Are any of you embroiderers or do you know an embroiderer? It's kind of a bizarre thing to do as a past time—in my case, specifically, filling inch upon inch of fabric with teensy tiny little crossed stitches that eventually form to create some kind of pattern or representational scene. Although I have done needle point and some crewel, my preferred method for some reason remains counted cross stitch, which is hardly taken seriously these days, as there are more expedient ways to cover a canvas.
Still, it's the first stitch I ever learned, and I've remained loyal to its use over many years in spite of the fact that I've never given serious consideration to the history of the craft. Until, that is, I visited the International Folk Art Festival in Santa Fe last summer. It wasn't my first visit, but it was the first time that I noticed the work of a Palestinian collective whose table was piled high with drop dead gorgeous pillows, table runners, and costumes, all densely cross stitched to create the same designs that I have long utilized in work of my own. Designs which, I always assumed, were folk European in origin, as they were passed along to me by my mother, who learned the craft from a Swedish colleague, who learned her craft from her Hungarian nanny.
Flash forward to a July day at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, in the middle of the desert southwest, me holding up a table runner and asking a woman swathed in head-to-toe black, "Where did you learn to make these patterns?" and receiving in return a thickly-accented, "We don't really know. The patterns are very old and they are passed down."
Well, once piqued, my curiosity tends to get a wee bit obsessed, and I've spent a good deal of time since then researching not only the stitch itself, but also the highly abstract and intricate motifs that have always been my favorites and which, it seems, have remained largely ignored by modern needle workers who tend to prefer more representational themes.
The historical record is murky, but current research debunks the long-held belief that cross stitch originated in either sixteenth-century England or Italy. Samples have been found in Chinese garments dating back to 2000 B.C., and from there it's thought to have hopscotched its away across the continents, where it was taken up with great gusto by several cultures, most notably Arabic, and reached its highest expression during the Arab/Islamic conquest of most of North Africa and Spain, starting in the 7th century. From there, it spread upward and outward, until it was taken up by the European folk who eventually became my ancestors.
A quick overview:
Nineteenth-century Palestinian thobe, or caftan, embroidered in cross stitch in motifs that go back hundreds of years.
With its origins in?
Unusual for the amount of white space left showing.
Interestingly enough, cross stitch has also been the stitch of choice of the ancient Chinese Hmong Hill People, who have now dispersed to Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Their centuries-old motifs most definitely share similarities with those of Arabic/European origin.
And, my work:
In-progress pillow cushion.
Also, another project I've started (table runner) to keep the sit-still blues at bay. Hey, moving one's fingers back and forth counts as exercise, right?
Tell Moi, what do you do in your spare time, to pass the time? Those of you who are professional artists, do you have to get away from creating images every now and then, or does it occupy your brain pretty much 24/7?