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Bopha It With Wire

It suddenly seems that I have finished just about everything that I have to finish before I go off and pack my suitcases to fly over to Brisbane, Australia for Koala Conventions. I’m not sure how that’s possible and I fear that I’m suddenly going to remember that there is a whole body of work that I have to get through, but maybe not. Even if that is the case, I am nevertheless going to take some time to post on this blog.

Yesterday I received stock of my new book, Crewel Intentions, and we have been able to send out the first orders. It’s always an exciting time, to see it in print and to see Darren taking all of those parcels off to the post office – because people have actually ordered it, which means they want it. It’s a gratifying end to two years of hard work. But, at the same time, I am lucky to have the most fabulous publishers who take my ramblings on a memory stick and turn them into a work of art. It’s an ongoing friendly argument that I have with Metz Press who are always humble and will tell me every time that it’s the content that counts. I do know, though, that without their magic touch it would all be a bit mediocre and have very little outward appeal. No matter how good the content may or may not be.

But onto what I was thinking about this morning. The irritating things people say. Deliciously irritating pronouncements in every sphere of our lives, but oh so many of them, so I’m going to stick to embroidery pronouncements for the purposes of this post. Aside from mentioning my favourite irritating sentence about copyright (“But it’s so complicated.” It isn’t. Don’t copy. That’s not difficult, is it?), the most irritating of the lot is:

“It’s all very well to break the rules, but you must at least know them before you can break them”.

Imagine for a moment that you are woman born in the 16th, 17th, 18th century (it doesn’t matter which) and that you are adept with a needle and thread. Rather like you are in the 21st century, happy to sit for hours playing nicely, you’re passionate and you’re artistic. You’re not creating grand works of art, just embellishing your linen or your clothing. There is not a store of reference books out there as in the modern world so, having learnt techniques from your Grandmother or your Mother, you build on that.

You play with knots and loops, straight stitches and weaves. You go over and under, out and through, making different combinations and in doing so, keep yourself interested and inspired. Every now and then you might combine a few things that make up something that is truly inventive and inspiring to others. Your neighbour sees it and asks you to show her how. So you do, because you’re a woman and you share things. You don’t immedately run off to a patent office. That’s a man thing.

But back to your neighbour. Her best friend sees your little stitch combination, likes it and wants to do something similar, so your neighbour shows her. And so it goes on, until the whole community is doing it. Nobody knows who originally thought of it, and it doesn’t matter. It isn’t important. What is worth noting though, is that this is how regional styles would have developed. Combine this inventiveness with the fabric available in a time and place, the (much smaller) variety of yarns, the types of objects that were being embellished and you come out with your hardanger, your hedebo, your schwalm and so on.

Because travel was difficult, these stitch artists didn’t move around much. They spent their entire lives in one village and that is why, historically, many techniques can be pinpointed to a specific region or town. If they had travelled, all of these styles would have far more in common than they do. In fact, where an influence has crept in from somewhere else, the person who travelled and spread that influence is very often named and documented.

I don’t know when it happened, I suspect around the beginning of the 20th century, much of that evolution stalled. Researchers started documenting things and once a regional style was written about, it became set in stone. Those were the “rules” and they were enthusiastically adopted by people who like to form committees and become chairpersons. Thereafter, heaven help anyone who had a mind of her own and thought that she might like to inject a little of her own personality into her work. Or to combine her hardanger with a little bit of, oh who cares, pulled work. It didn’t matter if her finished product was beautiful, a masterpiece. It was wrong. It broke the rules and that was that.

If you want to recreate the embroideries from history, the rules will work for you but if you want to be inventive, innovative and a small cog in the evolution of hand embroidery, they are a pernicious thing and, sadly, they endure. They really do, despite what people claim. One of the reviews written – only two years ago – about my book Crewel Twists said something along the lines of “I have always admired crewel embroidery but was told I could only do it with wool, and I am allergic to wool, so have never done it. Now I can, because this book uses stranded cotton.” Now isn’t that sad? A whole genre of embroidery, one that to my mind is the most enjoyable of the lot, excluded from a person’s stitching pleasure because of the “rules”. That it took a short, plump, foul-mouthed South African author, one always covered in dog hair, to tell this reviewer that she could use something other than wool. I do hope that stitcher is now having a ball, using any kind of yarn that she chooses to create crewel or Jacobean shapes.

