We finally have warmer temperatures and no more fresh snow here in the south of Bavaria! It is even warm enough to sit outside on the balcony :). Can't wait for all the snow to melt away. I love to go for long hikes and really feel blue when I can't in the winter due to slippery conditions. It will be so good to hike up the mountains again in a few weeks time!
Unfortunately, last week I got some bad news from the Künstler Sozialkasse: my appeal has been dismissed. I tried to gain official artist status with this organisation as it would mean that I get cheaper health insurance and a modest pension plan. The state now sees me as an entrepreneur who makes tons of money each year. The high rates for health insurance and my private pension plan reflect this. You can read my first blog post on this here.
The long letter explaining to me why I am not an artist is written in beautiful lawyer's German. I am so glad that I have a doctorate; it really helps to understand what they are saying. It mainly boils down to: embroidery has never been an artform historically speaking and can thus now not be an art form either. It is simply a craft. That's HUGE!!! This means that unless I am changing my medium, I am never going to be recognised as an artist. Over the past months, several artistic friends have indeed suggested that I should incorporate at least a little paint as that would mean that I can brand my pieces as mixed media. For laypeople: that's one step up from 'textile art' :).
The other point they are making is that my pieces don't have a deeper layer of meaning. And therefore they are no art. Plainly not true. I made the above piece in 2011 for my RSN Diploma. It translates the key-Buddhist principle of 'doing the right thing at the right time' into textile. This was one of the pieces which I submitted to the Künstler Sozialkasse to proof that I am making at least some pieces with this 'deeper layer of meaning'. My RSN advanced goldwork piece, also from 2011, is full of Christian symbolism explaining who St. Alanus was. And my most recent piece of Pope Francis certainly has a whole bunch of layers. I submitted the plans for this piece too. I don't know why they don't acknowledge these points.
But, the whole thing about a deeper layer of meaning = automatically art has a disturbing consequence. What about the hyper-realistic portraits of painters like Holbein? The naturalistic still lives of many famous painters since the Renaissance? Is that not art? Just craftmanship? I also submitted various needle paintings made from photographs of flowers I had taken myself. They were dismissed as not being art.
And what about the wood carvers here in the Ammertal that mainly copy historical wood carvings which sell well to tourists? Most of them are in the Künstler Sozialkasse. My interpretation of a historical orphrey (St. Laurence) was not seen as art either.
My conclusion thus is that my embroidered pieces will never officially been seen as art: I simply use the wrong medium. I now have three options left: 1) take the Künstler Sozialkasse to court and fight the dismissal, 2) change my medium & start a fresh application or 3) become a famous textile artist accepted by peers & start a fresh application. The first option is something I cannot afford and I doubt that I will be able to plead my case successfully. After all, I can't change the history of embroidery. The second option is something I am simply not willing to do. My medium is embroidery, I don't feel comfortable working in paint. The third option is the way I will be going. However, I will probably not submit a new application. As a successful textile artist, I hopefully will be able to pay the full fees for my health insurance and decent pension plan myself. I was raised to be a responsible citizen: you don't ask for benefits unless you really need them.
As suggested by some after my first blog post on this whole matter, I did contact the German embroidery guild to see if they could help. They never replied to my emails.
On the upside: I am now getting health insurance through my husband's employer and don't pay a penny for it. Our family income has fallen below a certain point and that made me eligible. I also met the deadline for finishing my Pope Francis piece (you'll meet him next week!) and submitting it for the Fiber Artist Network emerging fiber artists grant. I just hope that they see me as just starting out and not as somebody who has been a full-blown textile artist all these years without knowing it herself. That would just be too bittersweet....
As I am really pushing to meet a deadline, here are some quick shoutouts you might be interested in. Firstly, the Society for Embroidered Works has an Open Call for membership from the 24th of February till the 2nd of March. Although membership is free, entries are peer-reviewed. The Society tries hard to put embroidered art firmly onto the map. The more we are, the stronger our voice!
Secondly, a fresh batch of Klass & Gessmann embroidery hoops with seat frame or table clamp have found their way into my webshop. Secure yours quickly as they have been selling fast; one flew out before I could give you all the heads up that they are available again :). Not sure why you should probably invest in these hoops? Read my review here.
