I am happy to announce that the Zen of Life Garden Box was accepted into the Embroidery Guild of America’s 20th National Exhibit, opening in Palmer Lake, CO. This exhibit will be traveling the US for the next three years. I invite you to visit the exhibit, if it is at a venue in your area.
The Zen of Life Garden Box also received the Greater Pacific Region award.
During the last few weeks Mathilda, (my netbook) has been battling a malware attack. I am glad to report that she is back to her usual helpful self.
During the time that I was resolving my computer problems, I enjoyed the opportunity of judging the needlework at the Monterey County Fair. This was a full day of going nose to magnifier with other people’s work, looking for problems all the while hoping not to find any.
In a way that is kind of depressing – looking for other people’s mistakes, but that was the job. The flip side is that by finding the areas where the work was not quite perfect, I hope to be able to help the stitchers make progress. This is the two edged sword of critique . . . it may hurt, but it may also help.
During the Victorian era (1837-1901 CE), ribbons were extremely popular. The women of this time loved the intricate woven ribbons that were made possible by the Jacquard looms and used them with abandon. The French and English were using ribbons to decorate household goods and clothing, including hats, shawls, parasols and reticules. Americans also used ribbon in their homes and clothing, but with more restraint. There are a couple of reasons why this was true. Some think it could be a result of early Puritan influences, or perhaps was a manifestation of the common anti-English sentiment of the times, or maybe it was because imported ribbons were expensive and hard to obtain. It is not really clear, but over time the American market has come to appreciate and use all types of ribbon.
One interesting early American experiment was the manufacturing of ribbon by a group in Pennsylvania. The Moldavian School for Girls taught ribbonwork and silk ribbon embroidery to their pupils and decided to make their own silk ribbons. They tried raising silk worms to provide the raw materials needed for the ribbons, but a harsh winter killed all the mulberry trees they had planted. Since mulberry leaves are the only food silk worms can eat, the venture did not last very long.
While this experiment did not go far, other more commercial interests took up manufacturing ribbon with more success. In 1815 William H. Horstmann opened a plant that manufactured “all sorts of trimmings”, which included ribbons. In 1824 he brought the first Jacquard loom to America.
Modern ribbons are made of materials such as paper, candy, metal, jute and various synthetic materials, as well as traditional fabrics like velvet, silk and lace. Today North America is the largest importer of ribbon in the world. Although we do use ribbons to decorate clothing and household items we use them for a lot more! Ribbons are used for everything from decorating our hair and our gifts, to keeping our money supply safe . Ribbons are used to honor actions and accomplishments, for dancing and in solemn ceremonies, as a sign of approval and quality, and to make statements and carry instructions . We even stitch with them! In the next part of this article I will look at how we came to use ribbon as an embroidery thread.
During the Rococo period in France (1740-1790 BCE), ribbons were very popular among the wealthy as they tried to strengthen their ties to the noble class. Fancy ribbons woven of silk and other expensive fibers were especially suitable for decorating clothing, and were used with abandon by those who could afford them. The ribbon’s elegant frivolity reflected the graceful playfulness of the Rococo movement. Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s famous painting, ‘The Swing’ shows a woman of this period with ribbons decorating her hat, shoes, the edges of her sleeves and hem, and the bodice of her gown. She even has ribbons at her neck! It is a good example of how ribbon was used to decorate clothing of the French aristocracy. At that time a woman could change her dress up to seven times a day and each outfit required coordinating shoes and hair appointments, which were often embellished with ribbons. Ribbons were also popular with the men who wore huge rosettes made of ribbon on their coats, hats and shoes.
Ribbons played their small part in the economic unbalance that led to the French Revolution. Although the common people were in desperate need, wealthy men and women adorned themselves with as many expensive ribbons as they could get their hands on. Then the citizens of France had their turn. During the revolution, ribbons were used to identify who was supporting the common citizenry and who was supporting the aristocracy. Cockades of red, white and blue ribbons were adopted as the symbol of support for change. Perhaps we could consider these cockades to be the ancestors of modern ‘awareness’ ribbons. During the revolution, it was unsafe to be seen in public without a cockade to show support for change. The demand for ribbons remained strong since all of the citizens of France were using ribbons for their own purposes.
At this time ribbons were woven as a cottage industry in France, England and Switzerland. A family could rent a loom and materials from a ribbon manufacturer and sell them back the finished ribbons. It was a slow process and this made ribbons very expensive. In 1801 a revolution occurred when Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a new type of loom. Jacquard looms wove cloth in intricate patterns using an automated punchcard system that lifted each thread individually. This punchcard system is credited as being the idea behind modern computers. The Jacquard loom totally changed the weaving industry and had a similar effect on the ribbon market. Jacquard looms produced multicolored fabrics with intricate weaves almost as quickly as they could weave plain fabrics. Within 15 years ribbon manufacturers had adapted Jacquard technology to allow multiple multi-colored ribbons to be woven at once. This loom shown is weaving sixteen souvenir picture ribbons at the same time. Ribbons were now cheaper and easier to obtain and soon became common items in the wardrobes and homes of ordinary citizens. Weaving ribbons one at a time was now obsolete.
