Sunday, October 5, 2014

The simple pleasure of hand embroidery
An old fashioned art is still practiced fervently by those who love it

My mom took up embroidery when I was in high
 school and made me this crewelwork piece,
 which she created using at least a dozen
different stitches.
When I was in high school, my stay-at-home mom took up embroidery for a time. What most people today call crewelwork, she called stitchery. It was like painting with thread. She would buy a kit that had white fabric with a printed design, a needle, embroidery floss and instructions, and then hand stitch the image onto the fabric with in a variety of stitch patterns.

I have a framed piece of her work that I recently pulled out of storage (sorry mom) and hung in my bedroom: a whimsical picture of a smiling mouse and a bird with an arm and a wing around the other, as if for a photograph.

Crewelwork kits are still sold, but these days, needlepoint and cross stitch are the bread and butter of most needlework shops. You’ve probably seen cross stitch before—a series of tiny Xs on a field of white linen—created using a chart and by counting threads. Needlepoint, on the other hand, requires no counting because it’s done on a special type of loose-weave canvas which very often has a design hand-painted onto it. In addition, needlepoint can employ a variety of stitches whereas cross stitch employs primarily just one.

Crewel, cross stitch and needlepoint are all types of embroidery, and there are many more types such as beadwork, goldwork, couching, ribbon embroidery, monogramming, and smocking. Embroidery was basic knowledge for colonial school girls in early America, who learned to sew, count and read by stitching letters, numbers and verses into samplers. But today, hand embroidery has largely been replaced by machine embroidery, and relatively few stitchers carry on the tradition.

Elisa Papa demonstrates cross stitch in the Harvest Building at the Santa Cruz County Fair.
Papa was creating a frameable Victorian-style piece with images of ten symbolic
 pigs—a gift that she hoped would bring good luck to her brother who has leukemia.
To find out who’s still doing embroidery and why, I joined several members of Stitchers by the Sea (a local chapter of The Embroiders’ Guild of America) at the Santa Cruz County Fair last month, as they stitched away on their projects and conversed with curious fair-goers in the Harvest Building.

Elisa Papa—a member of the group for 27 years—was making teeny tiny cross stitches on 40-count linen (40 threads per inch), while Sandy Rich was making larger stitches on 14-count plastic canvas. Papa was creating a frameable Victorian-style piece with images of ten symbolic pigs—a gift that she hoped would bring good luck to her brother who has leukemia. “If pigs bring good luck, my brother will have ten times good luck,” she said. Rich was stitching butterfly wings which she would later cut out from the canvas and join together with clips as Christmas tree ornaments.

Georgann Lane won first prize at the Santa
Cruz County Fair this year for her original
 embroidery piece, “Slice of Lime.”
A newer member of the group, Brandy Shaw was just starting a counted cross stitch Celtic cross with an Irish blessing. She said that doing embroidery is “kind of like meditation, a time when your brain free-floats.” She also likes to multi-task, so she reads books on tape, takes her stitching projects to doctors’ waiting rooms and on vacation. “You’re doing something that people have been doing for thousands of years, so you experience continuity with humanity,” she said.

Only one member of The Stitchers—Georgann Lane—submitted work to the fair for judging this year. Although she submitted two pieces in the home arts department, the judge thought her work belonged with the paintings and sculpture in the fine art department. And there, in the Fine Arts Building, I found her two, small pieces with 1st and 2nd place ribbons.

Lane—a certified master of traditional Japanese embroidery and past judge for the Embroiderers’ Guild of America—learned to embroider as a girl. “My mother taught me to do pillowcases when I was 10 years old,” she said. She majored in clothing and textiles in college and isn’t afraid to create works of her own design. Most of the other Stitchers stopped entering work at the fair several years ago, when some works were stolen. “I’d like to see [the fair] create a category in fine art for needle art,” said Lane.