And last, but not least: I have found a new supplier for the silver coloured Japanese thread! Both sizes, #8 & #12, are available again from my webshop.
This is all for now. I am back to my slate frame, needles, fine silks and metal threads :).
Let's check in with my goldwork project to see what progress I made. First I put the string padding in for the goldwork that sits at the top of the tapestry behind Pope Francis. I used yellow cotton yarn and a matching yellow stranded cotton. I waxed the cotton yarn with pure beeswax to make it firm. I then couched the waxed yarn into the desired position. For the little dots, I made a double cross (at angles) with a full strand of stranded cotton. In the picture below, you also see my favourite embroidery scissors made by Dovo, a German company. Whilst I don't use them to cut my goldwork threads, I do use them for all the silks I am working with. They are super sharp and cut very clean and precise.
Next up were the windows. I started by satin stitching the glass using a light blue Chinese flat silk. The grey lintels are stitched in long-and-short stitch using a grey Chinese flat silk. The red lentils are made of rows of stem stitches using stranded silk (#3093 Campari Soda) by the Silk Mill.
Next, I put in the "lead" for the leaded windows. I used silver plated smooth passing #5. The first layer I couched in place with a grey (LT1322) superfine silk made by Langley Threads. The second layer was then couched in place at the intersections using the same grey Chinese flat silk as was used in the grey lentils. Since you just cut off the passing thread at the border between lentil and glass (i.e. no threads are plunged), you need to hide the ends under a layer of chain stitch using Silk Mill stranded silk. I used the same (near) black silk thread to stitch the dividers between the window panes.
I really loved putting in the red bricks! I just happened to have the ideal colour of Chinese flat silk to do the counted satin stitch with. The white grout is made with stem and straight stitches using a white Chinese flat silk. The lentils were finished by couching Gilt Twist #3 and Gilt Rococo in place. Note how I left a tiny gap between the window/bricks at the bottom and my yellow string padding. I will need this gap later when putting in the passing thread to form the top decorative border of the tapestry hanging behind the pope. You can also see that the gold threads are just cut off and not plunged as we tend to do in modern goldwork.
One of the challenges of recreating these Late-Medieval orphreys is finding out what threads were used. In the original piece, the fringe of the ceremonial tapestry hanging behind the figure has wavy streaks of very fine gold thread. No idea what it is! However, I have noticed that when the ends of Gilt Twist unwind, they look wavy. What would happen when you intentionally unwind a length of twist? Yup, you end up with three strands of very fine wavy gold thread :). So, over my base layer of green and red satin stitches made with Chinese flat silk, I carefully stitched with my "home-made" gold thread. The trick is to use a big needle and not pull to hard as otherwise the waves come out. And yes, I did stitch through the fabric with my gold thread using the same motion as with laid stitch.
Next up was the tapestry itself. For the St. Laurence project I used Japanese thread for this part. However, this would not work well with the intricate padding of the decorative top border. I decided to use Gilt passing thread #6/Stech vergoldet 140/150 CS instead. It is a stiffer and thicker thread than what was used originally. However, I am trying to finish this piece quickly so that I can start the next one for my upcoming exhibition in August. Using a finer thread would mean hours of extra work! And this already took 20 hours... The good news is, it works much better for the red diaper pattern than the original thinner thread works in the original piece. There is a lot of gaping in the original piece. The downside? It doesn't flow well over my padding; here I have gaping. Especially over the little dots.
And I learned something else: framing up both the figure and the background on one frame, make stitching difficult. My arms are too short sometimes. I noticed that I was able to stick to the counted diaper pattern best when turning my frame in such a way that I worked horizontally (as you see in the picture). I couldn't do this for the other half of the background. Instead, I worked vertically. The diaper pattern is not nearly as crisp. However, the couching over the padding is much nicer when I am working vertically. Lesson learned. Next time I will make sure that I can reach my embroidery equally well from all FOUR sides of my slate frame. For the moment, the blank that will eventually be filled with the figure of Pope Francis looks more like a zombie...
