The essential need to clothe ourselves—to join pieces of animal skin or fabric together—required the ingenuity to combine thread and stitches that were both functional and decorative. Evolving over centuries, these stitches became known as embroidery, or “haft” in Polish. Their use strengthened the construction of a garment by reinforcing seams and areas of highest wear, as well as becoming ornamental, often characterizing class, station, and place.
The need to clothe ourselves still exists, but machines and factories have largely replaced the individual labours of the home tailor and embroiderer. It is the artist in us that looks at traditions and pushes the boundaries to create something new. In this virtual exhibit, a companion to our on-site exhibit, we shine a spotlight on traditional embroidery and how it can be repurposed (𝙍𝙀-𝙏𝙃𝙍𝙀𝘼𝘿), as well as on artists locally and across the world who are reimagining embroidery and pushing this art form into new realms (𝙀𝙈𝘽𝙍𝙊𝙄𝘿𝙀𝙍𝙔, 𝙍𝙀𝙄𝙈𝘼𝙂𝙄𝙉𝙀𝘿).
We use the term embroidery to describe several different types of ornamentation including woven, cross-stitch, flat stitch, open work (often called “Richelieu”), lace (crocheted, woven and bobbin), and appliqué. These stitches were initially functional: to strengthen the construction of a garment by reinforcing seams and areas of highest wear, such as collars, cuffs and shirt fronts. Eventually they became ornamental and characterized differences in class and station, region, and urban and rural environments.
Initially, the basic elements of daily clothing for peasants were a cotton or linen shirt and trousers held up by a string belt. A woman’s clothing was similarly a cotton or linen dress or blouse and skirt. However, a special, festive and formal dress was the rule for weddings and other special occasions including attendance at church and government offices. This formal dress or costume was a way of investing and protecting capital, was made to last a lifetime, and was often handed down from generation to generation. Thus, the costume drew attention to the personal qualities and distinct identity of the wearer, as well as demonstrating, especially to the neighbours, wealth, economic independence, social status, as well as geographic area or parish.
The fabrics from which clothing was made – wool, flax and hemp – as well as the type of cut, thickness and colour, were basic factors that shaped the great diversity of costume and embroidery type throughout Poland. In areas where the economy was heavily based on natural resources, costumes tended to be of simpler design and simpler embroidery such as a woven stitch, cross-stitch, and chain stitch. Motifs tended to be geometric and often of single coloured thread. In regions where industrialization and economic prosperity were obvious, costumes were more ornate, made of ‘elegant’ fabrics – fine wools, silk, satin and velvet, as well as laces. The embroidery as well was generally more free-style and employed floral elements and multi-colours to a greater degree.
As raw materials and construction techniques improved, the embellishment and embroidery of the costume became more important. The height of costume development and decoration was during the 19th and early 20th centuries, ending about the time of World War II. By this time, the proliferation of machined fabrics as well as a dramatic shift in lifestyle meant that the ornate handmade folk costumes became less commonly worn.
In recent years, embroidery has enjoyed a revival, and embroidery artists around the world have been pushing this art form into new realms by applying modern themes, imagery, media, and methods to a traditional art form. Here, we shine a spotlight on three artists from around the world who are adding to the embroidery body of art in unconventional, powerful, and beautiful ways.
Born in Hokkaido, Japan, Takashi Iwasaki studied Fine Arts at the University of Manitoba and has been living and working in Winnipeg, Canada, since 2002. Takashi’s art practice diverges into many mediums, from embroidery, paintings, collages, and sculptures, to public artworks; inspired by things and events which surround his daily life as sources of his creation.
“I want viewers, including me, to feel joy and positive feelings when they look at my work. Often the media reports negative things and tragedies partly because happy stories aren’t as sensational; and it is true that there are those things out there in the world. It’s easy to be trapped in negative thoughts and worry about things especially when we’re exposed to those issues so often. Thinking about problems is a good way to solve them and to make the world a better place; but I think thinking positively and realizing that there is also joy in the world helps that, too, and is very essential. I want my work to present a more joyous side of the world for this reason.”
