words and stitches

Last night I dreamt I was reading a sweater. I stood at the front of a full room. The sweater was my script and I read aloud from its stitches as if they were braille. Perhaps this dream suggests my mind’s happy ability to mingle together what I do for a living with what I do in my ‘spare’ time. On the other hand, it may be a more disturbing indication of how thoroughly the world of yarn and textiles has invaded my subconscious.

Either way, I have had both words and stitches on the brain since my day at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate. In the quilt competition, my sister and I were both struck by Sara Impey’s contribution:

Sara Impey, detail of Quilt Blog (2007)

Her Quilt Blog is a truly beautiful thing – the sheer quality of stuff and technique really sings out of the stitches. But it is also a serious meditation on the conflict between the momentary and the slow process, particularly as that regards ideas of making. One’s first instinct when looking at the quilt is to understand it speedily, almost instantaneously—to read it as a straightforward message to the viewer from the maker. Following the words from left to right, you quickly trace a narrative questioning the process of making (‘. . . find yourself asking why anybody bothers making things in this age of instant gratification. . . ’). But, in the act of unpicking that narrative you start to notice how the characters emerge out of the negative spaces on the fabric canvas. It is almost as if the quilt is writing itself. Impey stitches only in the spaces between her thoughts. She makes us look at the process of making under and behind the words we read. In so doing, we contemplate the gap between vision and labour—the gap that is the time of the quilt’s making, its slow process. So we are prompted to think in a rather different way about her art, her fabrication. Rather than seeing the quilt as a lovely thing conveying a message to us in a moment, we consider it more fully as an object made over time . . . the time of its stitches . . . a long time! The quilt is both doing, and meditating upon, what it is saying—acting itself out, and thinking about itself with some considerable aplomb.

Sara Impey, detail of Quilt Blog (2007)

The narrative time of stitching was also an issue in the Primmy and Jessie Chorley exhibition. I found Jessie Chorley’s fabric-books and book-fabrications particularly intriguing. Like Louise Bourgeois, Jessie Chorley reflects powerfully on books, stitches and lives as made-up things; as narrative processes; and as numinous objects full of meaning. But though her books are certainly suggestive in their stitching-up of time and memory, I confess I found the Chorleys’ oppressively cutesy household aesthetic something of an impediment to what was most interesting about their art. In that small exhibition space surrounded by the work of the Chorleys’ I felt as if I were trapped in a 1980s fantasy of Edwardian femininity—a sort of hollow Holly Hobbie world with little basis in, or recourse to, the lived traditions of women’s domestic creativity. However carefully considered their familial self-presentation is in its appeal to memory, fantasy, and the uncanny, the Chorleys’ aesthetic had (for me at least) the unfortunate — and certainly misleading — effect of suggesting that their art had little to say to the world beyond itself.

My reaction to the work of Tilleke Schwarz was completely different. Both my sister and I were completely blown away by it and could have spent the whole day with her embroidered canvases alone. In one way or another, Schwarz’s art is often compared to graffiti. She clearly possesses a certain urban chutzpah, but because hers is so definitively an art of stitch and the slow process, I find the graffiti association a little misleading. A more moot association might be with white noise or radio interference — as the momentary or incidental constantly intrudes upon the slow-time of stitching, living, and remembering. All of her canvases somehow suggested aural interference to me. And her mixing of different stitch techniques and genres, as well as the intrusion of other bits of the material world into the stuff of the canvas itself, conveys how the ephemera of everyday life disrupts and yet defines narrative comprehension of ourselves and our histories.

Tilleke Schwarz Beware of Embroidery (1997)

Schwarz has an ability — unparalleled to my mind in contemporary textile art — of mingling wit and poignancy in stitch. In Beware of Embroidery a banner bearing familiar SWEET ‘N LOW lettering flies blithely and bullet-like toward the anguished visage of twentieth-century Jewish cultural memory. In the same canvas, an enormous and slightly scary bottle of brown sauce divides and illuminates a figure whose ghostly whites and reds seem to suggest material pain and spiritual salvation simultaneously. Embroidered cats sport anarchically over every path of meaning. Neat and ostensibly prim cross-stitched figures kick each other up the arse. Overheard snippets of conversation, advertising copy, scraps of text, and the walk-don’t-walk imperatives which allow us to successfully negotiate the confusing labyrinth of ordinary living all gather together, reminding us that there is never the one story to tell ourselves about ourselves. Schwarz’s stitches say that the stories are always going to be interrupted, the narrative constantly disturbed, by the fabric of life itself.

Tilleke Schwarz, Count Your Blessings

In Count your Blessings Schwarz stitches the familiar image of a coffee-cup lid telling its drinker to ‘sip with care.’ In someone else’s work, there might be something obvious about rendering a disposable thing in an art form that is so emphatically not about disposability. But there is nothing obvious here. Schwarz’s coffee cup speaks beyond that simple contrast between the slow-stitch-medium and the ephemeral commodity. It says something about how the disposable might actually take care of the human; about how, even as we wander distracted in a world of terrible, alienating things and events, the cup we drink from will remind us not to burn ourselves. In stitch, the cup is re-appropriated as a messenger of caution and resolve. Yet even as embroidered art lends this thing an agency almost human, elsewhere in her canvas Schwarz reminds us of how chillingly de-humanising the process of appropriation or representation can be: “members of aboriginal communities are respectfully advised,” stitches Schwarz “that a number of people depicted in photographs in this room have now passed away.” It is this dialogic and inconclusive quality of each canvas that is so refreshing and ultimately modest about Schwarz’s art. It is as if just by listening to the symphony of everyday life Schwarz has turned herself into an instrument and played it all back to us—in words and in stitches, with quiet accomplishment, with breathtaking virtuosity. And it is up to us what we make of it in the end.

Images reproduced by permission of the artists.