We live in rather a lawless society with a rather inept administration here on the tip of Africa and for that I am grateful. I suspect you have just gulped and asked yourself why I would be so stupid as to consider myself lucky to live in a place where the likelihood of being a victim of crime is so high, or a region where it is more difficult to get things done to one’s satisfaction. I’m going to tell you why.

It means that I have to think. I have to be guided by my own ethics, my own rules, not someone else’s idea of how I should behave. I have to find a way of coming by the things I need to do what I want to do. And if I can’t get those things, I have to find an alternative. Or invent one. I grew up on a farm in central Africa where it was usually impossible to purchase spare parts for farm implements on the one hand, and household appliances on the other. So, if something was broken and you couldn’t purchase a spare part, or didn’t have the time to wait for one to come from abroad, you would “bopha it with wire” (bopha is a Zulu word common to many African languages that means bind, tie together, etc.). It usually worked but, more importantly, it meant that we all had a mindset that said you can always find a way, albeit often an alternative one, to achieve an end. And that’s why I consider myself lucky.

It didn’t matter what the manufacturers instructions were, you couldn’t follow them because you didn’t have the wherewithal, so you made up your own rules. “Bopha it with wire” is a technique that I apply to my embroidery. I know what I want to create and I find a way to do it, whether it fits in with anachronistic rules or not. I bopha it with wire.

Which is why I find that aforementioned sentence so irritating. You don’t have to know the rules before you can break them. No. All you need to know is the techniques and once you know them, build on them, go mad, have fun, be creative and invent what you want to invent. In other words, bopha it with wire and continue the evolution of hand embroidery. Because it has stalled.

And now, off to pack my suitcase. Looking forward to meeting up with all you lovely Australians again next week.

11 thoughts on “Bopha It With Wire

  1. Well said Hazel! In Afrikaans we would say "'n Boer maak 'n plan"! Enjoy your trip Down Under & see you at IQC.Travel mercies. Love Adrie Strong (ex Sew Heavenly)

  2. But "bopha' is such a lovely word, so expressive. If you don't mind, I'll stick with it! And thanks for the travel wishes. See you in Joburg in July. H

  3. I took the the liberty to share this link on my embroidery Facebook page. Love your first book and can't wait to lay my hands on your next book love Elza Bester xxx

  4. Very well put!

  5. I have just bought your book, "Crewel Intentions" I love it! Gorgeous work and a playful spirit I pick up.' Bopha', isn't that the mother if invention?

  6. Agree: You do not need to know the rules.
    It has to do with skills, as with the writing process.
    And it has to do with a certain style.
    Moving with the time, not stand still.
    The embroidery world is a wonderful example of the description in the book "Chimpanzee politics" of the author Frans de Waal.
    It describes how women hold each other in grip.
    Interesting is:
    Who behaves like a queen?
    Who put her on the throne?
    Which motives and which interests are there?
    As long as the illusion exists that knowledge is power and money, and will remain, development and creativity are hampered.

  7. This sounds like a book that I would like to read, Hanneke. I'm going to find it.

  8. What a refreshing point of view, Hazel. Thanks for taking the time to formulate it so well.

  9. I have just come across your blog and love it. I have also just bought Crewel Intentions and love the designs and pictures – not had time to read anything yet. About 60 years ago I did a firescreen – tree of life – and it was with Anchor stranded cotton. At the time I wasn't aware of crewel work so did not know that was what it was and anyway when I learnt of it I thought it had to be done in wool. I not keen on working with wool but love crewel embroidery and yours is so special. Thank you.

  10. And thank YOU. Your experience is perhaps proof positive that it's better not to know the so-called rules.

  11. Hazel, thankyou for such a beautifully written post. My Mum rang me this morning and said, "You have to read this blog post – I know you are going to love it!". And she was absolutely right. We have discussed this very topic so many times. It can be so frustrating when an environment which should be exciting and inventive and endlessly creative feels so constrained. It is just great to know that someone whose work and talent I respect so much feels the same way. Long may you "Bopha it with wire" and inspire others to do so too 🙂

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