Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Art of Stitch - Guest Post by John Hopper

Christine Chester-Layers of Memory, 2012
The stitch, and its natural expression embroidery, has been one of the mainstays of nearly every domestic culture across the planet ever since humans invented both needle and thread. There never seems to be a time when we are not without the magical, yet perfectly practical skill and necessity of stitching. 
Sewn into the Fabric of History

The humble, yet enduring stitch, is a full and integral part of our history, literally sewn into its fabric, and yet although historically bound, it is still an important part of our contemporary world. Whilst other domestic crafts have faded away, become peculiarities of our history, stitch and embroidery have surprisingly endured, and if anything, expanded.

Although it continues to have its roots firmly intertwined with the practical, stitch does after all keep our clothes from falling apart, stitch has also played a decisive role in our creative need for decoration and art, an expression of the visual in our world. Although not strictly a practical and necessary aid to our survival, visual art is still considered by many to be a vital part of our well-being.
Christine Chester-Layers of Memory detail, 2012

Human creativity is arguably our most profound expression of self. The projection of visual language gives us a sense of belonging, of being part of not only the human spirit, the human community, but also of the greater world, the world that exists outside of ourselves.

There are of course countless ways and means of expressing that most fundamental element of ourselves, our creativity. From paint to dance, from word to moving image, all have been corralled into tools of expression. Stitch, surprisingly to some, is an extremely comprehensive and wide-ranging tool. 
A Painterly Tool
Stewart Kelly - Face to Face 2
Long gone are the days where needlework could be consigned by critics to the realm of cosy domestic ‘Home Sweet Home’ panels. Today stitch is now fine art, it is a painterly tool, and it is a meditative focus towards a fundamental understanding of self and others. Stitch is and can be, both practical understanding and a conceptual idea. In the hands of the practically adept, in the hands of the visionary enquiring, stitch has become a leading edge in contemporary expression on an ever expanding range of levels.

Some of the most notable and leading changes that have been seen and felt within stitch and embroidery as art in recent years, have been changes directly associated with the perceived traditions of the craft, especially those to do with gender and individual lifestyle perceptions.  
Shift in the Gender Bias
Stewart Kelly - Face to Face 2, detail
For a discipline that has in one way or another been commonly perceived as being dominated by women, it is interesting to see more and more men moving into the field, focusing and projecting their own gender awareness on the discipline, their own beliefs, fears, and preconceptions. This can of course, only ever be a good thing, and it has added a whole new perceptive range to the contemporary look and feel of embroidery as art.

Of course men are only one element of the contemporary additions to the discipline. So many more are being added, seemingly on a daily basis. Something quite fundamental and challenging is going on in the area of stitch as art, as more and more people begin to realise that stitch can actually be an expansive, liberating form of expression, rather than a closed, limiting tradition that was so often assumed, even just a handful of years ago. 
Individual Self-expression

Richard McVetis-Displaced
The more that individuals enter into the discipline of embroidery, the more kaleidoscopic becomes its projection. In our contemporary world, stitch is now a vehicle of expression for the world of our complexity. Never before has lifestyle projection for the individual held such an importance. For much of our history, limiting or even eliminating self-expression has been the major controlling factor within our heavily constrained societies, and in many respects the creative arts mirrored that obsessive control. To be the norm meant to be like everyone else, to have a sweeping template where one size fits all.

The contemporary world, though by no means ideal, is beginning to embrace diversity, to embrace the ideal of the individual as self-expressing entity. Therefore, we now have societies that promote and encourage inclusivity of personal choice, rather than exclusivity of imposed standards, and that is now colouring our perception and projection of our creative arts, with stitch being one of those projections.

Therefore, we have contemporary embroidery that is coloured by the experiences and projections of male, female, transgender, of gay, straight, and all levels between, of every conceivable lifestyle choice, and geographical area, of young, and old, of the experienced and the not so. We have political, religious, and social commentary, we have shared surface jokes, and we have the intimacy of singular depth of understanding. Never has the role of stitch played such a richly comprehensive role within our larger society.

Perhaps we could say that stitch is learning to encompass and respect the complexity of the world we live in, or perhaps it is just a matter of artists coming at stitch from their own personal perspectives, their own individual moments within the life of the planet, and expressing themselves within a discipline that they feel fuels a need or understanding on that personal level. 
Richard McVetis-Displaced, detail
Within the ideal of individual identity and the celebration of that individuality, it would be fair to say that it is rare to find anyone living today who does not recognise that they can no longer be categorised as being of one singular identity. We are all multiples, we all have overlapping lifestyles, beliefs, interests, desires. For our creative world to express those differing identities within shared layers of meaning and understanding, is a healthy and energising development.

In our contemporary world we live in a human landscape of complexity of purpose, we live in a world that both shares and understands that there are multiple expressions of thought, of ideal, of understanding. That sentiment carries over into the art world, which has become increasingly inclusive as to different forms of creative expression, using different raw materials, and arriving at artistic expression from a range of disciplines, including stitch. 
High Creative Profile of the Humble Stitch
Roxanne Lasky-Tidal 3 Source, detail 2

A number of art galleries across the planet have recently held, and are organising future exhibitions highlighting both individual artists, as well as groups that use stitch as a part or main element in their work. This trend looks set to continue, and if anything, expand as the twenty first century unfolds.

