Slow Stitch ?

6" square, hand stitched, straight/running stitch filler, chain outline.

I had an email this morning from a textile arts friend, mentioning something I’d never heard of before – ‘slow stitch’ and ‘slow cloth’   (and as we all know, ‘cloth’ is a reverent term for ‘fabric’ or as we say in Aus – ‘material’)    ‘Cloth’  implies something has beeen done to the fabric to give it a whole new meaning, which I won’t go into here – but that’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek observation,  just in case you don’t know me well enough to hear me speaking between the lines, and I digress.

Since the mid ’70’s  I have stitched and studied the art of the stitch, having an exhibiting life as a creative embroiderer years before I found myself in the world of quilted textiles.  In all that time I had never come across this term, so of course I googled it.  To my delight but some amazement, I found there’s a whole new generation out there discovering the joys and expressive potential of the hand made stitch and in particular the most basic stitch of all, the running stitch.  It’s been around for ever, long and short, in thick and thin thread, string, leather thonging, cord and more, and of course we all know it as the stitch most used in hand quilting.  It appears in countless ethnic embroideries around the world, as both outline amd filler.

Above is a pic of one of the small samples I did in a workshop,  “The Expressive Stitch’, taught by Canadian artist Dorothy Caldwell in Western Australia, more than 4 years back.   Let me tell you there’s a few hours’ work, perhaps 6 – in that little 6” square piece and I’m no slouch with the needle.  We each designed motifs from our own individual lives while we learned about the needleworked / embroidered  cloth pieces, Kantha, that Indian women in the Bihar region have traditionally made, and which now regularly find their way to collectors in the western world.  Down the years I have seen some very old textiles and fragments in museums – most memorable being a fragment of layered brown (dirty?)  felt,  hand quilted with linen thread in a cross hatch/diamond pattern.  From the outer Mongolian steppe, and dated around 400AD  it was most likely padding that went between horse and saddle.

The hand made stitch has been gathering favour in contemporary fibre art for some years now.  But what felt new to me was the near evangelical fervour I detected in the bloggings of several recent converts to the expressive, therapeutic, relaxing and calming effects of hand stitch.  Of course, the traditional quiltmakers and embroiderers have always known of these qualities,  but now it seems that some ‘art quilters’  are tiring of frenetic zooming all over cloth with fancy computerised speed regulated machines, and responding instead to the slower pace of hand stitchery with it’s minor imperfections …  if you wait around long enough, most things come back into fashi0n again, in some form or other :-p

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16 Responses to “Slow Stitch ?”

  1. Don’t you just love it? I’ve been following this re-emerging trend too and have a hard time not feeling smug. I started out with hand stitching and am now returning to it myself.

  2. Deb Baldwin says:

    I read about this too, yesterday. Am I correct in my reading that “slow stitch” is just hand embroidery? What exactly is “slow cloth”? Is it just another term for manipulated fabric?
    BTW, nice piece!

  3. alison says:

    Deb – you nailed it! Yes, hand embroidery – and I have always had a fondness for hand stitchery – often combining machine and hand in the one piece, I have certainlhy never left it. Some of my early quilts have a lot of fine, hand quilting and later quilts sometimes have larger stitches in heavier thread – remember someone published a book about a decade ago called” Mary Lou’s Big Stich Quilting’ or something like that? My close friend Wendy Lugg and I hooted – both of us had been using long stitches in heavier thread for many years, and know other significant Aus quilt artists who’ve been working that way for eons, too – such as Jane Whitely, Jan Irvine Neallie, and the late Else King …. As Sheila commented, ya gotta love it 🙂

  4. jude hill says:

    the slow cloth movement is not about a hand stitch. although many are now interpreting it that way. and using it as a buzz word for blogging. getting on a bandwagon so to speak. it actually has nothing to do with any technique in particular it has to do with a philosophy, not limited to any particular craft. it is rather a discussion about how quality and persistence can bring a better quality of life. the phrase was coined by elaine lipson a few years ago…there is a new facebook group now and many folks are talking about it. i do agree that a hand stitch is nothing new… but i just wanted to clarify this new term that is actually being spread around in a new context.

