Flowering

By the eighteenth century, embroidery was referred to as “flowering”, cementing its importance in cultivating the image of the English rose, and the inseparability of needlework and floral motifs. So long as such stitching was undertaken for the greater good and was not an exercise in vanity, it was permissible. Vanity, after all, is self-regard; looking at oneself, and not letting men do the looking. Why else are selfies so reviled?

Instructing women to stitch for the church or their husband denied women agency over their creativity. If pleasure was sinful, then needlewomen, ever pious, were not permitted to take pleasure in creating their art. In The Subversive Stitch, Rozsika Parker suggests that “the endless assurances that embroidered objects were necessary and useful were prompted perhaps by the guilt women felt that they found pleasure in embroidery”. By the Victorian age, lived experience was all about repression, to keep up the appearance of the angel in the house. This, after all, was an age in which women were told to “lie back and think of England”. The ideal English woman was fragile as the rose that gave her her namesake, pure, and far too calm for anything as frenzied as pleasure. Her physical and emotional helplessness was a reflection of her status as a commodity to be acquired by men; women could not own property or money they had earned until 1870; before then their assets automatically became their husband’s upon marriage.

The fear of sinning through embellishing garments to adorn oneself with (which was so popular in the eighteenth century) may have led to the Victorian craze for embroidering for the man in one’s life; from slippers to the rather frivolous smoking cap, all men’s accessories were to be covered in stitches. This corresponded to the ideal of the self-sacrificing angel in the house, who existed “to soften and sweeten life”, as Mary Lamb put it in her caustic essay On Needlework. A literal softening and sweetening was taking place here; women were creating textiles, and covering them with sentimental stitches.

By the 1830s, the most popular form of embroidery was Berlin woolwork. And the most popular motif? Flowers. Little has changed there, then.

Here is the beginning of a piece based on Berlin woolwork (and on some of the ideas explored here) though stitched in cotton, not wool.

Slowly, the embroidery is flowering...
















Now I'm a Milk Thistle

I've had a bit of a lonely half term; my family were away, most of my friends were working, and Pip has been very busy with work and being a new home owner. I did manage to host a small gathering yesterday, with home-baked brownies and pumpkin pie, though; there are far too many sweet treats left lying around the house!

I may have spent a lot of time with Mad Men boxsets, but I did try to use the time semi-productively; whilst slobbing I was stitching, too. In fact, Milk Thistle is finally finished.

The book deals with sickness (and sickliness) and recovery, the subdued gloom of the English national psyche, weeds, delicate flowers, frailty, vulnerability, stereotypes and performativity of femininity, Romantic literature and poetry, and thorns amongst the roses. Milk thistle is thought to be good for the liver, so the book is also about bravery; about not being lily-livered.

Conceptually I think it's the most cohesive of my three artist's books; however, due to the thin fashion and quilting cottons I used for its cover and pages, it doesn't feel quite as "structurally sound". But I did get a chance to experiment with a few techniques learnt during my time at the RSN, as well as some new ones; Turkey rug stitch, Victorian cross stitch beading, and ribbon embroidery all make an appearance.

So here it is, the completed Milk Thistle, an idea it has only taken me two years to realise:


































The text of the book:

We are wilted English roses grown pallid and wan, wandering moors, moaning "Willoughby, Willoughby" at thin air for hours.

I'll twist my ankle attempting to commune with nature, and fall deep in the shaded wood, become a shrinking violet, growing smaller and smaller until one day I simply vanish.

Down in the thicket, the bright fairy bower, I am sickly and fey, I'm a delicate flower.

Up in my garret, my ivory tower, I wax and I wane, I pale by hour.

Laid up in bed with the curtains drawn, lily livered and lovely eyed, stitching petals between pages, paper thin Honesty skin - quick! Sew up the gaps! Don't let the light in.

In the darkness thorny thoughts crowded my head and I thrashed in my flower bed so ineffectually, a delicate flower choked by creepers, bound up by pansy sickness.

Nobody brought me a bedside bouquet, but everywhere I wept, petals sprung, until I watered a meadow.

The White Lady came to me. She told me "Dab tincture of milk thistle under your weeping eyes. It's good for the liver and you need all the unlilying you can get. Remember you're a milk thistle; a tenacious weed."

I was an English Rose.

Then I was Rose Madder.

Now I'm a Milk Thistle.

I'm looking for somewhere to exhibit Milk Thistle, alongside my other two artist's books, if at all possible. If you're interested, please don't hesitate to get in touch!


