Exciting experiments part I
A couple of weeks ago, I was alerted to a television appearance of the Imperial Vestments by a blog reader from Germany. In it, one of the researchers is recreating a piece of goldwork embroidery and exclaims that she cannot reach the same quality as the medieval embroiderers once could. The German blog reader wondered in her email what the outcome would have been had a professional embroiderer worked the same sample? As I don't have a television, I hadn't seen the show. However, you can watch it online here, the item starts at 19:48 (you probably need a VPN and set the server to Germany when you are located outside of Germany). It is well worth it, as it has close-ups of the goldwork embroidery on the Imperial Vestments which detail you cannot see when visiting the real pieces. My thought after watching the video? Houston we have a problem!
The lady demonstrating the goldwork embroidery started her educational career as an embroidery apprentice. She concluded her learning after two years with a journeyman examination and switched to becoming a textile conservator. This is a transcript of what is being said during the stitching:
"Sybille Ruß faces the medieval competition. In a self-test, she wants to find out how tightly she can pack the threads. The result: the embroidery performance back then was downright incredible. So I made a test with the thinnest gold thread and came to 28-30 threads per cm and our top density on the blue Cunigunde mantle is 70 threads. So that goes from 35 to 70 so I wouldn't even have made second place."
At the same time, we see her stitch on a pretty slack slate frame. In several close-ups we see her stitch her couching stitches in the wrong direction, i.e. not going down with the needle slightly under the previous row of goldthread. This results in pulling the rows of goldthread apart instead of packing them tightly. It is also evident that the sample we see her work on does have far less than those 28-30 threads per cm.
As I really wasn't sure if she knew her experiment did not work because of these basic mistakes I wrote her an email. I promptly received a reply in which she explained that it wasn't a real experiment and that the filming had led to her working the way she did. She was well aware that you need a taut frame and that you couch goldthread in the opposite direction. After all, she had been stitching all day for two years during her professional education. And I am the Easter bunny!
To me, this video fragment is the umpteenth proof that embroidery is not being taken seriously. Too often, being a female with nimble fingers is enough qualification to speak about embroidery with authority. During my studies as an archaeologist, I did several courses on archaeological conservation and even did an internship at the County Conservation Centre in Salisbury, UK. However, I decided to pursue a career in archaeozoology, not in archaeological conservation. Would I go onto national television and proudly lecture on archaeological conservation? No way.
Whilst the research project on the Imperial Vestments shows that they are being taken seriously at a scholarly level, the video (and the makeup of the research team) shows that the practical side perhaps does not get the attention it deserves. Why is there no professional goldwork embroiderer on the team?
Embroidery and professionalism do not seem to go together. And the uncomfortable truth is that embroiderers themselves are partly to blame for it. When I was still demonstrating embroidery I got so many non-mindful comments of female stitchers passing by that I decided to stop. The core of most remarks? I wasn't something special. They could do that too. That's not exactly lifting each other up. Men, on the contrary, were often in awe of my skill and professionalism. And some even dared to correct their female companions ...
And then there are those embroiderers that proudly exclaim that they are self-taught. In most instances, this seems to mean that they did not go to the Royal School of Needlework :). Learning through books, workshops, blogs, YouTube, etc., for some still seems to mean that they are self-taught. No. You learned self-paced. In all these years, I have never come across someone who was truly self-taught. Not only is it not very nice for the teachers behind the books, blogs and videos that they are not being acknowledged, learning embroidery is also being devalued. Apparently, anyone can figure it out with no help at all! Not good. Please be mindful when you describe your learning journey. Whilst we all figure things out on our own, none of us is truly self-taught. And we teachers know exactly what kind of student you are when you introduce yourself as self-taught. Self-taughts are not the humblest of people and paradox need a lot of attention in class.
Next week, I will show you what happened when I tried to pack as many threads next to each other. Was I able to pack more than 30 threads per centimetre? See you next week!
Excellent. Your comments are succinct and right on.
