May 31, 2012

Do you feel like an embroiderer?

Olá! Do you consider yourself an embroiderer - "uma bordadeira"? Do you know that embroiderers are unique creatures? Today I’ll talk about that…
Some months ago I bought a wonderful Portuguese written book, “Bordados e Rendas de Portugal” - "Embroideries and Laces of Portugal", first edited in 1956. The author is Calvet de Magalhães, a great pedagogue. I will refer to this book often in my upcoming posts. But today I would like to share with you what the author writes about the “embroideress’s profession.” I love his words! It was a big challenge translating it as they are written in “an old time” Portuguese but I believe its beauty comes from that, too… Accept it as a “free translation”…

I illustrate these words with my own pieces of embroidery. My first stitches, in 1984, a cross-stitch work following a Rakam pattern, concluded in 1992, and my first pattern designed for agulha não pica.

My first embroidery stitches...We were in 1984!!
My first embroidery stitches many years ago... A recent photo of the sample and magazine I kept.

I begin near the end where the author describes some physical impediments for someone to become a (professional) embroiderer. So curious... For this profession are restricted people whose lungs are not in good condition or who have pronounced anemia; those who suffer of the digestive tract or have predisposition for these disorders (constipation, hemorrhoids, etc.); and those who have nervous disorders, cardiac defects, deviations from the spine, severe myopia or transpire too much of the hands...

Now I suggest that you read this carefully, these are beautiful and wise words...

... An embroideress must have special skills: a refined artistic sensibility and a calm, persistent and patient temperament. She must love the work she executes. The embroideress cherishes and is legitimately proud of her work, she does not get impatient nor exasperated by the difficulties of execution. She is not easily satisfied and strives to always do better.

Those who dedicate themselves to embroidery fall into three groups. In the first group are included those embroideresses who take their job seriously, are willing to start at the beginning and make their own designs. These embroideresses believe their pieces of embroidery can be a work of art and they will spare no time nor work until it really happens.

Into the second group will fall the embroideresses who are willing to devote some time to embroidery, who like to work in the evening and are always ready to devote the necessary time to learn the stitches, although the word "design" terrifies them. They are generally prepared to accept without question any pattern bought in a vulgar store, thinking that the design will be infinitely better than what they could do.

Wedding cross stitch pattern
A Rakam's pattern embroidered by me and offered to my grandparents at their gold wedding anniversary

To the third group belong those who buy a printed fabric (and with the floss already chosen) at a luxury store, bring it home to work on it from time to time, in their spare time during a year or two, and eventually get bored and take it back to the shop for them to finish.

The embroidereress of the first group is routed to be successful, the second by persuasion and encouragement may be willing to take risks and start from the beginning, the third, whom we would not dare to qualify as a serious embroidereress, nothing prevents her from reaching the first group, if she is willing to sacrifice the time and effort required...

Do you know why I empathize with these words? It’s so clear that they were written by someone who has a teacher’s soul… Someone who is tremendously demanding but believes that by sacrificing time and effort anyone can become a superb embroiderer. I do believe in that too…

Paisley pattern - agulha não pica
My first pattern for agulha não pica and improbable color choice... Photo chosen by Faceook friends/fans

Do you have a calm, persistent and patient temperament? Which group do you belong to? I would love to read your thoughts on this…


  1. My embroidery is mainly improvised, sometimes I'll chalk out a grid to get scale right or do a little doodle of the design in my design book. But most of the time I design as I go. The kits and preprinted designs just look too...twee to me. And I hate to be restricted like that.