P.S. You can find the first two blog posts on this project by clicking the "Pope Francis" category on the right.
Before we dive into more exquisite embroidery from China, just a little shout-out to the Fiber Talk podcasts. On Sunday, I had my second lovely conversation with Gary discussing my ongoing journey from craftsperson to textile artist, my trip to China, the reality of turning your skill into your business and so on. We laughed a lot and hope that you`ll enjoy the conversation too! You can listen via the player on the Fiber Talk website (were you'll find hundreds of other engaging podcasts with fellow embroidery people!) or you can watch the episode on FlossTube.
In previous blog posts I have shown you the oldest pieces of embroidery I saw in China as well as beautifully embroidered rank badges. Today we will examine the court robes worn by the Qing emperor (AD 1644-1911) and his closest relatives. These lavish robes are decorated with the symbol of the emperor: the dragon. Hence their name: dragon robes. But there is more than just gorgeously embroidered dragons on these robes. After all, we are in China :). These robes are packed with meaning. Luckily, there was a very helpful picture in the National Silk Museum, Hangzhou pointing out the different motives and their meaning:
The different symbols are arranged in three distinct circles. Around the neck you'll find the sun (life force) and the moon on the shoulders and constellation of three stars (the handle of the sign Ursa Major; illumination) and the rock (stability) on the front and the back. The next circle runs over the chest and features the axe (distinction between right and wrong) and double bow (dispensing of justice) on the front, as well as a pair of dragons and a pheasant (light and colour). The third circle at knee-level sports a pair of bronze sacrificial cups (courage and wisdom), waterweed (purity), grain (nourishment and sustenance) and fire (warmth and light).
When the emperor conducted certain important ceremonies he would sit facing south. The major symbols on his dragon robe would then allign with the wider architecture of the Forbidden City: the sun on his left shoulder with the Altar of the Sun in the East, the constillation of the three stars on his chest with the Altar of Heaven in the South, the moon on his right shoulder with the Altar of the Moon in the West and the Rock at the nape with the Altar of Earth in the North.
And this is the real thing: a dragon robe featuring nine dragons. This particular robe would have been worn by an imperial prince during the summer. The background cloth is imperial yellow silk only to be used by the emperor and very close relatives.
Above is a picture of one of the dragons featuring in the third circle just above the seam. The dragon mainly consists of couched gold threads (Japanese thread) and accents in silk embroidery. The small motives surrounding the dragon are stitched with silk in satin stitch. Among these small motives are bats (left of the right hind-leg of the dragon), pairs of peaches (at the top of the picture, right above the head of the dragon) and flaming pearls (the couched roundel with red silk embroidery, left of the head of the dragon) and many clouds. The hem is decorated with ocean waves, mountains, coral and rocks.
Here you'll see the tiny bats, peaches and clouds in more detail. I particularly love the bats. Aren't they geniusly stitched? They are tiny, but there is so much characteristic detail. Just look at the ears and the whiskers!
The Chinese word for bat and for happiness are the same. Red coloured bats are even better as the colour red and the word for majestic/subleme are also the same. Bats depicted together with peaches confer the wish `May you live long and happy`.
And here is a detail of the seam of the prince`s dragon robe. I particularly like the way the circular wave in the middle is embroidered. Very effective shaded split stitch for the spiral, surrounded by satin stitched `white heads`. The design lines of the `white heads` are further defined by couching down a single gold thread. The vertical stripes at the bottom represent deep water. Stylished multi-coloured rocks rise from the waters. The ancient Chinese preceived the world as being surrounded by four oceans.
This wasn`t the only dragon robe on display at the magnificent National Silk Museum in Hangzhou. However, as this blog post is already rather heavy with pictures, I`ve uploaded the other robes onto my Pinterest board: Embroideries from China.
You can find more information on dragon robes and embroidered symbols in: Bertin-Guest, J. 2003. Chinese Embroidery traditional techniques, Krause Publications, ISBN 087349718-X. This book also explains the embroidery techniques in detail and comes with 16 (increasingly difficult!) designs to work yourself.