Mary Kelly’s sampler collection covers two
 walls of her dining room, and includes lots
 of examples from the 1930s and ‘40s when
 stitching samplers from patterns in books
 was a popular pastime.
Currently The Stitchers by the Sea have only 23 members—down from a much higher number in the 1980s when the group was formed. “It’s kind of dwindling,” admitted Elisa Papa. “Many have retired or moved away. And we don’t have a needlework store in Santa Cruz.” So she and other Stitchers take field trips to a shop they love—“Needle in a Haystack”—in Alameda, to stock up on supplies. Online purchases are difficult for textile artists, they said, because they like to feel the fabrics and check the colors.

A few days after the fair I visited another member of The Stitchers by the Sea—Mary Kelly—to see her collection of vintage samplers. Kelly’s collection features several samplers from early America and many more from the 1930s and 40s when making samplers was again in vogue, and patterns were available in books. The early ones were created by girls to learn stitches, and to keep samples for later reference. Kelly has an impressive collection covering several walls, many with sweet, sentimental verses on them, like, “Warm friendship like the setting sun sheds kindly light on everyone.”

Kelly points to one of her oldest and most treasured samplers, created by a girl in Vermont almost 300 years ago. The dark-with-age, oblong sampler has a cross stitched saying and these identifying words at the bottom: “Sarah Bellows in the eleven year of her age done in the year of our Lord 1738.”

Mary Kelly and I met again later that day at the home of her good friend, Dorothy Clarke, a founding member of The Stitchers by the Sea, who, at 96, still does cross stitch every day despite her failing vision due to macular degeneration. Clarke brought out a box of small projects from stitching workshops she attended over the years.

Good friends Dorothy Clarke and Mary Kelly hold two needlework
 pieces made by Dorothy that she is especially proud of. The two
 friends are both members of The Stitchers by the Sea, a local chapter
 of The Embroiderers’ Guild of America.
It looked like she had tried (and mostly mastered) all 260 of the stitches in the “Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Embroidery Stitches,” from blackwork to Battenburg lace to hardanger to drawn-thread work. It finally hit home to me how endlessly varied the art of embroidery is, and how lovely it is in a quiet, unassuming way. And these women were a lot like embroidery themselves.

Mary Kelly admitted that not many people these days don’t take time for embroidery. It’s intricate, detailed work, demanding good eyesight, commitment and the willingness to spend good money on quality materials. “Let’s face it,” said Kelly. “It’s kind of fussy. But the ones who do love it, love it to death.”

The Stitchers By the Sea is the local chapter of Embroiderers’ Guild of America. They meet at 7:00 p.m. the third Monday of the each month at the Live Oak Senior Center in Santa Cruz. The gatherings include a short business meeting, refreshments and stitching programs which vary each month and cover a wide variety of techniques and methods.
Ten tips to taking selfies at any age

 Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel September 12, 2014
self·ie noun \ˈsel-fē\

  1. A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. (

  1. Shy and selfie just don’t go together. After all, since you wanted to be your camera’s center of attention in the first place, there has to be at least a part of you that’s narcissistic. (
Here’s a collage of selfies I created during my own one-week self-portrait challenge. 

Selfie experts abound and the proof is in the hundreds of websites ready to coach you on taking better selfies. The advice ranges from standard photography rules about good lighting, framing, and backgrounds, to, “Abs look best taken from the side. For males, leave the shirt off, it’s better than pulling it up, which looks sloppy and half-hearted.”

In 2013, when “selfie” was Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year, there was a flurry of reactions running the gamut from selfies being the hallmark of Western decline and image-conscious narcissism, to a few brave souls defending the practice of casual self-promotion as maybe being not so bad, especially for girls. Self-promotion, pointed out Rachel Simmons in Slate Magazine, is a skill which will serve girls well later on when they interview for jobs, and negotiate for raises and advancement.

