Connecting through Slow Stitching
by Lisa Binkley
Back in my teens and early 20s I had sincere and romantic notions about a hand-made life. I excitedly awaited my post-college days and the joys of creating everything from baskets and candles to rugs, quilts, and fresh hot bread all by hand and on a regular basis. Perhaps I could even grow flax or raise sheep to spin and then dye fibers with plants I grew. I’d weave and knit my silken threads into simple but elegant cloth and use it to hand stitch much of what would be my classic, tasteful, but artsy wardrobe. My imaginings were bliss-filled. I’d even have a big furry wolf-dog, maybe named Rontu, like Island of the Blue Dolphins.
All I had to do was finish college and take on full-time work while managing life and a modest two-bedroom apartment with my husband to realize that my dreams were far more expansive than my time and energy. That was a helpful dose of reality, but my love of making things by hand and my fondness for the physical and psychological benefits of hand work haven’t diminished in the nearly 30 years since college.
During those years I might have been called an Earth Mother who wanted to do it all; today I call myself a Slow Stitcher and eco-dyer, and I’ve focused my energies and passions on cloth, thread, and beads (plus reading, gardening, and walks in the woods). I’m thrilled to make connections with other like-minded fiber folk through the Slow Stitching Movement that Mark Lipinski has brought to the fore for us. While I may not be making everything at home by hand in the way I dreamed about 30 years ago, I am happily a professional fiber artist and teacher as well as the mama of a big furry puppy and two other beloved dogs over the past 15 years. (I also have a very supportive husband and two nearly grown kids J.)
Since at least the 1970s and throughout much of the developed world, people have been rediscovering the joys and beauty of cloth stitched by hand. Objects that were once strictly functional and made solely with useable leftovers are now revered works of art selling in exclusive galleries and displayed in museums. Japanese boro, Bengali kantha, Amish quilts, and the Quilts of Gee’s Bend all come to mind as just a few of the beneficiaries of this renewed interest.
For centuries everyday people with many demands and few resources created clothing and bedding for their families with what they had at hand. In northern Japan fishermen’s jackets and futon covers took the form of layered and patched “boro” (“rags” in English) in indigo blues with bits of black, gray, and brown. (Those were the only colors peasants were allowed to dye their cloth.) The layers and patches of these cotton and hemp utilitarian textiles were stitched together with dense running sashiko stitches.
Heavily embroidered quilts called kanthas were made by women in the Bengal region (Bangladesh and West Bengal, India). Kanthas were and still are created from rags, useable sari and other garment remnants, and more recently larger pieces of cloth connected by dense running stitches.
In the west, from the early European immigrants in North America, through Amish communities in the central and eastern U.S., to retirement villages and quilt guilds of today, stitchers have layered cloth and batting to create functional quilts.
“Slow Stitching is a way for us to connect to stitchers of the past.
We are moving in the same physical ways and sometimes creating the same types of objects that others have been hand stitching throughout human history.”
On a more decorative level and often using finer materials, embroiderers throughout Europe and the U.S. have created hand-stitched liturgical textiles and garments for heads of state for centuries. African nations have rich and varied traditions creating spectacular wearable objects with beads and their own printed cloth. Several Central American countries have rich traditions of colorful reverse-appliquéd mola and hand embroidered clothing, and many eastern European and Asian nations have remarkable embroidery traditions as well.
As a teacher who is often working with students on bead embroidery, I love to share with my students the latest research about bead history. Beads have been in use on every inhabited continent for hundreds or even thousands of years. Recent research dates the earliest beads (perforated teeth and shells) as far back as 100,000 years. So as we sit in class and scoop up and then stitch one bead at a time, we are doing what others have been doing for perhaps 100,000 years. I love being part of that continuous living heritage.
By visiting museum exhibitions of any of these types of historic stitched objects we connect with hand stitchers of the past. By looking at their utilitarian objects as art, I believe we also honor the time, energy, and skill embedded in those everyday objects. The hand stitchers who made these objects may or may not have been deliberately slow and mindful in their work, but my guess is that many of them were at least some of the time. Although they were often doing work about which they had no choice, I do believe that there were periods of joy and peace experienced in the quiet rocking stitches of, say, needle and white thread on deep indigo-blue cotton or a circle of quilters around a frame helping to bring a quilt top to life.
