Book review: One Needle, One Thread: Miao (Hmong) embroidery and fabric piecework from Guizhou, China
I was given this lovely book about ethnic embroidery from China by the lady who organised my teaching trip to China last year. This book on an interesting topic has a rather special and highly pleasing visual concept as well. Although it is not your classic project book, the step-by-step photographs and descriptions mean you can easily recreate particular stitches and patterns. Especially for those of you who are already adept at wielding a needle, there is a lot of 'new stuff' in this book which will make your hands itch.
The book is written by Dr. Tomoko Torimaru, a Japanese woman who studied Chinese textiles at the University of Shanghai, China. She is the daughter and research-associate of her mother Dr. Sadae Torimaru. Together they have studied the textile traditions of the Miao and related ethnic groups for many decades. They are both well-known and respected textile researchers and deserve to be more widely known among Western embroiderers as well. Full details of the book: Torimaru, T., 2008: One Needle, One Thread: Miao (Hmong) embroidery and fabric piecework from Guizhou, China, University of Hawai'i Art Gallery, ISBN: 978-1-60702-173-5.
And this is what a typical two-spread from the book looks like. Many detailed pictures with explanatory text. In this particular case, the darning stitch is worked from the back in order to protect the finished embroidery. One needs great skill to not make a mistake when carrying threads or otherwise the pattern on the front will show a mistake. There are several embroidery techniques detailed in the book where the embroideress works from the back to avoid soiling the finished embroidery.
Throughout the book, you will learn about the myriad ways of pattern design and transfer. I am blown away by the fact that some paper-template cutters are so skilled that they do not need to make an outline drawing prior to cutting ... There are also many 'recipes' in the book for making starch and thread conditioner from local plants. You'll be amazed at how often the silk threads for embroidery are conditioned to behave during embroidery. I am always quite reluctant to use thread heaven or the like on my silk threads. I usually talk them into submission (with various degrees of success, I must admit).
Another thing I was reminded by when reading the book from cover to cover, is how ingenious people are. We can be one heck of a clever naked ape! For the Miao, embroidering their folk costumes is typically done in between other tasks. When waiting or tending the family, for instance. There's often no ergonomic position to be had or good lighting. Slate frames or hoops for perfect tension? How about using your knees and thighs instead? And it is almost always an activity you'll share with other females. Knowledge transferred from mother to daughter. Underlining and taking pride in one's ethnic identity one peaceful stitch at a time!
As most of you will have noticed (my social media channels were full of birthday wishes from all over the world; thank you very much!), I turned 40 recently. And as it goes: birthdays and presents go hand in hand. So when I visited Munich with my parents, we found an unusual embroidery book for my library. Before I'll show you what it is, let me tell you briefly where we found it.
Personally, up to that recent visit, I didn't like Munich one bit. As it is a very wealthy city, I always felt out of place. Although I do like shopping, I avoid big fashion names as I have found my style long ago and want to stick to it; not change every 3 months :). Anyway. This time we ended up in a whole different part of Munich as I wanted to visit a Zero Waste shop aptly named 'Ohne' (without) and my father wanted to visit some antiquaries in search of Feldpost from WWI. Both, and much more, concentrate around the Schellingstraße in the Maxvorstadt. The name Schellingstraße might ring a bell with art, literature and/or history buffs: apart from being Hitler's home turf, Bertold Brecht, Wassily Kandinsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, Lenin, Thomas Mann, Frank Wedekind, Joachim Ringelnatz, Stefan George, Franz Marc and Paul Klee frequented the establishments here in their time. Nowadays, the area is characterised by cosy and hip eateries catering for the whole world, antiquarians and unusual little shops well worth exploring. So, if you ever visit Munich and you are not much impressed by its main shopping streets, head out to the Schellingstraße!
At one of the antiquaries, I found a book named: Stickerei aus Palästina, traditioneller 'Fallahi' Kreuzstich written by Widad Kamel Kawar and Tania Tamari Nasir in 1992. The ISBN of the German version is: 3-927270-03-2 and that of the English version: 3-927270-04-0 (Palestinian embroidery, traditional 'Fallahi' cross-stitch). Unfortunately, the book is now only available second-hand and prices asked for it range between €75 and €281 !!! My mum paid €22 :). A pretty good deal indeed.
So what's this book all about? Fallahi embroidery is a form of cross-stitch embroidery traditionally practiced by Palestinian peasant women (Fallaha) in their villages. The book shows a collection of traditional patterns from the 19th and early 20th century not yet influenced by later Western styles. The collection is subdivided into Palestinian regions: Ramallah, Jaffa, Hebron, Gaza, Beersheba and the Sinai. At first glance, you might think that these are 'just' geometric motives with no further meaning. The book shows you that not only are certain motives characteristic of a particular region, it also tells you their name. For instance, there are date palms from Ramallah, amulets from Jaffa, the Pasha's tent from Hebron, pendants from Gaza and different forms of cypresses can be found in embroidery patterns from all the regions. Once your eye has been sharpened for this, they are no longer 'just' geometric patterns.
