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.
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.
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.