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Anything but boring: the amazing complexity of single stitch embroideries

When we think of repetition, it can be tempting to think of drudgery and boredom, of endlessly repeating the same task over and over in a mind-numbing loop. Given this, it is understandable that we are drawn to the idea that our creative endeavors must be new, exciting, and fresh. Spend even a few minutes on social media and you are pulled into a world of ever-changing recipes, crafts, and décor trends. While it can be inspiring to see a new method, a tasty dish, or a stylish interior, so much novelty can also leave us with a feeling of overwhelm and a sense that we just can’t keep up.

The idea that creativity necessitates novelty is actually novel in itself: for thousands of years, artisans across many cultures and time periods understood their creativity as a communal practice across time and through generations, a practice that demanded that they go deep into their chosen craft, master it, and hand it on to the next generation. Bakers, painters, tailors—each artisan learned his craft in a master and apprentice model which valued mastery and minutiae over novelty and ingenuity. In this centuries-old system of a master craftsman teaching a new apprentice, one of the most important tools for acquiring and passing on craft knowledge was repetition.

I have been more than fortunate to have been artistically formed and informed within this historic approach. When I was 25 years old, I apprenticed to a master ecclesiastical tailor and experienced this method firsthand: during my first few months, I sewed eight basic garment styles over and over, spending hours unpicking and re-sewing work that did not meet the master tailor’s standards, and with each attempt, I learned something new about the garment or technique—how to correctly place the welt pocket, how to achieve the perfect pleat, how to line up the motif precisely. I continued my apprenticeship for the next two years, sewing the same garment styles for fifty hours a week, after which I was allowed to advance to patterndrafting. By the time my three-year apprenticeship was completed, I had sewn over a thousand garments and literally knew them inside and out.

The master I studied with was uncompromising, and to this day, I have a deep sense of gratitude for being formed in this system that allowed me to progress only when I had perfected a certain skill or garment. While the learning process could be challenging and painstaking, the daily repetition honed my skills and gave me a level of confident facility that made my work joyful and fulfilling. I had always been creative and enjoyed coming up with new ideas, but now I had an entirely new tool in my creative skill set: repetition. I began to understand that my creative practice would always need new ideas and inspiration, but that repetition provided an anchoring depth to my practice as well as a reliable means of perfecting new techniques and skills.

Years later, this practice of repetition came to my creative aid once again when I began designing cross stitch folk embroidery-inspired patterns and found myself stitching the same tiny stitch hundreds, and then thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of times. By the second year I was designing folk embroidery patterns, I was stitching over 100,000 stitches per year as I joyously fell headlong into the vibrant and compelling world of folk embroidery.

This little cross stitch with which I fell in love was just a single stitch made diagonally over two threads, yet over the centuries it created wondrous works of textile art, from lavish bed tent valances to elaborate folk costume skirt borders and aprons, to ornate cushions displayed in village homes. In lands across the globe, the tiny stitch had been used to create glorious textile works that provided meaning and cultural identity, as well as beauty and adornment of the body and the home.

Many embroidery traditions throughout history have employed the repetition of a single stitch to create magnificent textile effects. Holbein stitch, a stitch similar to cross stitch in that a single stitch is worked vertically, horizontally, or diagonally over counted threads (but not crossed over each other as in cross stitch) was used in 15th and 16th century Spain; Cretan stitch, a long stitch worked close together and anchored alternately from each side, is seen on the wide skirt borders of Cretan folk costumes of the 17th century onwards, Bargello embroideries utilize the vertical Florentine stitch, typically worked over four threads and using color shading to form striking geometric patterns; Kogin work from Japan is yet another counted thread stitch technique which was used to add thickness to garments therefore making them warmer. All around the world, makers have used—and continue to use—simple stitches to impressive effect.

Cross stitch, also called counted thread work, is the stitch technique with which I am most familiar, and it is seen in many folk embroidery traditions including, but certainly not limited to: Greek, Balkan, Ukrainian, Georgian, Palestinian, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Latvian. The motifs and colors may vary from country to country—for example, Hungarian folk embroidery tends to feature more delicate floral motifs than the folk embroidery of the Greek islands with its strong geometric sawtooth borders and eight-pointed stars—but the same simple cross stitch is employed. An embroideress in Athens may stitch a cushion cover in rich terra cottas, warm blues, and soft greens reminiscent of a wool carpet, while a refugee from Ukraine embellishes a blouse with contrasting red and black, each woman stitching that same little diagonal stitch right, diagonal stitch left in a joyous rhythm that spans time, cultures, and lands.

As I take up my stitching each day, I never cease to wonder as whole worlds emerge within my hoop—stars, diamonds, knots, octagons, vines, leaves, trees, flowers, chevrons, birds, deer—each intricate, dazzling embroidery created with but a single stitch. It is this sense of wonder and possibility that calls to me, the simple repetition of this stitch both soothing and inspiring, calming and riotous, restorative and transformative. This is the power of repetition, which is endlessly fascinating and anything but boring!

This article first appeared in Taproot magazine and the coordinating project is Anatolian Leaf and Knot table mat

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