  2. I loved this post--what fun to get to read this translation and see Calvet's point of view from a different era and culture. As an "embroideress" I think he makes some valid points. You are either a driven creative, a more casual stitcher/hobbyist, or you throw money at it, expect some kind of new satisfaction from the past time, and eventually give up. Of course, there are shades of grey: I think I fall into the first category, but I started in the second category, and fall back into it when life gets busy. (patterns from some "vulgar" store) But my heart is always an embroideress or sewist. And I love to create and design. I am calm and patient, so Calvet knew a lot about us! It would be interesting to see what he would think now that we have so many more things competing for our attention these days--but nothing makes me happier than just sitting quietly and stitching away. Hugs to you for sharing this with us!   --Sandy at

  3. I always find your posts really interesting Gabi, but this one especially so! As to which category I fall into, I guess I fall between the first and second groups. I have stitched some of my own designs and loved the process, but I also enjoy buying them from a "vulgar store" and following the directions pretty much exactly. Either way, I'm definitely going to refer to myself as an embroideress from now on!

  4. I think I'm in group 2.7, but I want to be in group 1.  I'm still trying to teach myself not to do too much.  I need to stop and do the things I enjoy and not worry about keeping up with the "Crafty Joneses"!  Thanks for the inspiring reminder :)

  5. I think that this Cavet speaks rather disparagingly of the 2nd and 3rd groups of "embroideresses," as if group 1 is the highest goal to be sought by the others.  I'm glad that I have embroidery as a hobby, and not as a profession.  The descriptions in the groups seem overly exaggerated to me.

  6. I loved this post!  I don't fall into any of the categories.  I am in between 1 and 2.  I often take liberties with printed patterns that I like.  Or sometimes I won't stitch certain things and will add something else or choose stitches that are not "supposed" to be there.  I wish I were more diligent at taking up my embroidery every evening like one would a good book.  I look forward to more on the topic.  Love the last embroidery very much.

  7.  I normally keep my mouth shut and my fingers still if I don't have something nice to say but I really didn't like the excerpts from the book at all.  We are crafters and I will a hazard a guess that most of the folks who submit to the flickr groups and read here are like me - casual, "vulgar" crafters who may make their own designs here and there but rely on patterns. 

    I love to buy patterns because other people draw better than I do. I'm not "terrified" of anything related to crafting, I try it to see if I like it.  If I like a new craft I add it to my rotation.

    I love to stitch, I like getting better at it, but it's not important to me to achieve some personal status goal where I can feel I've ascended to some echelon of exclusive talent.  I will never assume to have a "refined artistic ability", I don't want one. I'm not "calm" and "persistent", I'm passionate and devoted to what I love and what I don't love I discard.  I'm patient when it's worth it.

    I get that the book was from the 50's, the author is a man and that time in history people were awfully judgmental about a woman's abilities but I would love to travel back in time and give him a piece of my mind.  I don't like cliques, I don't like classifying someone's worth by their skills and I don't like being classified by some stuffy man who probably has no idea that stitching is supposed to relaxing and fun.  He was probably targeting his words to those fussy types who stitch royal wedding gowns and not people looking for a pattern of a narwhal with a tattoo.  Or even in his own time, he wasn't targeting stitchers looking to reinforce collars or hide fraying hems or stained napkins which is where a lot of home embroidery is derived.

    My apologies for the rant, I'm not targeting Gabi but a misogynist from the 50's who obviously could not assume that women like me would be reading his words 60 years later. Being judgmental and snooty to get others to aspire to meet your expectations is not the sign of a good teacher in my opinion, but a jerk. Hopefully the 60's and 70's opened him up a bit.  I'll take Erica Wilson any day.

  8. I definitely fall in to the second category but have a longing to be in the first but I don't feel I have the artistic ability to be accomplished there. I always enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I embroider mainly for fun and relaxation, and I'm comfortable as a "hobbyist" who occasionally tries her hand at original designs. It really depends on my mood! Sometimes I see a pattern that I really want to get creative with, sometimes I just wanna mindlessly stitch some pretty flowers, and sometimes I want to go off the beaten path and experiment. As long as I'm stitching, I'm happy.

  10.  I agree with you megmcg, there was something that rubbed me the wrong way about the way he phrased things, and unfortunately I have heard similar sentiments in other craft areas. 