The photo my husband posted on Facebook to mark my
 birthday last month was taken 20+ years ago of the two
 us on a hiking trip. As many women my age might do,
 I asked him to not post a recent photo. 
If you can see the selfie as empowering—a chance to create and interpret the way you want to be seen by others—then you begin to understand how selfies present an opportunity. One savvy student, Elizabeth Alvarado, writing under the headline “Selfie-esteem” in her college newspaper, defended selfies by young women, saying that, “They challenge the idea that we should always remain modest, and instead they say, ‘This is me, and I deserve to be seen,’ because in the end, no one deserves to be invisible. This is an entirely different experience than when someone takes a picture of you because in the latter case, you have no control . . .”

My husband recently posted a photograph on Facebook to mark my birthday, and I asked him to please not use a recent photo. So he found a selfie we took on vacation 20+ years ago—looking so much younger and bohemian than we do now. It seems many women like me reach an age at which they no longer want to be photographed—which is sad. Perhaps it’s time to take control of our image-making and turn around that impulse to hide from the camera.

A new photo idea book named after a DIY website, “A Beautiful Mess,” created by two young women, Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman, got me thinking about how women of my age—or any age—can begin to feel good about themselves in photographs through selfies. In the process we can not only use photography to our advantage, but also become better photographers in general.

So, extrapolating on the photo-taking ideas in Larson and Chapmen’s book, here are my ten tips to taking terrific selfies at any age.

     Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman’s 2014 photo idea
     book, “A Beautiful Mess,” is named after their
     popular DIY website,
    Their newest book, “Happy Handmade Home”
     was just released last month. 
  1. Selfies don’t have to be distorted arm’s length close-ups. You can use a camera with a timer or shoot into a mirror, so that the photo includes more of you, your friends and your surroundings. To use your cell phone for better selfies, download a free timer app, and use a selfie stick, which extends your camera out three feet beyond your reach.

  1. Make the picture say something about you. Surround yourself with you things you love: your garden, your home, your hobbies, your collections, your daily routine, your favorite gathering place or hiking trail.

  1. Use beautiful light. Shoot in open shade or window light, rather than direct sun. Shoot your silhouette or shadow. Use backlighting to highlight your hair. Consider dim or diffused light such as candles, string lights, or city lights at night.

  1. Highlight your best features. Let your gorgeous black hair, your ice-blue eyes, your shapely calves take center stage.

  1. Experiment with styling. Wear a fun hat, sunglasses, a scarf, a bandana. Add jewelry, a new hairstyle or dramatic make-up. Get dressed up. Wear a costume. Use props.

    “A Beautiful Mess Photo Idea Book” has lots
    of tips and examples for capturing yourself. 
  1. Don’t just stand there. Sit, kneel, squat, lie down. Look over your shoulder or through your legs. Bend. Twist. Cover your eyes and laugh. Hold the camera over your head, upside-down, at an angle. 

  1. Crop to your advantage. Use a photo-editing program or two L-shaped pieces of cardboard to find the essential, defining elements of you in a photograph.

  1. Add motion to your images. Let your hair blow. Jump, run, spin. Speed by on your bike. Slow the shutter speed down to accentuate the motion. Be a photojournalist: shoot a lot and serendipitous moments will happen.

  1. Consider smartphone apps or photo editing programs. Try black and white, tinting, filters, and other enhancements.

  1. Take the 30-Day Self-Portrait Challenge. Each day, the portraits have to be of you and shared with a close friend, your spouse, or online via Facebook. At the end of the month you will end up with some photos you will actually want to share. You’ll also experiment with photography techniques that can help you take better photos of your friends and family, or whatever else you decide to capture.
In Korea recently, I witnessed hundreds of young tourists using
 selfie sticks (also called handheld monopods) to their advantage.
 Lightweight and retractable, a selfie stick holds your cell phone
 further away, allowing your photos to include much more of your
 surroundings or a whole gang of friends. Free timer apps are easy
to download and use. 
Quiet that anxious little voice of discomfort in your head. Are people going to think that you think that you look good, and that you want others to know it? Absolutely. This is your chance to shine—outwardly and inwardly. And you may be making a more lasting contribution to ageless self-confidence than you realize. Selfies of people like you and me may have the potential to reset the air-brushed, Botoxed, movie star standard of beauty to something more realistic.