In Which I Reply

Tying off knots on the back of a big piece. This is not normally how it is done!

Dear Barbara,

I know I am always foisting books on you that I am excited about, but Nina Simone’s Gum, by multi-instrumentalist and composer Warren Ellis, is really worth checking out. Surprisingly moving, it is about, yes, a piece of chewing gum that the divine Nina Simone took out of her mouth and stuck to the piano during her last concert in England. Ellis rescued it from the stage and over the years it attained the mystique of a holy relic. He eventually gets it cast in silver, and the original gum is exhibited in a show at the Royal Danish Library. All kinds of people are involved along the way. I like this passage, from near the end of the book:
“Our actions have repercussions whether immediate or years later. In our lifetime and beyond our years. Tiny depth charges set off miles below the surface of the sea. Watching the ripples form, then expand and vibrate, connecting continents. Actions waiting for an answer in the future. Ideas waiting for people to attach to. Waiting to be heard. To remind us. To connect us. To make us imagine. Dream. With the closure of ideas we make them infinite. A circle. A ring. Eternal.”

To me, this really speaks of why I make art. It is about taking an idea that persists in my mind until I just have to bring it into existence, to set it in motion. I kind of give up control at that point, but hope that what I make generates ripples across the void, hoping to connect, to be seen, to be received.
So what might this have to do with my secret power of invisibility? And how important are hidden things in the outcome of a piece of embroidery? I guess I like the idea that there is much in the world beyond the immediate sphere of what we can see. I can easily go off in various nutty directions, but will try to stick to the topic.

First, I am so glad you asked! The back of a piece of embroidery is indeed not usually meant to be seen (although I can think of a few artists who deliberately show the back of the work.) It would be so easy to leave threads hanging, but if you ever have, you would quickly discover the reason why one shouldn’t: the hanging ends inevitably get caught up in the stitching, sometimes even getting pulled to the front. The tidier the back, the easier it is to keep the front looking as it should.

Ideally, the best way to end a thread is to weave an inch or so into the back of stitches on the underside. Even then, the tension must not be too tight because it will affect the appearance of the stitches on the surface. Sometimes I do that, and always feel very virtuous when I do, but mostly I just make a knot. Since I usually work on heavier linen, the knots are not seen. I make a small tailor’s knot and clip the end of the thread leaving about 1 cm. hanging. Occasionally the knots are a pain when I have to start another thread very close, but mostly they are not an issue. “I am an artist”, I cry, “not a Parisian couture embroiderer!”

But, yes, indeed, I do cringe in shame when I think of my high-school sewing teacher, Ella-Maria Pucher, having a look at the back of my work. She was Austrian, had been a dressmaker to the stars, and I cannot pick up a steam iron without hearing her words: “Dahling, you must press it bee-yooo-tifully!” Mrs.Pucher was voted the most memorable teacher by my 25-year-reunion classmates. She was a gem. I would never want to disappoint her.

Reuniting with Mrs. Pucher, about the year 2000.

She may be the person I feel most accountable to, even though I have also been taught by such stitching luminaries as Dorothy Caldwell and Tilleke Schwartz. I can’t remember them ever mentioning the back of the work, although their practise was more geared towards the individual, idiosyncratic stitch rather than Royal School of Needlework bland perfection. Dorothy even had us stitch while blindfolded.

** There is a mind-boggling technique of double sided embroidery, practised by the Chinese. It is miraculous. I can’t even begin to understand.**

I suspect all the fuss over the neatness of the unseen side of a piece of embroidery goes to the historical tradition of fine craft work, and guild standards at a time when embroidery was professionally practised by men. Also historically, embroidery was one of the few means convents had to generate income – there is probably a proverb somewhere about how God will always know if the back of your work is messy. I imagine the nuns would have to do penance if their work wasn’t perfect.

Occasionally, when I am not planning for my retirement years as an inmate (that eco-terrorism scenario), I wish I could just retreat to a de-sanctified convent and spend all my time stitching, enjoying spartan meals and a bit of perambulating around the gardens...

Does any of this answer your questions? My biggest improvement as a stitcher came when I started working on a large hoop mounted on a floor stand. This allows both my hands to work together, my left (non-dominant) hand on top and my more dextrous right hand below. This also develops rhythm and more even stitches. I definitely have more of a sense of the stitching action as a whole, rather than a front side/back side binary. It kind of reminds me of my art school painting class with Tom Dean. He encouraged us to paint with a brush in each hand, so that we would be creating with both the articulate and the inarticulate sides of our brains. 

Does any of this help with your own sense of feeling not seen? Has moving out of the spotlight been a conscious choice, or is it a result of the development and deepening of your practise? I have probably only known you in this more recent mode, but I asked Alex what he remembered from seeing you do poetry slams or the Fugitives – he said you were very engaging and charismatic, which you still are! I guess I think of you as a director, bringing people together to realize your vision, and also being open to the vision of your collaborators. This is a very good thing, in my opinion. There is more than one way to be seen.