There was no way I felt obliging when I was told how to thread a needle, how to hold the cloth and how to neatly pierce it whilst steadily feeding needle and thread through to form a tidy stitch. It was only with begrudging attention that I listened, all the while waiting my chance to thread my needle with twice the length of cotton allowed, keeping it exactly doubled and then making an humungus knot at the end. For extra measure I would run the double thread through my mouth, as if to strengthen it with defiance, and the singing sound that this made drove my sister mad with irritation. And then, in a final show of eight year old power, I would run the needle in and out of the cloth without pulling it all the way through, gathering as much fabric as I could fit along its length, before forcing it out again. Voilà, I had at least six stitches all done in one go! If the needle was obstinate in getting through this lot, I would push its head down on a hard surface and use force. Not a few needles were broken in this way. Yes, this is me I am describing. These days I don’t try to run as many stitches as I can in one go, but I do keep a small pair of pliers handy for those obstinate needles! It should not surprise you to know that I gave up needlework at school as quickly as I could. (But I never stopped sewing)
A piece of cloth embroidered with a flower, done in the classroom at school. I rather love this piece, so raw and juvenile in its execution, and use it on a small square tray.
A cipher in progress, done on a piece of pure coarse linen, with DMC cotton embroidery thread. If I were to include another letter and intertwine it with the ‘C’, it would become a Monogram. But actually I call it a monogram anyway. One day I would like to do more complicated designs.
Embroidering demands absolute attention and precision, not to mention good eyesight, and is hugely therapeutic. Somebody once said, “If I am busy with my hands, my head is okay.” Seeing that our Rand is so poor and the vintage linens with all their beautiful monograms being brought in from Europe so expensive, it might be about time for young girls to start learning to sew. No harm or shame in learning to stitch, even if you want to do it your own way, as I did. Something made by hand really does come from the heart, because it takes so long to do, you cannot possibly do it without love. The only times I get irritated or frustrated, is if I discover a tangle or a knot behind the cloth that happened several stitches ago. And because I wasn’t paying attention. Dealing with these little dilemmas reminds me of both my mother and my grandmother. My gran Kate, who was prim and Victorian in all matters, held the surprising view that “whatever went on at the back of your embroidery was nobody’s business but your own” while my mother, a trained Domestic Science teacher (in today’s terms that would translate into domestic goddess I suppose) believed that it should be difficult to tell the front from the back…so if you are somebody who is good at tying up loose ends, that should be no trouble at all. The 1946 embroidery at the top of the page is 70 years old and is part of a sampler my mother made at Teacher’s College.
Imagine being a young girl, filled with romantic ideas of who your husband will be one day, and spending your mornings stitching monograms onto your trousseau. The more leisure time you have, of course, the more elaborate your design. And the leisure time comes from being at a certain social level. Like not having to scrub floors. So that counts me out then. That said, today you could blur the lines a good deal, and nobody would be the wiser. Traditionally a young girl would do only the initial of her first name, leaving a space for her future husband’s surname which she would add once she knew who he was. For three initials, the first would be her own, then it would be his surname, and lastly it would be either the initial of her maiden surname or the initial of her husband’s name. In this case the central initial would usually be larger with the other two entwined or overlapping.
I have seen these ready-made ciphers available for sale, antiques from the French company Plumetis. “What a good idea!” I thought, and tried to do the same. I wish I knew how it could be done…..on cloth, it is very difficult to cut out the embroidered letter without snipping its threads and on paper, which seemed to be ideal as the paper could just be torn away from the letter……except that the paper doesn’t wait until you have finished the whole job, it tears absolutely straight away. I chucked all of that in the bin and gave it up. If you have a bright idea as to how this can be done (those Plumetis editions should run out of supply sooner or later, unless they are fake) – let me know!