never had the benefit of knowing their stories. I have never inherited any such treasures from my relatives. Instead, I am left to hunt and gather on my own – acquiring not just embroideries, but all of the tools and exquisite supplies that would have been used by a well-needled woman. A hand-carved pearl button, a hand-embroidered lace, a sterling thread holder, a thimble case in the shape of an acorn made by Tiffany & Co.
Over the years, these treasures have become more and more difficult to find. Some have landed in other collections, but I fear that more have fallen into the hands of someone who has no concept of their value – no concept of their story. And so they are relegated to the back of a dusty drawer or, even worse, tossed away by someone with no idea that it took 200 hours to stitch that one embroidered whitework collar.
And it’s not just the finished items that are being lost. In order to make exceptional handworks, there’s a need for exquisite materials as well. Today, the technology for making the finest beads, sequins, laces, and threads is disappearing rapidly. There simply hasn’t been enough demand to keep these industries going.
And so I collect.
I collect to ward off the inevitable extinction of some of the most beautiful embroideries of humanity. I collect the fine gold and sterling needlework tools that were used by needlewomen on a daily basis in pursuit of their art. I collect the French enamel buttons of the 19th century, handmade laces, and purses made with beads that are smaller than dust. Unfortunately, I don’t know their actual stories. But what I do know is the amount of skill, time, and passion it takes to create these precious displays of artistic expression.
And so I am their guardian, only for a short while, until I am gone. Then it is my responsibility to share the stories of the pieces I leave behind because I know what it means to stitch only one petal of a flower in an entire workday.
This post is part of a series of blogs about our upcoming book club meeting at the American Craft Council’s Baltimore show. Pick up a copy of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes to join in the fun.
Susan Elliott is a needle artist who draws on many different needlework disciplines to tell her stories with needle and thread. Her unique combinations of fabrics, embroidery, stumpwork, quilting, beadwork, and ribbonwork are a trademark of her artistic style. This mixed-needle approach to her work, coupled with her love for photography, makes a visit to her blog a treat for the senses. See more of Susan's writing, work, and photography at her blog Plays with Needles.