  5. alison says:

    Thanks you for your comment, Jude. I get your point about what seems to be a growing disconnect between how the term was coined in the past few years by Elain Lipson apparently, and how it is now being re-interpreted as it is being spread around in a new but less accurate context – with the fervent zeal I referred to.

    However, I can’t totally go along with the philosophy thing – that is, the implication that stitchery (or as you point out, any craft) done totally by hand somehow produces an end product of a higher quality, or that it has anything to do with sustainable quality of Life than craft work done with a mechanised tool of some kind working into the material being crafted. Attention to the highest standards of design and craftsmanship, and persistence in mastering necessary skills are always central to my work and these values are shared by all the top artists and crafts people I know. To imply fine craft may be lacking in some level of quality unless produced totally by hand, totally with natural fibres, totally with natural dyes and so on, is certainly idealistic, possibly smug and possibly ignorant. The world is not equal – so some people have access to far fewer options than others, but in many cases exercise far greater creativity than people who are surrounded by abundance of resources.

  6. Hi Alison – thanks for writing about slow cloth. Your work is beautiful. As Jude points out, slow cloth, at least as Jude and Glennis and I are framing it in our blogs and on the facebook group, is about intention, quality, meaning, rather than cheap and fast. Please feel free to visit all of our blogs and the group. It’s not meant to put anyone on the defensive, and you’re making some assumptions that I would contest; it’s just an approach to textiles of all kinds that we feel has value and is a good foundation for discussion. Let us know what you think. Best wishes, Elaine Lipson

  7. alison says:

    You wrote of slow cloth that it is ” about intention, quality, meaning, rather than cheap and fast” Now pedantic retired english teacher that I am, I have to respond that ‘cheap and fast’ does not preclude intention, quality, meaning or any other positve value. It may of course lead to shoddy ! but ‘cheap and fast’ can also be excellent or outstanding in quality terms. My point is that in terms of values, everything is relative, there are few if any absolutes.

    Defensive? no – not at all, and I don’t want to knock what you are saying – I think you must have found my original post quite respectful in its observations. However, for the moment I am living in a third world country and am accutely aware of the difference in range of choice open to a craftsperson in the US, Aus, NZ, UK, etc etc and a craftsperson working entirely in a latin american country without access to some of the superior, organic sourced/labelled, materials you can access where you are. If both natural/organic and man-made fibres or materials are available, you can bet man-made is far cheaper to buy. I myself bring in from outside what is not available here, so I don’t go without anything I particularly need if it isn’t available here – and these days it mostly is in some form. I have always been very low tech – if only I could transport you to my studio for a day to hang out you’d understand where I am coming from. My husband is an exploration geologist – I lived for many years in Aus Outback mining centres including some very isolated living literally in a tent camp with mail and food supplies coming in weekly at one stage. Another camp was only abut 15 miles from the nearest town so ‘reasonable’ except that the town had very few civic amenities beyond the schools, hospital and the surprisingly good library. The point of which is: my make do, improvise or go without attitude that was developed or at least refined in that period is behind all the interpretations and assumptions you think I make a bit unreasonably.

    The other point is related to location – in many places in the world crafts people make things as well as they can and as quickly as they can to feed a market they depend on for survival – in other words time is money. ‘Slow’ is a luxury they cannot afford; however I don’t think for one minute this implies that their product lacks cerebral backing or other positive values. I don’t know anything about your life circumstances beyond what I can deduce from your writings and website – they point to a well educated person with computer access and own website, and even if times are a bit hard – who knows you may have been unfortuate enough to lose a job in the current crisis or someone round you probably has – nevertheless you have access to a myriad of options by virtue of living where you do, and not in the slums on the outskirts of Montevideo, the Belgian Congo or a remote island in Indonesia, where survival is value #1.