Helenium: tears

The sixth and latest page of Milk Thistle is one of my favourites, possibly because it is about crying, which one could argue is my very favourite theme (see here, here, and also here).

I stitched some stanzas of Keats's Ode on Melancholy on to a handkerchief (aptly), and based the illustration to accompany the lines on this illustration from a book that I snagged from my Mum's work:



But more on that later.

The reason why tears feature prominently on this page is because it is based around a Kensitas Flowers card featuring Helenium, a flower which, in Greek mythology, grew where Helen wept.

Consequently, the text I have written and stitched for the page reads

Nobody brought me a bedside bouquet,

but everywhere I wept, flowers sprung,

until I watered a meadow




To accompany the Kensitas Flower, I stitched the following line from Keats's On Melancholy on to my handkerchief:

But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud

as I felt they were appropriate. The eye illustration that accompanies the text is the "weeping cloud" of the poem.























There are only two more pages to go now, and then I can (finally) stitch the whole thing together. It's been a long commitment but I think it will pay off.

Pansy Sickness

Pansies are a flower close to my heart, as I've explained before. I'm even considering getting a tattoo featuring one. So I had to focus on the humble pansy for a page of Milk Thistle.

I chose the most gloriously lurid 60s cotton for the background of the page. This is  because I based the text of the page partially on The Yellow Wallpaper, a late nineteenth century short story about a woman's descent into madness when she is essentially forced into house arrest by her husband, holed up in a room with yellow wallpaper which takes on an increasingly sinister edge. 

My text reads

In the darkness thorny thoughts crowded my head

and I thrashed in my flower bed so ineffectually

a delicate flower choked by creepers

bound up by pansy sickness

The text was also influenced by the meaning of the pansy as given by Kensita's cigarettes; "Thoughts: Think of Me".



I scanned my first blooms to be dried in my flower press (pansies of course!) to become the pocket in which the Kensitas woven silk pansy would be kept. I rather like the vibrant purples and yellows against the yellow, orange and lime green cotton. A ghastly clash to reflect the "thorny thoughts" and "pansy sickness" (which is in actuality a fungus which attacks the pansy's stem and may cause it to collapse).






I have another page to share over the next few days which I completed during my stay in the Highlands; it was quite a productive trip! Two more pages to go after that; I'd better get stitching.

Lily livered

I'm not at all sure about the latest page of Milk Thistle (although I am halfway there now). A few things went wrong in its making, and I almost wished I'd used a brighter, more minimalist background fabric.


One thing I am happy with is the sprig of Honesty I scanned and used as the page's pocket; it is ethereal, almost ghostly; a fellow artist on Instagram described it as "fairy money". It's the perfect holding place for the red lily Kensita's woven silk flower card.







The text of this page reads

Laid up in bed with the curtains drawn, lily livered and lovely eyed

Stitching petals between pages - quick! 

Sew up the gaps! Don't let the light in

There is a separate text sewn on to white work fabric which reads

I thread my needle by the sun's light

I lose eyesight by candle light

This is based on a passage in The Subversive Stitch which describes how cottage industry embroiderers ruined their eyes through sewing by candle light.

This page is based around how invalidism, together with embroidery, became a part of the inculcation of the feminine in the nineteenth century.

The bright fairy bower


 
The third page of Milk Thistle deals with Romantic (with a capital R) preoccupations with sickliness, and the cult of the (myth of the?) tortured artist.

 


 
 
The text reads:
 
Down in the thicket, the bright fairy bower
I am sickly and fey, I'm a delicate flower
 
Up in my garret, my ivory tower,
I wax and I wane, I pale by hour
 
 
I've surrounded the words with a garland of ribbon roses and tiny beaded blooms, and a thicket of wild flowers springs from the page.

Sweet Violet

After many, many hours, my Victorian beadwork violets are ready to be slipped into a pocket of my "shrinking violet" page of artist's book number three, Milk Thistle.



Milk Thistle will be an exploration of the language and symbolism of flowers; of the journey from sickness to recovery, and Romantic literature's preoccupation with tragic heroines.






Protect The Wild Flowers

I came across this image on Tumblr (via the lifestyle blog The Thinking Tank) and immediately felt compelled to turn it into a sketch for blackwork. As I found it on Tumblr I've had difficulty locating it on the blog that originally posted it, and so I'll never know if there's any more information about such a captivating, whimsical image (with such an important message).