I originally made the drawings for this new goldwork project at the end of September last year. But with the China teaching trip and the holiday season, I hadn't really started in earnest. As I want to include this piece in my first solo-exhibition in August, it became about time to seriously make a start. My first attempt was so 'enthusiastically', that I decided to pull it all out, flip my slate frame and start again. What had happened? My design transfer was just rubbish. As I have only a small light-box, transferring larger designs demands attention. The kind of attention to detail you don't have when you really, really want to start :). The good thing about starting again: the flipped slate frame! Most people probably don't know that you can use a slate frame upside-down; just like the Chinese embroiderers do. It comes with two big advantages. First: your arm rests on the horizontal bar of your slate frame rather than on your embroidery. Secondly: the horizontal bars of your slate frame prevent spools of thread from rolling off your frame. But beware: the second point might tempt you into putting much more onto the frame than is beneficial for the tension of your embroidered piece...
This is what Pope Francis currently looks like. As we have had so much snow with the accompanying dark skies, couching silver coloured Japanese threads with two shades of white and two shades of grey is very hard on your eyes. That's why I decided to work the figure of Pope Francis and the background simultaneously.
What materials and techniques have I used so far? The figure of Pope Francis is created with or nue. This means that I am using pairs of silver coloured Japanese Thread #8 and couch them down with a single thread of DeVere Yarns six-fold (120 denier) silk. I am using Crystal, Lily, Cloud and Foil. His shoes were stitched with satin stitch using a single strand of a stranded silk by the Silk Mill colour Black Alder. I embroidered the fringes on the fascia with Turkey rug stitch using DeVere Yarns 18-fold (360 denier) tightly twisted silk colour Hessian. After all the or nue has been done, I will add pearls for the buttons and I will define some folds by couching a separate metal thread on top. Much as I did with St. Laurence.
As mentioned in my first blog post on this new goldwork project, I am modelling the background on an existing late-Medieval orphrey from the Netherlands. I started by putting in the tiled floor. For the tiles I used four colours of Chinese flat silk: two greens and two reds. Using the darker shades in the back creates a sense of depth. The tiles are stitched with a simple satin stitch following the grain of the fabric. Then I couched a single strand of Gilt smooth passing #5 on top using the matching colour of silk. Last but not least, I embroidered the grout with small chain stitches using two strands of the Silk Mill Black Alder. I had learned from St. Laurence to don't leave too big a space for the figure, that's why bits of the tiling will be covered by the figure.
The small areas of blue sky at the top of the orphrey were embroidered using light-blue Chinese flat silk and long-and-short stitch. Evenly spaced single threads of Gilt smooth passing #5 were couched down on top using the same silk. Since late-Medieval embroiderers mainly worked in commercial workrooms, efficiency was important. Plunging threads? Far too time consuming! Just add a few more anchoring stitches at the end and just snip off the metal thread. In addition, metal threads would frequently continue to run underneath silk embroidery. Securing and snipping off takes more time than just stitch over them. I wondered how far you can take this approach :). The small bright-green turrets were just perfect candidates to try this out. I satin stitched the turrets with Soie Ovale by Au ver a Soie #0199. Then I added an outline of chain stitches using the Silk Mill Black Alder. You wouldn't know that there is passing thread running beneath them!
As this blog post is getting rather long, we will talk about the windows and the padding for the screen behind the figure in a future blog post. I will group all blog posts concerning this goldwork project under the category 'Pope Francis' for quick future reference.
When I was teaching embroidery in China last year, I saw so many beautifully embroidered items. Far too many to put into one blog post. Today we will explore a very distinctive form of embroidered items: rank badges. Those square pieces of densily embroidered cloth that were sewn onto the formal dress of Qing-dynasty (1644-1911 AD) court officials.
The Qing emperors were the last house to rule China. They were not native Chinese, but rather a nomadic minority from Manchuria. Due to a power vacuum in the middle of the 17th century they were able to take over the dragon throne. Native Chinese viewed these newcomers as barbarians. Vice versa, the Manchu viewed the Chinese as too refined. Discrimination and mistrust were the result. In an attempt to at least minimize discrimination amongst the court officials and to legitimize their new dynasty, court dress was completely renewed by the new emperor. Modelled on Manchu dress, but with strict rules on who could wear what and when.
