The subversive stitch
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - July 25, 2020 - 12:00am

Signs of the times: I want a bike, I would rather be sewing and the children aren’t children any longer.

The bike is an object of desire in its own right, but I’ve arrived at it as much because of circumstance as design. In London, before I left, I chanced upon a peloton of maybe 50 people on bikes owning the whole road, whooping it up, doing wheelies and generally showing off. Cars weren’t given a chance. A few moments later, I realized they were the vanguard for a Black Lives Matter march that stretched up the hill, accompanied by a handful of worried looking police.

The bicycle has come into its own this year as the vehicle of equality. Disease has exposed the rifts in society between those who survive and those who do not: because of access to healthcare, working in essential jobs that are badly-paid and dangerous, and poverty – this means Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority in many cases. Just look at the faces of health care workers in the UK who have died after COVID-19 diagnoses – most are BAME, one in five is Filipino/a. Several inquiries are being held to investigate why. Public transport is a health risk and the government has warned people not to use it unless they really need to and to wear facemasks when they do.  But whatever your background, you can ride a bike to get you around the city at far lower risk of infection, especially now there are so many bicycle for hire schemes in London. The West End and City of London were ghost towns for weeks during the height of the lockdown, as businesses started opening, people who’d never cycled before were taking to two wheels, finding safety in numbers and the air quality far better with fewer cars and lorries on the road.

I’d started researching to buy a bike before I left but couldn’t make my mind up till I got here and found some fantastic alternatives, finally going for the amazing avant-garde yet traditional Bambike – modern zeitgeist, natural, native and renewable materials. They’re expensive but gorgeous and the owner/designer Bryan and his team are incredibly helpful and thoughtful. They’re looking at designs and processes that reduce production costs and make it more easily available. A people’s bike? Yes please.

Days at home are far shorter than at first under lockdown, now that I’ve found cross-stitch. I know, I sound like an old lady, but I wish I’d found it when I was a lot younger. Again, my discovery is the result of a longer process that has a lot to do with the circumstances of the moment. In January before the covid cage fell, there was an exhbition “Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles” on at Two Temple Place, one of central London’s hidden gems. It is only open for a few months of the year to host a themed exhibition drawing on Britain’s regional museum collections. You’ve probably seen it as a location in films and TV series like Downton Abbey and The Crown, it’s one of London’s most lavishly decorated buildings and was once the estate office of William Waldorf Astor.

While there, I came across the book cover image for “The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine” by Rozsika Parker. It’s a Quaker-style stitch sampler that brings to mind legions of little girls in aprons and sitting in rows and subjugated to long hours of stitchery, but the words themselves spell out the quiet, disruptive magic of the private, creative process of arts and crafts made by people who haven’t been to art school, don’t call themselves artists, and create works of meticulous care, and beauty.

“I have never worried that embroidery’s association with femininity, sweetness, passivity and obedience may subvert my work’s feminist intention,” writes Parker, as I have found subsequently. “Femininity and sweetness are part of women’s strength. Passivity and obedience, moreover, are the very opposites of the qualities necessary to make a sustained effort in needlework. What’s required are physical and mental skills, fine aesthetic judgement in colour, texture and composition; patient during long training: and assertive individuality of design (and consequence disobedience of aesthetic convention). Quiet strength need not be mistaken for useless vulnerability”.”

Chatting with other women, I found many were crocheting, dressmaking, cooking and baking. They were finding comfort and joy in traditionally feminine arts, unhurried by the necessity to leave the home, and I remembered that sampler image of tranquil rebellion. I find peace with myself and the world when passing needle and thread through fabric to form  patterns that I will not keep. They’re not very good; I frequently mess bits up and need to start again but it doesn’t frustrate me. It’s ok to get it wrong so I can get it right in this space of subversive stitchery. I make these pieces to give, in the hope that the care, patience and love that I have put into them will radiate and resonate in the hands of the receiver and perceiver.

I have found myself writing in this column about Life with a capital “L”, but these activities of life with a small “l” are essential stuff with which we fill the time that is itself the stuff of Life. They are made meaningful by thought and examination. Thinking transforms the “l” into an “L.” An ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, supposedly said “The unexamined life is not worth living” at his trial. I dare not go so far here.

My niece has become a woman, insofar as she has reached the age of majority. May she find safety and meaning in the adult life that stretches before her, using her mind and hands to make it as she wishes, stitching together her place in the world, transforming her “l” into an “L.”

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