I may not have rendered the children's faces perfectly in stitch, but I am mostly pretty happy with the results (and with my choice of ivy-embroidered handkerchief!)

I think of this as a companion piece to my Melancholyflowers:




Secrets Are The Things We Grow: An interview with artist Lily Cuyler

That line from Some Velvet Morning pops into my head unbidden whenever I look at Lily's work. As Lily rather modestly writes herself, "i'm lily and i draw flowers" (how serendipitous that her name is that of one of the most beautiful flowers!) Of course, Lily doesn't just draw flowers; she makes heartbreakingly honest confessional drawings, lino cut patches of famous artists' and writers' quotations, motivational fortune tellers, altered and embroidered photographs, typewritten poetry, and more. And she's still in high school. Once again, I've stumbled across the work of a young but staggeringly talented artist, and it's reminded me to pull my finger out! Her art is definitely a big inspiration for Treasures For Your Troubles, with its themes of self care and the daily struggles of life.

Thank you Lily for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully. I can't wait to see how your next project unfolds.

How long have you been making art, and how did you get into it?

I started really realizing that I liked to make art two summers ago. I was more into collaging than anything else then. My mom is an artist, so there's always been creative energy around me. That's probably how I got into it, just thinking that it was a natural way of expressing yourself and spending hours away from everyone else just to finish this one project you're working on is completely normal. 


In your “Other People’s Secrets” project, you juxtapose (or compliment) presumably anonymous confessions with delicate floral-based illustrations. How did you make the call for submissions for this project? Was it difficult going through with it at points on an emotional and empathetic level? (I’m thinking in particular of the confessions about suicidal thoughts and self harm). Is your use of “twee”, delicate imagery an attempt to soften the sometimes shocking confessions, to prettify them? A sort of metaphorical bandaid? It seems to me that the imagery itself, with its muted colours and natural themes “whispers”, just as secrets themselves are told. How did you decide on the imagery for each piece? Did you select a number of confessions to illustrate, or illustrate all the secrets you were told?


I actually started asking people to send me anonymous confessions one day because I had drawn all these pictures, and they needed words on them, and I thought this would be kind of a nice and therapeutic way for people to get something off their chests. It was definitely difficult going through some of the secrets because they really touched me emotionally, especially the ones about contemplating suicide and self harm. My imagery definitely softens the blow of these intense human emotions. You can feel this way but have a pretty outside, the flowers can still be blooming. Some of my pieces have dead flowers, which to me represents being defeated, the beautiful colors have faded and died. I didn't illustrate all of the secrets I was given, some of them were very difficult to put into drawing-form. Some were too personal, some not secrets at all.



Are the photographs you use as backgrounds for embroidery your own? Are they picked at random, or do they have significance for each piece? How did you come to embroidery, and what do you like about it as a medium?

2 months on Flickr.

Most of the photographs for my embroidery are my own. I will actually take pictures on my roll of film imagining what kind of things I could embroider onto them. My photo embroideries are a chance for me to put more bluntly the things I need to get out of my system. Things that I feel are too intense or too long or too complicated to put on my simple drawings. The last photo embroidery I did, none of the pictures I took to use in this project developed, so I ended up using old film photos of my boyfriend's. Ones that didn't turn out quite right and just had a beautiful yellow color in them. I really like embroidering photos because whatever I do, even if I mess up significantly, it still looks okay. That fox, on one of my photos, did not start out as a fox. 
anti anxiety on Flickr.

Is there an element of art therapy to your practice? Is this something you have ever considered pursuing professionally? I say this ecause of the confessional, cathartic quality of your work, both in divulging other people’s secrets and your own, your use of inspirational and motivational quotations, and your gorgeous little hand drawn fortune tellers that come with sound and reassuring advice such as “Tell them you love them” and “Don’t be anxious”.



There is so much art therapy in what I do. It's therapy for me, specifically, and I am just coming to realize that it's also affecting other people in a therapeutic way. I get messages on Tumblr like "your art touched me tonight and helped me not self-harm." That makes me feel so good, both in the ways of knowing something I made helped someone, and knowing that someone else out there feels the same way I do. I definitely am committed to pursuing art professionally. I am almost done with my junior year of high school and I am looking at many art institutes to attend, it's the only thing that makes me happy and the only thing I feel like I'm really good at. If that ends up in an art therapy practice, then I'm happy with that. 


Sylvia Plath patch 
Own your own!