As the imperial administration became ever more complex, it was necessary to be able to easily distinguish people's place or rank in the system. There were nine ranks of civil officials all sporting a different bird on their rank badge. From first to ninth rank these were: Manchurian crane, golden pheasant, peacock, wild goose, silver pheasant, egret, mandarin duck, quail and paradise flycatcher. The badges (called pu zi) were sewn onto the surcoat pu fu, or 'coat with a patch' and worn over the formal court robes. The badges would be sewn onto the front as well as onto the back. That's why a pair always consists of a 'whole' one for the back and a 'split' one for the front.
Why did they use birds to differentiate between civil officials? As always, everything depicted has more than one meaning for the Chinese. Birds collectively were seen as a symbol of literary elegance. Additionally, the crane was associated with happiness and longevity. The wild goose and the mandarin duck represented loyalty; not an unimportant quality for a court official.
Military officials wore rank badges too. Instead of birds, animals associated with courage and ferocity adorn these badges. Again there are nine ranks and from first to ninth rank these are the animals depicted: qi lin (a mythical creature with the head of a dragon, scales on his body, the legs of a stag and a bushy tail), lion, leopard, tiger, bear, panther, rhinoceros, rhinoceros and sea-horse. Lower ranks of the imperial nobility were also permitted to wear the military rank badges. The wives of military and civil officials adorned their formal dress with rank badges too. Rather than being part of the court, they would wear their dress with badges during important social occasions such as marriages.
Besides his official empress, the emperor had many secondary consorts and concubines. They were ranked as well. And with so many potential partners, he had many offspring too. The emperor, his sons, first-rank princes, second-rank princes, third-rank princes, fourth-rank princes, imperial dukes and other non-imperial nobles wore round rank-badges displaying dragons. The number of dragons you could wear depended on your rank. As did the type of dragon you were permitted to wear: front-facing dragons were higher in rank than side-facing dragons. And five-clawed dragons (long) were higher in rank than four-clawed dragons (mang).
If you have enjoyed reading about official court dress, I can highly recommend the book 'Imperial Wardrobe' by Gary Dickinson and Linda Wrigglesworth (2000, ISBN: 1-58008-188-6) for further reading. This is the revised edition of an original from 1990.
You will probably have seen on the news that we experience heavy snowfall in the Alps. So far, my village has had about 50cm of snow with more to come over the next days. Perfect weather to stay indoors and do a bit of stitching :)! For instance with my free embroidery pattern graphed from the Christmas present I gave myself this year.
When I was in the Netherlands shortly before Christmas, I and my parents stumbled upon a lovely Middle Eastern shop in Utrecht. They mainly sell ceramics, but they also have a rather large collection of textiles. Among the latter; several embroidered items of clothing and cushion covers. I bought a dress showing Fallahi or Palestinian embroidery. For those of you living in the Netherlands: the name of the shop is 'Samira' and you'll find them at Oude Gracht 209. The friendly Egyptian man running the store is happy for you to come in to see the textiles on display. They also have a website with many pictures of old Bedouin dresses.
Here you see the front and the back of the dress. According to the seller, this dress comes from the Bedouin living in the Sinai dessert. This is confirmed by the seam sporting bands of slanted tent stitches. Dresses like these always tell a story...
Firstly, the dress has been patched together from many pieces. Sometimes embroidered pieces have been sewn onto the background cloth (as is the case for the collar you see pictured above) or...
...embroidered pattern pieces have been sewn into the dress (as is the case for the sleeves you see pictured above).
Furthermore, the dress has been patched up in many, many places. You can also see in the picture above that the cross stitches are worked on a good quality cotton satin. Not at all easy to count! And consequently the embroiderer made many mistakes in the geometric patterns. I've corrected this in the graphs as it would probably not appeal to the modern embroiderer with her even weave linens :). However, there is always a marked mistake in these embroideries as only God is faultless.