Thank you, Susan! I suspect some are not going to be happy about my blog today, but it needed to be said.
Claire de Pourtalès
I might come from another planet... I have started to give embroidery classes (basic) because I need to make a living. But I feel like a fraud. I want to go back 15 years, and really learn how to do it correctly and how to teach it correctly. It is one of the rare thing you just cannot pretend to be good at! It is so obvious!
Thank you, Claire! No, you are not a fraud! We can all teach each other some things as no one knows it all. But whe should refrain from using the word self-taught.
I have considered myself "self-taught" but really you are correct. I have changed my language to myself on this issue. To be honest it is really nice to think of all those teachers I have watched and give them proper credit. I hope that others do the same. :D
That is so kind of you, Erin! I even consider the unknown embroiderers of which the historic pieces hang in museums to be my teachers. Although I often figure out how they did something, they had figured it out long ago :).
I came here to say what Erin has said--I use the phrase 'self-taught' but of course it's wrong. I think that many of us who use it mean it diffidently--a way of saying, "Oh, I don't want you to think that I think I'm any good at this!" I appreciate this corrective and I will change to saying "self-paced learner."
That's lovely, Nina! Thank you so much.
Self-paced! That's it. I stand on the shoulders of all those who wrote the books, ran the classes, filmed the videos. You have nothing to apologise for, Jessica, and there might well be some readers who do not appreciate the breath of fresh air that this blog post represents. Open discussion is the only way to move forward. If we don't take embroidery seriously, why would others?
Thank you, Nancy! I once worked for a saddler who considered himself self-taught. I had to sign a document that forbade me to disclose the process for making certain goods. Why? He had worked for other saddlers and took their knowledge to open his own business.
Well said. Doing embroidery is a constant learning process from both teachers and practice. 2 years
Well said, Darcy!
More or less what I was going to say but you put it better than I could :-)
Excellent post! I have the same experiences as you concerning demonstrations and teaching - nobody gave me credit and only wanted everything for free, since embroidery is 'just a hobby'. Some ladies even came to my studio to pump me on information about lots of things - stitches, threads, fabrics... and then they ordered on the web, even though all was available right under their noses. After struggling for 12 years, I finally gave up. So go, go, Claire, you're not a fraud and we need you out there! And thank you, Jessica, for such thorough embroidery work - embroidery is ART and cannot be done by just anyone. And by the way, it's the same thing with teaching - even if we are perfect embroiderers, it does not mean that we are good teachers. Just to say...
Thank you, Marina! That's so nasty what happened to you and your studio. And then these ladies complain that there are so little opportunities for seeing the materials. And you are right about teaching. It is quite culturally specific too :).
Excellent comments. I have heard others mention how some "professionals" say things that are not right and demonstrate a lack of true knowledge of the subject.
Thank you, Lexa!
Ahhh Lightbulb moment.... Well I always thought of myself 'self taught' and not giving myself credit or the sources that I learnt from. I feel a lightening and a beginning of change on how I look at my skills.
Thank you, Sheila! Yes, you should be proud of yourself for such dedicated CPD.
Thank you, Dorte!
Absolutely spot on. If I am "self-taught", it is only because the teachers who took the time and trouble to write the shelves I books I consult used their experience of in-person teaching to produce books I could refer to, and photographs that are clearer than any in-person demonstration. I happen to learn better if left to myself with a book - but the book needed to be written.
Thank you, Rachel! And I agree about the books. Pictures that are not in motion are sometimes better than a video or live demonstration. And yes to the blog series!
What a wonderful idea - blog series! Perhaps we could link to each others' blog posts?
I agree with your sentiments. Embroidery is a learned skill that requires near daily practice to maintain skills and when done well is amazing. When done less well it can still be acceptable but it takes a practiced eye to see the difference. So often it is designers who are felt to be the best teacher, but in fact I have seen a few who aren’t the most technically proficient embroiders despite being fabulous designers.
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