    So yes, how I see it is for someone with everything you and I have access to, the slow cloth movement is a luxury, even if “it’s just an approach to textiles of all kinds that we feel has value and is a good foundation for discussion” It does have value, and I am not knocking your choice to espouse that value in the way you choose to work, but remember all values are relative.

  8. Sandy says:

    When I saw your kangaroo I immediately thought, ‘I gotta tell her about my class with Dorothy Caldwell this past summer!’ Oops, you’ve already been there, done that! Though I don’t think anyone mentioned ‘slow stitch’, that is a great name and goes along with the ‘slow food’ trend too- taking time to work out a problem in a measured contemplative way. I used one of my sampler pieces on my blog header and adapted a saying from one of the women who do kantha as an embroidery: “It takes four days to make a woman”. This really resonated with me- I am on my own personal ‘third’ day, and will slow myself down to savor my last quarter. Love your blog, love your work!

  9. alison says:

    Thankyou, everyone, for interesting responses.

  10. glennis says:


    While doing a bit of research I came across this post and being the 3rd admin for the slow cloth group I wanted to respond to a couple of things and hopefully add to the conversation, late though it may be.

    First, I would invite you to join the FB Slow Cloth group if you haven’t already done so. Your obvious expertise and unique experiences would be a welcome voice within the group. There are members from many walks of life there and we all come with our unique experiences and perspectives- but mostly all are there to learn and share and it seems you would be a great benefit to the group should you choose to join us.

    Secondly, I think that many members (most of us being comfortably located in No.America, Aus., and the UK) have some concerns about the future of art and craft when it comes to public education. (And meaningful education in the home arts, arts and crafts and textiles is all but a memory in public school system here in the US.) Yes, for many, “slow cloth” is a luxury. For others it is an expression – something to remind us that there is more beyond the banal amusements of television, internet, and glossy print media. That the simplicity of putting needle and thread to cloth (by hand or machine) is a simple pleasure that can be put to work for many purposes.

    But it goes farther than that. It’s not just about what we can do with our hands but what we can do with our minds in service to the future of textiles and craft, in service to others. So much is fading away and changing, quickly. And that includes not only handcrafted traditions but long standing industrial textile sites. Are we asking ourselves what we are willing to give up? Slowing down a notch we may realize there are some things worth keeping and sustaining. Jude reminds us to as “what if?”.

    Lastly, I take your point on the issue of location. Many textile crafts are made in places throughout the world by people as a form of enterprise-for survival. Time is money. Actually, time is money in most places around the globe. We all make the best we can to serve the market at a price that works for both the maker and the customers we sell to-whether we are located in 3rd world nations or downtown Los Angeles (parts of which on any given day may look like a 3rd world nation). I make things to serve a price point that can sustain me. I also make things for myself-that feed my own selfish artistic whims-generally not for sale, to be given as gifts. As creative textillians, I think it pains us to see authentic fiber cultures and traditions losing ground against a backdrop of crass commercialism. Glossy magazines spewing out the latest fabrics promoted by the craft industry-throw away fashion piling up loads of cheap clothing barely used.

    There is certainly enough for me to think about- and to decide what my small infinitesimal part in it will be.

    Thanks for entertaining and furthering the conversation here on your blog.

