Thursday, 19 June 2014

Bopha It With Wire

It suddenly seems that I have finished just about everything that I have to finish before I go off and pack my suitcases to fly over to Brisbane, Australia for Koala Conventions. I’m not sure how that’s possible and I fear that I’m suddenly going to remember that there is a whole body of work that I have to get through, but maybe not. Even if that is the case, I am nevertheless going to take some time to post on this blog.

Yesterday I received stock of my new book, Crewel Intentions, and we have been able to send out the first orders. It’s always an exciting time, to see it in print and to see Darren taking all of those parcels off to the post office – because people have actually ordered it, which means they want it. It’s a gratifying end to two years of hard work. But, at the same time, I am lucky to have the most fabulous publishers who take my ramblings on a memory stick and turn them into a work of art. It’s an ongoing friendly argument that I have with Metz Press who are always humble and will tell me every time that it’s the content that counts. I do know, though, that without their magic touch it would all be a bit mediocre and have very little outward appeal. No matter how good the content may or may not be.

But onto what I was thinking about this morning. The irritating things people say. Deliciously irritating pronouncements in every sphere of our lives, but oh so many of them, so I’m going to stick to embroidery pronouncements for the purposes of this post. Aside from mentioning my favourite irritating sentence about copyright (“But it’s so complicated.” It isn’t. Don’t copy. That’s not difficult, is it?), the most irritating of the lot is:

“It’s all very well to break the rules, but you must at least know them before you can break them”.

Imagine for a moment that you are woman born in the 16th, 17th, 18th century (it doesn’t matter which) and that you are adept with a needle and thread. Rather like you are in the 21st century, happy to sit for hours playing nicely, you’re passionate and you’re artistic. You’re not creating grand works of art, just embellishing your linen or your clothing. There is not a store of reference books out there as in the modern world so, having learnt techniques from your Grandmother or your Mother, you build on that.

You play with knots and loops, straight stitches and weaves. You go over and under, out and through, making different combinations and in doing so, keep yourself interested and inspired. Every now and then you might combine a few things that make up something that is truly inventive and inspiring to others. Your neighbour sees it and asks you to show her how. So you do, because you’re a woman and you share things. You don’t immedately run off to a patent office. That’s a man thing.

But back to your neighbour. Her best friend sees your little stitch combination, likes it and wants to do something similar, so your neighbour shows her. And so it goes on, until the whole community is doing it. Nobody knows who originally thought of it, and it doesn’t matter. It isn’t important. What is worth noting though, is that this is how regional styles would have developed. Combine this inventiveness with the fabric available in a time and place, the (much smaller) variety of yarns, the types of objects that were being embellished and you come out with your hardanger, your hedebo, your schwalm and so on.

Because travel was difficult, these stitch artists didn’t move around much. They spent their entire lives in one village and that is why, historically, many techniques can be pinpointed to a specific region or town. If they had travelled, all of these styles would have far more in common than they do. In fact, where an influence has crept in from somewhere else, the person who travelled and spread that influence is very often named and documented.

I don’t know when it happened, I suspect around the beginning of the 20th century, much of that evolution stalled. Researchers started documenting things and once a regional style was written about, it became set in stone. Those were the “rules” and they were enthusiastically adopted by people who like to form committees and become chairpersons. Thereafter, heaven help anyone who had a mind of her own and thought that she might like to inject a little of her own personality into her work. Or to combine her hardanger with a little bit of, oh who cares, pulled work. It didn’t matter if her finished product was beautiful, a masterpiece. It was wrong. It broke the rules and that was that.

If you want to recreate the embroideries from history, the rules will work for you but if you want to be inventive, innovative and a small cog in the evolution of hand embroidery, they are a pernicious thing and, sadly, they endure. They really do, despite what people claim. One of the reviews written – only two years ago - about my book Crewel Twists said something along the lines of “I have always admired crewel embroidery but was told I could only do it with wool, and I am allergic to wool, so have never done it. Now I can, because this book uses stranded cotton.” Now isn’t that sad? A whole genre of embroidery, one that to my mind is the most enjoyable of the lot, excluded from a person’s stitching pleasure because of the “rules”. That it took a short, plump, foul-mouthed South African author, one always covered in dog hair, to tell this reviewer that she could use something other than wool. I do hope that stitcher is now having a ball, using any kind of yarn that she chooses to create crewel or Jacobean shapes.

We live in rather a lawless society with a rather inept administration here on the tip of Africa and for that I am grateful. I suspect you have just gulped and asked yourself why I would be so stupid as to consider myself lucky to live in a place where the likelihood of being a victim of crime is so high, or a region where it is more difficult to get things done to one’s satisfaction. I’m going to tell you why.

