Stitch By Stitch

Embroidery is proof I have the patience to stab something a thousand times

Shirley Chan


Closeup photo of the eye of a needle, with thread going through
Photo by ROCCO STOPPOLONI on Unsplash

Embroidery is an act of love. Embroidery is transforming needle, thread, and time into beauty. It is our answering call to birds with brilliant plumage who fan their tails and dance in the forest, to decorator crabs who cover themselves with seashells and coral, to enormous moths who float like flowers through the air. This is why I love it. It is an act of love for the life we have. An exuberant decision to live without holding anything back.

As soon as we look, we begin the act of creation. We recreate the world as image in our minds. We are all artists.

So then, what does it mean to embrace and strengthen our creative ability?

It began with a commitment to myself. After embroidering on and off for years, calling it “just a hobby” to brush off compliments, I invested in a set of 489 colors of cotton thread. I wanted the palette to create whatever I pictured. I wanted to take my work seriously. With one act, I began to see myself in a new light.

I looked for inspiration and froze. Fantastical landscapes with mountains of trees, waterfalls, and peacocks were rendered in silk for Chinese emperors. Intricate goldwork graced the gowns of European royalty. Three-dimensional flowers, vines, and jewels made of thread covered decorative boxes.

My work seemed clumsy in comparison.

I had to look closer.

The oldest form of embroidery is cross-stitch: stitches are crossed to form little Xs that combine into an image.

A square comprised of the letter x, typed repeatedly. The square is on the left, followed by the words “began with x”.

I kept looking, kept teaching myself to look closer.

In Japan, sashiko evolved from patching worn-out clothes.

A single dash, followed by the words “led to”, followed by a square comprised of dashes, typed repeatedly.

In India, each stitch in kantha holds a wish.

A single dash, followed by the words “led to”, followed by arrowheads formed with dashes.

In China, needlepainting told stories in silk.

A long dash, followed by the words “led to”, followed by a wave pattern formed with long dashes.

Every piece in the world was created the same way. A single line, made by pulling thread up through the fabric and back down, over and over. Repetition has meaning.

When the set of 489 colors arrived, it was complete. It was perfect. I questioned my right to use it.

I laid out the skeins of thread on a table and sorted them by color: reds, pinks, oranges, purples, greens, yellows, blues, and a surprisingly large number of browns. I had to decide when one color turned into another, but there were no clear boundaries.

Out of impatience, and a practical need to clear the dining table, I began making choices. Some threads looked more pink than red, more green than blue, more blue than purple. After sorting 489 colors, I saw there was no right answer, only the answer that was right for me.

That gave me the courage to use the threads with no masterpiece in mind. I decided to stitch a simple sampler, repeating rows of lines in different thicknesses, from one thread up to six.

A single dash, followed by the words “led to”, followed by a tall rectangle formed with dashes. The rows increase in thickness, from one to six dashes stacked tightly together.

By doing this, I began to learn the effect of varying just one element as I repeated it for a few shades of red. It trained my eye to see the variances between close colors. It was like immersing myself deeply into a single, tiny portion of the rainbow, and it was beautiful. I decided to do this with all 489 colors of thread and commit to this practice for years to come.

Closeup photo of stitches on fabrics, purple thread on unbleached muslin. Each row of stitches is simple, six dashes and one long continuous line. Each row increases in thickness, from one to six threads. There are multiple sections of six rows, to show different shades of purple.

When I embroider, I hear the low orchestral warmup hum of a single cotton thread being pulled through taut cotton fabric, stretched on a hoop. It is a bass violin string. It is a resonant baritone. It is a Gregorian chant.

The sound vibrates inward, waking up my fingertips, making me sensitive to what I hold in my hands. All cloth has texture. There is a warp and a weave to the way fabric is constructed, and in between, there is space. To embroider is to find the space and decide how to add to it.

The craft of embroidery lies in the muscle memory earned by repetition. There is a felt sense for how to hold the needle and direct the thread. When I search for where to position the needle, I can feel where the weave of the cloth parts naturally, and that is where it should push through and draw its tail of thread to create the next stitch. Instead of fighting the cloth, I work with it.

I am constantly learning a language of touch. Each piece of fabric is different because of how it was made, folded, stretched. Each pull of thread evolves in twists and turns. My body hears their rhythm, tunes in to their texture, works with the voice of the materials in my hands. The art of personal expression and the control of craft become one in this practice.

The only way to truly understand something is to do it. There is a great weightlessness to just doing what is in front of you and noticing the pleasure of each sensation. The small, simple stitches add up to something more than the sum of its parts.

So yeah, embroidery actually is proof that I have the patience to do something a thousand times. I have stitched 118 colors, which is 708 rows, totaling 3,540 stitches. I have hundreds more colors to go.

The practice of a craft is slow, humble work. Yet, it is also a pathway. We all have different ways of seeing the world. Embroidery gave me a way to believe I had something special to share, and then it gave me a way to share it.

Do the work, and you will find your way.

Fabric pages scattered across a light grey cutting mat. The pages show stitches in many shades of blue, from light sky blue and bright teal, to deep ocean and dark navy. Each color is stitched in sections with six rows. Each row shows simple stitches in a progression of thickness, from one to six threads.



Shirley Chan

I’m a writer. I write things. I right wrongs. I don’t write wrongs.