What items were decorated with this type of traditional embroidery? The embroidery can be found on the traditional Palestinian female dress: the thob. Depending on the region and the status of the wearer, parts of the front, parts of the back, the sides and the sleeves are covered with embroidery. Furthermore, the bridal trousseau would sport the same kind of embroidery.
What materials do the Palestinian embroiderers use? Traditionally, the embroidery was executed on local hand-woven linen (actually a mix of linen and cotton) or a form of loosely woven cotton. Famous weaving regions were: Majdal, Gaza, Ramallah, Nazareth, Hebron and Nablus. Until around 1930, they would use plant-dyed silk thread for the embroidery made in Syria. Traditional colours would be indigo blue, reds made from roots or insects and ochre for yellow. By far the most popular colour would have been red. Even the shade of red used would point to the origin of the wearer with wine red being from Ramallah and Jaffa, burnt Sienna from Hebron, magenta from Gaza and scarlet- and fuchsia red from Beersheba.
The main part of the book consists of full-page pictures of the stitched patterns (78 in total!). Each pattern has been stitched with European yarn (both DMC stranded cotton and perle were used after the 1930s) onto traditional Ramallah linen. I find this a very nice way of presenting the different patterns. So much more 'lively' than our traditional grid diagrams. And a much more original way of transferring pattern knowledge. Besides the beautiful pattern pictures there are also pictures of women wearing the traditional garments. This part of the book is a real feast for the eyes and your hands start to twitch as you probably can't wait to dive into reproducing a pattern yourself! I've written to the Palestinian Heritage Fund to ask if they know of an online source selling the traditional Ramallah linen. If anyone knows of such a source, please leave a comment!
The book was originally written to present and preserve the original Palestinian village patterns. Due to the Palestinian Diaspora after 1948, traditional village life changed dramatically. And so did the traditional patterns. Thus, in a way, the book also documents the influences world politics has on a traditional form of embroidery.
If you love cross-stitch and traditional forms of embroidery than this book should go onto your watch-list. With its hard-cover, detailed and clear pictures and 144 pages, it might not quite be worth €225, but around €50 would still be a good buy.
On a different note: my Instagram account has been hacked last Thursday. Since Instagram and Facebook have so far not reacted to my requests for help, I went to the police today to officially report the issue. As my hacked Instagram account is linked to my Facebook business page, it is possible that you will see posts that I have not made via both accounts. I am very sorry for that! Until this whole hacking has been sorted out, I won't use my social media. If you would like to stay up to date with my work, please sign up for my newsletter using the button at the top of the right-hand column.
Some of you might have already read Mary Corbet's review of this stunning book on embroidering cat portraits. I did! And since I had seen pictures of Hiroko's work on Pinterest, I really (REALLY) wanted this book. Hiroko shipped it super-fast from Japan; so here is my review.
Hiroko's cat (and dog) portraits are mainly stitched on items of clothing. Cat pops out of shirt pocket is probably the image most of us have seen before. Besides good quality natural fibre clothing as her canvas, Hiroko uses one strand of good quality stranded cotton (DMC, Anchor or the Japanese Olympus/Cosmo).
The stitching technique used by Hiroko is a form of thread painting. But it is not the same technique as is taught at the Royal School of Needlework and with which I am most familiar. The main difference? Hiroko does not use long stitches which she subsequently splits in order to get the required shading, instead she layers her stitches. And those of you who are familiar with the RSN-way of silk shading will have heard the phrase that it 'shouldn't be called long-and-short-stitch but long-and-longer-stitch'. Well, Hiroko uses tiny, tiny stitches to get the desired effect. Fascinating, I must say!
Hiroko's book is not a project book and it certainly isn't a book for silk shading virgins. Although Hiroko shows her order of work in step-by-step pictures for six cat portraits and one dog portrait, it isn't a step-by-step instruction book. This may sound a bit contradictory, so let me explain. The first cat up in the book is a black-and-white puss called Sora. According to Hiroko they are the easiest to do as they have a relatively simple fur pattern and a limited colour palette. The project is broken down in 40 pictures. Now, that sounds like a lot. But it really isn't if you think of the many different directions cat fur flows in. And then there are the tricky areas like nose, ears and eyes...
That said, if you are a regular silk-shader/thread painter, you will marvel at her technique! The step by step pictures with their explanatory texts are delightful. Hiroko has great wit and I laughed out loud several times. And I agree with Mary Corbet that although the pictures are too small to see each stitch clearly, a small magnifier solves this problem. I used my Mighty Bright Light and had no problem to follow Hiroko's projects. And at the back of her book there are the original cat pictures too. This enables you even better to understand how Hiroko tackles each cat. Throughout the book, Hiroko dispenses sound advice on how to become a good (cat portrait) embroiderer. It all boils down to observing the original thoroughly, diligence and self-critique in order to improve your work. And it becomes very clear from the book that these magnificently stitched cats do not appear as by magic; Hiroko works hard to make them happen. I think that's very honest and good to keep in mind.
