Thursday, 30 January 2014

Say It with Thread

To my amazement, embroidery is finding a role beyond fashion, beyond craft, beyond museums. Companies and organizations, with no affinity to needlework at all, are choosing embroidery as a medium to communicate. Yes, they are sending us subliminal messages through embroidery. And before you ask, I haven’t been drinking.

A  Swatch
Out Christmas shopping, I passed a display at Swatch, that plastic digital watch loved by trendy teens. The shop’s window was decked with snowmen, cross-stitched in white on a red back ground. They created a backdrop for the display cases, filled with funky timepieces. Sure, the figures in XXX’s had been computer-generated to simulate embroidery. I was not being fooled.  

Yet for me the question was why simulate embroidery? Heaven knows chocolate-box pictures of Swiss alpine villages might have worked too.  What qualities was this techie company trying to get across that it could best by suggesting embroidery? Tradition? Embroidery does have a long tradition, longer than Swiss watches.  Craftsmanship? Do they want us to overlook the synthetic materials and industrial process need to mass produce plastic watches?  Embroidery does conjure up “the handwork quality” to non-stitchers. Well, that is what I read into what I was seeing. But then I’ve got embroidery on the brain. Overall, the hidden messages, reaching me for one, were positive.

This was not so with another image I stumbled upon in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), when I was researching how widely contemporary English uses stitching terms. I consulted HBR on a lark. 

Now, HBR is not a periodical one finds in the arts and crafts section of a news-stand. It is a very serious journal, widely read by the captains of industry and those waiting to join the ranks. So if any organization is mindful of Marshall McLuen’s adage “the medium is the message”, it’s this lot.

Just click here to see the image I mean.

To my astonishment, the HBR website displayed a piece of needle work. I kid you not.  The editor chose to promote an article entitled HBRThe Big Lie of Strategic Planning” by Roger L. Martin with a pseudo-sampler beautifully stitched by Nicole de Vries. A message overlaying the embroidery reads “A detailed plan may be comforting, but it's not a strategy.”  

The HBR embroidery is a spoof on a traditional sampler style and a take off on “Home Sweet Home.” The hearts and stylized flowers are meant to telegraph conventional wisdom of yesteryear.  Strategy is not enough in contemporary business.The HBR may be right about business.  Maybe detail, care, plan, and comfort do not cut it if you want to get ahead in corporate life. However, as an embroiderer, I found their illustration with its overlay most unfortunate.

The negatives in the message I picked up on were:  needlework, just like strategy, is old-fashioned, useless, and outmoded. The graphic’s qualities may reinforce the article, but, in the process they belittle needlework, and samplers in particular, which require considerable attention to detail, persistence, and careful planning. 
How unfortunate for a male-dominated business school  to pick  a quintessentially female form of art and expression to emphasize negative qualities. The Harvard crowd maybe at the fore of business thoughts, but, when it comes to needlework they sure are stuck in stereotypical thinking, which is precisely what they abhor. How ironic.

Thank goodness for more hip publications like Wired and the  New York Times. Both have cottoned onto the work of thread-graphic designer Evelin Kasikov.  

She revamps traditional cross-stitch and other straight stitching techniques to introduce to a wider public the possibilities of needlework in a digital age. 

Typography by Evelin Kasikov published in Wired Magazine

Despite using a traditional medium, let’s face it thread is an old medium, the subliminal message of the Kasikov’s work is that embroidery, done her way, is in step with the computer generation.   Evelin builds on the positives of  traditional needlework – care and precision - and smashes through the widely- held negative preconceptions sticking to needlecraft such as repetitive and unoriginal.  

And it sure doesn’t hurt her embroidery’s allure that it appears next to a name brand Swiss watch.

I cheer on Evelin’s success. She is making inroads in the world of advertising as well.  Have a look at the logo she created for the women’s line of Nike sportswear which should go on sale in January 2014. How wonderful that hand stitching is aligned with young women, vigorous, active, and “with it.” . But you can see more on her site.

Nike logo produced by Evelin  Kasikova for line of women's wear

Sure the Nike design, like the snowman in the Swatch display, will be produced mechanically. Never the less the logo is likely to retain that worked-by-hand quality. 

Although Evelin came to hand stitching less than a decade ago, she is doing a fabulous things to modernize the image -- graphic and PR - of stitching. In her work, the medium is the message, too. For once, both are modern and positive. Needlework can appeal to the young, as Evelin is showing us. Embroidery can survive in the digital age.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Gu Embroidery

Gu is not a word I associated with needlework. A sticky chocolate pudding came more to mind.

