Stitches Through Time

Last month I started a hand-making project I’d envisioned for over a year: to interpret a series of mandalas I’d drawn and painted by tracing their designs onto linen and embroidering with wool crewel yarn. That had been the original plan. But when it took many months for the yarn to arrive from England and to secure the right colour and weave of linen – all ordered online as this was in the thick of lockdowns and I’d seen how website color charts don’t translate well – a chance walk down an aisle at Michael’s (the national chain craft store) where I saw a wall full of cotton embroidery thread in a rainbow of colours, resulted in its rethinking to ‘plan B.’

Then a comment to my mother, when we finally visited in September – she remarkably skilled in high counted cross stitch, our home graced by several of her creations – led to her gladly gifting me with her supply of needles, hoops, scissors, specially made wooden boxes, beads, and ‘signature’ well-organized collection of threads – hundreds of colours in a multitude of hues and metallics. For me who was enthralled with my childhood Christmas gift box of 64 Crayola crayons, I was in that same colour-smitten heaven. I paid an extra baggage fee to bring the entire collection safely home, spent an evening going through it all to understand Mom’s ‘system,’ finally broke the seal on the new tracing light board I’d purchased a year ago in anticipation, and began.

Initially, I thought I’d follow closely the colours in the original watercolour, but I soon realized that working with needle, thread and yarn, despite being close in colour, is not the same as brush and paint. So, I began to improvise within the spaces, using a variety of shades and stitch patterns. I discovered that “split stitch” is pleasing in its coverage, texture, ability to move back and forth between thread and yarn, and in actually making each stitch. It simply feels good to make that stitch.

I also discovered that where I began – sitting quietly in our living room after dinner, everything spread around me – I missed my ‘pack,’ and knew Annie missed me. She has her routine. Once we finish dinner and clean up the kitchen, it’s ‘pack time.’ She settles on ‘her’ love seat in the family room and waits for us to join her. Sometimes when we’re lingering over dinner, she can become quite impatient, pacing back and forth, showing her teeth in that non-aggressive, trying to talk to us way. It’s just not the same if I’m sitting in the living room, even when I cajole her into laying down on the carpet beside me. So I’ve shifted to where the light and companionship are better, often plugging in my earbuds to listen to a podcast as I stitch, while Sig watches a hockey game or aninvesting or horse training video, and Annie, utterly content on the sofa in between, soundly sleeps.

But the biggest discovery has been how soothing I find this act of handmaking. It goes slowly. Gradually I see the colours and textures resemble the painting that inspired the plan. Not an evening goes by when I don’t silently grok and or remark how soothed I feel doing this work. In part I know it comes from the deep appreciation I feel using my mother’s materials and supplies, that my hands are using what her hands had used for years to make beauty. And that given the amount of thread she’s given me, I will most likely have many more years than my mother life to bask in this gratitude.

“There is a juiciness to creativity, a succulence, or a sensuality which both produces and is soothed by creating something. I think that creativity is pleasing to women on a very deep level, whatever form it might take – whether it’s the feel of clay in our hands, the colours that work on us as we knit, the meaning that we find in the words that we write, or the energizing feel of movement as we dance and the music moves through our bodies.”

Lucy Pearce in Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted, 2019
quoted in “When Women Create,” A Wabi Sabi Life

As I look over my life, my mother always did handwork, as did many women of her generation and those before her. I remember many of the clothes she made for my sister and me until I began sewing my own in my early teens. After living in an apartment for my first thirteen years, my parents built their home and Mom poured herself into its decorating, needlepointing the backgrounds of eight dining room chairs – a meditation in monotony, same stitch, same colour for many months. From there she mastered every style of needlework, again gifting me with cushions, purses, and such. She knit beautifully, always challenging herself in ways I didn’t quite get nor fully appreciate. A brief foray into crewel work and then counted cross-stitch and cutaway, the finer and more intricate, the better. In the last few years, she’s found the strain on her eyes too much, regrettably as she has several half-finished projects and wishes to make each of her grandchildren and great-great grandchildren keepsakes. So she’s gone back to occasionally knitting, and now spends more time reading. It’s a pastime I’m happy she enjoys, as when younger she never did, believing herself to be a poor reader. So utterly untrue when I think about what she’s created with her hands – the patterns she had to read and interpret, the recipes she improvised, the books she kept for the business. A legacy of the hurtful, limiting stories we’re told, or tell ourselves.

“When you learn to make things with your hands, you begin to awaken an awareness of the beauty and value of things in your life. Handmaking teaches us about slowness: the antidote to brevity and efficiency. It shows us, through the patience of our own hands, what goes into a thing. When we put those long efforts into bringing beauty into the world, we are honouring that which made us by creating as we have been created. We are taught to respect the slow, attentive piecing together of the life we yearn for.”

Toko-pa Turner, Belonging, 2017
quoted in “A Homemade, Handmade Life,” A Wabi Sabi Life

And looking further back, her grandmother, my Gramma, was always sewing – spectacular fashions inspired by the turn of the century Edwardian era. Plumed and netted hats, velvet coats. No wonder I was so taken by Downton Abbey for its costume design, as I have old sepia tint photos of Gramma looking just like those women. Too, I have one hundred year old samples of her silk embroidery, and I wore for my wedding the white cotton lawn embroidered dress she’d made for her own – fine hand sewn tucked bodice, tiny mother of pearl buttons.

My paternal grandmother, Oma, too, was a very skillful seamstress, though in the pre and post world war periods of Germany, her talents were out of necessity directed to the functional, utilitarian, to get more wear from what was worn. Emigrating to North America in the 1950s, she became a pieceworker on the assembly line making glass cases for Bausch and Lomb. An accident on the sewing machine nearly severed her middle finger, left its nail permanently clawed over. Her dowager’s hump the price for countless hours bent over those grinding machines.

Before my mother’s second birthday, her mother died. Eleanor, my grandmother, was adopted as a young child. Family dynamics and bureaucratic policy were such that we grew up knowing very little about her. Did she like to sew? Was she a hand maker? Did she embroider or like cooking? We don’t know. We have very few pictures of her, but one as a young girl shocked us all in the resemblance I share with her.

Early this morning I woke having dreamt of her. A young boy hand-delivered a painting or photograph of a young girl child, now restored and framed. Stretching, I had to reach up high and retrieve the parcel from its precarious perch. I unwrapped its golden Klimt-like heavy wrapping paper to see a little girl at sitting at a table outside, surrounded by little glass pots of paint, flowering bushes beside her, blue sky above. I knew immediately it was Eleanor. I felt a whisper in my heart murmuring that this is how I am connected to my grandmother, in little paint pots of colour – the timeless iteration of the 64 box of crayons – in a yard warm with flowers and a blue sky.

“…I needed that bond to feel whole, competent and grounded, connected to my heart and soul, to my community, to my ancestors, and to the natural world around me…”

Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019,
quoted in “Joie de Faire,” A Wabi Sabi Life

In the still dark this morning, I sensed this is how I am connected to the lineage of women – through the shimmering cotton threads, warm hued woolen yarns, fabrics woven on looms and sewn into garments and furnishings. That my ancestors whisper to me in dreams and in the stitches we make through time.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

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