Saturday, January 15, 2011

Floods and searching for perfection

A snake clings to a post in a flooded paddock

Apologies in advance for a long post

We've had a terrible week here in Australia, torrential rain, flash flooding and rising rivers up and down the east coast and fires on the west coast. Brisbane CBD, the 3rd largest city in Australia, was flooded for the first time in 36 years. Lives were lost in inland Queensland and thousands of families face financial ruin with flooded homes and most if not all of their worldly possessions ruined. The people are very stoic though with most pledging to clean up and rebuild. Today on the TV we're seeing huge bands of volunteers registering to help with the cleanup and the Army sent in to re-establish major infrastructure. Apparently they are comparing the damage to Hurricane Katrina in the US, it'll take years to recover, if ever. I'm very lucky to live in the outer suburbs of Sydney in New South Wales, well away from the immediate danger although we have had some very poor weather due to La Nina patterns in the Pacific. The TV footage has been graphic and appeals for donations are running, if you would like to contribute, thankyou so much on behalf of all those affected.

I've been trying to escape now and then through the internet. One of my favourite webfriends Patricia Eaton Birds Nest on the Ground posted a photo of one of her collection of vintage quilts, a wonderful old log cabin design. The quilt isn't perfect and is falling apart in a lot of places but Pat wishes she knew its story. Recently I added some pieces to my collection of Victorian/Edwardian underwear which need repairs. I wish I knew the story behind those pieces, who wore them and when, and why were they pulled apart / damaged as they are now? Did they belong to a large family where they were handed down till they fell apart but escaped the "rag bag", did the owner outgrow them and was getting ready to alter them when circumstances changed through illness/ death / marriage? Don't you wish textiles could talk, VBG?

It got me thinking about our modern quest for the perfect stitch, the beautifully made garments and quilts, the exhibition quality embroideries. Some of my most treasured things are embroideries done by my grandmothers, who were good needlewomen but not experts. There is a certain charm in the stitching, little imperfections that speak of working in poor light without the benefit of modern magnification devices and stitched after a long day keeping house. Some of them are stamped linen pieces which were widely available for the needlewoman to buy and stitch up to decorate her home. Should we dismiss them as not worthy of our admiration or collecting? Some examples will be re-purposed for other crafts which is good if it saves them from bin, but I hope some are preserved in their original state too. Then there are the utility quilts, made for the original purpose of keeping warm and adding some cheer to austere surroundings. They were often assembled by amateur needlewomen too, using magazines and books to learn how to do it. The publications of early 1800s to 1920's did not have glossy photos to guide the makers, and offered very basic instructions. In my 1920's copy of the "Big Book of Needlework" by Odhams there is one page of text describing the types of patchwork (crazy, geometrical and American) and one of line illustrations. In the next chapter there are 10 pages devoted to quilting including 3 pages of line drawings showing suggested designs. Despite having no glossy magazines, patterns, BOM services or the internet to help the makers, books of vintage quilts are illustrated with wonderful examples of colourful quilts worked by needlewomen who shared their knowledge while around the quilting frame, at social gatherings, or with their neighbours and friends. Think of the quilting scenes in "How to make an American Quilt".

How then did we arrive at the current trend for perfection in all the needle arts? Why do we so frequently unpick (or frog as our US friends call it) our work because we aren't happy with it? Should we leave our imperfections alone and learn from any mistakes so that they're not repeated? Isn't the joy supposed to be IN the making, not the result? Or have we evolved to the stage that we HAVE to have an exhibition quality piece everytime we pick up a needle? I consider myself a reasonably good technician, I can do lots of different techniques, some better than others, and I often wish I could do better. It frustrates me, spoiling my enjoyment. Lately I've been re-thinking why this can be. Shouldn't I enjoy the process (I hate the term JOURNEY) rather than the end result? Is that what the Slow Cloth movement is all about?

So, I ask you these questions and look forward to your comments.


Anonymous said...


The need for perfection is one thing which I think is overated at the moment, the other is the need for speed, and when the two come together they get in the way of each other.

Work quickly and accuracy suffers, which leads to more time unpicking in the pursuit of perfection.

I find that if I want to work quickly, the more often I stop to unpick the longer it takes to make the project. Work quickly and ignore the mistakes, the project is finished quickly and my work gets better as I go.

I would encourage people who want perfection to go slowly, and those who want to finish quickly to practice without perfection. Both will eventually get both better and quicker ... without unpicking!

Judy B

Rachel said...

Personally, I enjoy the process. I don't want my work to look machine made, I want it to look as though I've enjoyed doing it!

Anonymous said...

I sew garments rather than quilts but I wear what I make even when it is imperfect because a) frugality is a virtue and waste or extravagance is a sin in my religion, b) I have a deep enjoyment of wearing things that I have made, imperfect or not. I think that somehow they feel less "alien" than anonymous clothese bought from impersonal stores....