Closer to home, many of us remember with fondness the sweaters, dresses, afghans, quilts, and even doll clothes our mothers or grandmothers made for us when we were young. These memories help us stay connected to and feel the love of past generations. It was my two grandmothers who taught me how to crochet and embroider, and they and my mom taught me to sew. One of my grandmothers and I shared a love for rich, soft pastels. Whenever we’d be together and see something in periwinkle, mauve, or soft grey-green she’s say “those are our colors.”
As she was passing away in the summer of 2008 I was working on a small embroidered quilt I titled “Passing Through.” Working in “our colors” through the slow, meditative process of hand embroidery with silk threads and glass beads helped me so much to feel connected to her even as I was losing her. I also felt like the stitching, much of which she had taught me to do, was a way of commemorating her. That 11” x 14” quilt hangs framed in my bedroom today, and it still makes me think of her whenever I look at it.
Slow Stitching is a way for us to connect to stitchers of the past. We are moving in the same physical ways and sometimes creating the same types of objects that others have been hand stitching throughout human history.
Slow Stitching is a way to connect with people we have loved and lost or with people we don’t often see. Grandmothers who taught us to stitch or old friends who shared techniques or supplies and now live far away are still with us as we stitch and remember them.
I am fortunate to be a member of two hand-stitching groups: a group of bead artists that meets monthly in the Chicago area and a hand-stitching group called the Memory Cloth Circle that meets weekly to stitch and share. In both groups there is often a mix of silent stitching as well as talking, laughing, sharing ideas and feedback, and encouraging one another. What a joy it is to have even a short time of silent hand stitching in the company of other hand stitchers. As each person works deliberately and mindfully on her or his own work, there is an energy that moves about the space and connects us to each other. I highly recommend trying silent hand stitching with some of your stitching friends or fellow guild members.
I also recommend using the technology that exists today to connect with other stitchers. Two good friends and I “meet” fairly regularly to Skype, sip, and stitch. One of us is in northern California and the other two are in separate communities in southern Wisconsin. Every few weeks we chat over Skype, drink coffee, and hand stitch, often in our jammies. We show each other what we’re working on and ask for advice sometimes, but we also just keep stitching throughout the conversation. The movement of hands stitching is a natural part of the gathering and the experience.
“Tuning in to our senses as we slowly stitch allows us to have a fuller, richer experience of creating.
We are seeing not only the colors, shapes, and textures of our materials and stitching but getting to watch our stitching come to life one stitch at a time.”
Slow Stitching is a way to connect with our physical selves. While stitching slowly we can connect with our senses. Touch the thread with which you stitch. Notice the thickness or thinness and smoothness or roughness of the thread. Is it smoother in one direction than the other? What is your reaction to the texture?
Feel the fabric on which you stitch. Notice its thickness, texture, weight, and drape. Can you tell what type of fiber it is solely by its feel? Part of the joy in hand work is the tactile experience of not only seeing but also intimately handling beautiful materials.
In Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life she describes a “joyful painter” she once knew. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I liked the smell of the paint.’” I had a similar aha moment watching Native American bead artist Teri Greeves stitching on the PBS series Craft in America. She was stitching on brain-tanned deer hide and I could hear her needle “pop” through the hide followed by the distinct sound of thread passing through stiff material. I thought “I love that sound,” and I knew I had chosen the right profession.
Tuning in to our senses as we slowly stitch allows us to have a fuller, richer experience of creating. We are seeing not only the colors, shapes, and textures of our materials and stitching but getting to watch our stitching come to life one stitch at a time.
Marvel at your hands. Notice not only the movement of your hands but the bend of individual fingers and the perhaps subconscious way you do things like control thread tension with your non-stitching hand. I just recently realized that I hold my loose bead embroidery thread in the same way I control yarn tension while crocheting. But I had been doing it completely subconsciously simply because I’ve done it for decades. When I slowed down and paid attention to my bead embroidery I realized I was using the same method of tension control, and I was able to share that technique with my students.
Notice the way muscle memory and control grow as you do more hand stitching, and marvel at the way your hands “know” where to stitch up through your fabric. How do your fingers know, within 1/32nd of an inch or less, where to stitch up from the back side of the work? It really is a marvel and something we might never notice without slowing down and stitching mindfully.