  11. Alison says:

    Glennis – thanks so much for taking the time to post some very intesting points. As in most of life – on this blog it’s never too late to comment 🙂
    I admire good examples of hand crafted work, not just in textiles although of course that is my main interest. I collect samples of embroidery and lace, and have been involved with fabric and stitch since I was a young child at school. My mother embroidered, so did my grandmothers, and we were taught basic sewing and embroidery at school, from grade 3 onwards, so that makes direct involvement with fabric and thread in one form or another for about 55 years. And I partly agree with you about education – schools everywhere just don’t teach this stuff today – there are so many other basic life skills and knowledge pressing for curriculum space – sadly a situation that has existed for a couple of generations now, so today’s grans often don’t know how to do this and pass it on either, even if they have more time for the young who want to know. Interestingly a young 18 y.o. here with her expat parents, and doing some study but basically in a gap year before going off to university in the UK next year, is seeking to learn patchwork, knitting and crochet (her mother doesn’t know how) I am going to teach her the basics of both english and american construction patchwork since I can, she’s keen and has time. My own 35 yo daughter was not at all interested when young, and sews, um, not well, really, despite my efforts to interest her. But, in the past couple of years she learned to knit from friends and joined a knitters group. She’s currently studying a certificated botanic illustration course at the Denver Botanic Garden, where she’s also learned a lot about drawing with pencil, using watercolour and other paint media, pen and ink, and so on. So, interest in adult life does find a way, too, to learn; and with us all living longer, although you and I feel these basic skills should be learned in grade school, perhaps it isn’t so disastrous that they aren’t. What does need to be learned in grade school is to get up and away from tv and all the digital stuff that surrounds us, and to get out into the real world, taking notice of things around us, using a pencil or a camera to record images or perhaps to write about things, and certainly to interact face to face with people using eyes and voices. It saddens me to see a table of people in a restaurant all on their mobiles.

    You go on to write: “But it goes farther than that. It’s not just about what we can do with our hands but what we can do with our minds in service to the future of textiles and craft, in service to others. So much is fading away and changing, quickly. And that includes not only handcrafted traditions but long standing industrial textile sites. Are we asking ourselves what we are willing to give up? Slowing down a notch we may realize there are some things worth keeping and sustaining. Jude reminds us to as “what if?”. ”

    I know what you mean, but I think it is arguably more powerful to recognise change and adapt to it. By which I mean, ‘tradition’ has always been a two-sided coin. Humans like tradition and the comforting way of doing things the way they’ve always been done or made; but the other side is that because traditions do exist, there are always innovative/creative individuals who for several reasons will take elements from something traditional and with either different/new processes or different/new materials build onto that tradition, in time leading it into the future to become a more modern ‘tradition’ I don’t see anything as intrinsically worth saving just because it is perceived as ‘traditional’. Serious researchers and collectors, both public and private, including various craft guilds and the craft art and design mueums such as found in most regions or countries will, I believe, continue to hold diverse examples of the best manual crafts practised there.

    ” As creative textillians, I think it pains us to see authentic fiber cultures and traditions losing ground against a backdrop of crass commercialism” Well that’s the idealistic view, the one that really does prevail in the Slow Cloth movement according to comments I’ve read on the FB page; but I don’t see it all as gloom. In my travels I have seen and continue to see examples of authentic fiber culture and tradition that people do want to buy and are prepared to pay for. Locals may well not be able to afford to buy finest examples and might have to settle to make their own or buy a reproduction, or really care for and hand down something that has been in the family/household for a long tim. But I think in reality things have always been that way. To think otherwise is to idealise the romance of the handmade,which is what I meant by ‘airy fairy’.

    And this last point you make is IMHO solely a consumer issue, with not a lot to do with slow cloth per se; “Glossy magazines spewing out the latest fabrics promoted by the craft industry-throw away fashion piling up loads of cheap clothing barely used” I mean, you are absolutely right – and each one of us can fight waste, every day in every field of endeavour – above all, we can refuse to buy/order all those catalogues, and we can all resolve to shop less and more carefully.

  12. india says:

    yep, hand stitching is so much more pleasant that shooting up….

  13. india says:

    oops, typo…i meant to write “than” not “that”. sigh.

  14. I personally tend to agree with all the stuff that is posted
    throughout “Slow Stitch ?

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    Slow Stitch ? « Alison Schwabe Blog

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