An Embroiderer’s Embroiderer.

You know when you go to a textile exhibition and you just want to run away? I quite often feel like this for all the wrong reasons; but visiting ‘Word Play’ in The Museum in the Park at the Stroud International Textile Festival, I really wanted to just go home without seeing any of the other exhibitions on display throughout the town. The reason was seeing several hand embroidered panels by  Tilleke Schwarz, some older works but one made this year.

I at once thought this will make a wonderful post because I was so freshly excited by seeing in the flesh – so to speak –  work that I was already familiar with  and this made me re-think what I was actualy doing within my own practice. So I  asked permission to take photographs explaining that I wanted to show and discuss the work in my textile blog. But it was stipulated at the bottom of a sheaf of gallery documents – No Photography – even though I had already seen people taking photographs in the gallery……but in matters of copyright and blogging I really try to get permission were possible. So the work I am showing here is from my much thumbed copy of her excellent book Mark Making, copyright 2007 – ISBN: 978-90-70655-54-9 available from her website.

But this refusal wasn’t the reason I wanted to run – to say I was envious doesn’t quite sum up my feelings sitting outside the gallery later and waiting for my buddies from TFSW to take part in a Tea and Textiles walk round the Stroud exhibitions, what I was feeling was deflated. There was this wonderful set of work in a room full of other interesting works, some of which I know well and I felt dejected; why?

The exhibited works for the most part all had words in them, but some didn’t – more mark making or signs from Clyde Oliver – who showed handsome large lichen covered stones that had been drilled and stitched and I really did want to own one.  Jess Turrell ( who I know well and is a member of the Stitching and Thinking group) showed her exquisite etched and enamelled words pieces; they somehow always make my gaze slide over the words when attempting to read them, so the surface of the objects becomes very important – even though I know this isn’t the maker’s intent – or is it? And then I realized that only in  Tilleke Schwarz’s work,  were you made to stop (even when the words are in her own language) her myriad amount of details make you attend to the work, stay in the moment, see the world from her varied and personal view points – which for the most part are humorous, wry, colourful, hand stitched, multi-layered, and ultimately worthy of prolonged attention.

And what I did discover when looking at this work was that it was the actual stitched surface, the haphazard motifs and slogans made in a whole range of traditional hand embroidered techniques, that make you attend. The sheer variety of stitching techniques means that it is never tedious to try to decipher her images and messages, in fact they just make you smile in recognition as some motifs are from traditional stitching samplers and appear time and again as do the commonplace overheard remarks or slogans.

These are perfect samplers for our times, wonderful regenerated versions of our European embroidery heritage, made in the image of graffiti – the little cross stitched pairs of birds, the signing alphabets, the daisies and carnations, as well as couching, running stitch, back stitch, seed stitch, all subverting the past rigidity of teaching needlework to girls; no wonder our stitching hearts sing when we see them. These seemingly untidy stitches are perfectly controlled, the couched down ravells of thread are meticulously held with the tiniest of single stitches – this isn’t slipshod work. Stitch used in this way seems to me to embody  the energy of our increasingly overloaded visual world, and as the stitch changes depending on what is being depicted,  the sheer  mastery of the maker’s own language of hand stitching is demonstrated. And this is what made me envious and questioning my own way of constantly changing materials and techniques – why haven’t  I just stayed with the needle and threads and fabrics? Here  the modern, fast- moving, hectic overloaded visual world we live in  is illustrated in one of the oldest and most traditional and slowest textile techniques, hand embroidery.

But more than anything else, what completely got to me about these works was their freshly washed, starched, ironed and ultimately immaculately presented surfaces. Here is our domestic heritage for all to admire, here is a woman proud of her work and wanting us to see it at its very best. I could almost smell the clean fabrics and I could imagine the time consuming preparations of the cloths so that the framer had very little to do but simply place each work into position and seal the back.

And now I hear you ask, how come you have been able to use these images from a book which is subject to copyright? Well yesterday morning I emailed Tilleke Schwarz,  because on her website she says to contact her for permission to use any images. I really did not expect to hear from her for some time, if at all….but by the afternoon I had a reply saying that due to phone cameras it is virtually impossible to keep track of taking photographs of work any more…..if only I had the time to go back to the exhibition this week armed with this information – but my own Open Studio calls.