That is telling. It betrays how little I knew about China’s embroidery tradition.  But that is now rectified after a visit to MING, an exhibition which brought to Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk the treasures of a dynasty, which ruled China between 1368 and 1644. 

Exhibition Poster: Ming
 The exhibition focuses on the commercial fortunes of China and the Netherlands, which became entwined during the Ming period. 

This was the era when the Dutch monopolized trade in lustrous Chinese porcelain, intricate carvings, and silk from the Middle Kingdom. It is the epoch that made the Netherlands rich and able to support its own talents, like Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). 

 Tucked away in dark alcoves of the Gothic Nieuwe Kerk, itself dating to 1408, were four embroideries attributed to women from the Gu Family of Shanghai.  I almost missed them.  The stitching was so fine that in the gloom, protecting them from light damage, I mistook the embroideries for pen and ink drawings on paper. 

And indeed, according to the museum notes, this Gu style of embroideries “came to be accepted alongside calligraphy and painting as an art form in the artist scholar tradition”.  I could see why.

As works in thread they are themselves remarkable technical achievements. Never mind that they mimic pen and ink almost perfectly.

Gu Embroidery Eagle

 “Serene” describes them best.  The colours are dull. Has the silk thread lost its lustre, after all the pieces are well over 450 years old?  Or was the finish intentionally matted?  Perhaps it was the poor lighting or distortion by thick, protective glass.   

The stitching, in a few strands of silk filament, is superb.  Areas are filled in the long/short stitch I have come to love.   Simple in concept, the technique is difficult to execute well.  Stitches of varying lengths are laid alongside one another to cover a surface.

Detail of Bird Embroidery
 The stitching making up the bird’s tail feathers  is perfectly vertical. Yet it creates the illusion of feathers growing at an angle.  I know perfection when I see it.
Horizontal lines on another work were unflinchingly straight.  On the pine tree, the bark stitching was again horizontal, but curving ever so slightly to create gnarls. Did I see ink lines too or were those single fibres?  It was hard to tell in the dim light.
Pine tree with horizontal and curved stitching

Back at home Google dredged some additional background.  Here is the gist of it.

Maio Ruijan, the name of the originator of the Gu style, has survived the centuries thanks to an album of work she signed.  At last, I had the name for the founding guru of my favourite stitching technique.  

She lived in the household of Gu Mingshi, a high-ranking imperial administrator, as concubine to his eldest son.  She based her work on classical paintings from the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) periods. 

 Han Ximeng, concubine to Gu Mingshi's second grandson, improved upon the tradition and is considered a “needle saint.”   

 The work of these two women forms the foundation of Gu embroidery from which other Chinese embroidery styles evolved.

This information pleases me. The women are given their artistic due, even if their work is known by the name of the male head of their household. Still we must give the Gu men credit too. If they had not encouraged the women and shown their work to high-ranking male friends, we would not know if it today. Folios of Gu work are now held in the Forbidden City.

The women copied classical themes. Mimicry was not an obstacle to artistic merit, perhaps because of the technical innovation the stitchers brought to bear.  This is more problematic for contemporary western embroiderers.

The Gu embroiderers gave up the “encroaching satin stitch” in favor of new techniques, the varying long/short stitch and the “hairy stitch.”  Moreover, they created subtleties in line width by altering the number of silk strands in their needles. 

The women discovered subtleties in surface color could be achieved by simply changing the direction of silk in their needles. They used minute tone variations in silk to make transitions. 
And indeed, they worked in multi-media. Painting and embroidery were combined. So maybe I did see ink after all.  Scholars sometimes find it difficult to tell which is which, hence the term “needlepainting”.

In my attic I am stitching in the style Maio Ruijan started, a style which has gone right around the world.  But I have no illusions. The single strand of DMC cotton I use in my portraits looks like rope compared to Maio Ruijan’s few silk filaments. 

There is one more group of unsung masters in all of this: the needle makers.  You can't do fine embroidery without fine needles. Who made the ultra-fine needles the Gu ladies used? How did they form the tiny eyes on those needles? Just when I've unravelled one mystery, up pops another.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Needlework: Ahead of the Technology Curve

Who would have thought that embroiderers and knitters/crocheters  -- who are needleworkers  too -- are at the forefront of an industrial revolution? In fact we are about 450 years ahead of the pack. Amazed?  Read on. 

