The long thread.

August 9, 2015 § 5 Comments

Embroidered poppy--the white border is still in the works.

Embroidered poppy–the white border is still in the works.

Operating much of the time in the virtual world I forget how luxuriously slow a job done by hand using tangible materials is.

Like embroidery.

You thread the needle. Tie the knot. Stitch until the thread is short. Knot off, then repeat.

And 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.

Wedding tablecloth embroidered for me by my mother.

Wedding tablecloth embroidered for me by my mother.

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.

Embroidered by Isabella Caggiati.

Embroidered by Isabella Caggiati.

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.

Drawn-thread embroidery, probably by my grandmother.

Drawn-thread embroidery, probably by my grandmother.

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.

IMG_3117Note: The most beautiful piece of embroidery I own was not done by a woman in my family, but by my mother’s best friend, Jean Mansfield.

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. 

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§ 5 Responses to The long thread.

  • Chris Fogelin says:

    Strangely enough Adrian, I learned how to embroider from mom too. There was a Chicago album cover (8 I think) that had an embroidered cardinal on it. I had gotten the tee-shirt with a stencil of it. I embroidered over the stencil. I regret that I never finished it, but good lord did I spend time on it. I think it’s about half to two thirds done. Nothing fancy, all variations on long stitch.


  • KM Huber says:

    Thank you for this slow dance with its varied threads. It is a bit of a step back in time for me as well, as my aunts and maternal grandmother always made embroidery seem so easy. In their hands, needles seem to know where to go each stitch.My mother and I struggled with our stitches but I am glad we had those moments. Thanks, Adrian.


  • Paul of Flowerland Mountains says:

    Unlike most of the men in my family, or who I know;
    I actually like to sew:
    … and have wanted to do it decoratively rather than just helping the pile of clothes waiting by my bed (in a plastic tub to keep them clean) become wearable clothes again; as something to do while I watch TV or something:
    In ad hoc researches; discovered that embroidery used to be a sign of wealth and prosperity, as only the wealthy could have time to beautify their clothing, as only they have the time once the minimum was necessarily stitched together sufficient for the indoor or outdoor activities back before electricity and the sewing machine & serger’s we have today (oh gosh what a run on sentence!);
    so actually found that I could buy shirts with embroidery today – done by machine, but I do it in the hope of inspiring myself someday to take the long thread plunge…
    (of course, it will have to happen after I get done rehabilitating the 20 autoharps into musical instruments that are still awaiting my attention… a few years work right there…)


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