Collections on Loan, Part III

by Susan Dawson
Originally Published Spring 2000

Innovation is interesting. I love designing and at this time can hardly wait to see what surprises with show up at The Exemplary. Peg Laflam & beve handwerger can be counted on for something new and fresh. I am always thrilled by Beth Meree’s travel logs in stitches and last year I was completely surprised by Gail’s post cards from the Caribbean. But what is the most fun is, every year someone completely unknown to me enters an exciting piece of embroidery full of fresh new ideas.

Still after a lifetime of studying embroidery, designing embroidery, collecting embroidery and after a decade of judging embroidery, I strongly believe the best of what is being done now is grounded in our past. To really appreciate what these imaginative people are doing and in order to achieve the highest quality in our own work we need to understand where we have come from; in order both to understand what is good, what is durable and what the social context of our work is. The “Collections on Loan” section of The Exemplary addresses this issue.

When I studied Japanese embroidery I was fortunate enough to sit next to Debbie Bowers, an intelligent, sharp-eyed individual who had a sincere and tactful way of questioning everything that we were taught. When we were studying couching circles, we were taught to “brick” the couching stitches … to place the stitches as close as possible to the mid-point between the two stitches in the previous, adjacent row. Having come from a European silk and metal background, I accepted this as reasonable. Debbie, however, carefully studied the pieces of outstanding work that were always made available to us … and soon was wanting to know why we bricked our couching when the samples arranged their stitches in neatly radiating rows, like spokes of a wheel. It was explained to us, that bricking is a beginners technique, the simplest approach to learning to work with a circle.

So I went to my books and collection and realized that all over the world, circles are couched using a number of patterns in order to create appropriate effects. The evenly bricked couching that we are taught in our single course approach to embroidery lessons creates a still almost stagnant disk shape, reminiscent of hand hammered metal. The spoked wheel approach, that Debbie observed, creates more motion but less of a shimmery effect. Often I see the spokes curved, which increases the sense of motion in the design. The spacing between the couched spokes, varied in a regular pattern creates an almost patterned couching or or nue effect. From the Middle East, I see padding placed under some of the sections to create an undulating surface to the couched disk.