Strolling through the streets just outside Brighton, I came across a skip filled – at least in part – by a deluge of discarded books. Now, the concept of books being unwanted is one I consider with a certain amount of unease. Perhaps it’s their potential to inspire and educate from something as simple as a paper page, their wondrous mines of knowledge to be harvested by eager minds from deep beneath dingy covers. Maybe it’s the unwelcome thought of the Nazis burning books in fear and terror. Or perhaps I simply owe so much of my sewing skill to studying printed pages and bringing their wisdom to life.
In this ever-increasing digital age we inhabit, I feel the ‘reality’ of tangible objects like the paper page and the hand-held embroidery fabric more vital than ever. Smartphones and tablets persist in pervading our environments and the connection between self and stitch is a vital link too easily lost. So do as I do: Rescue an antique book from the rubbish and re-connect!
The ‘Encyclopedia of Needlework’ by Th. De Dillmont, a chunky A6 volume containing a comprehensive summary of all things needlework, has proved an insightful and inspiring read. Many types of sewing (both practical and decorative) are comprehensively covered, including many embroidery disciplines alongside knitting, crochet and macrame. The work was first published in 1886 and my example contains personal dedications dated 1905 and 1926.
I feel that reading this ‘lucky find’ has really helped me ‘connect’ to craftspeople throughout the decades, drawing parallels in technique and approach that have remained fundamentally unchanged throughout needlework’s long history. ‘These days, it has become usual to introduce many different kinds of embroidery into one piece of artistic work, and to use gold in the same manner as other materials’. Could this not have been written about my own contemporary combining of techniques? It is pleasing to see the spirit of innovation and excitement present not only in contemporary embroidery artists’ work, but a concept obviously present throuought many decades of practitioners’ dedication.
However, I doubt I will be keeping my needles damp-free by ‘putting a little asbestos powder in the packets’ or keeping a small pot of the same lethal substance ‘to dip one’s fingers into occasionally’….. Some handy hints belong safely in the realms of history!