Why is this dress patched together the way it is? Firstly, it would take a Bedouin woman about three years to embroider a festive dress like this. Her days are filled with many household tasks and thus she would only have limited time to embroider. Consequently, it is normal that wear and tear would be repaired as best as possible. But what could she do when her life changed dramatically? Brides and married women would wear dresses embroidered with shades of red. Widowed women would use dark blue. And widows who would like to marry again would use a red collar. Once re-married, she would stitch reddish accents on top of the blue. Here we thus have the dress of a widowed woman seeking to re-marry. A very similar dress is depicted on page 40 of the book: 'Stickereien für 1001 Nacht' (Embroideries for 1001 nights) by Anna Dolanyi from 1989, ISBN 3-473-42427-7.
What else can we learn from this lovely piece of old embroidery? Well, the wearer was probably right-handed as the right sleeve shows much more wear and tear than the left one. Furthermore, I think the woman had a baby or small child on her hip. The collar has been torn and this would typically happen when a child grasps the collar when it does not want to be put down.
For the PDF-pattern I have chosen DMC stranded cotton colours closest resembling the originals. However, in many cases the original colours are much brighter than their modern equivalents. You can use the patterns as they are and recreate parts of the collar, sleeve and blue panels. Furthermore, I imagine that especially the blue panel patterns would look lovely when stitched using the beautiful variegated threads made by House of Embroidery. How about stitching a cushion with Palestinian patterns using fair trade embroidery yarn from South-Africa? That's ethnic embroidery at its finest! You'll find House of Embroidery stranded cotton and perle in my webshop.
Those of you who have browsed my website lately will have noticed that I am changing my website around a bit. It is the result of a rather tumultuous year for Märchenhaftes Sticken. What was I up to in 2018? I started the year with a renovated studio. It provides a much better working space for me and for teaching embroidery courses and workshops. Early February, I attended my second high-end craft market. It was such a success that I vowed not to attend another one for the rest of my life...
Instead, in May, I was invited to join local artist Marion Werner for an intimate art exhibition at her home. For the entry fee of two batches of mini-muffins, I had the time of my life! With hindsight, I can now say that this event steered my stitching career in a different direction. Away from craft and towards art. It is like growing up, as it comes with growing pains. It proves to be hard to claim the new identity of textile artist...
Financially it wasn't a good year for Märchenhaftes Sticken. I barely hit the €10000 mark for my turnover. Normally I am just short of €14000... Ough! Unfortunately, I can't quite explain the financial down-turn. I tried quite a few new things this year to generate extra income. I published a crewel pattern and instead of putting a fixed price on the download, I asked people to pay me through PayPal what they felt the pattern was worth. The pattern was downloaded quite a few times, but I received no payment... Nevertheless, I thought that my PayPal donation button would generate a modest income from all the people who ask for embroidery advice, but don't need anything from my webshop. It is an excellent opportunity for them to not feel guilty as they are being able to express their gratitude financially for the excellent service they have obtained from me. Think I am dreaming? Not all the time :). It worked twice and I am very grateful to these kind and generous persons!
Another potential extra income generator was my first ever downloadable ebook and accompanying material packs. It was great fun to research a little known silk embroidery technique from 17th century Italy. However, I had hoped for a slightly better reception of the ebook: I only sold 10 copies. Is it because my readers/groupies/followers are not interested in these kind of things? I don't know. There were 84 people who entered my competition to win a free copy...
A total fiasco so far: my online embroidery classes. After having been badgered for years by many people in the embroidery community, I decided to bite the bullet. I invested €611 in software, a video hosting platform and a camera stand. As I turned the projects I was going to teach in China into these online classes, I at least did not have to invest extra time in developing and writing up new projects. Sadly, I have only sold two classes. Interestingly, my gut feeling has always told me that online classes will probably not be successful for me. People think I can offer them real cheap. After all, I am a one-woman-show so I should be much cheaper than let's say Craftsy. After all, they are the real professionals with big studios and a crew. I am only me. How come I cost more? Because I cost them on the bases that I would probably sell no more than 20 classes a year. They cost them on the basis of thousands...
