By Regina Connell.
What goes around, comes around—yes. And what’s coming around (yes, I realize that for some it never left) is embellishment and, in particular, embroidery and needlework. At least it is in fashion, and where fashion goes, so goes much else.
Embroidery’s gone through many phases in the modern era, from the classic and refined (and frankly, a little fussy) to hippy and folksy, reflecting the twin traditions of elevated couture artisanship and homespun mending and repair (embroidery’s true roots). What’s different these days is that the needlework’s feeling modern, and for people like me, who used to be allergic to it in both the couture and homespun forms, it’s got me reconsidering its potential in my life. (Scroll to the bottom for some major inspiration.)
Why is it suddenly feeling right for this lover of minimalism (and to fashion designers)? In part, it’s an aesthetic response to the generic plainness of normcore, minimalism, so easily done, though not always well. It’s also that Neo-Victorian trend we’ve got going on and in particular our fascination with the Arts and Crafts traditions: a desire for things to have character and soul, not just from being handcrafted, but from true skill, artisanship, artistry. All this hard work makes things special... And, yes, something that’s a little harder for the mass merchandisers to rip off particularly well, which is particularly satisfying.
It’s also being better incorporated into design, where it’s not just embellishment but essential to the character of the overall piece.
It’s long been a feature in the work of designers like the fabulous so-called “slow fashion” pioneer Alabama Chanin and Mexico’s Carla Fernandez. For both women, embroidery is a both a design expression, and part of a solid commitment to keep craft skills going against all odds.
It’s texture, it’s dimension, rhythm and personality. I love that even in black on black—where you don’t get all distracted by those pretty colors—there’s life and movement.
Sometimes, it’s a strong and graphical pattern, as it is with Carla’s Tecuan tunic, all that handwork is inseparable from the fabric itself, as with Alabama Chanin’s “Alabama Fur”: that’s when embroidery becomes truly magical.
Now if it’s distraction you want, there’s plenty of it. Fall 2016’s shows (particularly in the UK) were thick with it, from Victoria Beckham’s chunky funky more folkloric use of it, to Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen’s outright luxurious, decadent take.
But even back in 2015 (for spring 2016), were whispers of the resurgence last year, in the work of Ralph Russo, Gucci, and McQueen.
Now I have always steered clear of embroidery. My minimalist tendencies were affronted by all that embellishment, and visual activity. Or maybe it was all the poorly machine-embroidered garish embroidered jackets that surrounded me as a kid growing up in Hong Kong.
And even when I realized that the really good stuff (couture-quality) was done by hand by highly artisans in French design ateliers like Maison Lesage, in the back of my mind, I still tended to associate it with female indentured servitude: women were expected to sit, scheme and sew their lives away while they waited for their fates to unfold. (Think the hapless Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, or the endlessly mending and embroidering Bennett girls in Pride and Prejudice).
But I may have been subtly coaxed into that notion by the weight of cultural history—and gender politics. Even though embroidery had evolved from functional craft to high art as early as 5th century BC in China, it was a different matter in the West. As Rozsika Parker points out in the Subversive Stitch, I had bought into the notion—reinforced by guilds and the Church, that this was amateur work, never art, and how the separation of the craft of embroidery from the fine arts came to be a major force in the marginalisation of women’s work.
And of course, it’s precisely because it’s “women’s work” it’s also a dying skill. It’s something that couturiers cottoned onto years ago, with Chanel—worrying that the company wouldn’t survive—buying Maison Lesage in 2009. But beyond that, it takes designers as diverse as Natalie Chanin and Carla Fernandez on one end, and Sarah Burton to create the demand—and the survival—for the art and craft of embroidery.
And as I said earlier, what starts in fashion moves into interiors: Whistler Leather, for example, has issued an embroidered range of Italian leathers, created with the help of British embroiderer Victoria Bain.
For inspiration, I leave you with these: follow, and enjoy. And try something a little embellished in your life.
Go behind the scenes to Haute Couture Ateliers
Watch beautiful freehand machine embroidery by Louise Gardiner.
At the other end of the spectrum, see Carla Fernandez’s artisan partners in Chenalho and Santa Marta preserve ancient techniques in a modern way.
Personally, I’m a little obsessed with this.