Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Day Seven of the Hole

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.

Modern-day Palestinian cushion.

Traditional Hungarian "red and blue work."

With its origins in?


More contemporary Palestinian work.
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?


Milk River Madman said...

Hmmm, Ranch Mother and Ranch Dad have been staying at my house since Friday. They left the ranch five weeks ago and have been snowed out ever since. Ranch Mom has been cross stitching every night as we sit and visit so this post was a great read.

In my spare time I try to figure out what I should be doing productively with my spare time. Be a better blogger, finish a short story I started almost 20 years ago (some writers block I suppose). Would like to have my own little shop to make metal art but dont have the room at my house. Suppose I could at least make some patterns on paper.

Your cross stitching is beautiful by the way. I'm going to pull this up for Mother when I get home. She'll love it.

Buzz Kill said...

I've never done any kind of stitching other than fixing holes in my clothes. Years ago the Mrs did some quilting and it actually came out pretty good. But ithink she got bored with it.

Your pillow cushion has an Amish flare to it.

And what do I do in my spare time? I fix shit. Every day something needs gluing, screwing, nailing or taping. And I have nothing to show for it when I'm done because it's an object that's already there - just whole again.

Don't forget to eat your painkillers and stop watching Oprah - it'll rot that brain

Jenny said...

Bwahahaha to Buzz's last line. After reading this post, I wish I had known all of this when we were clearing out my MIL's house... she traveled and collected many pieces similar to what you've shown.

As a young girl, I attempted cross stitch, knitting and crocheting but I think my Tom-Boy gene kicked in and I was usually out playing army with my brothers and neighborhood boys. Now, I wish I did know how to do what you do... and your work is beautiful. I LOVE my hand towel you made me.

Nowadays, I make mosaics, art for the yard. Like MRM, I'd love to have a small shop or workroom where I could put all of my tools/supplies.

Great post!

moi said...

MRM: That's quite the spare time goal list! "Productive" is the tell word, isn't it? If we are just as committed to tackling our spare time with the same amount of gusto we put into our work, then when do we ever relax? I'm not speaking specifically, mind you, but in just a general, hmmmmm, kind of way. At any rate, that's so cool that your mom cross stitches. I hope she gets a kick out of this info.

Buzz: I think that the ultimate act of rebellion would be to refuse to own a home. To just rent, and let the landlord take care of shit! Because it is unending . . . Then again, a condo in the middle of downtown cannot be fortified in the event of the apocalypse. Quilting? I've often wanted to start. Basically, I'm an all around fiber arts geek.

Boxer: I refuse to think about what was in your MIL's house. REFUSE! I'll comfort myself with the three bottles of vintage Joy and the Hermes miniatures :o) I didn't start stitching until I was 30, during a particular knock down drag out bout with the flu. I was like you as a kid; my mother tried in vain to get me interested, but all I wanted to be was outside, torturing boys.


I can think of better things you could be doing with your spare time. Especially given the serendipity of it coinciding with Tribute Month.

moi said...

Secretariat: Watch yourself now, or I'm going to braid your hair with beads and pretty little flowers.

Jenny said...

can we also put some cute daisies in that beautiful mane too?

darkfoam said...

wow!! you are a fiber artist too! and a wonderful one no less. i adore the fiber arts.
i grew up over a yarn shop in germany which was owned by an uncle. i learned cross stich. i think it's the classic stitch. when i was a teen in germany a long, long, long time ago traditional hungarian blouses with these cross stich motifs you show here were very popular .. but so expensive. i never got to have one.

oh, btw .. today a box came with scents inside. i was so tickled. i opened them all to sniff at them, but refrained from wearing them right away. they are all so different from each other. it will be fun trying them out.

LaDivaCucina said...

I love this post, Moi, and the research you did! I have underestimated the cross stitch but have noticed it in some Asian fabrics when living in Australia. Perhaps it crossed (ha! I said "crossed!) all borders because it is so easy?