It means that I have to think. I have to be guided by my own ethics, my own rules, not someone else’s idea of how I should behave. I have to find a way of coming by the things I need to do what I want to do. And if I can’t get those things, I have to find an alternative. Or invent one. I grew up on a farm in central Africa where it was usually impossible to purchase spare parts for farm implements on the one hand, and household appliances on the other. So, if something was broken and you couldn’t purchase a spare part, or didn’t have the time to wait for one to come from abroad, you would “bopha it with wire” (bopha is a Zulu word common to many African languages that means bind, tie together, etc.). It usually worked but, more importantly, it meant that we all had a mindset that said you can always find a way, albeit often an alternative one, to achieve an end. And that’s why I consider myself lucky.

It didn’t matter what the manufacturers instructions were, you couldn’t follow them because you didn’t have the wherewithal, so you made up your own rules. “Bopha it with wire” is a technique that I apply to my embroidery. I know what I want to create and I find a way to do it, whether it fits in with anachronistic rules or not. I bopha it with wire.

Which is why I find that aforementioned sentence so irritating. You don’t have to know the rules before you can break them. No. All you need to know is the techniques and once you know them, build on them, go mad, have fun, be creative and invent what you want to invent. In other words, bopha it with wire and continue the evolution of hand embroidery. Because it has stalled.

And now, off to pack my suitcase. Looking forward to meeting up with all you lovely Australians again next week.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Crewel Intentions is almost here....

It’s almost here. The ship bringing the South African edition of my new book docked in Cape Town on Monday and as soon as it has landed in the warehouse, boxes of books will be sent up to me. I hope to receive them by the end of next week.

This is what it looks like, and if you go back to my January post, you can see what’s inside it.

It doesn’t matter how many books or articles one writes, it’s always exciting to see it in print and so, we decided that a brand new website was in order. Aside from any celebratory reasons, the present website has been too complicated and customers have often had problems registering and shopping.

My son, known to many of you as Dude, is one of our local experts in this field. He has written a new website from scratch, coding it to my specific instructions. Those instructions being that it should be user friendly. That our customers are not teenage boys who know how to hack into systems that I dare not mention here, in case I am tagged by, say, the military. It will go live tomorrow, or the next day, and existing customers may receive an email asking them to update their details. This so that you will be able to shop with ease. Not just for the new book, but also for all the packs that you will need to complete the projects.

It is entirely possible that problems can still occur, but we will be on alert asking you to bear with us while they are ironed out. We’re pretty smart down here on the tip of Africa and we get it right, but if we don’t sometimes, it’s not as if we are in the business of saving lives or taking care of someone’s life savings. It’s just embroidery and that does not constitute a medical or other emergency.

In the past we didn’t ask you to pay, instead sending you an invoice or Paypal notification. That will change as the website has been written to accommodate alerts to us if stock levels are low. It will calculate postage and ask you to pay either through Payfast, which will accommodate EFT for South African customers, or through Paypal for international customers. Please be assured that we have taken security very seriously, with both of these payment platforms being as secure as anything ever can be.

So, as soon as it is live, South African customers will be able to order the new book and the packs. Customers in the rest of the world will need to order the book through whatever channels you usually use – Amazon, Book Depository, Fishpond, etc. and of course, your local booksellers or needlework shop. I expect the books to be available to you from the end of this month. Packs can be ordered from our website. They’re all packed, ready and waiting for you.

On a very different note, I would like to apologise to anyone who has experienced glitches with their orders in the last few months. It is only one or two of you and it’s because for the better part of six months I have not had my eye on the ball as well as I should have. I’ve had a ten year shoulder niggle that finally got to the point where I was forced to do something about it after hurting it again in December. The comforting cortisone injection that usually did the trick had lost it’s zing and I had surgery in March. I have gained a new respect for anyone who goes through anything that involves cutting into the bone. In future I will be able to say, “I feel your pain” and really mean it.

Constant low-grade pain is exhausting and, if I’m to be completely honest, there were times when I just didn’t care what was going on in my studio. I sat around looking grim, feeling sorry for myself and I let Darren just get on with it. He really stepped up to the plate and has done a marvelous job, but there is too much for one person to cope with on their own and the odd thing slipped through.

I am now back up running, ready for everything that goes with the new book, the travel abroad and whatever else comes along. Even bought myself a new set of suitcases with four wheels, instead of two, so that I can push, not pull. I still can’t get my left arm around to the back to do up my most necessary piece of underwear, but have solved that by doing up the hooks first, stepping into it as if it were a pair of trousers, then pulling it all the way up. My family laugh at me, but it works! And I’m sure they were tired of being asked to do up the hooks even if, bless them, they never complained. Well, my husband didn’t. If I was forced to ask my son he did it uncomplainingly, but with very long arms.

The main thing is, the light has started shining at the end of the tunnel and I am back to full speed in the important areas.