7 thoughts on “An Embroiderer’s Embroiderer.

  1. I have just heard back from Tilleke Schwarz thanking me and to say that she enjoyed this post but with one important exception – which was a complete conjecture on my behalf – but to set the record straight

    “I NEVER EVER starch my work. Reason – the linen regains after washing and ironing again its own strength and starching is not good from a conservation point of view”.

    so please quote Tilleke not me.

  2. I have read with interest your blog Janet and I feel very sad at your negative comments on the festival. There is not a sheaf of papers as you incorrectly point out but 1 very neat and clear stewarding book.
    I am so sorry that you denied yourself the joy of visiting the rest of the festival especially as there is wonderful work in exhibitions in the town and at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester as well as beautiful work in the town centre shops. The festival has had excellent reviews in Crafts magazine, Embroidery, BBC website and on Woman’s Hour.
    Whoever told you you could not take photographs was not informed but they are volunteers who give their time generously so really we should thank them not lambast them. Tilleke is just one of many who are exhibiting and talking this year (I am sure you went to one of the many excellent talks)?
    May I remind that the festival runs on a shoestring with limited resources of 1 and half people!
    Of course we appreciate your comments but so sad to hear that you deprived yourself of the joys of the festival and seeing the work like Corinne & Elodies in the Space Stroud.
    Festival Director

    1. Thank you Lizzi for the reply – I did not say I didn’t visit the rest of the festival – indeed I did – I spent a great deal of time in and out of many exhibitions and saw much to admire and also to question – you should not feel that a criticism of my own attitudes to work that I see as a negative thing – it is a result of feeling strongly about work you have so wonderfully made available.

      My life revolves around textiles – I don’t go to to the festival to be entertained, I go to have my perceptions challenged and they certainly were and I have tried hard to be truthful about my own feelings negative and otherwise. I was told I could not take photographs because they were “not for personal use” whether you like this fact or not, and was shown the paper which did emerge from several other papers on the large table and it clearly said “No Photographs” – without prior consent of the director – or words to that effect – I did not complain strongly to your charming steward and it is using very emotional language to say I “lambasted” her, I merely said that last year I had been given permission and then I moved on. I couldn’t wait to get your permission as I had so much else to see.

      You have made available some of the world’s best textile practitioners’ work, I feel that they do not want their work to be just looked at, but are interested in informed thoughtful responses from anyone who takes the time, trouble and attention to take their ideas and concepts seriously and who may also be moved emotionally by their work whether to anger, joy, tears or simple pleasure – I feel in part that this is why I exhibit. You do not do your festival justice if all you want it to attract are doting fans of all and everything under the name of textiles.

      May you and the festival long continue to thrive, just don’t jump to the conclusion that carefully worded self – criticism on behalf of such a strongly felt emotional response to someone’s work means an attack on the festival itself. And may I say that the refusal made me determined to contact Tilleke Schwarz personally and I am absolutely delighted that I did as she has been helpful and understanding of my predicament and even took the trouble to thank me and calmly correct my post.

      Yours etc. Janet

  3. Hi Janet,
    What a wonderful post! I love Tilleke’s Schwarz works (was even able to see some in person during Trennial in Lodz) but I also love your reflection on hand embroidery. There’s an incredible power in those humble tools – in needle and thread.

  4. Hi Bozena,
    how good to hear from you again, and again we agree on influences and inspirations. I have been talking at conferences and seminars recently, about how contemporary ideas are changing about the use in fine and applied arts of such a simple basic skill as stitching – and also how everyone can relate to textiles in some form or another.

    Here in Britain there is a great deal of interest around keeping the skills of making by hand. So when I saw Tilleke’s work and could see every tiny considered stitch – it made me appreciate the work in a different way and truly wonder why I ever stopped stitching into cloth, so the rather thoughtful nature of the post. But, sadly, at the moment I am not doing much new work at all but concentrating on showing my work and teaching other people to stitch in my hew textile studios.

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