I have always been interested in crafts, fibers, etc. and remember quite enjoying my time alone (when I wasn't torturing my brother) as an 11 year old under the tree in the front yard embroidering a pair of jeans. It was the '70s and I collected patches as well. I knew most of the stitches and taught myself from craft books. In the '80's I started to design clothes and paint them with stencils. I had a line of nylons with three designs. I made a fabu jean jacket full of safety pins, long leather fringe, patches and pins. I think I still have it.

I have a cross stitch sitting in my living room drawer right now of hummingbirds that I started when I lived in L.A. Oh, I forgot, I most recently stitched initials on a friend's shirt for him and his boyfriend. Looked cool and very designer.

Tried to get into knitting but never got past buying the yarn!

I've done beadwork (had a jewelry business in the 80's and '90s) dabbled in water colors and pencils and even like adult coloring books! Sheesh, I am never bored and never have enough time to do all of the things I love... I would love to attend that festival with you, I loved the post from last year. Ok, I've taken up enough of your comment page time for dindin! Great post, dear!

moi said...

Boxer: And then we'll have a tea party!

Foam: That was fast on the 'fumes! I think S.B. sent them out on Friday. I look forward to your thoughts. My mom was German, so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I remember those Hungarian blouses, and always wanted one, too. Hey, there's always eBay!

LaDiva: Wow, who knew? La Diva is crafty! I love embroidery on clothing. I'm not great at the crewel-type stitches, but really want to get better. I'll "sketch" occasionally out of a huge encyclopedia of stitches that I have as practice. I bet your clothing was fabulous! I nearly went into fashion design, but I could never grok to pattern-making. I've taken bead working classes, too, but stopped after the headaches :o) Knitting I've never learned, but I used to be a crack crocheter. Dang. I'm getting inspired :o)

Pam said...

Wow, that stitching and your research is amazing. It was my sister who inherited the ability to "twist thread" in my family. That's what granny always called crocheting. And I still have some crochet blankets (afghans? HMMMMMM, now where did that phrase come from, I wonder) that granny made, and also some by HER mom, my great-granny. I don't have the ability myself. Think it would give me arthritis. I have been able to use a sewing machine, however, which helped support me back in single mom days. If I could do anything along these lines, I would love to learn WEAVING and using one of those shuttle machines circa pre-industrial revolution.

In my own spare time, I am ace at mindless internet surfing. Teaching myself Photoshop. Taking photos and there is ALWAYS something to learn in that respect. Reality television. Am hoping things warm up enough to pull the bicycle out of hibernation soon. Oh, and looking online for baby crib bedding. My most recent obsession.

Are you planning a full-fledged magazine article of some sort on this subject? If not, you should. The similarity of those colors and patterns is amazing.

Aunty Belle said...

wow--YES, I'se impressed! I never figgered ya to be so patient.


WSJ: queen of Syria wears Louboutin--an Lou hisself owns a palace in Aleppo.

moi said...

Pam: I would weave, too! I have a thing for carpets: Uzbekistan, Persian, Turkish, you name it. One of my fondest travel memories is getting accosted by a rug salesman outside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and spending half the day in the cool, dark confines of his shop, sipping that damn tea and inhaling thick cigarette smoke as he brought out literally hundreds of the most beautiful carpets. What do you know? Dude took plastic and offered free world wide shipping :o)

Aunty: The Arabia/North Africa is to me is like Paris. What a city! What culture! What history! If only it weren't for the Parisians. In that same vein, if only it weren't for, oh one teensy weensy lil' problem of a large segement of the population sticking themselves to a tyranny-based religion.

LaDivaCucina said...

Moi, I couldn't cut a pattern if my life depended on it. Nor did I know how to work fabrics properly, i just did everything by instinct, which didn't always work! But I had good ideas! I even applied to FIT in NY but decided it was not for me. Glad you feel inspired!

Click HERE crafty girl!

Anonymous said...

Hi, very interesting blog. I love embroidery and would like to share a couple of books i received as a gift from my sister about embroidery and the Palestinian heritage. One of the books has over 200 designs that are illustrated in detail, they even include interesting facts about their origin and meaning.

I found the books on Amazon, but there are more details on them on the publisher's site, they also have cool videos on youtube