Social Media was not my friend this year. After putting an enormous amount of efford into building up an Instagram following, my account got hacked when I was just short of 1000 followers. As I received no help from Instagram/Facebook and after hearing more and more data scandals regarding Facebook, I quit all Social Media (bar Pinterest). You wouldn't believe how many more hours my days suddenly have...! And just like all other bussinesses that deal with the data of Europeans, I had to make my whole business GDPR compliant. Not fun. And expensive too.
For me, 2018 was all about traveling in the name of embroidery. In the spring we went to Crete and by chance discovered the beautiful goldwork embroideries at Moni Arkadi. In early September I spent a few days in Vilnius with fellow embroiderer Agne. We visited a beautiful exhibition on embroidered vestments. And then there was my trip to China in October/November. I had a blast teaching a very diverse group of lovely students European embroidery techniques. Very satisfying!
So what is in store for 2019? Teaching-wise, I will concentrate on my five-day embroidery courses. They are my preferred teaching format. Online classes have not proven to be successful and one-day workshops don't work very well either as people do not like to travel for such a short event. Of the four workshops planned in 2018, only one took place with two of the possible six students...
Likewise I no longer offer Work in Progress Saturdays. This is, like the online classes, a good example of the disperity between what people say they want and what they are prepared to invest in. On the advice of my students I started them two years ago. I was hesitant to start this endeavour as I knew people would not have the discipline to put at least some in their calendars and stick to them. Instead, the Saturdays started to move around at short notice. People pulled out at short notice so that I was forced to only run them when I had a minimum of three students. The end of the story? It ran only once this year with one student. Part of being a profesionall is that you do pull out of projects that don't make sense financially.
My biggest challenge for 2019 will be my first-ever solo exhibition at the end of August. You will probably see lots of new work on my blog as I will need to fill two exhibition rooms. Furthermore, I want to concentrate on my blog. It is a lovely way to journal my own journey. And I love researching historical embroideries! Wishing you a happy new year and I hope to 'see' you next week for a blog post on a special Christmas gift I made myself.
Since I've started to define myself as an embroidery artist rather than a craftswoman, I've come across a whole new group of art embroiderers I previously knew nothing about! Especially if you come from the craft-side of embroidery as well, you will be in for a treat! First up is Agnes Herczeg from Hungary. I came across her colourful intricate miniature art through an article in Fiber Art now; the quarterly publication of the Fiber Art Network.
Agnes trained as a textile restorer and has great admiration for the skill of needleworkers in the past. Her own pieces are made with needle lace, pillow lace and braiding. She also integrates wood, coconut shell and ceramics. The thread is then painted to great effect with aquarelle. You can tell from the pieces that Agnes's technical skill is superb! You can view more of her work on her website.
Another textile artist I discovered through Fiber Art now magazine is Lana Crooks. I think it is because I was an archaeologist specialised in animal bone, that her creations appeal to me a lot. Lana creates skulls from felt and then adorns them with for instance bead embroidery or Victorian hair work. The finished pieces are then placed under those antique glass domes with a wooden base. Like a cabinet of curiosities! Explore her work on her website.
I also receive a newsletter from The 62 Group of Textile Artists. Amongst many other things, it contained a link to an article by Amber Butchart: The artificial divide between fine art and textiles is a gendered issue. Well worth a read if you want to explore how needlework was viewed in the distant past and why and how things changed. The same newsletter also contained a link to the BBC4 radio show 'Pursuit of Beauty'. This particular edition (In Stitches) is also hosted by Amy Butchart and explores the works and attitudes of several contemporary embroidery artists. You can listen to the show here.
Another embroidery artist featured in the summer issue of Fiber Art now is Michelle Kingdom. I love her style as each piece reminds me of a fairy tale. And just as in many fairy tales there is a darker component, Michelle's embroideries have something creepy too. Looking beyond the mere picture, I am equally intrigued with her unique embroidery technique. Not only does she layer straight stitches to create a sense of depth, she also cleverly makes use of the background fabric by leaving it blank. You can find out more about Michelle Kingdom and her work on her website.
Due to a short pre-Christmas trip to the Netherlands and then Christmas itself, I am going to take a two-week blogging break. Hope to 'see' you again on the last day of the year!
