Aug 7, 2015

The Heroic Aspect of Embroidery (From the Archives)

We're all busy. Yet perhaps we would be well-served by taking time to create something that might seem worthless. Doing so would at least help to avoid the burden of the boring life that Mary Moerbe wrote about. Here's an article about "worthless" creativity that first ran last year.

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

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!)


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna 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 with their small son (and are awaiting the arrival of baby #2, due in July). Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.

1 comment:

  1. I have embroidered consistently since high school. As a wife and mother, especially, I enjoy it because it is one of the few things in my life that stays done (unlike laundry, dinner, house cleaning, etc.). It's also a tangible way of beautifying my little corner of the world.


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