Monday, October 27, 2008

Imperfect, Inimitable

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 6 Number 3
by Kathryn Berenson

I've been meaning to tell you about this book for a long time. I got it a year or two ago and I've been reading it off and on ever since, trying to work up the courage to try this beautiful incarnation of the textile arts.

Broderie de Marseilles is a method of quiltmaking in which two layers of fabric are densely quilted, by hand, with no batt in between. There are often several parallel rows of stitching on the edges of the piece, with the centres featuring designs of flowers, suns, and plants. There are extant pieces featuring more abstract designs, too - usually in a very romantic style. Lots of swirls and curlicues.

Once the entire piece has been quilted, the finished item is corded and stuffed - that is, each individual channel between quilted rows, or each quilted pocket, is stuffed with cotton. To do this, the quilter uses a needle to carefully open a space between the threads of the fabric until it is wide enough to admit a darning needle. She threads a piece of cotton cording into the eye and runs the needle through the channel until the entire channel is corded. She cuts the cord, manipulates the end in through the hole in the fabric, then wiggles that hole closed with her needle. If it is a pocket that needs stuffing, she opens a hole as before, then uses a needle to curl the cording tightly into the pocket, bit by painstaking bit. The holes are all closed up afterwards, and the entire piece is washed.

It takes an unbelievable amount of time, and careful work. When I first saw the book, I was drawn to the gorgeous finished pieces and declared to all, "I am going to learn this technique and make a bed-cover!" Then I read on a little bit and decided, "I'd better make a table runner instead." Then I got to the part with the templates and the instructions for cording and stuffing, and thought to myself "I could really use a coaster."

This book is a sumptuously presented, intelligently arranged blend of history, instruction, and eye candy. Stunning photographs depict gorgeous, brilliantly-coloured textiles, dated from as early as the 18th century. There are closets full of antique quilts, sofas covered in folded florals, and dress forms garbed in authentic Proven├žal regional costume. There are instructions and templates for 11 projects ranging in difficulty from an easy placemat (in imitation broderie de Marseilles) to an advanced single-piece, corded and stuffed wedding quilt in ivory silk.

What impresses me most about this beautiful book is not the inspiration to try the technique - although I am dying to, one of these days - or the respect I feel for these women who clothed their families in this incredible art. What I think about most is the concept of regional dress: the idea that at one time, any given People expressed their identity, their history, their place in the world, and their sense of community through clothing and textiles.

I thought of this book when I was at the Fleece and Fibre Fair, walking around the venue and taking in the knitters, crocheters, felters, and spinners all around me. There isn't one unified dress sense, at all, but there is a unified pride in our accomplishments. Some people are visibly....well I must say tickled pink to be wearing their first botchy, lopsided hat, while buying more yarn to make coordinating chunky mittens. Others are standing watching the spinners, their backs straight and their heads carried with quiet pride above dreamily soft, perfectly-executed lace shawls in baby alpaca.

It was, really, the incarnation of what people refer to as "the fibre arts community". We aren't neighbours, we share neither a place nor a history. We are united not by a common tradition, but by our love for the craft. Maybe there isn't a region, strictly speaking, but there is a regional dress: there was so much Handmade in that hall, it was exhilirating just to breathe such a creatively-charged atmosphere.

I don't imagine the Marseilles needlewomen felt quite the same way about their handwork as we do. In the days before widespread mechanisation, it was nothing extraordinary to clothe one's family entirely in garments made by one's own hands. The extraordinary thing, in fact, would have been to spend the family's money purchasing clothing and linens when you could make them yourself.

Then, as now, the beauty of these items is in their uniqueness: no two pieces are exactly alike. It's a little depressing to look around me, sometimes, and realise just how many things in my house are mass-produced, and therefore also in the homes of hundreds and thousands of other people. I like to think of myself as an individual, a non-conformist, but the reality is I buy the same Rubbermaid bins and Levis jeans as everyone else does.

Times have changed. Making your own clothes isn't unheard of, but wearing them is much less usual. I like to see people taking pride in the works of their hands. I like the feeling of wearing something I've made, and I don't mind when people ask me, "Did you knit that yourself?" As some never tire of pointing out, you can buy a sweater for $40 at the Bay. But nobody can buy MY sweater. I made it myself, and there'll never be another like it.

One of these busy, full days, I'll try some broderie de Marseilles. I have some fabric that I bought specially to try it, and I have even sketched out a template for a stylised sun, very much in the Proven├žal style. It's a little intimidating, but I think if I'm patient and careful I can do it. I'd like to have something that no one else has - even if it's just a coaster.


Cynthia said...

That's an interesting thought -- that clothing that reflects your interests is the modern version of clothing that reflects your geography. I suppose that really reflects the way in which our sense of community has changed.

The book looks lovely. I've read a little about the technique before but have also been a bit put off by the time required. I already have two or three (or 23) insanely time-intensive hobbies!

kate said...

Gorgeous book. I would never do such a craft, but I can see you doing it. Your love of the detail is stronger than my ability to see a long project through!

I like your thoughts on clothing and community. I always love to see the fibre festival pictures where people are wearing multi-layers of handknits.

Gwen said...

Erudite, indeed. What a lovely post! I feel so wistful about the lost arts in our own, modern communities. Like you, my home and closet are filled with mass-produced, cheap and impersonal items, all easily replaced and little valued. It's wonderful that you have handmade items that you can cherish!

btw - youngest child needs socks. Please?

Emily said...

Huzzah! Fantastic post. I've been sewing and knitting all weekend, but it still inspires me to kick it up a notch. I too love the idea of expression through handcrafted textiles, whether that expression be of regional, individual, or familial identity. Well done.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Making things with your own hands, doing tasks that are meant only for you to do, that's what living's for. Adding a personal touch to a recipe, finding just the right word for your story, that's what creates a personal life in an impersonal world. Great post, terrific ideas - one day we need to talk about 'clothing as drag' which is a concept I think you might find interesting.

lizbon said...

Oh god, how exquisite - and persnickety. I've been thinking along somewhat parallel lines lately, about the difference between something made with one's own hands and something stamped out in a factory.

How the former seems alive in some way.

Penny said...

It sounds like a fascinating book.