A Long Apprenticeship...of sorts!

Hello fellow stitchers!

I have been completely buried working on, what I hope will be, my first pattern designs and I hope to be able to show them to you soon.  But in the meantime, I am taking a tea break to catch up on the blog and I thought it might be appropriate to tell you how I actually came to be doing any of this.  It has been a long and accidental apprenticeship of sorts.

Like a lot of my contemporaries, I grew up in a happy family where my Mum and Grandmother were sewing and knitting things...mostly to be worn.  It was not frivolous sewing and I cannot say that I think my mother loved needlework, but I suppose I did pick up things here and there and was proficient enough on her old singer sewing machine to make a few skirts in my late teens.   Once I left home though and headed for the bright lights of London, any ideas of sewing went flying out of the window and frankly stayed in orbit for rather a long time!

In 2002, my husband and I, with our three young children took an overseas posting in Moscow.  It was a thrilling and exciting time for us and once the initial shock of moving to Russia subsided, I found myself one day at the American Embassy, for a sort of sign up day for activities for all the 'trailing' wives.   It was a well organised structure to fall into and enabled me to find and make friends and get out of the apartment.   I quickly signed up for a class in Russian history and then I felt myself drawn to a table displaying the most amazing hand embroidery I had ever seen.  Beautiful pieces of pulled thread work and surface stitching on fine linen were lying on display, forming layers of colourful and inviting handwork.  I was smitten and signed up for the classes in Russian Embroidery.  As it happened, because we lived in a very central location in the city, close to Red Square, I was asked if I would host the class and was happy to do so.   So began four years of weekly lessons with Lydia Ivanova, an elderly russian lady who was an absolute master with the needle and gave us all a window into another world.

Russian Embroidery Sampler.jpg

Other projects followed and it got easier and my work got neater.  We progressed to some surface embroidery.  I loved the motifs that had their base in Russian Folklore.  I know, from experience, that people generally think of Russia as a grim, harsh place, devoid of colour and lacking in culture...it is anything but....

Russian Embroidered iceskaters.JPG

 This piece came from the arts & crafts market in Moscow, Izmaylova

Underneath the icy layers of snow and stark layers of soviet architecture, there lurks a land rich in handicrafts and glorious fairytales, entrancing literature, haunting music and captivating art.  The russian people have a warmth of spirit that stays with you, long after you have left and still infiltrates our lives now back in England.  Everyday we lived there was full of discoveries, small and large and my favourite ones were always the hand crafted things that we found, whether a highly decorated wooden box, a piece of hand painted porcelain or some of the amazing hand stitched textiles with traditional patterns.  I was given and collected quite a few pieces of these and we use them in our home through out the year.

Ukranian embroidery.JPG

By the end of four years, our Russian was not bad and Lydia and I had settled into a comfortable routine of selecting designs and stitching.  Fellow students from around the world came and went and it was entertaining as well as informative.   My favourite Wednesday guests were always the Japanese ladies, who came with beautifully organised boxes of threads, all colour coded and sorted and sewing kits wrapped and segmented with precision.  It wasn't until a few years later when I had the opportunity to go to Japan that I fully understood this obsession with order and wrapping.  These ladies stitched with dedication and accuracy and produced some of the most beautiful needlework I have ever seen.  But whoever was working in my dining room on a Wednesday morning, it was always fascinating to me how colours and patterns were selected and put together.   I began to realise that we all have a colour palette that is largely influenced by where we come from.  For example, the Scandinavian ladies always tended to chose blue and green and grey colours, the Indian ladies preferred the reds and oranges and golds and the african women revelled in a haphazard selection of bold contrasting colours.  

I learnt the most tremendous amount about the technical side of needle work over these four years.   Lydia had no hesitation in scolding when the work was below par and ripping out hours of laborious stitching that didn't pass muster.   Gradually, I began to improve.   Precision was the key of course, but exploring design allowed the embroider to run riot like a painter with a blank canvas.  I began to scour the museums wherever we went for examples of different styles of embroidery, taking inspiration from the needlewomen of past times.  

Russian Embroidered linen.JPG

At the end of our time in Russia, Lydia gave me a gift - a piece of linen cloth that had belonged to her grandmother wrapped up in silver thread.   It usually sits on my Mum's old sewing machine, still wrapped up, because I feel it is too precious to use.  I cried when it was time to say goodbye and struggled to find the words to thank this tiny old lady, who had somehow helped me to find the magic of the needle.    Lydia told me that she had been wrong about me...."I was a trooper and now a stitcher".  For me though, it really was just the beginning of my love of fabric and thread and design...


After Moscow, we moved to Paris and here began my journey into quilting.  I hope you will pop back next time to read about how that all came about and where it lead me next.

Happy weekend Ruby x