For stitch, which by definition is the simplicity of a loop of thread or yarn resulting from a single pass or movement of the needle, to be able to hold this element of publicity, this high creative profile, is unprecedented in recent times. The last real moment of similarity would probably be the art embroidery movement at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, and although that did give us some of the best art-based embroidery in modern times, it was very narrowly focused, much of it being produced by one gender, for one specific lifestyle choice. This contemporary phase of art embroidery is much, much broader.
Roxanne Lasky-Tidal 3 Source, detail 1

Having said that, the broader embroidery becomes in appeal and subject matter, the more intimate is its power to individual artists who use and express themselves within that discipline. Stitch can be both representational and non-representational in form. There are artists that work with a large range of variations of recognition, as well as variations of the abstract.

It does show the strength of character of stitch and embroidery, that it can comfortably deal with artists from such a broad visual spectrum. There are artists that play with versions of reality, allowing the stitch to chase across a background, either outlining that reality, or seeming to, just as there are artists that play with the stitch itself, playing with geometrical patterns, or recognising the full abstraction that can be formed from the simplicity of a stitch.

All are acceptable, and all tell us something about the artist themselves as individual, the community they are part of, and the world that that community sits within. It also of course, tells us something about ourselves as viewer, as sharer of the experience. How we perceive and understand the work of an artist, tells us as much, if not more about ourselves than it does the artist.
Jude Hill

Artists are channellers of the creative flow. They open themselves up to experience and invention, freely allowing the pulse of creativity to fill them, which in turn both focuses and tempers them as artists, and as individuals.

It is how individual artists approach and in turn deal with the phenomenon of external and internal creativity that stitch and embroidery depends so much on. Stitch is part of an evocative world that can have both preconceived directions, as well as specific directions of any individual, all of which obviously means different things to different people. As stated before, so much depends on gender, age, culture, lifestyle, it colours our perception, honing everything we see and experience as a personal suggestion of life. We are both trapped and liberated by that perception, and our creative self-expression is duly coloured and flavoured by that duality of liberation and entrapment.

Stitch as Metamorphic

Stitch can be metamorphic; it can be transitional both physically and conceptually. Cloth and stitch can seem at times to be as one entity, one indivisible world of meaning, a harmony of direction and experience. At others it can seem more like a struggle with identity, an uncomfortable alliance between opposites, both demanding to go in their own mutually exclusive directions, their pathways being in no way linked. 
This matching and mismatching, this harmony and struggle, often has much to do with what the artist is trying to convey through stitch. It is always the creative perception of the artist which so often colours the seeming reality of success or failure through stitch, though of course all is forever subjective, and success or failure in art are often meaningless terms.

Due to its nature, there is often a pinpoint focus to stitch. The emphasis is invariably on the singular transaction, the single complete movement of a threaded needle. This motion of the moment, a movement forever wrapt in the phenomenon of now, has attached new importance to the art of needlework as being mindful. Stitching is seen, in an increasingly frantic and wide-eyed world, as a calm discipline that carries with it a centring, harmonising effect. It is now seen as a popular vehicle for the direct release of tension, a focusing of the power of mind and spirit to just be in the moment of living, to exist as stitch and stitcher.
Jude Hill
Cutting Edge Art, A Power of its Own

So how can stitch be all of these things? How can it be cutting edge art statement, a reflection of modern lifestyles, the continuation of tradition, a form of contemporary meditation, and so much more? To be honest, why can it not? Stitch has a power of its own, it can be subtle and mild, or it can be bold and demanding. It is what it is, it is whatever it is meant to be, whatever it needs to be for the individual who wants to work with it. To be interpreted and reinterpreted over and over again throughout human history has given it a vocabulary that is rich and full, but at the same time it has opened itself up to be a vehicle of exploration and innovation. A heady mix that has allowed it to be loose enough to be both embraced and projected by the contemporary world, a world that, by its very nature, revels in its complexity, its mix and match trajectory. This world is going to take stitch to who knows where, and who knows when. It will help mould a new identity for the humble stitch, but in many ways, the humble stitch will also get to do some moulding of its own.

John Hopper is a writer and an enthusiastic supporter of creative artists. A graduate in textile art and design, he is a respected juror for textile-based events worldwide. Since 2008 he has written and produced The Textile Blog, dedicated to contemporary textile artists, now expanded into four other sites: John Hopper on contemporary fine artists, Word of Voices for literary and creative book reviews,  Disordered Engines is a personal perspective of the world around and within and Big Sky/Tall Trees is dedicated to his photographic. John lives in the southwest corner of the UK., and produces a regular portfolio magazine project Inspirational, featuring best contemporary artists in all disciplines across the world.



  1. Great reading and viewing!- thank you for this.

  2. Thank you Karen for reading and writing. Do come by again.