Unexpected references to embroidery give me a secret thrill. And I confess this at the risk of sounding slightly unbalanced, which I assure you I’m not 99% of the time. But coming across them in an already appealing setting does make me feel a sort of kinship with the item in question.
I’m not about to become the stitchcraft equivalent of a birdwatcher or anything – drawing up life lists and whatnot – but two good novels I’ve read recently fall neatly into the category of Features a Reference to Hand Embroidery, as does one of our local restaurants.
The first literary reference is in The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a beautifully written novel set in Alaska in the 1920s, when homesteaders were carving out their farms from the wilderness and men were panning for gold in their pursuit of untold riches, risking their lives down the coal mines or working on the railways that linked the forested, snowy wilderness with the rest of civilisation. Without giving away any of the poignant story, it contains the following excerpt:
“And so, as autumn hardened the land and snow crept down the mountains, she sewed a coat for a child she was certain would return.
Mabel ordered several yards of boiled wool, and then in a giant kettle dyed it a deep blue that reminded her of the river valley in winter. The lining would be quilted silk, and the trim white fur. It would be sturdy and practical, but befitting a snow maiden. The buttons – sterling silver filigree. They came from a shop in Boston and she had saved them for years in her button jar, never finding a purpose for them until now. The white fur trim she would sew around the hood and down the front of the coat, along the bottom, and around each cuff. Snowflakes, embroidered with white silk thread, would cascade down the front and back of the coat.
She followed a simple coat pattern she had ordered from a catalog. In the evenings, even when it was still bright outside, the trees and roof eaves kept the sunlight from coming in through the small cabin windows, so she lit a lamp and unfolded the fabric on the table. Following the pattern offered a kind of comfort, a quiet balance to working in the fields during the day. The farm work was coarse, exhausting, and largely a matter of faith – a farmer threw everything he had into the earth, but ultimately it wasn’t up to him whether it rained or not. Sewing was different. Mabel knew if she was patient and meticulous, if she carefully followed the lines, took each step as it came, and obeyed the rules, that in the end when it was turned right-side out, it would be just how it was meant to be. A small miracle in itself, and one that life so rarely offered.
As much as she enjoyed the sewing, it was in the embroidery that she would express her new hope, each stitch a devotion, each snowflake a celebration of miracles.
Mabel was bent over the embroidery hoop in her hands, her nose a few inches from the fabric, when Jack came in from feeding the horse.”
I loved the reference to Mabel’s button jar. But the way each stitch of the embroidered snowflakes embodied her hope, devotion and faith in miracles reminded me of how much of ourselves we put into our stitched works, whether in the form of emotions, time or concentrated effort. And it also made me more aware once again of the time it used to take to make a single item of clothing, being that every stitch was done by hand.
The other recently read book to feature a reference to embroidery is The Believers by Zoë Heller. (Heller is also the author of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, the novel on which the film featuring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench is based.) The Believers features the following passage:
“Audrey was very sorry now that she had agreed to stay the weekend with Jean. She wondered how the two of them would fill the time. There would be a walk, she supposed – there was always a bloody walk – and perhaps, at some point, a game of cards. Then what? She stretched out her arms and surveyed the sea of rustic tchotchkes that surrounded her bed. Jean’s modestly sized guest room contained, among other things, a nineteenth-century commode, a sign for an English pub called the Crooked Billet, two milking stools, a rocking chair painted with daisies, ten framed embroidery samplers, and a reproduction Welsh dresser. In the old days, when Jean’s husband had been alive, Jean’s passion for crap like this had been subject to some constraint. Max had insisted that most of her flea market acquisitions be consigned to the barn and the attic. But since his death twelve years ago, Jean’s flea market obsession had been liberated. The house now resembled a shrine to Mrs Tiggywinkle.”
Apart from the intuitive honesty and sense of realness in Heller’s writing – and this paragraph in particular appealing to my sense of humour, albeit in a slightly self-deprecating way being a bit of a vintage junk magpie myself – two instances in this excerpt struck me as particularly apt. The first is the astute nod to the then in its infancy trend for vintage treasures and the acquisition of such treasures from flea markets and junk shops (the book was first published in 2008). The second is the reference to “ten framed embroidery samplers”, which have been casually thrown in with the rest of the flea market finds. It occurred to me that you’d actually be hard pressed to find 10 vintage embroidery samplers without actively seeking them out. And I reckon they’d be worth a fair bit, too, in a collection like that – I’ve yet to come across even one in my trawls of jumble sales and second-hand and charity shops in both the UK and SA. But I do acknowledge that it’s probably only a needlework obsessive like myself that would even have such a thought… so moving swiftly on.
Food and embroidery generally only appear as a single entity in, well, designs of embroidered food. But a restaurant around the corner from us has employed the tagline “Food embroidered with imagination” to describe its offerings, which I thought was a nice turn of phrase used in a slightly unusual context. The words caught my eye immediately when the restaurant first opened – they fitted in well with the overall look and feel of the place – and I’ve had some tasty meals there since, so am happy to give credence to the way the owners have chosen to describe their menu. The restaurant is Possum’s in Parkhurst, here in Johannesburg – a comfortingly cluttered deli and restaurant that is not only inviting, but also lives up to its promise of food with that little something extra.
Falling back on that old adage of things always happening in threes, I’m guessing this’ll be the last of my embroidery spotting for a while. Or at least until I come across the next bout of instances that fall into my mental category of Features a Reference to Hand Embroidery.