I received a very interesting email yesterday from Liz Whitehouse, a graduate and fellow ex-student of Dartington College of Arts. My tutor put me in touch with her as she had explored embroidery as a medium and context for the final project of her final year.
Her research initially focused on the etymological roots of the words "text" and "textile"; both derive from the Latin "texere", "to weave". Clearly there is an ancient relationship between writing and textile art even before one begins to embroider words!
(When researching the etymology of the two terms myself I stumbled across the blog Text, Textile, Exile, which I must return to at some point.)
For her final piece, Liz took as a starting point an extraordinarily moving sampler completed by a young woman named Elizabeth Parker in the 19th Century, which is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The sampler is worked in miniscule red cross stitch, forming tiny letters which make up the story of Elizabeth's (rather traumatic) life up to the present; there are details of employers treating her "with cruelty too horrible to mention", and of her thoughts of suicide. The piece ends abruptly and hauntingly with the phrase "what will become of my soul"; it is unfinished, and this only serves to make the sampler all the more poignant and heartbreaking. Whereas a sampler would generally be comprised of an alphabet and decorative floral design, Elizabeth's is midway between cathartic diary entry and soulful prayer. Its opening phrase, "As I cannot write" is immediately contradicted by the uniformly perfect stream of words which issue from her needle.
The text that Liz wrote and then embroidered as a "sampler" of her own echoes this opening line of Elizabeth Parker's sampler in its first line ("though I cannot stitch or write/With your patience"):
These are my blood lines; though I cannot stitch or write
With your patience
Spoilt by the freedoms of my generation, I try to summon your strength
Recall your nimble hands. I find myself beside you
In those quiet moments of my childhood. I listen to your words.
****random stitches here****
So that I can write my veins in thread and not be orphaned by my pen.
I am undone. To be a woman is to sit with you.
T know my place, my point;
To stitch myself ... a patch ... on to our maternal quilt;
So that I can carry your words and share them with our daughters
You wield a power that I cannot muster from my pen.
I am gender-illiterate, but I write.
Thus I dedicate my every effort as a woman
Fittingly, Liz embroidered this text with red thread, symbolising these "blood lines".
The text was embroidered on to images of groups of women sewing, which Liz transferred on to fabric and then quilted together, referencing, through making, the following quotation from Géraldine Chouard's essay Sew to Speak: Text and Textile in Eudora Welty:
"Writing, as piecing, is the art of arranging disparate scraps of material into a unique and distinctive design. A text is always a second-hand piece, made of words which have had a life of their own in previous arrangements, as are the fragments of fabrics of a patchwork quilt which have served other purposes and which, stitched together in a particular fashion, form new patterns."
Liz's sampler is also a touching tribute to her grandmother.