You touch gently on themes of mental illness in your work (and indeed, gentleness is what I think of when I look at your work, even when you use the word “fucking”). Is this something that particularly concerns you?




Mental illness concerns me to no end. About a year ago I was suffering from pretty severe depression, and I still get bouts of it from time to time. I have so many friends with mental illnesses that really affect their lives, and I think it's important to put these topics out in the open. I think it's important to connect with people on that level if they're needing help getting through something, anything. Flowers are the disguise to these pretty shitty feelings. 
The fear of suffering on Flickr.

Do you have many creative projects on the go at the moment, or plans of creating more in the future? Would you be willing to share a few of those with us?

There is always a project I'm working on. Right now I'm focusing on making a book of famous poets and their houses, which should be up on Etsy and Tumblr in a day or two. I'm really excited about it. When I get an idea for a project that I'm really excited about, sometimes I can't sleep until I at least start it. 



Nothing But Flowers

 



After weeks of stitching (and distractions), my Melancholyflowers are finally all stitched up! They're based on an illustration from the turn of the century childrens' book Land of Play - Verses, Rhymes, Stories, first published in 1911.

I've so enjoyed embroidering these delicate little flowers, although their intricacy did make it a frustrating process at times! I shall have them framed soon and look for somewhere to exhibit them along with the other embroideries in the blackwork series I'm working on. But for now, back to work on The Constellation Quilt.



Say It With Flowers

"What a desolate place would be a world without a flower! It would be a face without a smile, a feast without a welcome. Are not flowers the stars of the earth, and are not our stars the flowers of heaven?" ~ AJ Balfour
A rainy Friday found Pip and I at the Garden Museum delving into the history of the flower trade. Whilst the flowers outside were getting a drenching, we learnt an awful lot of floral trivia, including that the Floral Industry in the UK is worth a whopping 1.65 billion, that roses are edible, that over four hundred flower girls were selling bunches in London in 1851 , and that, according to scientific research, flowers just make us feel good.

Flower Seller, Unknown Artist, Between 1800 and 1850
I've recently started stitching some flowers that feel bad; some melancholy flowers. This is a bit of a break from my big project, The Constellation Quilt, harking back to my project Milk Thistle (which I swear will get done one day!), which explores the link between flowers and sickness and recovery.




Possibly the flowers I'm stitching are suffering from depression; they certainly seem (literally) downcast, and slightly weepy! They are an illustration from Land of Play - Verses, Rhymes, Stories, first published in 1911 and written by Sarah Tawney Leffert. The melancholy flowers were sketched either by M.L. Kirk or Florence England Nosworthy (though I do hope by Florence, due to the floral connection of her first name!)



I'm growing very fond of turn-of-the-century illustrations of this style; they seem to really suit my laywoman's blackwork technique (not for long though; soon I'll be a pro at blackwork, as it's one of the first techniques I'll learn at the Royal School of Needlework!)

Floriculture, the exhibition at the Garden Museum, may have been all about the inspiration afforded by cut flowers, but a site specific installation which I came across recently celebrated both the vibrancy and the restorative properties of living flowers. Bloom was a public artwork comprised of twenty eight thousand potted flowers which filled the offices, basements, day rooms, wards and corridors of Massachusetts Mental Health Center from the 14th to the 17th November 2003. The building was scheduled to be knocked down the same year, and the artist, Anna Schuleit, was commissioned to create a public artwork memorialising the lives and experiences of those who had lived, worked, and been treated there over the building's lifetime; a memorial which was also open to the public.



Although the Center had been a place of healing and hope as well as sadness and despair, Schuleit was struck by the lack of colour and vibrancy in the worn old halls. She struck on flowers, a symbol of vitality, new beginnings and hope, to flood the building with. In a fantastic interview on the Colossal art website, Schuleit writes that "Bloom was a reflection on the healing symbolism of flowers given to the sick when they are bedridden and confined to hospital settings. As a visiting artist I had observed an astonishing absence of flowers in psychiatric settings. Here, patients receive few, if any, flowers during their stay. Bloom was created to address this absence, in the spirit of offering and transition.



This very much relates to my Milk Thistle project, and makes me wonder why it is that the mentally ill are rarely brought flowers, when surely an injection of cheerful nature into their environment could (almost always) only be positive. Certainly many of the former patients who visited Bloom during its four day installation were deeply moved by the artwork, with one writing "Today we flourish", and another visitor commenting "For all the patients who never received flowers, these flowers are for you. I don't know if I've ever encountered such a life-affirming and gorgeous artwork; part of me wishes I could've nipped across the pond in 2003 to witness it, but another part recognises that it was a deeply personal installation best experienced by those who had been a part of the building's story.

