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Stitching story and storied stitches

Noticing that today July 30th, is world embroidery day I thought to share one of my works in progress here. With the prevailing 100 plus degrees Fahrenheit temperatures, I am not going to go out and stitch in public, which act the Swedish originators of the day would encourage as appropriate marking of the day.

This happy leonine being is an old embroidery and patchwork piece which I did more than twenty years ago. I thought I had a better picture but this will have to do. While I have several more embroidered pieces currently in various stages of completion, because I'm working towards a textile art exhibition somewhere down the crazy river, I remembered this released one this morning.


It was purchased by an wonderful artist, educator and African art collector, who also happened to be married to the professor of history in that little university town of then, there in the old country. They lived, and housed their magnificent art collection, in a gracious historic house which had, I believe, once belonged to an important judge . Not to digress too much, but they hosted THE BEST parties ever, especially on New Year's Eve.

Throughout the late eighties and nineties we danced to remember and danced to forget on those lovely old wooden floors. Oh! how we danced...

Thinking about embroidery today, I realized that the Shala which currently provides me shelter, a garden to tend and studio space for yoga and making stuff, has embroideries in every room, except maybe the bathroom which is currently a construction project. Some, like the Oaxacan deer, above, and Huichol deer, below, have been collected personally on my wanderings: in Mexico, for these two. (Apologies: the Huichol deer is behind glass and there's a reflection running interference in the image)

Other pieces come from various Southern African art collectives or self-help projects.

Gathered on my various journeys through the region, these uniquely Southern African embroideries enhance my living space and are of especial importance to me in these days of solitude and wonder, remembering and forgetting.

The aloes (above) and cows (below) came from the Keiskamma Art Project in the East Cape Province of South Africa.


Though not embroideries: a little on the other fabrics in these images: the green African bird textile was purchased in the early nineties in Zimbabwe, made into a dress and is now finding fresh life in household linens and other random things in this Chihuahuan desert incarnation. The red fish on green cushion cover is one of my blockprint designs from the totem animal series, featured today in the marketplace as 2 yard pieces.

The giraffe batik in the above image, came from Baobab Batik, in Swaziland, gathered in 2008, on the last visit I made to the old country while my mother was alive. The contemporary Guatemalan seat cushion embroidery (which I suspect is machined) was sourced from The Pink Store North in Silver City, New Mexico, which, besides being a good source for Talavera tiles (relevant to above mention bathroom project) and other Mexican art, carries a lovely range of textiles from Central and South America.

This, possibly also Guatemalan, textile was found, previously loved, in a thrift stone somewhere in my USA wanderings. I couldn't resist the floral forward hen and rooster. The seat cushion on this chair is upcycled cotton fabric from a thrift store man's shirt. Also USA, or maybe the place was Hilo, Hawai'i. Couldn't resist the Strelitzia regina in this case.

In my sewing room (which doubles as a guest bedroom should I ever have a guest) I have two intriguing Zimbabwean storytelling embroideries in the style known as Weya . The one above tells a story, in comic book style panels, about a women who sought help from her grandmother, a traditional healer, for discord between herself and her husband. The healer gives the woman a jar of special water with instructions to hold some water in her mouth whenever her husband begins an argument. The wife beating stops.

No comment on a feminist interpretation of this story of (implied) domestic abuse cause and resolution. Perhaps the grandmother could pen a Zimbabwean Art of War.


Each Weya embroidery comes with a little pouch stitched on the back containing the handwritten story which the artist has depicted in thread.

Though it's hard to pick a favourite from my collection of folk art textiles, Watching Baboon, with lizard and mielies (corn), a Weya slice-of-life storytelling piece, is one I really cherish.

I am also intrigued to see that, though the artist was economical with words, she was not afraid to embroider outside the lines - notably with the boy's foot on the image left and the tree branch on the right.


Even though I have, at times, been mocked for my passion for folk art such as these Zimbabwean Weya and Keiskamma Art Project pieces, they enhance my life with an eloquent authenticity I find missing in much of the contemporary United States in which I am currently embedded.

My maternal grandmother, whose name I carry, taught me the rudiments of embroidery very young, while encouraging me to make embroidered birthday gifts for my mother. I carried on this handmade birthday tradition for the rest of my mother's life. The two cross stitch bird pieces on my walls represent some of the gifts I made for my mother in the last decade of her life. After her death, the cross stitch birds and an embroidered nightgown, an 80th birthday gift, came back to me.

Though it's a little stained, I still wear the nightgown - mostly to drink my early morning tea and watch the light come up on another day.

If I am having early morning tea inside, because of weather or insects, chances are likely my feet will be on a pouffe covered in now fading Indian embroidery.

There's another embroidery on my gathering room wall which came from a visit to Zanzibar with Lionheart, somewhere around 2005. Isn't that when one uses "circa": when the memory for dates is a bit foggy?

If I remember correctly this embroidered piece was purchased from the house in Stonetown where Freddy Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) and his Parsee family lived. The house is now a tourist attraction with a plaque and a shop (obviously), Beyond this, the provenance and back story of the caravanserai vibe cloth is completely unknown to me, but it does serve to reconnect to what may have been one of the best holidays I've had.

Visiting a tropical island with one's nearest and dearest, where one can haggle with open-air cotton cloth merchants, there are powdery white sand beaches everywhere, and sails in the sunset: can we define heaven?

If I don't tell these stories, how will you know?

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