I have three sewing projects cut out and ready to sew, but I haven’t touched them in months. Partly because sewjo is in short supply during lockdown, but mostly because I’ve been having so much fun with handwork projects: cross stitch, embroidery, stumpwork, crochet.
But when I saw Melanie post that this spring’s Literary Sewing Circle book is Amatka, I knew I had to participate. I first read it years ago, and found it a wonderfully weird story. Based on a colony planet–we are not told when or where, or how the colonists discovered or settled it–almost devoid of plant life and completely devoid of animal life larger than an insect, the colonists are in a state of daily warfare with the planet itself, which is in some way alive, yet can be compelled through thoughts and words, spoken or written, to become something else, something useful to the humans. So the humans, through relentless labelling of the objects they need, maintain those objects, and any lapse in those efforts has the objects relapsing into goop.
Rereading this book after a year of lockdowns and pandemic living, when a lot of us have been grappling with the ways that our thoughts and words have shaped this world we live in, for good and for ill, was a very different experience. We have defined, for example, whole groups of human beings as more disposable than others and have labelled them in Orwellian fashion as “essential workers”; in one sense, those thoughts and labels have shaped reality in disturbing ways, in increased hospitalization and death rates. In another sense, our thoughts and labels have never and could never reshape reality, because our essential equality as human beings is still there underneath all the labels, and the unequal consequences of our labelling strike us with fresh horror.
Coming up with a sewing project that reflects these observations, Dear Readers, was a trick.
The only clothing inspiration I could come up with was “something utilitarian that’s suitable for a cold climate.” But after a year of sewing utilitarian clothing in this cold climate, I couldn’t face more. So this is not a clothing project.
In January, struggling to come up with a New Year’s Resolution that also makes sense in a year that will be more or less defined by pandemic restrictions, I came up with: making one project from each of my unused embroidery project books and, if there are books that I haven’t made a project out of by next January, to give those books away.
Kazuko Aoki’s The Embroidered Garden is on that list. The projects are beautiful and I’ve had a few on my list for years, including the frog cushion and the seasonal floral wreaths. The only reason I hadn’t yet made them was because they are, I assume, based on Japanese flower gardens and frogs, and I want to stitch Ontario flowers and frogs. Which means the patterns had to be altered.
I’ve altered one of the frogs to be a native Green Frog (that is the actual species name, and if you’re in Ontario and you’ve seen a frog at a pond, it is probably not just a green frog, but a Green Frog) for a quilt, and I’ve finally altered the spring floral wreath to remove garden flowers not native to Ontario (pansies, violas) with native spring ephemeral wildflowers (trilliums, trout lilies, bloodroot).
I also wanted to add some embroidered text to the centre of the spring floral wreath, and this is where it clicked with the Literary Sewing Circle project:
If our words have shaped but not overwritten our reality, and if we’ve seen too clearly the destructive impact that this reshaping has had on so many people over the pandemic: how do we want to use our thoughts and words to shape reality when it’s all over?
If you could say anything, and saying it made it true-ish, what would you say?
That sounds like I had a handy phrase all ready to go, but alas, not so. I traced out the pattern, modified it to include my beloved spring ephemerals, transferred it to the pink linen scrap, and embroidered almost all of it while trying to think of a phrase that would best encapsulate what I want to bring forward with me from this time.
The phrase I kept coming back to was from Berol’s Anna’s poem fragment: We speak to become.
Which led me to Hafiz’s poem:
Becomes the house we live in.
Who will want to sleep in your bed
If the roof leaks
Look what happens when the tongue
Cannot say to kindness,
“I will be your slave.”
Covers her face with both hands
And can’t bear
There’s something about that final image, of the moon unable to witness this, that struck me, but there’s really very little space available in the centre of this embroidery.
Aside: Hafiz is often translated as writing “The words you speak become the house you live in,” which, thanks to the unspecificity of the English ‘you,’ lends itself to a handy and pretty ugly individualism; if you say “mansion mansion mansion” a lot, you’ll end up rich! And indeed that’s the direction it’s been taken in by countless online life coaches and inspirational types of all stripes. Speak your reality! Get what you want!
But in its entirety it’s clear that the house we’re building with our words, collective-we and collective-you rather than singular-you, is the house we all live in, and it leaks over some beds, and the moon is sick at the sight of it.
And in Amatka, the words they spoke built the literal houses that they actually lived in, as well as every other object they interacted with, except for the ‘good paper’ brought with them initially from Earth. I know Karen Tidbeck wrote the novel based on dreams she had, but honestly, if she claimed to have been inspired by Hafiz’s poem, it would have been perfectly apt. At the same time, it resists an easy positive-thinking interpretation; it’s not a story where people speak “neverending abundance!” and end up with gold coins raining into their laps, or speak and think “I am all love!” and banish negative thoughts and feelings for all time. It’s prosaic. They speak or write spoon, key, suitcase, toothbrush, soap. And there is an ambiguous sense throughout the book that the reality of this colony planet, pulsing away beneath their labels and words, is both hostile to the overt control and shaping of the colony and its Committee but that it also can be joyous and expansive if the colonists would only stop fighting it.
(We could also spend a lot of time unpacking and discussing what it means that it’s the two agricultural towns that collapse first; the basis of the colony’s entire survival and, one senses from the text, the most difficult colonies to live in, with the harshest conditions and the fewest opportunities. What happens next, do you think? Does the industrial town collapse? Do they found a new agricultural centre and try to carry on? Or is this the tipping point that sends the whole thing crashing down?)
And isn’t that the reality of our world, too? That if only we would stop labeling our planet and fellow humans with the prosaic and controlling words that turn them into the commodities we need, we could have a more expansive and joyous reality? If we stopped looking at the forests and saying, “Ikea bookcases and toilet paper,” what would we see instead, and what could we create? If all the toxic and destructive labels we apply to people and populations ended, what would our communities become? What could we speak instead?
This also is a very difficult thing to encapsulate in the approximately 4″ x 3″ centre of a small embroidered floral wreath.
In a sense, of course, the words are unnecessary; the entire craft of embroidery exemplifies the themes of the book. I can point at this embroidered wreath and say “wild strawberry” until my lips turn blue and fall off, and it may have the appearance of a wild strawberry, but ultimately what it is and will always be is a bit of processed cotton plant treated with chemicals to look white.
But the words are central and I want the words, so here they are.
A few last words about the embroidery techniques:
The original pattern was fully flat surface work; a combination of stem stitches, couching, satin stitches, french knots, chain stitches and straight stitches. But in the process of changing the flowers to replace garden or non-native plants with native wildflowers, I also decided to add some three-dimensional stitching to highlight the flowers I love best. The wild strawberry blossoms are thread crochet. The trout lily is ribbon embroidery. The bloodroot has a foundation of four padded satin stitch petals, and four needleweaving petals on top. And the red trillium and the mourning cloak butterfly are stumpwork. The wild strawberry, trout lily and red trillium I designed referring to photographs I’ve taken; the mourning cloak butterfly came from one of Jane Nicholas’s stumpwork embroidery books (mourning cloak butterflies are one of the earliest butterflies to appear in spring in Ontario, since they hibernate over winter). The butterfly pattern had to be altered since it relied on a chenille embroidery thread I was not able to find anywhere; so instead I constructed the body with many straight stitches.