Hello, welcome to the final part of this mini-series about slow, intuitive stitching for relaxation and creative expression.
In the previous four posts, I’ve described my process for beginning a piece of slow-stitched textile art, using intuitive stitching. In this post, I’m going to talk about the different stages I tend to go through whilst making a piece of work and the nature of mediation and relaxation in stitch, as I experience it.
First Stage – ‘and we’re off!’
Although I spent a lot of time discussing how to begin, in practice I tend to think of all that as a preamble, a prelude to the real thing. I do enjoy the early part, the gathering together of fabrics, the playing with colours, and the excitement of starting something new, but it’s a different kind of enjoyment to what comes next once the ‘proper’ stitching starts.
With the base layer tacked down and the work is in the frame, I begin to relax, I take a deep breath and gently begin to pass the needle in and out of the fabric.
This way of working is by definition slow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and, stretching the metaphor to its breaking point, in this race, you don’t know where the finishing line is, or where the route goes. All you do have is a willingness to keep going and to see what happens.
At this stage, it’s important not to get hung up on how it’s looking. In other media, there’s the process of adding layers, of shading, and contrasts, which is all done before finally getting to the fine detail. In stitch, it’s very similar. At first, I think of the work as adding bones, putting in some sort of frame or skeleton. It probably won’t be pretty, but without it, there’s nowhere to hang the finer details. So plod on, create the lines, emphasise some, bring in more colour, listen to your imagination. As you come to the end of each thread, take a moment to think about which thread you’re going to use next, keep listening for your intuition.
Let go of the need to know what’s happening and suddenly you find pleasure simply in the doing of the stitching.
Mindfulness in stitch
I think I’d been stitching in one way or another for about thirty years before I heard about mindfulness. Even when I read several books about it, searching as I was, for ways to relax and destress, I still took another few years before I made the connection and understood that for me, stitching is mindful practice.
Of course, there are numerous ways to practice mindfulness, which is at its root, simply the art of being totally in the present moment without any judgment. You can mindfully breathe, mindfully brush your teeth, mindfully wash the dishes, mindfully do nothing. The art is simply to keep your focus entirely on the moment, without letting your mind wander off to other thoughts. When it does wander off, as it certainly will, you gently bring it straight back to whatever is your focus, without judging, and carry on.
When your mind is engaged like this, your breathing begins to relax, your body softens and gradually you feel more mellow. With practice, this feeling of relaxation is something you can reach more easily and indeed many people will use this process to reach even deeper levels of awareness.
At some point, it occurred to me, that slow stitching is another route into mindfulness. The practice is basically the same. You begin, you gradually give your attention fully to what is in your hands and you maintain your focus as you push the needle in and out in precise places, over and over again. When your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to the stitching and carry on.
For me, this is the true gift of slow stitching. Perhaps because I’ve been practicing this for so long, I find I slow down and unwind, I leave my anxious thoughts behind very quickly, once I start to wield the needle. Indeed, over the years, I have used stitching primarily as my way to unwind. It is essential to my well-being for me to have a piece of work that I can pick up whenever I want to relax, which is why I almost always have a work in progress.
And for me, this process works. Yes, I still have anxious times, as we all do, but when I feel myself becoming uptight, I know that through stitch, I will manage that stress down again.
It is because of this gift of relaxation, that I am most eager for anyone who feels a call, to engage personally. There’s no great mystery, it’s easy, it’s available to anyone who has some fabrics and threads and it requires no initiation, or specific training. Slow stitching, just for relaxation, is a sufficient incentive and benefit, for me to want to encourage people to try it too. But, there’s also the possibility that once you get involved, you’ll also find that through the process, you begin to find your creative voice.
This, I think of as an added benefit. It’s not the reason to begin, but if it happens, who knows where it might lead you? If, as you work, you find yourself wanting to express something, if you find yourself drawn to specific themes, if you are inspired to pursue other routes, if you set off on a creative journey, then how wonderful, how magical that is.
For some people, mindfulness is also a route to a deeper spiritual practice, a spiritual exploration. In recent years, this is something I’ve begun to feel more strongly. I’m not going to go into details about that here, but I now find this to be as important to me as the creative expression and relaxation. Other people may of course find the process takes them on entirely different journeys. I wonder where it might take you?
