Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sad But True 

We've nearly lost the ability to produce many of the embroidery techniques from the golden ages of embroidery.

One that comes to mind is that of needlepoint (no not canvas work). Needlelace has begun to show its head above the horizon again here and there. Americans are becoming fascinated with the various techniques and regional forms and European practitioners are banding together to preserve the skills necessary and to teach new practitioners.

I've recently run across one of the what I believe must have been one of the commercial slayers of needlelace - The Singer Sewing Machine Company. From 1900 up until the 1950's they pushed use of the domestic sewing machine to produce needlelace.

Their workshops throughout the world trained needleworkers to turn out every sort of embroidery using a Singer. For a jaw dropping experience check out one of the many printings of their book Singer Instructions for Art Embroidery and Lace Work with instructions and lessons on every sort of embroidery including Cutwork, Shaded Silk, Cross Stitch, Canvaswork, Embroidery on Wood, Tape Lace Embroidery, Brussels Lace, Guipure, Crochet Lace -- you get the picture. It is like visiting a funhouse and seeing onself distorted by crazy mirrors, in my opinion.

My question is Why? Why not just sit down with a needle and thread and enjoy embroidery? Was all of this done in aid of sweated labor for the rag trade? For upholstery fabric for furniture makers? To mindlessly fill empty hours? To justify owning a Singer?

I don't believe this was our finest hour. I admire some sorts of modern machine embroidery where a good deal of imagination and skill is used to exploit its techniques for free expression, but to do needlelace fillings on net - no thank you very much.

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When I met her, my Grandmother-in-law pulled out some beautiful hardanger/cutwork (both hardanger and the more swoopy cutwork) that HER mother had done... it was lovely. It looked like it had been done by hand. It was done on her Singer in 1/2 the time. People wanted the results, not the time-consuming work of the actual handwork.

What depresses me is that this is even more expanded now. We have "handcrafted" items that are made so cheaply either in other countries or by individual machine (it's handcrafted because the operator had to pay attention to it...rather than computer generated) so cheaply that people don't value the real artistry and craftsmanship involved in doing this in the traditional manner.

When my cousin found out I design needlework patterns, he said to me, "I don't want to insult you, but why don't people just stitch it with a machine? Why put all that work into something that could be done easier?" I couldn't explain to his satisfaction.

I'm amused by this, though, because I recently posted about my recent forays into real needlelace myself (http://stitchingwithashimmy.com/2008/09/05/needlelace/)! And Mary Corbet is on a needlelace discussion at NeedleNThread.com!
To my way of thinking, of course many people love a machine that can produce similar results without doing the labour-intensive work. It happens all the time.
Why do we use a computer when we could actually write something - using a pen to produce lovely marks on the page? Many people enjoy the act of writing; I do, myself - I like to see the marks I make, trying to make each letter matching in style, size and shape. Yet I stll use a computer and printer sometimes. In fact, why email when so many people profess to enjoy getting an envelope in the mail? Writing is a dying art.

There are so many other examples - have you ever bought a bunch of flowers? Yet so many gardeners bemoan the profusion of cut flowers, let alone vegetables, available to purchase. Why not grow them yourself? Lovingly tend the little plants that grow from the seeds you planted, nurturing them until they produce their blossoms and fruit? Gardening is a dying art.

Machines have their uses. You and I prefer to do the work ourselves, by hand. I enjoy the process of embroidery, and sometimes the finished article might reside unseen in a cupboard, for years. But I loved making it. Some people think I am mad; I think they are mad for growing their gladioli themselves, when it is so much easier to just go and buy them.

Why is it like this? Just human nature I guess - in any field at all, one group of people will enjoy the process, another group just wants the result; and they will switch places when it comes to a different field - the first lot wanting the result and the 2nd enjoying the process.
Dear Linn:

I am SOOO excited to have stumbled upon your blog! I haven't had time to read anything yet- just had to say "I found you!".

Hope you are well- I'll be back to catch up!


I just found your blog too. I am proud to say that I totally agree with you on do it by hand! I do own a basic sewing machine, but all my creativity is performed by hand. I am so happy someone is saying this. What happens when the machine no longer works? You really need to know how to do it under your own power.

I am happily reading. Thanks,
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