Flowers signify so many different things in our culture; healing, new beginnings, love, celebration, life itself. I will be undertaking a little research into the language of flowers to learn more about the symbolism of the "stars of the earth".

Delicate Flowers

I received a very interesting surprise "donation" today from my workmate (and crafty renaissance man) Mark; an envelope filled with Kensitas Flowers. These were a sweet treat for smokers of the 1930s; miniature woven silk flowers slipped inside beautifully designed, informative covers, and given away inside packets of Kensitas cigarettes in 1934 and 1935.
When I first opened the envelope I assumed the flowers had been embroidered. However, embroidery this miniscule and delicate would be virtually impossible without a specialist programmable embroidery machine, which obviously did not exist in the 1930s!
With a quick Google search, I discovered that the flowers were in fact woven silk. Unfortunately, a scan doesn't do the flowers justice; they really are exquisite.






It was very fortuituous that Mark passed on these heirlooms to me today; I've recently started work on a new (and slightly ambitious project which they are both giving me ideas for, and can be incorporated into. I recently picked up a crazy hideous/beautiful 70s (?) patchwork table cloth with a doily trim from a stall near work, and when I saw it I knew I had to use it for something.


Each square is about four by four inches, and so I've decided to write a monologue across them in stitch, with occasional illustrations, story board style.

The piece will deal with sickness (and sickliness) and recovery, the subdued gloom of the English national psyche, weeds, delicate flowers, frailty, vulnerability, stereotypes of femininity, romantic literature and poetry, and thorns amongst the roses.

Its title will be Milk Thistle.


Some of the flowers which Mark passed on to me would work particularly well in Milk Thistle, due to the symbolism surrounding them. For example, Montbretia represents instability, which evidently relates to sickness, and Helenium represents tears, which is a theme I will explore through extension of my concept of "melancholyflowers".





Lilies, roses, and pansies are all flowers I want to incorporate into the piece due to their prominence in English literature and idioms.




I'd be very interested to learn more about flower symbolism and the language of flowers.

Finally, apparently, Flax is associated with domestic industry and the textile crafts, which is obviously of particular interest to me as a "conceptual embroidery artist"!

Melancholyflowers

If you follow my work on Flickr, you may remember this silly, play-on-words piece:





Well, the dreadful pun has resurfaced on the latest page of On Being Soft, albeit with an alternate spelling.




In this page, I am exploring "being soft" as perceived as a negative quality. "S/he's a bit soft" is a synonym for "wet", "drippy", ineffectual.

I'd been given a couple of linen scraps on which were stitched gorgeous studies of flowers by my ever-generous Granny, and began to think of how many flower-related idioms amount to meaning the same thing as "a bit soft".

I began listing these: delicate flower, pansy, shrinking violet, lily-livered, weed.

I decided to present a series of embroidered flowers on the page as if they were botanical studies, accompanied by these rather derogatory terms instead of their Latin names. And what could serve as a title for the page? "Melancholyflowers"!

(In a happy coincidence, I recently learnt from Andrew Solomon's book The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression that the ancient Greeks believed cauliflower to be a cure for melancholy;"Chrysippus of Cnidus believed that the answer to depression was the consumption of more cauliflower".)



For the "delicate flower", I chose one of the samplers completed by my Granny's friend. The remainder of the flowers are hand-embroidered by me.



This isn't the best photograph, but it's "pansy" (in simpering pink, of course) illustrated by, well, a pansy. Interestingly, as well as being homophobic, the term pansy can also mean a "weak, effeminate, and often cowardly man", similarly to "lily-livered". However, I've also heard it used to refer to women, for example, er, myself. Apparently a couple of years back a highstreet men's fashion chain was selling a t-shirt emblazoned with the word "pansy", reclaiming the word as a badge of honour!



In Why Do Violets Shrink?: Answers to 280 Thorny Questions on the World of Plants by Caroline Holmes, we learn that the Sweet Violet shrinks away from insects which try to access its pollen. A "shrinking violet" is of course an incredibly timid person.





In the Middle Ages, the liver was believed to be the seat of courage. A pale, "lily-coloured" liver would be one with no blood, and thus courage, in it; thus, lily-livered.


This is one of my favourite pages so far, and a little self-deprecating dig at myself for being all of the above!