So, where to get this latest addition to your ever-growing embroidery library? Straight from Hiroko through her Etsy store! The book is self-published and entirely written in English. A big round of applause for that! Including shipping (Japan-Germany took about a week) it cost me €37. In my opinion, very good value for your money!
Last week, I was finally able to pick up my copy of 'Raised Embroidery: Techniques, projects and pure inspiration' from the bookstore! It is the latest addition to the highly successful Search Press series of embroidery books from the Royal School of Needlework. And this one was written by Kelley Aldridge: my first tutor at the Royal School of Needlework. My embroidery life evolving thereafter is in a way all her fault :). Let's have an in depth look at this latest addition to my ever expanding embroidery book collection!
What I really like about this book, even before opening it, it has the new larger format. The first eight books in the series were rather small (c. A5). At around 100 pages they were perfect for beginners, but had little to offer for more experienced embroiderers. This book has 144 pages and is about A4 in size. And Kelley makes excellent use of this larger canvas!
As with all books in this series, the book starts with a short promotional story on the RSN. Then it carries on with an explanation of what raised embroidery is. It immediately clarifies that it is not only about 17th century stumpwork techniques modified for the 21st century stitcher. The book also looks at textured embroidery stitches known from for instance Brazilian embroidery. Having clarified the scope of the book, Kelley carries on with a short historical overview. As the aim of the book is to have you stitching, the part on choosing the right materials, from needles, to fabric, threads, frames and other tools, is much more elaborate. And explores some fun stuff you might not have thought to incorporate into your next masterpiece.
What I find absoluteley fantastic about this particular book: it has a whole section devoted to 'Inspiration and Design'. Here you can look Kelley over her shoulder to see how she comes up with her raised embroidery designs. It starts very basic with choosing the size and shape of your future piece, its function and selecting the materials you want to incorporate. However, Kelley also reveals that she is a great fan of using mood boards to come up with embroidery design ideas. This section is absolutely perfect for those stitchers who find it hard to find the confidence to create their own pieces. Kelley clearly demonstrates a quite structured way of creating and subsequently stitching your own design. This can, of course, be applied to all forms of needlework!
And, true to her training at the Royal School of Needlework, she strongly advocates that you think the piece over carefully before you start. Think about the order of work before you start. It greatly increases your stitching pleasure as you probably do not have to deal with 'road blocks' which often lead to another AMP (abandoned masterpiece). However, thinking it over does not mean that the process is now set in stone! Oh no, you can still tinker and tweak. It just reduces the risk of producing a roof without supporting walls :).
As already seen in the other books in this series, this one also contains a whole section on how to dress your hoop or slate frame, transfer your design onto fabric and starting and ending threads. Followed by sections on commonly used padding techniques, attaching stitches (think couching and Sisha), raised stitches, needle lace and creating wired shapes. This section provides a beginner to intermediate stitcher with enough tools to start stitching.
The 'second part' of the book is devoted to easy to follow step-by-step embroidery projects and pure inspiration from contemporary embroiderers. It kicks off with wearable raised embroidery and a project to make a lovely colourful brooch. I really love this piece as it shows you different ways of using common materials and stitches. It provided me with a real 'oh, I never thought of that (but from now on I will!)'. The following pages are filled with brooches, cuffs, necklaces and fascinators made by such talented people like: Lisa Bilby, Helen Richman & Jennifer Goodwin.
Next up are the 'useable raised embroideries' with a project to make a sleeve for your phone. You are walked through this project from the start of the design stage right up to finished product. This is what makes this book so good! And the project pages are again followed by pages full of pure eye-candy featuring outstanding embroidered boxes to store needlework supplies, an embroidered book cover and a stunning fully three-dimensional embroidered bird etui by Jenny Adin-Christie. So proud that my, simple in comparison, RSN-Diploma box 'Hansel & Gretel' is on the mirroring page!
And last but not least, are the 'collectible raised embroideries' with a funny biscornu as the step-by-step project. The last pages of the book are filled with stunning embroidered objects by such talented people as Angela Bishop, Kate Barlow, Victoria Laine, Holly Coleman, Hattie McGill, Elena Thornton, Laura Baverstock, Stella Davies and Kelley Aldridge herself.
This book is a real treat! And equally so for beginners right up to very experienced stitchers. The large number of embroidered pieces by artists trained to a very high standard at the Royal School of Needlework make this book to a must-have addition for your embroidery library. As always, please support your local bookstore if you can. Mine here in Germany was able to order the book for me within days for as little as €18,99. I consider this a bargain and am sure that I will treasure this gem for years to come. Thank you Kelley for writing such an inspiring embroidery book!
P.S. I wasn't able to find personal websites for all the above mentioned artists. If you know of one, please leave a comment below and I will update this post accordingly!
Jessica M. Grimm
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