The Wisdom I’ve Gained From Hand Stitching

The Wisdom I’ve Gained From Hand Stitching

In 2015 or was it 2016(?) things were in flux. I was re-evaluating what I was doing, where I was headed, what I wanted…  There were a number of things going on that led to this, but it was one of those moments that didn’t seem particularly extraordinary or even interesting, but in hindsight I see that it was a pivotal moment. A moment when I re-found hand stitching.

My mother taught me to embroider with crewel and a hoop at an early age. This is the Christmas creche we made together. It was while making one of those sheep that I came to truly appreciate the diversity and beauty of the simple French Knot done hundreds of times.

Christmas Creche embroidered with my mother

Since then I have gone down many paths, but the hand stitching path is perhaps the most surprising, to me.  While at Parsons School of Design I would do anything I could to avoid hand stitching. And then I discovered draping and for a time it was my new love.  Draping is a whole art in and of itself.  Cutting fabric on the bias and then draping it onto a form and manipulating it so the fabric falls in specific ways was something I loved, but it was also time consuming and I was young and impatient and so my love for draping was set aside.

Funnily enough when I moved to Los Angeles straight out of high school and before I went to Parsons my first job was in a tailor’s shop in Beverly Hills.  My favorite thing to do was to sit in the back room with the master tailor, an Armenian man who tried to teach me the fine art of tailoring.  Hand stitching hemlines and buttonholes was something I never quite mastered during my time there, but I loved it never-the-less.

Hand stitching can be slow and arduous and very, very time consuming, and it can also be meditative, serene, calming and restorative, depending on one’s perspective.  These days I find hand stitching to be all of the latter and none of the former.

A detail of my most recent work hand stitching on Pat Pauly hand dyed linen using Stef Francis threads, Painter’s Threads, House Of Embroidery Threads, Mulberry Bark from Stef Francis, Sari Cording from Stef Francis and wool roving.

When I began hand stitching again I followed other people’s patterns and instructions and while that was interesting and I learned a great deal, it wasn’t completely fulfilling. I have always gone off script and the farther I go, the happier I am.  So when I began doing what I call “Improvisational Stitching” I knew I’d fallen into something important.  Not only was I creating original pieces that didn’t look like other things I was seeing out in the hand stitching world, but it was an expression of my moods, my thoughts, the things that were going on in my life.  Hand stitching is the way I express myself.

A few things I’ve learned through hand stitching, which can be applied to the piece I’m working on, but also to life:

  • Any emotion is fair game and can be expressed through stitching.
  • Any emotion is okay and when expressed through stitching creates a vibrant, interesting piece.
  • Impatience is a frame of mind and a choice.
  • When I don’t know what to do, stand back, take a photo and get a new perspective on the situation.
  • Compare and despair.
  • Everything has its own timeline.
  • Divas can be fun, but they also can silence everyone else.
  • Diversity makes anything and everything better.
  • Rules are helpful, until they’re not, in which case, break them or ignore them.
  • Explore!
  • Be curious!
  • Engage and show up for the work.
  • Don’t squelch what makes you unique.
  • Be courageous!



The Undermining of “Craft”

The Undermining of “Craft”

“Crafts” have occupied a large part of my life. I was fifteen years old when I knitted my first sweater.  My mother taught me to knit when I was so young my fingers had trouble wrapping the yarn around them.  I didn’t realize it then, but being left-handed certainly must have made it more difficult for me to learn, yet learn I did, and to this day I knit as a right handed person does. It was the beginning of a love affair.  When I was in my twenties I had a brief moment when I was the editor of the “How To Knit” page in Elle Magazine.

Ariane Zurcher Designs
Ariane Zurcher Designs Capelet and Sleeves

My mother also taught me to do embroidery and sewing, this was in the days when knitting and fabric shops were as abundant as Starbucks.  It was a special occasion when my mother would drive me to San Francisco so we could visit Britex, which carried the most luxurious silks and fabrics from all over the world. When I moved to New York City there was a little knitting shop on Sixth Avenue in the village that had hand dyed and spun specialty yarns.  They were out of my price range as I was a student on a budget, but I would wander into that shop and just smell the wool and gaze at the beautiful colors, coveting the skeins that hung like candy along the walls.

Emroidered Creche my mother & I made when I was a teenager.

