Doing what we can’t


I failed my Art GCSE, did you know that? Art & Textiles: grade D. Fail. I mean, that wasn’t my only ‘creative’ exam – I did CDT (Craft Design & Technology) too, making clocks and bedside lights, working with wood, metal, plastics, all that stuff. I failed that, too. CDT: grade D. Fail. Sorry Abi, but you can’t Art.

Poorly embroidered flower. I think.

About six years ago, after spending a long time admiring embroidered art and thinking ‘I wish I could do that’, I decided that wishing wan’t going to get me anywhere, and if I really wished it, I’d do it. So I found an old napkin in a drawer, drew some patterns on it with a biro, and started stitching. I had a book of embroidery stitches, so I tried to work through and stitch different ones.  My first attempts were a bit scraggy, as is to be expected, but with practise my tangled mistakes got fewer, and I learned.

I learned, through repetition of trial and error, how to fill a large space quickly, which stitches produce a smooth curve (and which don’t), and that whilst ‘wheat-ear stitch’ sounds pretty, it actually looks like a detached spinal column if you’re not careful about how you use it.

Oh French Knots, will I ever master thee?
Oh French Knots, will I ever master thee?

I had no intended end point, but when my sketchpad-napkin was full I found I had a large, beautiful square of embroidery, filled with my learning, my mistakes (I never unpicked), and small records of my life stitched among the swirls.  I practised my satin stitch by embroidering a Danish flag on my journey back from a funeral in Copenhagen, and stitched Picasso’s Dove of Peace as I stood in silent protest against a fascist march.

Detached spine, fancy fillings, a dove, and a tree made of variations on 'knotted stem stitch'
Detached spine, fancy fillings, a dove, and a tree made of variations on ‘knotted stem stitch’

I couldn’t embroider, but I did it anyway. It’s how we learn, and grow.  It’s why I teach craft workshops, to show people they can do things they didn’t think they could.  I love it! Everyone says, especially in these turbulent times, we must ‘do what we can’.  But imagine if we upped the stakes to do what we can’t? What beautiful things might we create then?

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