    I think sometimes people try too hard to find a bright line between art and craft, to divide crafters up into those we respect and admire and those we disdain.  On any given day I could be in category 1, 2, or 3, and I don't think
    that says anything at all about me, my talent, or my character.

  11. I'm definitely a 1- but I came to embroidery through fine arts training and want the originality of my own design. I like the description- "She is not easily satisfied and strives to always do better." Yes!

  12. It's late
    here in Portugal but I can't go to bed without answering your comments. I'm so
    happy with this discussion...

    First I
    only would like to remember that the author is talking about “Professional
    embroideresses”. Only those who had skills like “refined artistic sensibility”
    would manage to perform this job. As you’ll read next week I’ll be talking
    about different groups of embroiderers depending on the region they come from.
    Each of those groups faces very different influences (social, cultural, even
    geographical…) and all that is reflected in the designs, the stitches, the materials
    used… When we study Portuguese traditional embroidery we learn to admire the
    women that using their ability and creativity were able to absorb all those
    influences creating something new. We learn that in many regions there were no
    “pre-designed” patterns and each one was a new one… Portuguese traditional
    embroidery was born depending on that “refined artistic sensibility” and on the
    ability of each embroideress to make new designs. Calvet de Magalhães was one
    of the first to talk about these women.

    With that
    in mind… Remember (maybe you didn’t know…) that I earn my living selling kits
    and patterns (even those already stamped on the fabric… Although I don’t have a
    luxury store, only a vulgar one…) So… I would have to close my business if
    there were no embroiderers belonging to groups 2 and 3!!!

    It’s great
    we can be the embroiderers we want… And the discussion here is all about that…
    In my Workshops I face a common question: which way do I must stitch, to the
    right or to the left? I always answer: close your eyes and try to understand which
    way would you like to go… And I have this comment so many times: “if I’ve heard
    this when I was a child I would never have stopped embroidering”. They learned
    how to embroider more then 30 years ago and they had someone always remembering
    the rules, not the fun…

    focusing me in your comments… Notice how different embroiderers we are: Lady the temps says kits are too twee
    and that her embroidery is improvised. Leah
    makes her own designs but also enjoys buying kits from “a vulgar store”, megmcg loves to buy patterns because
    other people draw better than her and Gumbolily62
    “takes liberties” with printed patterns adding something different. Giddy Stokes thinks the description of
    these groups is exaggerated, Tabitha as transformed the 3 “closed groups” in a
    continuous line, assuming se is in 2.7, but Pamela Fields knows exactly the
    group she belongs to. Xstitchdiva is
    calm, but megmcg isn’t… So much

    Like xstitchdiva
    I also would love to know what Calvet would think about embroidering in our
    busy days… But unfortunately, as megmcg
    would like, we can’t give him a piece of our mind… At that time I don’t know if
    embroidery was about relaxing and fun… It was more about rules and obligations…
    I don’t know too much about that time, but I’m almost sure that in Portugal all girls
    learned how to embroider in school, not by choice, but by imposition. Maybe
    that’s why in Portugal we have professional embroiderers but few hobbyist
    embroiderers… I believe that many women feel they have acquired the right not
    to embroider!!

    Almost all
    your comments talk about “the heart”, the “happiness”, “the fun”… Sometimes I believe that my mission is to show Portuguese women (and men) that embroidery is
    all about that…

    I loved the
    point made by xstitchdiva on “throwing money at it”, I observe that in some of my
    clients - if you know some of these you can tell them about my kits :).

    I read from
    a Calvet de Magalhães student that one of his major preoccupations was: giving
    voice to the children, teaching them to take critical view of the world, awaken
    their intellectual curiosity. Today, almost 40 years after his death, he made
    it again!!
    (it's not easy to have a comment bigger than the post :) )

  13.  Well said!  It is a ridiculous, outdated opinion made by a man with an over-inflated opinion of himself (or with serious insecurities?).  Anyway, if it weren't for people like me and fellow stitchers who purchased other artists' patterns, well... those artists might have to go out and get "day jobs," too.  :)

  14. I never thought of categorizing any sort of crafter but I see where you could.  But I don't think that one group is less than the another, it is just where you feel comfortable.  My mom is in group 2 or 3 and I am in group1. I hope one day my stitches will be a tidy as hers.