And so, having digressed a little, let’s now go back to our stitching…
Second Stage – Hopes and Doubts
At some point, I can’t tell you exactly when, you’ll find that you start having a feel for where your work is going. It’s an odd sensation, there’s a subtle change from looking at a collection of separate pieces, to seeing a whole piece. This stage is what I think of as the hopeful stage, when I’m generally hopeful that it will come together as something attractive or uplifting.
All you can do from here is to keep showing up and stitching. Try not to get too attached to the piece at this stage because if you’re not careful, you’ll give yourself expectations for how you think it should turn out, which from my experience is rarely what you’d anticipate at this stage. If you can maintain a gentle approach of continuing to explore, it seems to reward you better later in the day.
Now I also have to warn you, that there is likely to be more than one occasion when you wonder if it’s actually going to turn out well at all, and you might wonder whether or not to stop, or to start a new piece instead. I can’t blame anyone who gives up at this stage, I’ve done it myself more than once. But, here’s the thing, whilst I have sometimes given up, there have also been times when I decided to carry on and each time I’ve done that, I’ve ended up being very happy with the results. It’s almost as if I’m being tested to see how committed I am, and I have to prove myself before I’m given the final pieces of the puzzle. That may sound a touch fanciful, but it’s totally true, and nowadays, I rarely give up. I do occasionally put a piece down for a few days or, and this is something quite recent, I ask someone else to add a few stitches to the piece. Either way, I’ve found that after this, I am able to move on again very confidently.
So, what I think I’m saying here is, keep going and see what happens, don’t give up. You don’t know what might come along.
Third Stage – Look! It works…
Eventually, and how long it takes is really impossible to predict, you’ll reach a time when you look at the piece and realize that it’s almost finished. I wish there was a suitable definition of finished, but as any artist will tell you, there’s no rigid formula. All I can say is that I work over the piece until I feel that there’s no area of the canvas that is missing stitches that it needs. That doesn’t mean filling all the space, although sometimes I do, it’s more a case of judging the balance between stitch and space.
Shortly before this stage, is the time I most look forward to while I’m working and that’s the time when, quite out of the blue, I recognize that what I hold in my hands is no longer a collection of fragments, held together with stitches, but instead, is a whole and complete item all on its own. It has transformed from pieces into a single piece. I can’t tell you why this gives me such pleasure, but it’s the closest thing to magic I’ve come across. I hope this is a common experience, please, please let me know if you have the same response in your work.
When you do eventually decide that you’ve made your last stitch, it’s time to take it out of the frame and congratulate yourself. Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, what happens to me, is that a few days, or sometimes weeks, before the end, I start having urges to begin a new piece. Often I’ll want to move quickly into another colour palette, and part of my brain will already be playing with ideas, so that the moment the old piece is off the frame, I am back in the kitchen, laying out the fabrics and beginning the whole process all over again.
If you’re more patient than me, I’d advise deciding what you want to do with your finished work and follow through. But the pile of finished canvases in my cupboard will prove that you should do what I say, not what I do. As I’ve said throughout this series, despite all the other aspects of slow stitch, it remains for me that quiet, repetitive process that calls me back. I am far more likely to be found stitching than framing or mounting or marketing anything I’ve made. Such is life.
And so, we’ve come full circle. What will you do next? Whatever you do, you’ll take the experience of the previous piece with you. I’ve changed the way that I work with every piece I’ve made, trying out different fabrics, threads, stitches. Learning every time. Deciding what I like, what works and what doesn’t. Techniques that have been tried and sidelined, aren’t necessarily gone for good, I might reintroduce them at another stage in the future.
All the time, I’m soaking up inspiration from the world around me, from people I meet, from the art I see, from the books I read, from the materials I find. It’s a constant voyage of exploration and discovery.
One thing though is constant, that’s the need to stitch, slowly and intuitively. Relaxing into stitch is for me, the key part of the practice, any results are simply a bonus, albeit a fascinating and developing gift. If the calming effects of slow stitching work for you, that’s potentially more significant than what your finished work looks like.
I hope that in these little posts, I’ve given you an insight into how I work and how I think about the work. If you’re tempted to give it a go, I’d be so pleased – let me know how you get along. As ever, if there’s anything of a stitchy nature you’d like to discuss, I’m more than happy to help if I can, so contact me on the website or by email.
I have a vague idea that at some time or other, when it seems right, I’ll hold a few stitch-together sessions, where a few of us will gather together with our sewing and talk about our work, swap ideas, ask for and receive help, that kind of thing. Do you think anyone would want to join me?
Best wishes and happy stitching…x