A meditation on focus and hand embroidery

Why I embroider: My answer on 2010-07-28, which is sure to be one answer out of many.

Hand embroidering for me is a way to sit with an idea, an image, a drawing of mine, for a long period of time that simply drawing doesn’t afford me. Most of my drawings are closer to sketches, completed in minutes, usually under ten and almost certainly under thirty. And don’t get me wrong – I love to draw quickly. It forces me into a different mind space for looking at an image — right now my favorite drawings and place to draw is on BART, furitively sketching folks on their commute, usually as reflected in the windows. There’s something loose and freeing about that kind of sketch, because there isn’t room or time to worry about getting it wrong.

Hand embroidery allows other kinds of opportunities for me, especially those related to sitting with an idea for an extended period of time. The way I consume media, especially online content, it’s very rare that I’m interacting with a single idea or even a single set of ideas for an extended period of time — I’ve got 20 tabs open in each of the 50 windows and three browsers, plus Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and iTunes and another Twitter and Etsy and gChat and email and what-have-you, and everything is interesting and amazing and now and jumbled and different. And that’s good, in a lot of ways, but it does make uninterrupted stretches of concentration a rarity. Hand embroidery creates a space and a space for focus

One of the series I’m working on now is, tentatively, called ‘Collection of Dead Jokes;’ it’s a set of portraits of people I am no longer friends with paired with inside jokes we shared. I’ve been really interested in the philosophical implications of inside jokes – are they still funny when only one person remembers them? Are they still jokes? If not jokes, then what? Ghosts? Strings? Nothing? Working on this series as hand embroideries means I get to sit with these ideas and my memories of these old friends in a way I don’t think I would find in another medium.

Each time I take my embroidery out in public, either at a craft fair or just as work-in-public, someone comments about how much patience I must have to do it. *** For me, I’m not sure it’s patience so much as it is a willingness to be focused on one thing for an extended period of time. I don’t think of myself as a particularly patient person – I’m forever starting fitness routines that I slack off on because the results aren’t quick enough, I don’t play most video games, especially console ones, because they take too long, and, like I said, my drawing is sketching because of how light and fast it is – I just like the break from multiple, competing foci. Patience, to me, is about waiting; focus means doing one thing rather than twenty.

Embroidery also lets me luxuriate in the texture and feel of the materials I’m working with and the stitches I’m using. I’m a tactile person, so most of the things I make involve touching something dimensional, but there’s something special about embroidery that even other textile arts I practice lack. Like knitting, for example – I love the unraveling of a pattern with knitting, the decoding of the seemingly secret message that turns symbols on paper into three dimensions. But I don’t particularly enjoy it without something else going on – mostly movies, or talking to other people – even listening to music and knitting isn’t really enough for me to be fully occupied. Maybe this is an effect of how I learned to knit, as something to keep my hands busy, but I don’t enjoy just sitting with my knitting, even if the pattern is freakishly complicated and I’m tearing my hair out over it.

Embroidery is something I enjoy doing by itself, without distractions, for hours on end. When I’m really going, it becomes something of a meditation, allowing me to be inside myself and the moment and the materials and the creative choices I make, along with the thematic issues of the piece I’m working on. Granted, I’m not able to get into this space every time I work, or with every piece – I’m not meditating when I’m waiting for dinner at Intermezzo, when I’m watching Bones on Netflix and making the 200th french knot on my giant dildo pattern – but it’s nice to know it’s there and that I’m capable of being there.

*** [aside: so many fewer people comment on my embroidery than they do on my knitting. Knitting strikes up conversations, questions – what are you working on? Is that knitting? How long does that take? – while embroidery seems to be met with raised eyebrows and very few comments, which surprises me. I don’t care either way – I’m not embroidering in public for reactions, but it is curious to me how reluctant folks seem to be to interact with this other textile they are expecting even less than knitting]


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