Book review: Claire Wellesley-Smith – Slow Stitch

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this one, and I’m pleased to report that it’s been worth the wait. The book is in the usual 128 page hardcover Batsford format. Its full title is ‘Slow Stitch: mindful and contemplative textile art’. The quality of the images is uniformly excellent and the text is well-written and thoughtful. It’s divided into four sections: Slow, Materials and Techniques, Cross-cultural activity and Contemplative. It’s redolent of a particular philosophy and approach to the process of stitching and it’s worth reading carefully and, well, slowly.Slow stitch

The first section (‘Slow’) relates slow stitch to the Slow movement in general, and discusses the related issues of sustainability and use of resources. ‘Materials and techniques’ identifies sources of old and new materials. It also has a relatively brief section on dyeing using native plants. I expected there to be much more about natural dyeing in the book, but actually there are plenty of other sources of information about this and there’s no particular need to explain it in any greater detail here. ‘Cross-cultural activity’ looks at some relevant stitching traditions, including Kantha and Japanese boro. It also contains a good section on mending (both practice and philosophy) and on piecing and patching. Finally, ‘Contemplative’ is perhaps the most important section of the book in that it expounds the benefits of mindful practice, together with some practical suggestions for developing ideas. I especially like the idea of the stitch journal as a means of daily practice in stitching. I, too, feel that there’s something about stitching that helps in problem-solving, and with the flow of ideas. The process of stitching contributes to creativity and the flow of ideas.

It’s always interesting with these books to see the range of work that the author draws upon for illustration of ideas. Claire has included examples of the work of some of my favourite artists, for example, Judy Martin (if you don’t know about the Mantoulin Circle project, do follow the link and have a look), Roanna Wells, Mandy Pattullo and Christine Mauersberger, to name but a few. And above all, there are lots of examples of Claire’s own understated and calming stitched works. All are beautifully photographed. If you’re familiar with Claire’s website you will know how good at photography she is, and I expect these are her own photographs of her own work.

This is not a ‘how to’ book, although it does contain some guidance about using plants for dyeing and suggestions for e.g. stitching a square and producing kantha stitches. As much as anything, it’s a book about ideas and a particular approach to stitched textiles that I, for one, find very appealing.

Very slow stitch

As a result of working too hard at the day job I’ve developed a repetitive strain injury over the last 10 days or so. This is painful, and a nuisance. I’ve been to the physiotherapist this morning and am now wearing a splint to prevent my right thumb from bending. An important question, obviously, is whether or not I can do any stitching. Since I got home I’ve done a few things very slowly. I’ve lit the fire (a very slow process), and I’ve read a couple of chapters of a book (no faster or slower than usual). I ironed a couple of shirts, badly and slowly. And I’ve tried a bit of stitching in a hoop, stitching with my left hand and holding the hoop braced against me with the fingers of my right hand. This is not ideal, and every stitch takes a good long while, but it can be done so I will be able to continue with my current project.

This got me thinking about slow stitching. One of the advantages of hand stitching is that it is necessarily a slow and meditative process, and therefore a useful corrective to all the mad rushing about that passes for normal life. I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more as an oasis in my over-busy life. I was reminded of something I’d read on the internet a while back, and when I started searching I found references to ‘Slow Cloth’ as embodying a particular approach to making. Elaine Lipson named this concept and she has a Facebook page devoted to it, which is well worth a look. There’s a link there to a talk she gave at the Textile Society of America, which I’ve just read, and which makes a lot of sense to me. She talks about time, naturally, but also about the time taken to master skills. She says: ‘Slow Cloth aims for the mastery, fluency and depth that can only come from cultivating a relationship to making, and to textiles, over a lifetime, not jumping from one crafty workshop to the next that aim primarily to sell you a lot of supplies’. Well said, Elaine Lipson – mastery, fluency and depth.

Making things with your hands is so important. This injury has got me thinking about my hands and how precious they are, and how much an injury to them matters. But also, that this injury is an opportunity to stop and think about what I’m doing. If you read this, do follow the link and read Elaine Lipson’s paper.

And, finally, how did I type this? Well, slowly, of course.