The long thread.
August 9, 2015 § 5 Comments
Operating much of the time in the virtual world I forget how luxuriously slow a job done by hand using tangible materials is.
You thread the needle. Tie the knot. Stitch until the thread is short. Knot off, then repeat.
A thousand million times.
There is no shortcut, only time and technique.
Do not waste thread, but don’t stitch until there is too little thread left for the final knot. Do not stitch the project to your skirt, don’t spill coffee on it.
This is the real world you are working in and there are consequences.
I was perhaps twelve when I last stitched an embroidery project to my skirt. Despite an occasional mishap like that, I was pretty good at twelve.
When I began stitching the tablecloth and napkins for my daughter’s wedding I wished my twelve-year-old self were there to help me.
And I knew she would be embarrassed watching my fingers as they struggled to remember.
But they have remembered.
The napkins, embroidered first, are okay, but I hope the tablecloth, blooming with poppies, will persist into my grandson’s old age. I enjoy imagining him saying, “My grandmother embroidered this tablecloth for my mother and Will, now who wants to carve the turkey?”
Because I did not allow enough time for this project I am doing very little besides embroidery, and a flood of memories come as I stitch.
The initial memories are practical: how to French knot, how to overcome the embroidery floss’s tendency to form tiny, spontaneous knots, the fact that I can run a line stitch under the satin stitch so it stands up proud.
But as the hours unfold, I remember things less practical. I consider other women who spent hours plying needle and thread, like the long-dead relative who, at age six stitched this sampler.
Embroidery runs in my family.
My Italian grandmother, Giuseppina Bontempi was consigned to a convent-orphanage when her mother died.
Embroidery was the specialty of the nuns of that particular order, and she learned, along with all the other young girls the vast slow secrets of embroidery.
When her father remarried, had a child and needed a built-in babysitter he came and collected her from the convent. Her biggest regret was that she never learned the most advanced embroidery techniques; the last secrets the sisters of embroidery would have revealed had she stayed.
My grandmother taught my mother, and my mother taught me and my sister, Claudia. At Christmas Claudia and I embroidered elaborate initials on the corners of white handkerchiefs for our father and grandfather.
Seated in a row on the sofa, my mother, sister and I embroidered tablecloths, the fabric draped across our laps, the TV on, but acting more like a radio as the three of us stitched.
I remember a particular tablecloth with dragons we embroidered for my Uncle Giul when he got married. It was cross-stitch (probably the lesson-one stitch taught at the convent of my grandmother’s youth).
Every stitch was done in the same shade of green with the exception of the eyes and the tongues. For that we used red thread, and satin stitch. Switching to that brilliant red and that slick stitch after a million little Xes, was such a treat that I remember the sofa debates over whose turn it was to give the latest dragon eyes and a tongue.
At twelve I was proficient at all the stitches I am using on my daughter’s tablecloth: satin stitch, line, lazy daisy, French knot.
Although long unused, the memory of how to do those stitches remained in my fingers and in my mind.
The long quiet hours I have put in in the last two weeks have slowed my blood down.
Observing life at nineteenth century speed I’ve considered the meals that will be shared on this tablecloth over the course of a long and happy marriage.
And I feel the tug of the long thread that goes back and back, to the women in my family, heads bowed over an embroidery hoop laboring over the gift of beauty and time given stitch by stitch by stitch.
Aside from myself, all the women whose embroidery is shown in this post are gone.
Still, the love and attention, the time and the care linger.
This photo is a small corner of the wedding tablecloth and napkins Jean must have spent hundreds of hours on.
Growing up, when it was my job to set the dining room table, this is the cloth I always chose.