Embroidery: Blackwork

Blackwork is a kind of embroidery, which is itself a kind of storytelling. On the surface the embroiderer creates a series of disconnected squares or cells, which are understood to be separated from one another by the viewer. The observer sees only a delicate black lace of darkness, suggestive of both wealth and luxury, supported by clever brains, and dedicated and industrious hands.

It could not possibly mean anything other than that. We know that spades, of course, are the swords of a soldier, while clubs are weapons of war, and diamonds mean money for the art. Sting, naturally, taught us that. Yet these small squares, indicative of tiny clubs, show no great skill in managing their own affairs.

But wait! A little embroidery more, and a deeper and more complex pattern emerges. The little clubs, of course, are woven into the larger whole. The wealth of the diamonds are fueling one another, and fueling the little clubs. The weaving needle, passing between the public and the private, the surface view and the deeper web of connections, reveals heretofore unexpected networks. It is all one thread.

Greater circles emerge from lesser circles. Roundabout routes at one level circumnavigate the diamonds, join the little clubs to one another and only peripherally to the sources of wealth. A vast web of a single thread of purpose is revealed only slowly, as the needle punches up through the fabric of the world in one place, and down through the fabric in another.

More than anything else, Blackwork is the art of returning to the places you have been before, to make a connection that didn’t previously exist. Beneath the surface it is messy and ugly. Above the cloth, a regular and orderly framework emerges. In this surface layer, big patterns and little patterns rarely intersect, and only in chance encounters and meetings in miniature. It is impossible to guess at what happens beneath the cloth, out of the observer’s sight. Pay attention to the regularity and the above-board. Give not a whit of attention to the single thread that makes the pattern successful. It’s not worth your time to track all the meaningless, chance encounters that the embroiderer has told. Pay attention to the richly patterned surface, see what you have been commanded to see.

The elegance of the surface is everything — no matter the ugliness that the embroiderer has concealed from you. But recognize that there is an enormous amount of labor that has gone into just this one small piece of patterning: the making and dyeing of the thread, the stiffening of the fabric, the gridding of the platte, the framing of the porthole vision, the in-and-out nature of the working.

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