My father, born and raised in Paris, used to do Petit Point, at least this is what he called it, though in fact I believe he was doing what in America we call needlepoint. It was my father who taught me how to do basket weave needle point so the back of the tapestry resembled a basket weave, and was not as prone to warping the fabric and lay flatter or so he insisted. He looked down upon those who did their needlepoint by going back and forth horizontally. I have a pillow he made for me with the letter A prominently displayed in the center, it’s tattered back and edges giving clues to how old it now is.

The Pillow my father made for me

When I came to New York City it was because I’d been accepted to Parsons School of Design.   My love of fabrics, sewing, knitting and all things crafts-related propelled me into the world of fashion design.  It was an uneasy alliance and ultimately one I could not reconcile.  I learned early on that anything “Crafts” related was the sullied, unkept cousin to “high fashion.”  Crafts were what housewives did, it wasn’t the sort of thing an “artist” indulged in. So the thing I loved most, creating things by hand, became the thing I felt ashamed of.  The world of fashion and the designers whose work hung on exquisitely tall and impossibly thin models, exemplified all that I wasn’t.  My love of crafts became something I began to hide and even reject. It was “woman’s work” and if I was ever to make a career for myself, it was best to put those “childish pursuits” behind me.

“Craft” has begun to get its well deserved recognition and I couldn’t be happier. It is no coincidence that female artists in general are generating more interest in museums and galleries. Women’s work finally elevated to more prominence in a male dominated world is as it should be. “Craft” and all that it encompasses is yet another way we have been taught to undermine, under value and even ridicule work done by, mostly, women. We have a lot further to go, but it is wonderful to see that beginning to change!

The Undermining of “Craft”

Finding One’s Voice

In January I had the opportunity to go to one of Sue Spargo‘s fabulous workshops in Tucson, Arizona, a place I’d never been. While there I met some lovely people, one of whom was Anna Bates, who has a blog, Woolie Mammoth, a YouTube channel – Quilt Roadies, and blogs for The Quilt Show once a week under the heading – Anna and G on the Road. During the course of our five days together, Anna interviewed me and wrote a lovely post about me and my work. Though I realized afterward that while I sent her photographs of my early designs in fashion and knitting, even a photo of one of my hand thrown and hand painted pots, I didn’t send photos of my jewelry! (insert wide eyed emoji). So here are a few additions to her post…

One of my ring designs in 18 Kt Gold with Sapphires
18 Kt Brushed Gold & Emerald Earrings
Sketch of one of my knit designs
The above sketch made into a knit for Elle Magazine

Because of my conversation with Anna, I reflected on the past (almost) forty years now, when I began my studies at Parsons School of Design and now, when I am learning everything I can about quilting, quilts, dyeing, and manipulating fabric in different ways to create an image, a feeling, an idea…

Another of my knit designs for Elle Magazine
An early design ensemble from my days at Parsons School of Design

All of which led me to a recurring topic – finding one’s artistic voice. How does one find it? How can it be nurtured, cultivated, encouraged?

While listening to a podcast a few weeks ago, two musicians were discussing this very idea and one of them repeated something they’d been told by another artist friend, who basically said – the only way to find your voice is by doing, and in the doing, you will not only find your voice, but it will make itself heard.

I love that! And it aligns with what I have learned through my experiences designing, whether that was fashion, knits, jewelry or quilts and fabric art.

A few months ago I decided I needed to learn how to piece. In quilting terms this is the ability to make something that looks like this: (This hen block was designed by Janet Nesbitt of One Sister.)

I have had a number of design ideas, such as combining pieced blocks with appliqué blocks and overlapping design elements that I cannot realize because there are some pretty basic things I do not know how to do. Piecing was one of them. I’m working on two quilts at the moment that cover all of these things, but in order to do them, and do them well, I need to learn how and then to practice, practice, practice.

So I signed up for Sarah Fielke’s 2019 BOM and began making Janet Nesbitt’s Half Crazy Quilt (which the pieced hen shown above is part of). In addition I joined a craftsy, now Bluprint class – Learn To Quilt with Amy Gibson. And while most of that class I was able to fast forward through, there were a couple of key take-aways that have helped me, such as getting seams to meet up perfectly and squaring up.

With each of these projects I’m learning and in learning how others do it, I am practicing and expanding what I can design, and hopefully my own voice will become clearer and more refined.