Two cents for your thoughts when you read the above blog title. Highly likely that you now have a picture of these hyper-realistic silk embroideries in your mind :). But that's not what we are going to explore in this blog post. Chinese embroidery is so much more! There's the intricate and colourful embroidery from the many ethnic minorities we will explore in a future blog post. And then there are these magnificent dragon robes worn by the emperor and his close relatives. Equally food for a future blog post. But how did it all began? A question I never really asked myself before I went to China. As an archaeologist I am all too aware that the evidence we have for really old textiles adorned with embroidery is scant. You need very favourable preservation conditions for them to survive. So the mantra instilled in me as an archaeology student: absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, holds very true in the case of ancient textiles. But traveling to China and talking to Chinese embroiderers, the question of how it all began is paramount to them. The humiliation at the hands of the Western powers in the 19th century is still a national trauma. Being the inventor of something which was subsequently adopted by the West, thus counts!
The National Silk Museum in Hangzhou has a very modern exhibition on the textiles form the Silk Road. The exhibition includes many textile fragments from recent large scale excavations of tombs. A new exhibition titled 'Countless stitching and marvellous threads' was opened when I taught my workshop at the end of October. Unfortunately, this exhibition has no captions in English (unlike the Silk Road exhibition which is entirely bi-lingual). From what my phone was able to translate, the new exhibition focusses on stitches and how they emerged and developed. Starting with archaeological remains and ending with modern embroideries by contemporary masters.
Taking pictures of the embroideries on display posed its own problems. The lighting was understandably dim and flash equally understandably not allowed. Usually not a problem when you are patient and have a steady hand. What was a problem, was the bad quality glass used for the display cases. And the fact that they were very (I mean VERY) dirty from the touching of countless hands. China is this delightful combination of a developing country and a highly digitally developed world nation. This means that they laughed at me when I explained that in my rural village of 1200 people, probably 600 or so don't have a mobile phone, nor an email address. Digital 'illiteracy' is high here and not only among the elderly. At the same time, all 1200 of us would shake our heads in pity at the many Chinese who don't have a private toilet in their home and need to use the public toilet. How to use a museum is something they are in the process of figuring out :).
Let's explore the embroideries! The oldest embroideries on display, date to the period of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and the Northern Dynasties (386-581 AD). However, in the publications on embroidery I bought at the museum, it is stated that embroidery already existed in the Xia dynasty (2200-1800 BC). But, this is from oral tradition rather than archaeological finds. The first archaeological evidence seems to date from the late Shang dynasty, around 1300 BC. The above fragment dates from the much later Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and shows longevity symbols stitched with several colours of silk using chain stitch on a red silk background. This small fragment is all that is left from an all-over embroidered female dress.
Other embroidered items include a pair of red socks from the first-third century AD. The stitch used seems to be very fine chain stitch.
And here is a piece with goldwork embroidery (couching) depicting animal masks and dating to the Northern Dynasties (386-581 AD).
This very large piece depicting lions dates from China's golden age, the Tang dynasty (7th century AD).
This lovely piece is an embroidered leather pouch with twill damask and samite border. It dates to the Liao dynasty (907-1125 AD). The upper part is a twill damask border, the middle is of leather, completely covered with chain stitch embroidery, with different patterns on each side: birds, butterflies and peonies on one side and flying birds and hunting motifs on the other.
You can find more pictures on my Pinterest board 'oldest embroideries in the world'. In order to illustrate the question of where embroidery was invented, I am collecting pictures of these pieces on the afore mentioned Pinterest board. So far, for this part of the world, I was able to find a mention of the embroidered textile fragments from the celtic tomb at Hochdorf (500 BC) in one of my books. Unfortunately, it does not mention which stitch was used to create the geometric patterns. And there's no picture either. But there is a dissertation on the textile finds and I will try to get hold of that through the Bavarian National Library. To be continued...
P.S. If you are interested in the history of Chinese embroidery, I recommend the book 'Silken Threads. A history of embroidery in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam' written by Young Yang Chung in 2005, ISBN 0-8109-4330-1. This is an epic volume with beautiful pictures and of the highest scientific standard.
Jessica M. Grimm
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