WHAT LIGHTS YOU UP? #1
I’m very excited to share the first interview in this new series, where my sister Helena explains the background behind her amazing activist embroideries. I really enjoyed the afternoon we spent during her visit to Amsterdam making the photoshoot by the warehouses, and she was a great model as I was trying my hand at a subject other than close-ups of flowers and plants:) Enjoy the read and I’d love to hear your thoughts!
How did you start? How did you come up with the idea?
I first started after watching a vulva embroidery tutorial video on the online magazine madmoizelle. The author of the video embroidered a vulva on a T-shirt to make women’s genitalia more visible in the public space, fighting the taboo around female sexuality. I’ve been a feminist for a few years now, and really liked the combination of art and the activist component. It inspired me to stitch a clitoris on a T-shirt I would wear to give more visibility to this other body part that is also too often forgotten.
I bought a simple white T-shirt, a wooden loop and some thread and needles in a specialised store and started my first embroidery. It turned out to be a cheap and fun hobby to take up!
How did you learn this skill?
I turned to the internet, as I didn’t know anybody around me who could teach me (although our mom said that maybe I hold embroidery in my genes because our great grandmother was a skilled embroiderer!). I mostly learned with YouTube videos. Articles can be helpful but videos are usually better because showing a complex stitching movement is easier than describing it. There are many videos out there, made by women across the world (unfortunately this is still a very gendered hobby…). Some of them I don’t even share any language with, but the visual is usually enough!
For the rest, it’s through trial and error that I learned (and I’m still learning) what kind of clothes can be best embroidered, how to draw the designs onto the cloth, how to do new stitches (I try to learn a new one in every project)…
Where do you find your inspiration?
Most of my ideas are linked to feminist topics, and I get them from media I consume: the news, youtube videos, songs… Music can be good at making ideas stick. That’s how the t-shirt with the middle finger and the Spanish one came to be. “Cerrada de amor, cerrada de pussy” (closed from love, closed from the pussy) are lyrics of a song by Ladilla Russa. It’s about men who are too insistent with their sexual or romantic goals, while sometimes as a woman, you just want to enjoy other things in life, like dancing in clubs or tap dancing, without having to deal with those who don’t take no for an answer.
What effects have your pieces had?
My embroideries are often a conversation starter, which was what I was hoping for! For example, people often don’t recognise that the clitoris is a clitoris, because they think of that organ as just the external part. That gives me a chance to drop some fun facts about it, in a light but hopefully instructive way!
Among skeptics against feminism, though, my embroideries have led to tense discussions! It’s not always enjoyable, but I also don’t want to just preach to the choir. Presenting a radically different opinion than theirs is a good way to reopen conversations, maybe plants some seeds of thought and brush up my debating skills along the way!
How does this work impact / interact with other activities you do?
Embroidery has helped me work on my biggest flaw: perfectionism (this is not only a job interview flaw-that-isn’t-a-flaw, it really exists!). The risk of failing has been paralysing in many areas of my life. With embroidery, I do take time to start each project out of fear, but once I start, I face all the imperfections that come with such a precise manual task: the thread is secretly building knots on the back, letters are not the same size, the chalk drawing is disappearing too fast…There are so many factors that I cannot fully control, that I am forced to accept the imperfection. And even though I’m usually dissatisfied with my work during and shortly after each piece, I tend to warm up to it after a while!
Practicing letting go of imperfections through stitching has helped me in other areas of life, to tell myself it’s ok that I made my stew to salty that one time, or that I’m not the biggest loser of all times just because I said something dumb in a conversation!
Any ideas for what you plan to work on next?
I have too many ideas, and too little time! My next embroidery will be a reference to the great youtube channel Contrapoints (you should check it out), and the following one will have an activist message about napping! Stay tuned 😉
A huge thank you to Helena for being my guinea pig (or should I say my gerbille!) to test out the questions and format, and for her inspiring and well-written answers. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better start!