Silk ribbon embroidery has a surprisingly short, but very interesting history compared to other stitching techniques. While the technique has not been around for long, the ribbons themselves have a very long history. In the first two parts of this series, I will cover the history of ribbon itself, then tackle the development of ribbon embroidery as an embroidery technique.
When people began to weave cloth, somewhere between eight and nine thousand years ago , they used the same materials and tools to weave narrow bands of cloth that we know as ribbons. Today, ribbons are defined by the textile industry “as a narrow fabric, and it ranges from 1/8 in-1 ft (0.32-30 cm) in width”. Early ribbons were used for practical things like tying together bunches of herbs and as closures on clothing. Ribbons were used to keep papers together as early as the 13th century, until this job was given to the paperclip in 1899 . Soon ribbons became decorative accents for personal items. Ribbons with both edges finished as part of the weaving process became common by the 16th century.
Ribbon was used in Asia far earlier than in Europe. In China ribbon was used in their traditional Ribbon Dances beginning in the Han Dynasty (206-420 CE). The dance was developed to honor Hsiang Po, who thwarted an assassination attempt on the Han Emperor. He used his long silk sleeve to block the sword of the assassin. The ribbons in the dance represent his sleeves and are waved around in graceful patterns. Originally the ribbons were attached to the sleeves of the dancers; later longer ribbons were attached to small sticks to add energy to the dance.
In Europe ribbons were very popular by the Middle Ages (500-1400 CE). They were used as decorations for anything from hair braids to shoes. Peddlers sold them as they traveled from town to town. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he even mentions a ‘tri-colour riband’ stuck into the hats of Constance’s three escorts in The Frenchman’s Tale. During Renaissance times (1400-1550 CE), silk that had traveled from the Orient along the Silk Road was being woven into ribbons along with other precious metals, like gold and silver. Within a hundred years ribbons were covered by sumptuary laws, which restricted their use to those who were noble. During the time of the Reformation, many Huguenot ribbon-makers fled France bringing silk ribbon weaving to Basel Switzerland. The area soon developed into a major ribbon-manufacturing hub that is still known for high quality ribbons with lovely delicate designs.
I want to finish with a quick look at the main ways that pattern was used in this piece, and how this affected the rhythm of the piece. The primary pattern motif used was a simple swirl. The swirl forms the spirals of the garden’s raked gravel and is seen again in the swirls of the clouds. To add variation to the rhythm of the clouds the spiral was changed slightly on each long side. One side has four swirls per pattern and they are facing down, while the other side has three swirls per pattern and they are facing up. The three-swirl pattern also has less swoop to its swirl. This variation is possible because the pattern is divisible. It is the repetition of the swirl that creates movement and really brings the clouds to life.
The swirl used as the base pattern for the gravel is non-divisible because the entire set of swirls together is needed to create the pattern. Each swirl’s base line was adjusted to reflect the shape of its particular stone. The swirls are flipped in a pattern that demonstrates alternating rhythm in the garden’s main courtyard. This adds interest while keeping the focus on the stones in each spiral’s center.
Pattern is also a part of the geometric design on the outside lid of the box and can help us think about how people are the same, yet different. One of the fascinating parts about the Chinese Geometrics technique is that all of the internal design is created by a single embroidery stitch – the Fly Stitch. By varying the length of the ‘arms’ of the stitch you can create a vast number of variations from a single concept.
I chose to limit the variations I used to keep the design from becoming chaotic, but if you examine the original inspiration for the outside lid you will be amazed at the number of variations from a single simple stitch. The piece’s interest is created by color as well as fly stitch variations. This helps us think about how much variety can come from simple tools and materials. Do not we all have basically the same bodies, yet each person is unique and beautiful.
As I have shared some of the design features of my Zen Garden box I have also shared some of my ideas and reflections on the lessons it makes visual. I invite you to share what you find as you reflect on the Zen of Life.
Asymmetrical balanced is used in the placement of the clouds along the long sides of the box interior. The clouds are meant to represent some of the difficulties that can make our journey through life a challenge. While the garden space itself is calm, the surrounding area is full of ambiguity and the way is often unclear, much like our lives. Clouds obscure, like the challenges in our lives, yet they also create interest.