    The only time my temperament is as described is with my embroidery. Otherwise I am not too patient or calm, but I am definitely persistent and keep working at something until I am satisfied.

  15. I am likely between number 1 and 2, I rarely do "kits" or pre printed things (unless that is what someone wants as a gift). I cannot draw very well either so I look through books at pictures and tend to embroider whatever I want. One example is the photo of a bunch of flowers that my parents took by the roadside while on vacation. I attacked it with my lightbox and then transferred it to dirt colored fabric and gave that as a gift.

  16. Monika Kinner-WhalenMay 31, 2012 at 11:08 PM

    What a fun post!  I am group one. Once I started blogging, ,I began to call myself an artist.  Now I work full time as an embroidery artist.  : )
    Monika in Canada

  17. I love this.  I can be calm and consistent, but my life with three children (under 6) is very hectic and I only have time for the smaller projects.  My impatience comes with not getting a project finished.  I love the design process, and the challenge of making every stitch excellent!

  18. I absolutely agree. And that opening paragraph could have been avoided. It is so horribly discouraging. A real pedagogue would have not written something like that, regardless of the decade. You can be passionate about embroidery if you stitch every day or if you stitch once a year, the labour of love it takes to make something is what matters, not the quantity, not even the quality! If you love it: make it.

  19.  Gabi I like your response but only want to point out that group 2 and 3 wouldn't be professional embroiderers because that would imply that's their job and it wouldn't make sense to fit his description of those two types to someone stitching for a living.

    From what I have read of Madeira embroidery, which may or may not be different, people of all sexes and ages did embroidery for extra money but you wouldn't ask a shop to finish your expensive kit if you were stitching for a living.  So maybe professional got lost in translation.

    I definitely embroider as a hobby.  I've made my own designs, I've made patterns my own by tweaking them and plenty of times I straight up trace an iron on transfer with thread.

    All crafts have evolved significantly in the past 50 years because no one has to do them for a living anymore.  Typically, in most places, women have been doing needlework because they weren't allowed or expected to do too much else.  Now women in many places have a lot more choices with what to do with their time.  I hope that more and more people take to needlework because it's so good for the mind to create and touch real materials.  Have you seen the Renate Hiller video on Handiwork?  It's on YouTube.  She will make you feel special and connected to your work.

  20. I was having difficulty with the choices, as I don't seem to fit any and yet like many here I am passionate about what I do, and LOVE the calm meditative process and always want to learn,stretch and explore. If anything I regard myself as an artist who uses embroidery as part of my larger repertoire to explore and express ideas.  I have a problem with the concept of artists/crafters being boxed in,categorized and defined NOT on the basis of their work, the passion they have for it, and skill level but on whether they are doing it for a living or not. The implication that if one is not earning a living from their art  they are not serious is shortsighted, snobbish and a laughable. Sure there are some who can, if they teach or work for an organization, or write books about it, or do bread and butter production style artworks, or just are lucky enough to get noticed by the right people, but the vast majority of artists/crafters cannot depend on their work to support themselves and therefore get other work to support their passion. Which is why I find the notion that if one isn't earning a living with their work they are not serious about it is sadly laughable.

  21. Dear megmcg: Thank you so much for sharing that video, it's amazing... I can't describe what I felt watching it... Yes, I'm feeling special... I was 8 years old when I begun with needles... And I learned everything by my own. None of my friends shared the fun for needles with me... I often work with children and I believe that the words of Renate Hiller express what children feel when they learn the first stitches. Like as if they are doing something "natural" in the sense that it is inherent to human nature (I'm no sure if my English is clear...). And boys feel it too :)

    Do you believe that in our country it is so difficult to find "hobbyist" embroiderers? I count on the fingers of one hand those I found and are sharing there work on the internet... 
    Maybe they had not these "natural experiences with crafts" in childhood...

