Hi, welcome to String Revolution. I'm Léan, I live in Dublin with my husband and two little boys, and I am a dangerous stringy subversive.
My job is to radiate my creative truth, and to help you radiate yours. I create, without exception, every day. I write here when I have something to say.

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Very Secret Mysteries, no. 4: Embroidery

Needle doodles

It’s not even remotely Wednesday! But here at String Revolution, I’ve arranged for time to stand still while I get my Wednesday series post written and published. So there. This is the fourth in my series of personal introductions to the crafts I do. (I started with knitting, then talked about sewing, then turned to crochet.) If you do any of these crafts, I’d love to hear about how you got started, too.

Embroidery is the useless branch of sewing. By which I mean no disparagement – I have a burning passion for embroidery – I’m simply remarking that whereas knitting, “plain” sewing, and crochet are all good for turning out usable items, embroidery is pure embellishment. It’s something you do to an item that already exists. It doesn’t add functionality.

It’s still string, of course – that thin string called thread (or floss or wool, depending), which you pass through the surface of the item you’re embroidering to leave a pleasing pattern. It’s a little like taking a needle for a walk.

The variations on this theme are mindbogglingly diverse. (Well, they boggle my mind. But in a good way.) Some people like cross-stitch or needlepoint, which both repeat one basic stitch unit over and over to form a picture, rather like a pointillist painting. Some prefer following outlines and filling in shapes using a range of different stitches (of which there are hundreds, at least). Others enjoy the exquisite shading effects they can achieve with needlepainting. Some delve into the engrossing worlds of stumpwork or goldwork, whitework or blackwork, never to be seen again. (Is it just me, or does blackwork look unsettlingly like ASCII art?) And that’s just the amateurs. Contemporary textile artists have taken the concept of “embroidery” and run it to the utter limits of its potential.

I was trying to fit the word “painstaking” into the above paragraph, but then I realised that I couldn’t decide which technique to associate it with – because embroidery is all about the taking of the pains. You can knit a scarf in a weekend, sew a simple skirt in an evening, crochet some flowers in an hour or two. But if you want your embroidery project to come out well, you’ll quite likely be doing all sorts of preparation before you sew a single decorative stitch.

Depending on the technique, this might include mounting your fabric, stitching your guide threads to mark the centres, transferring your design, and so on. Then make sure you’re sitting up straight, with good light (and preferably a magnifying glass on a flexible arm), thread your needle, strip your floss if you’re fussy (I never do this – go on, look down your noses at me now), take a deep breath, and bring the needle up through the fabric at your starting point. Hooray! You are now ready to begin.

Embroidery, I think I’m suggesting, is for obsessive types. It’s rarely a dive-straight-in affair: it requires planning and commitment. Much of the satisfaction comes from the meticulous care that you’ve put into the project.

I love that. But it’s time-consuming – and not entirely compatible with my current toddler-enriched lifestyle. So I haven’t done much embroidery lately.

My grandmother got me into it first. She bought me a preprinted linen tablecloth, with a pattern and threads, and showed me how to do cross-stitch. I was five or six, which makes it relatively impressive that I got through almost a whole corner of the tablecloth before running out of steam. (It’s around somewhere, I’m sure.)

Some time in the following couple of years, I got hold of a booklet with 39 embroidery stitches, and then later on I found one with 100 stitches. I tried every one. I made little rugs for my doll’s house, embellished Sindy’s clothes, presented my parents with a pair of wonky hessian mats decorated in garish wools. I even followed a pattern, once or twice, though I much preferred making up my own.

At college, I broke out my hoops and threads much more rarely – made a pouch for my friend’s Tarot cards, in black silk with a starflower on the flap; added a spray of silver flowers to a ball dress I was making. And since that period, I’ve barely done any embroidery at all. This is such a sad state of affairs that I started a new project this week.

If I were more organised, I’d have grabbed some pictures of that new project – with which I am dead chuffed, I might add – but I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait to see it. There is altogether too much misplaced furniture and masonry dust around these parts at the moment for photography to be anything other than a tedious ordeal (bah – I thought we were through that bit weeks ago, but I relaxed too soon).

Instead, the photo above (apologies for the quality – that’s my second try and it’s still ming) shows some random needle doodling, which I did a very long time ago and found when I went hunting for supplies for the new project. I rather like it. Good job, former self. Of course, it gives the lie to what I was saying earlier, since I remember sketching out the shapes in pencil as I went – but then, it’s not exactly a coherent design.

I’m really pleased to be doing some embroidery again – although I do wonder how I’m going to fit it into my life. I picture myself dividing my attention between my hoop and the TV screen, as the evenings draw in and Niall and I have some downtime (what’s that?) before bed. I hope that’s not wildly unrealistic. We’ll see.

4 comments to Very Secret Mysteries, no. 4: Embroidery

  • Beauty is useful!

    Also, disguising darns.

  • leannich

    Heh. Trust you 🙂

    Yes, beauty is useful. But not according to my superego!

    Using embroidery to disguise darns is still taking the purely functional and embellishing it, though, which is what I’m talking about. Embellishment just falls into a different category from function, for me – although it can be at least as crucial, depending on context (I’m thinking about the social significance of textile decoration, for instance).

  • What about initials so’s you don’t lose things?

  • leannich

    Hmm. Yes, but those don’t need to be embroidered these days – fabric pen is quicker. Also, in my head they don’t fall into the same category as “embroidery”, although the technique is identical. Interesting.

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