Community BlogDrawn to Stitch: Discovering Ritual in Embroidery
As a working artist, embroidery may be the least strategic medium I could have fallen for. My background is in illustration, and I currently work in a lot of different media—printmaking, drawing and painting, animation—but the goal has always been to cultivate a sustainable art practice. It goes without saying that efficiency shouldn’t be a driving feature of any artistic exercise, but even so, embroidery is far on the delayed-gratification side of the spectrum—a bona fide labor of love.
Stitching is incredibly slow; so many small, repetitive gestures to represent what would be one swipe of a pen or a paintbrush. If a shape isn’t working, the contrast isn’t high enough, or a color just isn’t right, the undoing is painful (to snip carefully placed stitches!) or even risky (don’t rip the fabric!). I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes when people gush about the relaxation benefits of embroidery, recalling callused fingertips and fighting to get a needle through fabric that is thick with threads and knots. Yet, counterintuitively, it’s exactly these features that so endear the medium to me. Of all the media I work in, embroidery holds a kind of meaningfulness for me that I haven’t experienced with other techniques.
Often, when I’m working on a thread painting, a little reverie comes to mind: acceleration all around—text messages beaming invisibly through the air; the frantic pace of living in expensive, competitive cities; the universe literally expanding; magnitudes of biotic activity inside every human and animal I’ve ever encountered—and sitting amid that speed and activity, at my desk, working for hours on a couple square inches. Instead of feeling pointless or time-wasting, making art at this plodding pace feels like a virtue—adding a vital counterbalance to a hectic shared experience. Everything in the world seems to skew toward speed and doing; nevertheless, put your attention here, give your time to this small thing.
Even though I was already resigned to my irrational thread compulsion, the decision to frame the embroidery course of Eser’s Maker Mishkan series within the context of Jewish ritual traditions prodded me to think in directions I would ordinarily never go in. I would never describe myself as a ritual-oriented person. The habits I do have are decisively functional, as opposed to thoughtful or meditative. Every day starts with coffee, for example, but not as a means to greet the day—only so I can start working as early as possible.
I didn’t always have such a “Point A to Point B” mindset. As a child, I had many rituals. When I was quite young I had a little homemade gratitude ritual for bedtime every night. Around my bat mitzvah, I graduated to saying actual prayers at the end of the day. As a teenager I journaled every day and for a time meditated every morning, too. I was strong on ritual!
Why did that change? Losing my sense of connection with the bona fide religious aspects of my religious heritage is certainly part of that story, but just as impactful is the simple fact that I got busier and life sped up. I’ve never been great at doing any less than as much as possible, and at some point all my rituals, Jewish and otherwise, got edged out of the picture.
Despite the fact that I no longer identify as religiously Jewish, it has never felt quite right to declare myself not at all Jewish. Likewise, it does not feel right to dismiss the presence of or potential for ritual—secular or otherwise—from my embroidery practice. As I’ve prepared to co-teach this course, I have to admit it: there just might be ritual inhabiting my life.
My MacBook dictionary app defines a ritual as “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order…a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed.” By that description, a ritual doesn’t have to be conceived as such to count as one. My embroidery practice—whether stitching custom text and symbols onto garments for private clients, or rendering illustrative scenes onto hoops and for inclusion in sculptural pieces—may well be ritualistic: sketching; considering the visual goal; selecting and re-selecting colors; splitting thread; cutting; threading the needle; tensioning the canvas; stitch after stitch after stitch.
In other words, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, just call it a duck, already. And in pondering the accidental presence of ritual in my life, via this craft, I’m also led to wonder how many of the Jewish rituals I remember learning and cherishing earlier in my life also came about organically—originating as compulsions, only later to be codified into official procedures and accepted rites of the faith.
This is just one point within a world of potential for discussion and departure that I am excited to explore in Eser’s summer course, “Embroidering Your Jewish Ritual Practice,” with Batya Ellinoy, experiential learning practitioner and rabbinic student. Batya will invite us to investigate the rich tradition of embroidery within the Jewish tradition, from Torah covers, to tallit, kippot and tzitzit. I am excited to dive into this history with our students, and discuss the connection between the religious sanctity of these objects and their embroidered adornment.
Why would we bother rendering in thread an image that could have been sketched, drawn or vectorized in a fraction of the time? When we spend countless hours adding stitched imagery to a garment or piece of fabric, are we adding more than just the weight of the thread? Is there a special gravity that we can give to objects, when we work upon them on a time scale that is out of step with the pace of our modern society? And what function is served to us, the embroidery practitioners, by completing the ritual of making art in this particular way?
If you’re even half as compelled by these questions as I am, I hope that you will consider registering for “Embroidering Your Jewish Ritual Practice” through Eser’s Maker Mishkan series this summer. Together we will learn, discuss and transform the humblest of materials and motions into art that is heavy with care, intention, and tradition—maybe even sacredness.
Kit Collins is an illustrator and fiber artist living and working in Medford.