Looking Back at Darning to Move Forward with Free Motion Stitching

In 1971 my mother taught me to sew on a Bernina 807 “Minimatic”. Despite having 8 other machines now, including two “bells and whistles” computerized ones, this little gem below is the very machine that I choose today above all others to free motion stitch on. It has stitched over dryer lint, egg shells, wet paint, gel medium, knitted wire, plastics, fake finger nails, condoms, tampons, and more crazy stuff. I have an irrational love for, and attachment to, that machine. You can also tell that I use a lot of black thread!!!!

 

Bernina is my favored brand...old metal machines are the best! The machine I learned to sew on. 

Bernina is my favored brand...old metal machines are the best! The machine I learned to sew on. 

My mother, being a woman who followed Emily Post’s Book of Etiquette to a “T” throughout my upbringing, went to great effort to teach me to sew the “right” way. However, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I had more fun trying things the wrong way! One of the techniques she taught me was darning. It was way back in ’71 that I executed my first piece of “Free Motion Stitching” otherwise known as machine embroidery, by dropping the feed dogs, putting the darning foot on, and going at it! I wish I had kept those first experiments. I seem to remember drawing a dog with black thread....

I have been using free motion stitching since then, and I have lots of old photos (and some slides!) of those pieces made during the 80's and early 90's (a lot of wearable pieces I used to sell at gallery shops and craft shows) but it wasn’t until I moved to Kauai in 1998 that I began to use machine embroidery seriously and with intent as my primary method of creating.  We were living in a 900 S.F. traditional Hawaiian house, and there was little space in which to create art, so out came my sewing machine. Some early works of that time and into the early 2000's are below- pardon the less than exemplary photography- things sure have come a long way since then for us artists to effectively capture our work!

Winter- The Seasons Series. Free motion stitching on dryer lint under tulle, various other fabrics.  

Winter- The Seasons Series. Free motion stitching on dryer lint under tulle, various other fabrics.  

Winter- detail

Winter- detail

Mirror, Mirror...a mixed media piece about anorexia

Mirror, Mirror...a mixed media piece about anorexia

Mirror, Mirror detail

Mirror, Mirror detail

Mother Nature

Mother Nature

Mother Nature-back view

Mother Nature-back view

In the Eye of the Beholder- heavily free motion stitched, including the poem

In the Eye of the Beholder- heavily free motion stitched, including the poem

In the Eye of the Beholder detail

In the Eye of the Beholder detail

Atomic Mushroom- hundreds of bits of recycled fabrics trapped and free motion stitched under tulle; drawings that have also been stitched

Atomic Mushroom- hundreds of bits of recycled fabrics trapped and free motion stitched under tulle; drawings that have also been stitched

Atomic Mushroom detail

Atomic Mushroom detail

All Play and No Work Makes Carl, George and Ozzie Happy Boys

All Play and No Work...detail

All Play and No Work...detail

Ethereal Messenger- free motion stitching

Ethereal Messenger- free motion stitching

Ethereal Messenger- detail

Ethereal Messenger- detail

Beyond the Telling of the World- finished just when 9/11 happened.... 

Beyond the Telling of the World- finished just when 9/11 happened.... 

Beyond the Telling of the World detail

Beyond the Telling of the World detail

As the 2000’s progressed, my space was less constrained and I began to incorporate a wider variety of materials into my work and also to work larger. I believe it is really crucial for artists to explore a variety of medium and methods; it is great to find your favored one and develop a body of work from that, but still really important to add to your repertoire and allow yourself- and the materials-  unrestrained creative expression. I read a quote today, from Sculpture mag, vol.32 no. 6, p.38 A Conversation with Nnenna Okore Political by Nature, When I work with a material, I set out to showcase its range and possibilities and textures and its new identity or meaning. Materials are not just things you stick on or add frivolously because you need to fill up a space; they contribute to your piece and state something all on their own, as well. I would also add to Nnenna's statement that it enhances our work if we become aware of the history of the materials and method we use; think of silk thread and the incredible worm, or cotton fields and slavery, each material detracts or enhances, speaks to us in some way.

The beauty of the stitch- whether free motion machine embroidery or hand embroidery- is often its ability to transform the lowliest of materials into works of beauty, grace and conceptual intrigue. Below I have included some samples of just that- manipulations of lowly fabrics.

Free motion on organza over inexpensive felt

Free motion on organza over inexpensive felt

Organza and encaustic over inexpensive fabrics; embroidery floss in the bobbin, digital image transfers

Organza and encaustic over inexpensive fabrics; embroidery floss in the bobbin, digital image transfers

Plastic over cotton velvet and acrylic paint

Plastic over cotton velvet and acrylic paint

Digital image transfers, fabric

Digital image transfers, fabric

Free motion over organza

Free motion over organza

Fabrics and felt; embroidery floss in bobbin

Fabrics and felt; embroidery floss in bobbin

Over recycled sweaters from the thrift store

Over recycled sweaters from the thrift store

Wool felt

Wool felt

Over plastic packing materials and felt

Over plastic packing materials and felt

Over vinyl and velvet with acrylic

Over vinyl and velvet with acrylic

Loose bobbin thread on tulle over paper

Loose bobbin thread on tulle over paper

Dyed paper towel

Dyed paper towel

Elastic in bobbin

Elastic in bobbin

Altered Surface, Altered Structure

Altered Surface, Altered Structure

Altered Surface, Altered Structure detail

Altered Surface, Altered Structure detail

Sample board

Sample board

Digital image from artist photo

Digital image from artist photo

Inexpensive felt with undissolved Solvy

Inexpensive felt with undissolved Solvy

Inexpensive felt

Inexpensive felt

Packing styrofoam and packaging plastic

Packing styrofoam and packaging plastic

Paper and fabrics

Paper and fabrics

Art- and fine craft- can be transformational. Learning a practical, non-artistic skill such as darning led me into a lifetime of enriched creativity, self-awareness, recognition of who I am, and fulfilling art making. I could probably make a lot more money as a "permanent darner" or seamstress! but the wealth of affirmation that comes from taking an assortment of items and my vision and turning them into new visual statements to provoke, enhance and titillate, is extremely satisfying to me.  I know that might be true for you, too?