The first craft I learned, outside of using paper, crayons, glue and scissors was embroidery. My earliest memories of my mom doing any kind of craft were of her wielding the needle, creating pictures of mushrooms, birds, and cats out of stranded wool. (In the 1970s, before the rise of cross stitch, crewel was the most popular form of embroidery.) I remember clearly the fun of opening a new kit, looking at the printed pattern–almost like a paint-by-numbers canvas, sorting the colours, and seeing all of the interesting stitches that were to be used–stem stitch! chain stitch! Satin stich! French knots! The interesting names were part of the adventure. I was about seven when I did my first project. My grandmother (the only grandparent I ever knew) gave me my first kit–a picture of a patchwork cat (including googly eyes). I completed that and never looked back. Over the years, I embroidered everything from small, 5 x 7″ pictures of birds all the way up to an enormous picture of a unicorn. The kits for these projects used to be available in regular craft stores, and browsing the collection was always one of the highlights of any visit.
Sometime in my 20s, though, this began to chance. Cross stitch began to supplant freeform embroidery as the most popular form of embroidery. Soon, there were cross stitch-only stores popping up here and there, and the selection of kits at craft stores began to decline. I picked up cross stitch as well, but never had the patience for some of the massive, intricate Teresa Wentzler designs that attracted me most, which were like painting a picture, pixel by pixel, always down in the weeds. I missed the variety of stitches, the textures, the individuality that each stitcher brought to a particular pattern. I missed the flow of the stitches in the overall design. I did, over the years, do quite a lot of cross stitch designs of cathedrals and other heritage buildings, where the angles and lines of architecture seemed well suited to the medium, but even those have become harder to find in recent years.
But joining the SCA meant a new outlet for my creativity when it came to freeform embroidery. There were no kits, although there were sometimes patterns, but I had to use my own skills and creativity to design my projects and choose materials and colours. From my first foray into Bayeaux Tapestry stitch for a favour for my husband to recent projects in brickstitch, I’ve done many practical projects over the years, often to decorate my clothing. Having embroidery skills has been a useful complement to my sewing skills. But I’ve paid little attention over the years to taking classes and learning new stitches or styles.
That changed last year when I attended my first Academy of St. Clare symposium. Set in the middle of Pennsylvania at a Scout camp, this event is focused solely on embroidery. I jumped at the chance to learn Russian pearled goldwork, knowing there were amazing extant examples that I could look to to take the Rus’ clothing I had recently started making to the next level. But I knew very little about the techniques involved, so being able to take a whole-afternoon workshop focusing only on that style was an opportunity I could not pass up. And I went on to immediately use my skills towards a beaded headpiece, and have longer-term plans for a huge pearl-and-goldwork project in the future. And it was a tremendous lot of fun to go to what amounted to embroidery overnight camp.
So today, I have my things packed. When I first started embroidering, the style that most appealed to me was opus anglicanum, a style often termed “needlepainting.” Using strands of gleaming silk and stitches like split and stem stitch, curving to suggest the flow of fabrics and hair and skin, and delicately shaded, opus anglicanum is time-consuming but results in absolutely stunning creations. This is the style that seems most akin to many of the crewel pieces I did over the years, with their flowing lines to suggest fur or feathers in a naturalistic way. And this is what I’ll be learning tomorrow. I’ve done a couple of smaller pieces, mostly using a single colour of thread, but never a larger one with human figures or shading. I’ll be travelling down with a carload of embroidery geeks, and we’ll spend time perusing books, doing a few shorter classes, trading supplies, and inspiring each other.
And I’ll fondly recall my grandmother, who taught me the first steps all those years ago.