The areas the clouds cover are roughly the same, but the side panels are flipped when they are placed in the box. They offset each other, changing the rough symmetrical balance into an asymmetrical arrangement. A simpler example of asymmetrical balance is the larger trees on the left that balance the sloping hill on the right.
This photo is of the work in progress. You can see that the houses and clouds have not been stitched and the paths are only partially finished. The path through the mountains is an example of a progressive rhythm.
The mountains are painted in a stylized manner consistent with the traditions of Chinese landscape painting. Each of the mountains has a similar rounded shape and their size decreases as they overlap and recede into the distance. The same is true of the small red houses that perch on their slopes. The houses are all based on the same basic design that has been adapted to indicate distance by using a progressive rhythm. The path to the top of the mountain is clear, and there are homes/rest stops along the way where a traveler can receive help, but it is still a long road with many lonely stretches and the clouds that will fill the background stand ready to move in and make the trip more difficult. I imagine that by the time the traveler reaches her final destination, she will have lots of interesting tales to tell about her journey. If the way was clear, her story would be less interesting.
An example of symmetrical balance in the piece are the Eternity Gates found on the inside short ends of the box. The gates are positioned symmetrically. The two shoji gates are meant to represent birth and death – the gates to life, as we know it.
The Eternity Gates are done with a Casulguidi stitch in colors that traditionally represent life and vitality (red)[i] and the mysterious or unknown (black)[i] in the Japanese culture. The mirrors are placed so that they reflect each other.
This did not turn out as well as I would have liked. I made them as large as possible and if you were walking in the garden you would see that each reflects the other – creating a reflection that continues into eternity. The viewer of the garden does not get this effect since they can’t look into the mirrors at the correct angle. I am not sure how to fix that problem, but they are symmetrically balanced!
The central courtyard of the garden itself demonstrates symmetrical radial balance. Each of the stones are placed in the center of a spiral, the spirals are flipped along an axis, creating symmetrical balance that represents the twists and turns of experience. Each of the stones is polished to a different level representing the effect that life experience has on each of us. We may begin as rough as the ‘child’ stone, but by the time we near our ‘old age’ stone we have become smooth and our true colors shine forth in beautiful radiance.
The stones are Poppy Jasper, a mineral that is only found in my hometown, Morgan Hill, California so it has special meaning for me. I have lived here all of my adult life after a childhood of moving from place to place,[i] so this is where most of my ‘personal polishing’ has occurred. The swirls represent the raked gravel found in a Zen garden. The monks who tend these gardens rake the gravel into patterns as an exercise in meditation and focus. They strive to create perfect placement of each ridge, even as we strive for perfection in the areas of our lives which are important to us personally. Now that’s something to reflect on!
[i] I moved 27 times before I graduated from high school. Since I moved to Morgan Hill when I married I moved once – a mile down the road!
Let’s take a look inside the box.
There is a riddle stitched on the inside top of the box is also placed in a centrally symmetrically balanced position. This was done to give it weight and importance. This riddle gives the viewer the key to the entire box so deserves attention.
“Which creature walks on
four legs in the morning,
two legs in the afternoon,
and three legs in the evening?”
The riddle of the Sphinx is credited as being the oldest known riddle[i] and the answer gives insight into each stage of life. It is stitched in gold threads to highlight its importance and tie it to the geometric on the outside lid of the box. The riddle serves to anchors the piece, and further symbolizes the idea that life itself is a riddle.
I want to share with you the most recent piece to come out of my workroom.
This is the second Secret Garden I have created. The first is a traditional English flower garden that resides in a vintage cigar box on my piano. I don’t know if there will be more gardens in my future but I suspect so.
This garden started as a ‘garage sale find’ my son brought home. As you can see, it has been transformed. I will explain the piece in terms of the design elements of Content, Balance, and Pattern. This is what I would share with you if I were able to walk with you through my Zen Secret Garden.
A Zen garden is a place of peace and contemplation. This garden is designed to help the viewer contemplate the stages of life. Each of the elements used in the design relate to various stages of life’s journey inviting the viewer to reflect on their own travels from birth to death.The inspiration for the top came from Marie Wilkinson’s Chinese Geometrics. The project was a 1980’s era UFO passed along to me from a stitching friend.
For this piece I used several different types of balance to create a unified but interesting piece. A Zen garden should have a feeling of peace and stability so I used symmetrical balance in several places to enhance these qualities. I started building this feeling of stability by using symmetrical balanced hexagons on the outside cover. Silver and gold threads were used to represent old and new friendships that enhance our lives. Each individual hexagon was balanced in terms of both color and stitch. Each is outlined in silver with the patterning in gold and blue. A variegated thread kept things from being too static and served to highlight the many depths we experience in our friendships.