Nov 21, 2014

The Heroic Aspect of Embroidery

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

Many of the novels that I read in childhood began in a similar way. In each one, a young girl in a historical setting would chafe against the constraints of her life. Like Merida in Disney’s Brave, she wished to run about and enjoy active adventures; but, alas, her misguided and oppressive relations forced her to sit around in long skirts and do embroidery. She always hated embroidery.

I used to wonder why these authors never created girls who despised, say, knitting, or croquet, or re-trimming hats. Somehow, embroidery was the universal symbol of how those authors viewed the historical role of women: decorative, tedious, and useless.   

Perhaps embroidery is a waste of time. If the materialists are correct and we humans are merely a conglomeration of biological parts and chemical brain waves, it is incredibly stupid of us to spend untold hours decorating already functional objects. Biological machines ought not to need beauty. They should focus on getting ahead in more practical ways. They should avoid the insanity of creating things like these:


Nineteenth Century (Source)


Probably from the first half of the Twentieth Century
(Source)

Elizabethan (Source)

Contemporary (Source)

English Crewel Work (Source)


Yet when faced with a choice between the bleak, Darwinian landscape of the materialists and a world that creates beautiful stitchery like the pieces above, all I can say is, “Hand me a needle.” To spend hours learning an art form is to make a statement about the human soul. It is to affirm that a non-material part of us exists, and that it must be fed. It is to claim that we have a purpose in life beyond the pragmatic task of survival and competition. It is to suggest that objective, eternal truth exists (or else we would not need to practice our art until it approaches more closely to this standard called “beauty”). It is to show respect to the ancestors from whom we learn our techniques and the descendants for whom we make something enduring.

Embroidery may have bloomed in its golden age, but it certainly languishes now. After all, the baby isn’t going to feed himself and the toddler is terrible at changing poopy diapers. The homework has a deadline and the boss wants us to work overtime. Besides, we can buy all kinds of decorative objects from the discount store. Why should we take the time to become creators of beauty instead of mere consumers of mass-produced objets d’art?

Because we don’t live on bread alone. That is why. We have a natural appetite to create, just as we do to eat or to love. Just as it is helpful to our soul to physically kneel while we confess our sins, the physical work of creating something worthwhile has an effect on our hearts and minds.

I think that nowadays, the female creative impulse is just as strong as it was in Jane Austen’s day, but because we lack training in the arts, it usually manifests itself through crafts instead. Some are more tasteful and authentic than others. We make cute little penguin Christmas ornaments, hand-print paint projects, or hot-glue-gunned monstrosities that will be thrown out in a few months. Even in my own relatively brief lifespan, I’ve seen fabric stores like Joann’s become craft stores that are heavily stocked with prefabricated, pre-designed, chintzy options intended to catch the eye of the creatively hungry. I don’t mean to bash anyone’s enjoyment of crafting (I do it myself, and I understand the hypnotic appeal of a hot glue gun), but I think that if hot glue guns remain our weapon of choice, we are in danger of starving a part of our collective soul.

We busy modern women have a chance to strike a blow for beauty. We do not all have the same talents or interests, but I do think that for each of us there exists an art form that, instead of feeling like one more task, is refreshment and rest. What matters most, however, is a recognition that making decorative, tedious, useless things is important work. That is why I love embroidery. 

Despite my talk about beauty, my own embroidery skills are still very much a work-in-progress, but  just for fun, here is a piece of mine.


(Faces are hard to do!)



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Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.

15 comments:

  1. Great post, Anna! You make so many good points here, but I have to say I especially appreciate your points on embroidery as a defiance against materialistic reductionism - totally agree!

    While it is only truly great art that stands the test of time, it seems to me that even ‘throwaway’/junk crafts have a place, too, like: making up a silly rhyming song to distract the restless baby on the changing table, or, that timeless tradition of kids turning an old cardboard box into a playhouse...or, making a seasonal garland out of the kids’ old drawings (haha;) - for a few examples. Fun ways to pass the time and find simple solutions to a problem, even if they aren’t things that will last forever (moth and rust destroy, thieves break in and steal). And, perhaps for that reason, it can quite often be the frailest and homeliest of handmade things that inspire an unexpected, profound sense of the beautiful - like C.S. Lewis’s curious sensation of “joy” (and longing for the Garden that was) at the recollection of his brother’s humble little makeshift terrarium - simple “moss in a biscuit tin.”