Recently, mainstream media reported, thoroughly impressed, on OpenDesk  -- a “revolutionary” approach to manufacturing wooden furniture, and even frame houses.  The only thing that gets shipped is information.  

Here’s how it works. A designer using a computer creates a blueprint. The drawing is sent over the internet to a workshop somewhere near the customer. Here the design is milled by computer-controlled equipment to produce parts which the customer will assemble.

This process saves money by eliminating unwanted stock. The environment benefits.  We are likely to encounter more such excitement as 3-D printing pushes into homes and workshops near us.

For those of us who use needles this is, frankly, so much old hat. Substitute the word “pattern” for blueprint and “artisan” for computer and you will instantly see what I mean.

Patterns  for needlework have been around since the 16th century, made possible through that earlier disruptive technology, the printing press.  Weighing less than goods, patterns were carried across distance to needle-wielding artisans, who fabricated what clients wanted using materials available locally. 
A pattern book dating from 1606

And while transferring patterns for making furniture over the Net may be “cutting edge”, transporting handwork patterns via the internet is quite routine. 

Contemporary needlework designers have been quick to embrace computers and internet  technology, selling patterns via Etsy and Ebay for the best part of a decade. 
Clearly, how modern or revolutionary a process is, depends on the direction you are looking, forward or backward. And who’s doing the looking, men or women, young or old. So squinting through the eye of my needle, it all looks a bit déjà vu.

Just thinking about it, I experience even more déjà vu.

Beyond knowing how to wield a needle and where to place it, needleworkers acquire two other skills.  Using a pattern implies being able to interpret codes. These codes may be in  the form of a chart or the *k1 p2* instructions in knitting, for example.  Moreover, needlework buffs replicated directions flawlessly and consistently for yards and meters, and for days on end without flagging. Kind of like, well, a computer? Precisely.

 These  aspects of needlework have been recognized in the term “numerical needlework  that appeared in an article about number crunching, repetitive computations done by hand in the days before electronic computers. And who were the “human computers” with the skill to replicate calculations ad infinitum? Yep, women. In fact way back when, computing power was measured in kilo-girls. I kid you not. 
During World War 2, most of the top-secret code-breaking computational work done at Bletchley Park in England was done by women.
Women working with the Bletchly Park computer in 1943.

So it should  be no surprise that creating a handwork design is similar to designing a computer program, and  charting a pattern or rendering it in letters and asterisk codes, is, well, analogous to programming for a computer, albeit a human one.

This brings to mind another intriguing question. Are needleworkers – today primarily women - at an advantage when it comes to program design and coding because of skills they honed through needlework?  Well the jury is still out on that one.

Still, computer history considers Ada Lovelace, the first program analyst.  Given her socio-economic status, it is probable that in addition to studying maths and science she also did needlework, proving handwork needn’t hold back female development.  And to cite a more modern equivalent there is Admiral Grace Hopper, developer of computer language Cobol, who crocheted and did needlework avidly.

The questions around value of embroidery as a way of teaching intrinsic skills is certainly worth exploring.  Maybe it’s time to apply the logic in Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath.  He maintains that what is commonly perceived as a disadvantage may, in fact, be an advantage when viewed from a different perspective.

But how do we embroiderers get non-stitchers to focus on the valuable, positive qualities that needlework fosters - persistence, care, and accuracy - rather than focus on the perceived negatives of the needlework process – repetition and the end-product, which, when a tablecloth, a scarf, or  pot holder,  may be out step with fashion? That is really difficult in an age when “instant” gratification is reinforced by faux self-expression ensconced in fad. Still it is worth trying.

One could argue that persistence, care and accuracy are also stimulated by learning to read music - another form of pattern - and to play an instrument.  Why in today’s world is music more broadly accepted than needlework as a form of self expression and a mark of cultural sensibility?

It may have something to do with the aspect of “hand” in handwork.  East and West seem to agree that modernity is associated with using machines of all sorts whether they sew or print.  Both Chinese and American children are losing handwriting skills as computers march into classrooms, for example. I can understand that. When it comes to writing, give me my computer.

But I intend to do my bit to align the PR image of needlework with the 21st century technology.  I am going to stop saying I do embroidery.  The next time someone asks me what I am up to these days, I may just say, I’m coding. Well I am, encoding in thread.  A rose by any other name is still a rose.