Monday, July 06, 2009


Like Donna, I was delighted to see that we have entered into a dialogue about the possible representations of cross stitch, and I do hope it is one that continues. I think that Mr X and I are on the same side, mostly. I didn't see a manifesto on his website so I didn't know that his intention was to "challenge[] the conception that embroidery is just a hobby and not a valid art or craft form...[pieces featured on his site] serve some function in altering people's perspectives of the genre." As you know, I am a big fan of altering people's perspectives of the genre. Which is why I have the "old lady count" and feature the silly stories the media tell about us. And encourage you to write to complain.

I must recommend Rozsika Parker's Subversive Stitch to everyone who wants to be radical. Cross your fingers that it is in your library because it runs $145 in paperback these days. Don't be put off by the subtitle: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. The book shows how women have long resisted the very things we think we're resisting today by writing "fuck" in cross-stitch. I don't know, somehow if you know history, you just come off better.

So what were people doing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s to be radical? (In Parker's book, she even shows how women in the 20s were being radical in embroidery.) Since one could write a whole book on this, let's turn to one example, Judy Chicago who attempted to elevate women's craft in the mid-to-late 70s when she created the Dinner Party and reinforced these attempts with the Birth Project in the 1980s. (And indeed, in an overdetermined way, Chicago's work informs this very blog.) The latter focuses more on needlework than the former, though it is included in the place settings of the Dinner Party. (Of course, even Chicago's attempts to elevate craft are open to very valid criticism. Here's a pretty good summary, though not such a good refutation.)

Is the problem that her work seems so old fashioned and feminist? What exactly are people trying to do differently?

One of the main problems with cross-stitch-as-art is that sometimes artists aren't very good artisans--their work sort of sucks. Or more literately, the idea is good but the execution lacks talent. When I went to see the Dinner Party in L.A. many moons ago, they also had a secondary display of artwork that played with the notion of women's work and art vs craft. There were little cross-stitched Piet Mondrian-type pictures on display. With hoop marks. It was big-A Art because it was playing with ideas about high versus low (and also it was in a museum) but technically my eight year old niece could have stitched it. Or maybe the refusal to use an iron was subversive?

I know there are lots of dear readers who refer to what they do as "art" but when you copy a pattern, that is craft. It is the very definition of craft. You can call your cubic zirconium a diamond, but it doesn't make it one.

Of course there are those who create their own patterns and that does move toward art. But unless you have a technical mastery, I'm afraid I can't call it art. There are even designers I wouldn't consider artists. If you are "designing" things that I could design with a charting program, not art. I just think there really has to be some level of design skill involved, and I can point to dozens of popular designers who aren't using the skills they quite probably have. If you are creating reproductions of existing samplers, not art. (But a fabulous service to those of us who love antique samplers.) If you are charting famous artwork or photographs, not art. (I think I have to agree somewhat here with Bronny about the blending of skintones, but I also appreciate that there is always a bit of a pixelated look to cross-stitch which makes it so intriguing in a computer age.)

Donna said "it's the media" but I spent eleventy-million years writing a dissertation saying that while the media does reflect a larger belief system they don't create it. Of course, spreading the reflection, yes, and if that's what we mean by creating, okay, creating then.

And I don't disagree that it's wonderful that young people are taking up all kinds of needles. I was in my early twenties when I started stitching (though I did crewel at a much younger age). I encourage my niece to stitch as well. Stitch, young people, stitch!

But "stitchalicious" says
It's really no different to any other hobby/interest/sport/career. The young are eager and beginners. These are people just getting into it and of course they want positive feedback. And of course we want to give it so that they KEEP doing it and get better. Why can't we be to them what our teachers were to us? I can assure you that my first needlework teacher (ummm, Mum) gushed over the wonkiest, ugliest, worst stitching ever to be inflicted on a piece of fabric and that is part of what kept me doing it.

I must respectfully disagree, having spent 8 years as a college writing teacher. Sure your mother is supposed to gush, but not all teachers are. I didn't have that mother. She praised what I did well, and was honest about my weaknesses. We're in this trap that there's something about self-esteem that prevents us from being critical. Frankly, there's no place for feelings when you are trying to get better at something. I can't possibly imagine the dude blogging about his golfing and people applauding him like he was Tiger Woods (so, it's not like other interests and sport). In sport we have really rather defined categories: professionals and amateurs; junior varsity vs varsity; high school vs college; intramural vs college team; Division I vs Divisions I-AA, II, and III; Olympic-caliber vs weekend athlete; Pros vs Joes. (Of course, golf lets amateurs play with the professionals. Still not all amateurs are equal.) And I'm pretty sure the guy who plays pick up on the weekends doesn't think he could compete with Kobe Bryant; maybe not even the Duke basketball team. Just because something is accessible doesn't mean we are all masters. I'm not going to turn up my nose at beginner work--I'm not even going to turn it over and look at the back--but I don't think that just because you can make an ex on a piece of fabric you should be lauded. And I do think that's what the DIY-media has a tendency to do. Things they haven't seen before should be featured.

So is it ingenious to embroider a picture of your vibrator? Is it "new" to cross-stitch political statements? No. Do I think that people should stop doing it? No. Do I think we need to have a historical grounding for talking about what we are doing? Yes. Do I think that technical excellence is important? Yes. Do I think I'm better than you? Probably (but that has nothing to do with the fact that I am technically skilled but too lazy to make the things you are making). Do I want to be lumped with the old ladies who stitch geese because that's the strawman you set your own radical nature against? No. I want you to understand that the spectrum of crafters and output is much more expansive than you seem to think. Promise me, okay? Then let's go down to the pub and drink to it.


Bronny said...

I'm coming back to this post to think about it further and go off on abstract wanderings through the dinner party - never heard of it before - but right now it's time for work - and yes...I'll certainly like to meet you at the pub for a drink and a good face to face discussion.

Anonymous said...

I know, personally, that your stitching is meticulously wrought and beautiful.

I also believe that if you took the time you would come up with some fabulously unique charts - and the phrases to go with them.

Bee Bitchy!


stitchalicious said...

Thanks for this post, an enjoyable read and informative to those who don't know much of what has gone before.

Actually, I agree with your disagreement to my statement on your previous post. I still stand by my point that we have to encourage, but I acknowledge fully the point that we must also educate. I've thought over the discussion from the last post a lot to try and work out how best to do that in this internet age. Many of the younger stitchers don't have someone physically nearby who can hold their work and guide their hands and say "here's a way to make it even better". And in many internet environments critique results in a flame war. So I shall ponder that more, try and come up with a solution, and see what kind of teaching atmosphere can be brought into the community.

I do think, though, that we should be aware of going too far in demands of technical perfection. Many years ago I was a member of rctn (2000-2003)- until the staid, pernickity and judgemental voices drove me away. Rail-roading is all well and good, but if it's just while doing that Lavender and Lace pattern that a thousand sticthers have done before you... does it really make you that much better? And does it give you the right to be judgemental of people who have a less perfect technique, but are trying things not already plotted out for them beforehand? (please note that I'm using a generic "you"!)

Again, thanks for the thought-provoking posts. I did feel a bit unhappy with the us vs them tone of the previous one and hope we can avoid a schism happening along age lines within the community, but would love to see more posts like this covering stitching that has gone before and helping educate those that haven't had much exposure to high quality embroidery.

Coral said...

Most amusing, thank you for the smiles!