    Keep up the embroidery work! :)

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    1. That's beautifully said (about small creations). Something lovingly made is never to be scoffed at.

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  2. This post makes me sad, because I embroidered in high school and college. I have a dirndl I made somewhere with ivy and flowers embroidered on it. (I never tried people! That looks difficult)

    Sometimes I dream about doing handiwork (mending, knitting, crocheting, quilting) in the evenings in the winter. I was fortunate to learn all those skills from a talented art teacher. Unfortunately, I don't even do crafty stuff with my kids (my mom does that). Now that my oldest is 7 and very interested in these type things, I may slowly start some projects with her.

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    1. You should! I have lots of fond memories of the projects my mom started my sisters and I on. Once we learned a few skills, most of it was self-directed, and made us a very happy group of girls!

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  3. I love this! Creating art is indeed a humanizing activity. Animals have no concept of beauty, but as god's image-bearers, we can strive to create beauty that imitates, however imperfectly, the beauty God created in us and our world.

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  4. Very nice article Anna! I tried my hand at embroidery when my first daughter was born to have a little handmade treasure for her nursery. This design reminded me of a favorite children's book, Imogen's Antlers, http://www.studiomme.com/embroidery-kits/coming-home-embroidery-kit It was a super simple piece but it opened my eyes to the patience, talent and beauty of handmade embroidery pieces. Since then I've started collecting handmade linens whenever I find an amazing example of embroidery. I also follow this woman's blog, she bring modern embroidery to a whole new level. She describes her work as "thread painting" and her finished pieces do look like gorgeous landscapes. https://www.flickr.com/photos/maequeencrafts/sets/72157632463857944/show/

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    1. Wow, that "thread painting" is remarkable. I don't think I could do that, even if I had the technical needle-working skills, because I don't have the technical composition/artistic skills.

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  5. This makes me think of the lost art of homemaking, cooking from scratch, cleaning, adding touches of beauty to the home and taking pride in the work of these things. Not sure if it's same but I don't feel like I have the time or energy for other arts right now. However, in having to learn all these on my own after getting married I'm beginning to find contentment in this art. Oh and I do like to knit, but can only knit straight, so scarves and dish clothes that's it, nothing fancier. I love occupying my hands in that wa though. Thanks for the article Anna!

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    1. It makes me think of those, too. Though I cringe at the thought of trying to find time for embroidery, I do treasure the embroidered dish towels my husband's aunt gave us last year for Christmas. However, cooking from scratch has become my passion, and the more I try to do, the more all-consuming it becomes! Why is the art of homemaking being lost? I believe it's our consumer culture, capitalism run amok. I long to find a good balance, since I cannot imagine producing everything I would want to use.

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    2. It's worth remembering (when we get swamped with trying to make/cook/sew/grow everything from scratch) that such endeavors have not historically been one-woman shows. The typical household used to hold multiple adult women (whether extra relatives or hired help). I think you're right that a balance is key to neither giving up nor going crazy. :-)

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  6. Making the embroidered handkerchief a baby receives at baptism (at our church, anyway) is a nice little project for an older sibling.

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  7. My children are just now getting old enough and interested in learning some sewing skills, and I'm hoping that will spur me to set aside some time to practice those skills I all but put away with I became a mother. I do miss it so much. I have a list a mile long of projects I want to complete!

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    1. I know what you mean about lists of projects!

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  8. Have you read Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh? I think you might love it the way I do. Yes, it's from a pretty humanisitic approach, but she makes the same point that women in particular have a need (and a right) to create things, that people who feel that creative urge and stifle it are hurting themselves. It's beautiful.

    In other words, I completely agree with you. I love to crochet, sew, cross-stitch, and knit. I love to paint things and fix things and make new, better things out of old, worn-out things. I love to bake and cook. (But I hate cleaning.) I thank the Lord that my mom could teach me to do all those, and some basic embroidery as well! I was a committed tomboy as a kid, except when it came to any "girly" skill that could help me create something. Those I learned happily :-)

    I'm going to share this post on Facebook.

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    1. I haven't! I'll have to look for that book. Have you read Sayers' Gaudy Night? It's not about artistic creation, but the discussion of academic work, and the moral obligation to do one's work, is fascinating.

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