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.
Embroidery can be considered an anonymous art, in that much of the time it is not signed or dated, especially work done before the 17th century. The samplers and other embroideries that have survived the ravages of time allow us a peek into the lives and attitudes of the girls and women who created them – from their perspective. This is one of the main things that samplers do – communicate. Early samplers shared patterns and helped their creators retain the information they had gathered. Later samplers became a way to communicate ownership and information about the world. They helped teach young girls about their place within society. Just as women of the past used their samplers to retain and share information, we continue to do so today. Modern samplers ask us to consider our roles as creators who use embroidery to communicate a message through our work.
In the Bible it says that by our fruits ye shall know us. Our samplers are the fruits of our hands. We have worked into them a message for those around us. We may not have done this intentionally, but the message cannot help but come forth. The women and girls that plied their needles in the past had no intention of sending a message down through the ages to us, yet we take meaning from their surviving works. It will be the same for us. So the question really is: what does our stitchery tell about us? Steven Wang said, “History belongs to those who dare to write it.” I say our stitchery is our history. It is what we leave behind for future generations. We created it and it reflects our reality. Let’s send a clear message to help future generations understand our times – from our perspective.
Samplers began to be used as teaching tools in the education of young girls. Some samplers taught the more practical skills of plain sewing, while others focused on ‘fancywork’. Many had verses added to teach the alphabet, encourage morality and promote good conduct. An example of a practical sampler is Maria van Wyk’s Darning sampler, stitched in 1762 when she was a 16 year-old girl in Nijkerk, Holland.
It shows different types of darning stitches that Maria could use to repair holes in fabrics. You can see that cloth was much more readily available, but still expensive enough to warrant repair, since Maria paid attention to the design of her sampler as well as the stitches. Her sampler is beautiful as well as useful.
By the 20th century sampler making had fallen out of favor along with the general practice of needlework. Those who created samplers often did so as an exercise in a particular embroidery technique rather than for basic educational or reference purposes. Samplers remained examples of the needle artist’s proficiency in a particular technique. Modern samplers continued to serve as a practice tool when learning a new skill, and as a way to experiment with different combinations of fiber, stitch and design, but they also became a connection to the past. Many of the samplers currently being stitched are reproductions of 19th century schoolgirl samplers.
Today, needle artists connect with the past through the medium of embroidery, using the same materials, tools, and techniques as their predecessors but in ways that reflect the current realities of modern life. An example of this is the sampler Breakbeats, created by Andrew Salomone in 2009. This is how he explains his work: “It occurred to me that needleworkers used to have to make patterns and images to decorate fabric in the same way that contemporary music producers make beats and musical compositions by repeating and layering audio samples in digital sound editing programs. So the files created using digital editing programs today basically function in the same way that needlework samplers did in the days when all embroidery had to be done by hand.” Andrew’s sampler is more about the ideas than the techniques and is an intriguing way of connecting the past with the present.
During the 17th and 18th centuries samplers continued to evolve, and eventually their primary purpose was to serve as showpieces for the stitcher’s skills. Other changes took place as samplers began to more closely resemble paintings. They became wider and shorter, and contained carefully positioned images that reflected a new concern with design and composition. Pictorial elements, many taken from the Old Testament were becoming increasingly popular. Biblical scenes and historical allegorical images were considered appropriate for young girls to stitch, since they contained images that encouraged good moral behavior. The many portrayals of Adam and Eve that are featured on samplers of this time were used as a way to teach young girls their role in the family and society. This example stitched by Elizabeth Summers in 1808, when she was an 11 year-old child, includes a verse from Genesis. The images and verse were thought to teach the young girls who stitched these samplers the proper relationship between men and women.
The time between 1720 and the early 1830’s was the height of the sampler. This is when the most iconic of the American ‘schoolgirl’ samplers were created. It is this type of sampler that comes to mind when samplers are discussed. Elizabeth’s Adam & Eve sampler is an example of a schoolgirl sampler. Other schoolgirl samplers depicted maps, calendars, lists of government officials, and family genealogies. They were used to teach letters, geography and the practical sewing skills that the girls of this era would need in their future lives. Day schools and Boarding schools that educated girls commonly included several hours each day of needlework as part of their curriculum. These samplers often included an alphabet and basic numbers, along with a morality verse and a picture and sometimes randomly scattered spot motifs that could be used later to decorate household items. These samplers hit all of the marks. They were most often stitched in cross-stitch, with other fancy stitches sometimes included. The complexity of these samplers would depend on the skill level of the embroiderer and her future prospects. A young lady who was of the working class would have been taught plain sewing, while the daughters of the wealthy trained in more ‘fancy’ stitches. Each girl began with the simpler stitches and motifs and then moved on to more complicated techniques, as their needleworking skills improved. By the end of the 19th century, samplers had moved from the workbasket to pride of place on the walls of upscale homes, serving as a showcase for the skills of the daughters and wives of the household. More importantly for historians, it became a common practice for the women and girls to sign and date their work.