Among the many other ways we can make connections through Slow Stitching, perhaps the most meaningful to me is connecting with how we experience time. Practitioners of meditation often talk about having an experience of stepping outside of time or a feeling of expansiveness that makes time slow down or stand still. The same can be experienced with mindful Slow Stitching.
In Justin Cronin’s book The Passage he describes a kind of mystical character “…taking up her needle and thread to sew… It was slow work, satisfying in the way of all things that require time and concentration…” Slow Stitching can certainly be that for each of us—satisfying work to which we give our time and concentration. In return, we can receive an experience that’s been called “bliss” by some and “flow” by others—being completely and happily absorbed in work with our hands, and for a peaceful time we are completely removed from the rest of the world and all that it asks of us.
When I was in early elementary school my mom began calling me her turtle, perhaps because it was the kindest word she could find to use. She’d often send me to my room to get ready for school or visiting grandparents or church. She’d come up an hour later to find me sitting on the floor half dressed and drawing or stitching. I’d simply gotten distracted by something that appealed to me and had gotten lost in the flow of the work of my young hands.
Over the years I’ve found that I connect with turtles in other ways. I can’t think of a more wonderful place to spend my time than places where land and water meet. I like to sit back quietly and watch the world from a kayak or a sunny perch—perhaps a branch overhanging a stream.
Like turtles, I’m built more for comfort and protection from the elements than for speed, but that’s okay. Turtle expert, writer, and artist David Carroll shares similar experiences in his books. In Self-Portrait with Turtles Carroll writes these gems: “…the more slowly I moved, the longer I kept still, the more I would see…” “Process was more important than completion…” “Solitude and silence intensified my seeing…” and my favorite, “In a blur of past and present, drifting into the now, I endeavored to shift into turtle time, the time within time that is neither past nor present but the ongoing now.” Surely we can cultivate these same types of experiences through Slow Stitching.
Slow Stitching helps us to make connections in so many ways. Through it we can connect with hand stitchers of past centuries and far-away places. We can feel the kinship and nearness of beloved friends and family members we have lost or who are far away. We may be able to connect with other slow stitchers in our own communities and form new friendships and opportunities for sharing. And we can use our Slow Stitching to connect with ourselves—the physical experiences of our hands and senses and the way we experience at least moments of the days we are each given.
Lisa Binkley holds a B.S. in Textiles & Design from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.Formerly a public policy analyst, she has maintained an active fiber art studio since 2000 and exhibits her award-winning work nationwide. Her work has been selected for inclusion in major exhibitions by guest curators from the Smithsonian Art Museum, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Bellevue Arts Museum, among others. Exhibitions include American Quilters’ Society, International Quilt Association, Crafts National, CraftForms, and several years of the Wisconsin Artists Biennial. Lisa and her artwork have been featured on local and national television, in internationally-distributed books and magazines, and in many local publications. Her art is represented in private and corporate collections. Lisa enjoys sharing her passion for fiber and beads through her artwork, classes, and lectures, and she teaches throughout the U.S. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, their two children, and their sweet fuzzy dog.
Visit Lisa’s website by clicking here: www.lisabinkley.com
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Karen Montgomery is a nationally recognized quilt teacher, fabric, notions, and quilt designer! Her shop The Quilt Company was established in 1993, included in Quilt Sampler Magazine in 1997 and featured as one of America’s Favorite Hometown Quilt Shops by McCall’s Quilting in 2010. It is the largest shop in western Pennsylvania. Located in the Pittsburgh area, the shop showcases Karen’s fabric designs for Timeless Treasures, her original patterns and the Quick Trim Ruler she designed for Creative Grids. Karen’s projects can be found in catalogs and magazines around the world. Visit Karen’s website at: http://www.thequiltcompany.com/home.aspx
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Melissa Jackson isn’t famous, nor is she a stitching celebrity. She’s a needlework enthusiast who hasn’t met a fiber art that didn’t pull her in. While I met Melissa as a cross stitcher, I was surprised and delighted that her reach into the fiber arts is wide and ongoing.
The concept of The Slow Stitching Movement wasn’t new to Melissa. She was familiar with the Slow Food Movementand appreciates the connection between slow food and slow stitching. From practicing ethical shopping, to healing and growing through her art, and practicing slow stitching in her own work, I found her insight illuminating.
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