Titles in Takashi’s works are often made up of fragmented words from several languages, including Japanese, English, Chinese, French, and others. While they remind him of what he was depicting, the odd combinations of word fragments usually don’t give the audience enough clues to decipher them. He likes to encourage the audience to delve into the world of their own imagination. But he’s happy to answer to their questions about the titles and other details when he is asked.
A selection of Takashi’s embroidery works are currently on display at Ogniwo Polish Museum.
Rufina Bazlova is a Belarusian artist living and working in the Czech Republic. She studied illustration, bookmaking and sculpture in Pilsen, but she has a passion for various media and techniques, including costume design, photography, public art installations, mural restoration, theatre scenography, and embroidery.
In the summer of 2020, Rufina began her series titled THE HISTORY OF BELARUSIAN “VYZHYVANKA” in response to the widely-contested results of the presidential election and the crackdowns on political protest against the regime. The play on words takes place between the letters “S” and “Z”. The traditional technique of Belarusian embroidery is called Vyshyvanka, from the word Vyshyvat = to embroider. However, when you change “S” for “Z,” you have Vyzhyvanka, which originates from the verb Vyzhyvat = to survive.
“Belarusian ornaments are in a way a code for our national history, that could be read as a text…The national awakening simply demanded this technique of national embroidery. The events of the past months represent a portion of our great history. Belarus changed, woke up… big changes are coming that must be written into the code of embroidery!” — Rufina Bazlova
Rufina’s work weaves together aspects of old and new. “Historically, women who made traditional Belarusian ornaments couldn’t read or write, and embroidery was the only way to depict surrounding life. For that reason, they created special geometrical signs and predominantly used red colour as a symbol of blood and life on a pure linen background, which symbolized freedom and purity.”
This series is created via digital collage, a contemporary method of creating traditional imagery while reflecting the urgency behind the political situation in Belarus. “Embroidering is not a very fast process, it needs time and calm. These days are full of different events and there is no possibility to meditate with a needle. I hope that a time of freedom and calm will come soon, and I will once again make original embroideries…Folk embroidery was traditionally used as a talisman against evil spirits. I would like to believe that it has not lost this power in our days!”
JUSTYNA WOŁODKIEWICZ // NIBYNIEBO
Justyna Wołodkiewicz is a self-taught contemporary Polish artist and textile designer living and working in Poland. She creates one-of-a-kind multimedia works by combining traditional embroidery stitching techniques with tiny handmade polymer clay sculpture. By incorporating modern design and non-traditional media into her embroidery work, Justyna is exploring this traditional Polish handicraft in novel and exciting ways.
My art is often an expression of genuine joy. How can you explain that simply staring at colorful threads already brings ideas of how to use them? Creating enhances my vitality and gives a sense of fulfillment. At the same time, it seems to be pure play with the universe. That’s how I love creating…All those eyes and masks and beaded dresses, abstract landscapes, colorful stitched shapes are manifestations of my soul. I make them to express myself – to communicate to the world the very good energy. What will the world do with that energy? It is up to them. —Justyna Wołodkiewicz
This virtual exhibit is created as part of Culture Days Manitoba 2020. It complements the exhibit in our physical space at 1417 Main Street, Winnipeg, which runs now through Spring 2021. We invite you to come view embroidery from across regions and cultures. Serdecznie zapraszamy!
This virtual exhibit was created by Ogniwo Polish Museum, with contributions from the following:
Curator: Christine Tabbernor
Contributors: Magdalena Blackmore, Marta Dabros
Photography: Mirek Weichsel, Natalia Weichsel
Videography: Natalia Weichsel
Models: Bénédicte J. V. LeMaître, Natalia Weichsel, Julianna Zwierciadlowska-Rhymer
Special thanks to contributing artists: Takashi Iwasaki, Rufina Bazlova, Justyna Wołodkiewicz.
Rights to all works presented here reside with their creators and are used with permission.