    I would love to change that... and I believe this discussion will help me on that! Thanks!!!

    (today is children's day here in Portugal and in facebook I'm showing some of the works made by children with my kits... I'm delighted...)

  22.  Well I had very little direct exposure to crafts as a child. I had a lot natural experiences though as I was expected to play outside and encouraged to explore.  I'm 33 for a point of reference. 

    My grandmother (Nana we called her) did a lot of needlework but I lived too far away to learn from her.  I have an aunt who knit while I was a kid and I didn't live near her either but it always interested me.  When my son was turning 1 in 2006 I decided to learn to knit, most of my lessons and all my inspiration came from the internet.

    I decided to learn embroidery after I saw a Sublime Stitching book being sold at Urban Outfitters and it took me a few years to go from book to actually picking up a needle .  But yet again, most of what I learned and was inspired by was found on the internet (Jane Brocket, Jenny Hart, Alicia Paulson, Subversive Cross Stitch, Floss Box, a little Martha Stewart, Aimee Ray, this blog).

    I know a number of people who embroider in counted cross stitch.  That's pretty common where I live in the northeast US. The free hand embroiderers I know in person are ones that I've taught but I feel like I see so much online that there must be tons of us, all hiding for some reason! 

    I wonder if more people stitched in public if it would become more popular, or more recognized.  When a culture of people is expected to stitch in every spare minute you probably develop a very different perspective.  When I do any crafting in public I always get stared at and often get comments and questions about what I'm making.

  23. Olá, Gabi. Sou brasileira e queria escrever antes sobre o post da "saudade" (muito bom), mas não me sinto à vontade escrevendo em inglês (sérios erros podem ocorrer!!!). Decidi escrever em português, tudo bem? Adoro bordar e acho que estou no segundo grupo de bordadeiras, mas gostaria de estar no primeiro, apesar de ter um grau de miopia um pouco elevado e suar as mãos (esta parte é muito engraçada!). Parabéns pelo trabalho. 

  24. I'm mostly the second and rarely the first.  I much prefer to buy someone else's design and I always work in the evening after my kids go to bed.  But if for some reason I can't find one, I do from time to time create one (though I prefer to adapt).  

    I prefer to be the second - I take pleasure in the craft, but I am NOT an artist.

  25. Thank you for taking the time to translate and share such an interesting perspective.  What touched me most is the value he clearly places on embroidery and the person creating it.  I don't know that I feel like an embroiderer, or that I fit nicely into any of the categories... what I do know is that I relish the process of stitching.  From the ideas that start to form in my mind, to selecting the perfect fabric, to sketching my design, to choosing the perfect colors, to threading the needle, and especially to the sound the floss makes as it pulls through the fabric...  all the way to the last stitch when I set down my needle and look at what I've created.  But it doesn't end there; and that's what is so exciting!  The project is done but I'm not, I'm already thinking about the next time I get to stitch.  Now that I really think about it, maybe I DO feel like an embroiderer!


  26. Sorry for having finished this great conversation so abruptly... As I explained in my last week post I received an unexpected invitation and I had to focus on it...
    This week I begin a "series" of posts on Portuguese embroiderers talking about distinctive regional characteristics that make them unique from one region to another. I hope you like it...

    Just some more words... I loved the idea of embroidering in public. So I decided to put it into practice. The dress I showed last week was embroidered wherever I was... I had short time and was inspired by your words... After being in television I heard so many comments: "Oh! The dress you were wearing was that piece of embroidery you were embroidering when I met you!!!". I recommend it... Who knows we will not have new embroiderers...

  27. well, I think I am a group two person. I would love to be a group one person but there are not enough hours in my day and I do need a job. :)
    Thanks for posting this.