Say, did you know that it’s National Embroidery Month?
No, me either. Which is tragic. I feel like I’ve wasted ten days of potential embroidery bliss through my careless ignorance. Not to say that I haven’t been embroidering–I have–but I didn’t know that I had the perfect opportunity to torment you all with embroidery talk!
I don’t remember when I started embroidering. I have half-completed embroidery projects around from when I was in elementary school, so it’s apparently been for at least 30 years; but I wouldn’t consider myself to be an expert. There are so many skills, stitches and techniques to master in embroidery that I will never get to that level.
It’s got a bit of a fusty reputation, too, much like sewing had in the last decade or so: it’s for old women, right? Making dustcatchers with bible verses to give as Christmas presents. Though there is nothing wrong with this, and the ageism and sexism in the assumption is problematic, it’s also completely not true. Lots of people, both men and women and of all ages–including this program for male prisoners in the UK–embroider; it’s not just for pillow covers and wall hangings; and if you want to put your favourite Walking Dead or Friends quote on your work, well, nothing’s stopping you.
But there’s no getting around that hand embroidery, unlike machine sewing, really is something that takes time, practice and effort to master. Don’t get snippy: you can make a knit t-shirt in an afternoon, and it will be perfectly wearable; you can master the techniques required to make a gathered skirt by machine in a day, as many beginners classes prove; but it may take you a year of practicing your stitches before you are good enough to embroider that t-shirt or skirt, and when you do, it will probably take you a week of active stitching time to actually do it. I hand-embroidered a work bag a few years back; it took 40 hours to make the bag from start to finish, and at least half of that was just the embroidery. Totally worth it, though.
This is why our clothes are no longer embroidered. Fast fashion and mass production rely on things that are replicable by machine and can be completed in a short enough time that the costs are still low. Hand embroidery does not fit in that business model. I think that our decades’ long experience with mass produced fashion has conditioned our eyes to see it as something somehow odd, fussy, irrelevant, or not-modern. As something we’ve outgrown. But frankly, if you’re already invested in making your own clothes, then you have already mostly rejected mass produced clothing, and you may as well go all the way. Haute couture still recognizes that well-completed hand-embroidery elevates a garment, adds a loveliness that cannot be replicated by machine embroidery or by printed fabric.
Also, embroidery has an incredibly long and surprisingly functional history. Smocking, for example, is something now associated with heirloom dresses made for little girls; but historically, it was used on workers’ clothing to add stretch to woven fabrics. Sashiko embroidery was first developed in Japan to reinforce areas of wear on clothing, or at stress points to prevent wear.
Some embroidery was of course always entirely decorative, and speaks to me of the need for personal decoration built deep within human nature.
Aren’t these incredible? Imagine the dedication and skill it would take, not to mention the time, to produce something so beautiful. Imagine the need to make beautiful things that would have encouraged people to develop those technologies and skills in the first place!
Our clothing is no longer embroidered by hand because our clothing today is cheap, and hand embroidery is not cheap. Clothing today is meant to be disposable; if it wears out, if the colours bleed, if it fades, pitch it. Hand embroidery is not disposable; if done well, it will last for centuries.
I can understand why new sewers would be aiming for the quality of off-the-rack clothes: they represent the lowest common denominator of acceptable clothing in public, right? The seams are straight, the hems are even, things are pressed. And then fitting is the next natural skill to tackle, making clothes that are better than off-the-rack because the fit has been perfected for the body it goes on.
But what then? Do you just jump on a treadmill of cranking out endless repetitions of perfectly fitting garments that look like off-the-rack, but better fitted? End up with a closet just as full as the worst fast-fashion junkie’s? Is mimicking disposable fashion the end of the line in sewing skills development?
Of course not. Unless you really just want 30 identical boring knit t-shirts, so you can wear a different one every day for a month. But then you’ve made your thirty identical boring knit t-shirts, and then what?
If you get to that point, and you’re looking for a way to slow down in your clothing production, add more visible hand-made details, make something that will last and that does not look in any way like it came from a mall–in a good way–might I suggest embroidery? It is the last stage in handmade couture clothing, Dear Readers.
tl/dr: I’ll be talking about embroidery a lot over the next couple of weeks. You’ve been warned.
All of the clothing images, with the exception of the Sioux dress, are haute couture clothing designs from runway shows. And they’re all a bit over-the-top and decadent. But I hope they made the point that our clothing today isn’t embroidered, not because it’s old-fashioned or out-of-date or inherently unattractive, but because it costs serious time and dedication.