Can I say for the record that this summer kicked my butt and that I learned a ton of things, and that I am older and more wiser (and also more tired) as a result?
This is all in advance of saying the following, which is: you should ignore the blog post directly below this one. There is no Lacemaking Part One. Or rather, there was, but then I learned better, and got better, and really refined things.
I spent two solid months of the summer painstakingly working on needlelace 100% by hand, as described in the post below. Two months, and I got maybe 25% of an image I had in mind actually done. I don’t know how else to explain this, except to say that there were tears; or rather, not really tears, but anger and frustration, and questions like “What am I doing with my life?” and anxiety attacks and existential fear. I tried to put on a brave face and tell myself that I was keeping a dying tradition alive, and that I was totally and completely up for delicate, detailed work, the kind of which needed a magnifying glass to properly complete, and that I CAN DO THIS, when a friend sounded the alarm. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but it was something along the lines of “Hey, you know you can have a machine do some of that work, right?”
Now, here’s the thing. I’m really against this whole idea of turning my artistic production over to machines. I would much rather hand-embroider something than program it into a computerized machine and have it spit out what I wanted. That – the use of digital machinery – seemed fake to me, or at least in a whole other discipline than I wanted to be associated with. It was fine for others, but not for me.
But this friend wasn’t talking about that kind of machine. She was talking about a simple, straightforward sewing machine; the kind that I had sitting around in my studio anyway. This wasn’t some exotic, bizarre thing that I had to pay a lab fee or fork over thousands of dollars for; this was something that I’d come to think of as an “every day” tool. To not use this sewing machine would be to not use a blender or food processor while cooking on some bizarre notion of making handmade food. I mean, there’s handmade, and then there’s just utter masochism. You can still talk to your plants and grow them organically, and then cook them with love and care and total attention, but using a food processor just brings you into the 20th century, if not actually the 21st.
The same was true with a sewing machine, I just didn’t realize you could use it in such a way. I didn’t realize that there was a middle ground, between making lace as it was made during the Renaissance and plugging a machine in and having it spit out lace like you’d get at the 99 cent store. But voila, there is.
The secret, as it winds up, is water soluble fabric and a special way of guiding the machine. In brief, you stitch (and stitch and stitch) onto this fabric, guiding it each step of the way. It’s an entirely hands-on process – let your attention waver for a moment, and you’ll spend the next 10 minutes trying to undo whatever just happened. The machine works freehand, basically driving the needle in and out of the fabric, but everything else is up to you – the direction, the size of the stitch, whether it stitches one time or ten, if it goes back and forth or forward and then diagonal. You’re just watching and guiding, over and over, for hours. And then you do it again and again, reinforcing the stitches. Eventually, you take the fabric to your bathtub and soak it in cold water and it disappears, leaving nothing but thread. If you did it just right, you now have lace. If you didn’t, you now have a huge pile of tangled thread and you have to start over. (But, erm, this is how you learn. Or so I told myself many times.)
(How did I delete this original pic? Well, here it is on Instagram.)
Now, the trick is, you can only work on very small parts of the image at a time, because only small parts will fit into the machine. So you wind up collaging bits together, like so:
I have to make each element of the lace individually, then slowly stitch it all together. This large lace piece wound up being 38″ x 36″, and I can only work on a piece about 8″ x 8″ on my machine at a time. So there was a LOT of piecing that happened.
Ultimately, it wind up being a process that combines the best of working by hand with the best of using a machine – it’s creative and one of a kind and truly handmade, without being too crazy-making. What would have taken me 30 hours by hand takes me five or six hours by machine – still a while and still a significant investment of time and attention, but a huge difference. And this piece, which wound up to be quite large, wound up taking about 60 hours all together; I don’t know how long it would have been had I been doing absolutely all of it without any assistance. I honestly probably wouldn’t have ever finished it.
This is what it looks like in the end:
And I’m psyched. I feel like a whole new door has opened, and now I have the ability to really go further with this process than I could before. I’m already working (and nearly done with!) my second piece…!