Embroidery,Hand Stitch, Slow Stitch

When I was young, there was Sewing, Mending, Embroidery and Fancy Work. No one ever talked about ‘stitch’ which would have sounded pretentious, rather ‘arty farty’, somehow. If any general word was used, it was ‘stitchery’. But today the preferred term is ‘stitch’, and before going to current usage of this word, let me look back to when I became an Australian teenager, in 1959.

Sewing was a practical term, implying making something, anything, from a piece of fabric, using hand or machine. It included household items like hemming sheets, making new kitchen curtains, hemming serviettes and a tablecloth cut from a length of fabric, or most importantly making clothes – for a child, older family member or possibly the maker herself. In the Australia of my youth, most people who ‘sewed’ were home sewers, most often mothers, and ‘dressmakers’ who sewed for hire. Mens’ clothing was and still is made by tailors, and hardly surprisingly, traditionally most of those are male.

Mending is still the term for every kind of repair or alteration to any textile item. Letting out and taking in seams, taking up and letting down hems and waistlines, replacing zips and buttons, turning collars, and so on, including mending tears and seam failures in clothes and household textiles of all kinds. What we don’t hear much about these days is the sub-set of mending known as ‘darning’; people don’t darn socks much now, though perhaps some still do on pure wool jumpers/sweaters. Many of the young in more affluent Western countries wouldn’t be too familiar with the process of weaving across a worn hole or thin patch with suitable thread to prolong the life of the rest of the garment, and I will return ‘darning’ when I get to the point of my heading for this post.

Embroidery is the general term for stitchery applied to a textile item or a garment to decorate or embellish it. The needle can be hand held or mechanised (machine embroidered) When I was a girl Fancy Work generally mean embroidery to produce beautifully decorated household linens such as doilies or sets of table mats and serviettes, duchesse sets. pillow cases, and monogramming towels, sheets, pillow cases, linen hankies and the like.

Left – back. Right – front. I still have this piece of ‘fancy work’ I worked 64 years ago, when I was in grade 5, aged ~10. I chose and bought this stamped, shaped piece of linen, and selected the thread colours. I stem stitched along the lines and filled in the leaf and flower areas with satin stitch. French knots are still a favourite stitch. I hand crocheted the edging.

Most embroiderers in C20 Australia didn’t make up their own designs, but either followed published patterns (books, magazines) or they bought linen pieces already stamped with lines of the design printed on them to follow, and this is probably still true today, as this craft remains hugely popular. There was a lot of pride in executing the more challenging stitches, which made them ‘fancier’ than the simpler ones (running, stem and chain stitches, plus the scattered and linear (whipped or threaded) variations of those.

I was moved to think about all this because of a little irritation, really, at how the straight stitch, that simplest, most basic stitch of all is being fairly carelessly called slow stitch, boro, sashiko, kantha stitch, big stitch quilting, depending on who’s using the term; and these are also being used interchangably. They are all the same stitch – putting the needle into the fabric, taking it out a bit further along and repeat, certainly; but some arrangements and patterns of them have precise cultural backgrounds which tend to become the subject of fads that come and go, depending on who’s promoting one of them in their book or teaching classes based on the flavour of the day. To me, it’s all the glorious straight stitch, about which I’ve written several times, including The Glorious Straight Stitch.

I’ve done a lot of hand stitch and quilting down the years, but I’m no expert on Kantha, Boro or Sashiko, seeing them all as usage of straight stitches in lines or in groups for practical or decorative purposes- often essentially ‘darning’, really. I googled the question “What is the difference between Boro and Sashiko?” and came up with this informative article in which Kantha is mentioned too, so it has a good perspective. Then I found this highly informative article on Kantha clearly demonstrating the similarities to its Japanese counterparts Boro and Sashiko.

And then, the other day on FB someone posted a photo of some embroidery they’re working on, referring to it as ‘my Slow Stitch piece”. It was nice, looked well done, included some beading and several of the more complicated embroidery stitches… in short, it looked pretty much like Fancy Work to me! Slow stitching is an actual movement that has grown in popularity over the past decade, surrounded by a somewhat almost spiritual mystique. Slow in this case means taking your time, being ‘mindful’, contemplating life while carefully considering how you place each stitch, as if somehow this makes it especially precious. Perhaps it does in a way, but I feel no need to literally stitch slowly; carefully executed stitches can be pretty speedy, too. Controversally perhaps, I also believe that slow stitch does not necessarily preclude machine made stitch, rather, it is the carefully placed stitch that’s the key to this code. And, further, I’ve always felt that careful placement of stitches to achieve a desired look, is the hallmark of good craftsmanship in textile art.

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