Up early this morning, before going to the day job in the office, to sit with the stitch journal for a few minutes to complete the last day of August.
I am starting to feel autumn in the air, and I can see the light starting to change. Summer is my least favourite time of year – too bright, too hot, too noisy – so I’m looking forward to a little more quiet and a bit more darkness. I think of darkness as restful, like a cosy blanket or a thick curtain, but I know a lot of people struggle with the shortening days.
We are lucky to have seasons in this part of the world, to move through the months and be able to see the continuing cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Many of the flowers in our garden are just seed heads now, but they contain a whole new cycle of life ready to begin again after the winter. I guess stitches are like seeds too. There is a pun here, right, about sewing and sowing but I think I’ll probably just leave that there.
I worry sometimes that the stitch journal will become too busy, too much of a maelstrom of colour and texture, but so far it seems to be still quite cohesive. The colours and textures need quite careful managing but the stitches themselves just seem to happen along and pop out of nowhere.
I’m already thinking about how I will structure next year’s stitch journal and I think it will be different from this year somehow. I may choose a coloured background rather than white. It’s still a way off, so there is time to think about it some more.
And that was July. I blinked and almost missed it. Just as well I had the stitch journal to keep me focused and present for at least some of it.
As always, it’s still made of mostly very simple stitches – running stitch, couching, blanket stitch, chain stitch, herringbone and fly. I’ve used a wide variety of threads, from very chunky perle no. 3 or 5 to very fine silk sewing thread. Some days are light as a feather, and some days really weigh you down.
Lots of summer colours in this month. Parts of July have been almost unbearable, it was so hot. The heat was suffocating.
Summer is my least favourite season but I have tried to find something to love about each day. I think that’s what keeps most people going. And that’s all the stitch journal is ever going to be, of course. Just a record of days passing, with needle and thread as witness.
Yesterday was World Embroidery Day (how do these things come about? Who decides?)
I turned yesterday’s block into a little embroidery sampler. It was that kind of day.
Tomorrow is 1st August, in the pagan calendar Lammas, which marks first harvest and the start of autumn. It may still feel like summer, but seasons and weather are not the same thing. Already I can see the light starting to change as nature prepares to move us from one season to the next. And there is space on the stitch journal to take another step forward into a new month.
Another month gone, and another 31 blocks on the stitch journal.
Time is flying. There is really not much more to say about that.
I ended with a square for no-mow May. We did this last year too but this year seems to have brought lots more buttercups and daisies, the prettiest of flowers.
I like the way we stand between, sometimes – between day and night, between the old month and the new. Standing still for a moment, to look back and then ahead. A bit like pausing before crossing a road. So onwards, into June:
I don’t know what’s happened on Instagram but suddenly I am inundated with lovely messages and many questions about the stitch journal. Where did everyone come from? I will try and answer everyone but in the meantime I thought a post covering the most frequently asked questions might be helpful.
I should point out that I did not invent the concept of the stitch journal. Claire Wellesley-Smith writes about it here, and you can read more about it in her book Slow Stitch. I decided, at the end of last year, that I would like to try a stitch journal myself. For me, it’s somewhere to place a few stitches every day, a contemplative practice to mark the passing of time, and an opportunity to reflect on anything that might have happened that day. I try not to be too literal with it – I prefer a series of abstract marks that suggest a feeling or thought – but sometimes a pictorial image just happens.
Here are some of the questions I’ve been getting, from those who might be thinking of keeping a stitch journal but don’t necessarily know where to start. The answers are not definitive, this is just how I’ve gone about it:
(1) What are you stitching on?
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to find a vintage/antique French metis sheet and I had been saving it for something special. Metis is a cotton/linen blend (I think linen warp and cotton weft) and has a lovely hand. The cotton gives it softness, and the linen gives it strength. It seemed the perfect ground for recording the passing of days, stitching the present onto the past – because most of us are a product of our experience. You don’t have to find vintage linen; any medium weight cotton or linen would be fine. Denim or canvas are probably too heavy and tough to stitch comfortably; something like a medium weight calico (this is a UK term, I think calico is referred to as muslin in the US) should be fine. My advice would be to avoid anything shiny, slippery or too textured.
(2) How big is it?
I tore a strip from the length of the sheet which is about about 10″ wide (this includes a narrow hem down both long sides, to stop the edges fraying too much). The length is about 7 or 8 feet. If you are working with modern fabric, you can piece shorter lengths together to make it wider or longer. You can make it any shape or size, whatever is most practical for you.
(3) Are you stitching on more than one layer?
No, I am stitching on a single layer, just the sheet. If you are using a lighter-weight fabric then you might want to back it or line it. I wanted the back of the stitches to show. I think there is a very moving sense of honesty in the other side of hand embroidery and for the purposes of this piece I didn’t want to hide anything.
(4) Do you use a hoop or frame?
I rarely use a hoop or frame; I prefer to hold the work in my hands. If you are a novice embroiderer, you might find an embroidery hoop helpful as it will keep your tension more even and help to prevent puckering. I’ve been sewing by hand for a long time now and generally have a fairly good sense of tension. Having said that, I do pop the work in a hoop if I need both hands – French knots, for instance, are easier in a hoop. There are lots of online tutorials on how to use a hoop and how to work various stitches.
(5) What kind of thread/needle do you use?
I use a variety of thread – stranded cotton embroidery floss (the only type I will use is DMC – cheaper embroidery floss shreds very easily and doesn’t have the same texture), fine cotton embroidery thread, fine crochet cotton (you can often find this in charity shops; it dyes beautifully) and fine perle-type thread in silk and cotton. I dye most of my threads myself with procion reactive dye. I like variegated and space-dyed threads because of the unpredictable colour variation. I choose a needle to fit the thread – embroidery needles, crewel needles, and standard sharps/quilting needles are all fine. Your thread should pass through the eye comfortably but not too loosely.
(6) How do you decide where to stitch?
I designed a block template for each month when I first started the journal. The template is about 10″ wide by about 8″ deep, divided into 30 or 31 blocks to give one block per day for each month. I’ve designed the template so that the blocks tesselate slightly because I wanted the days to follow each other in a logical order, but also to fit together without any space between. Days don’t have space between each other; time just goes on forever without any gaps. I’ve also made the blocks different sizes because some days feel longer than others. Of course you can make your own template, and you can make the blocks any size and shape you want. You might want a space around your days – entirely up to you.
If a month has only 30 days, I don’t use the first division between 1 and 2. I stitch the days in the order they are numbered, because I want each day to follow the next and to share a border. February is slightly different, of course, so you can choose which blocks to miss out/merge together.
Every month I trace the template onto the next section of sheeting, directly below the preceding month, and stitch the outline with basic running stitch. I have chosen a different colour for each month. I usually work a whipped stitch around the border of each block every day as I complete another section.
(7) Do you plan what you’re going to stitch?
There is no plan at all, this is completely intuitive. I choose a colour, thread a needle, place a stitch, and see where it goes. There are some completed blocks on the journal that I don’t like, but then there are some days I haven’t liked too so I feel this is a fair reflection of life, warts and all. I’m not trying to make a beautiful thing; I’m trying to make an honest record of time passing. Occasionally if something wonderful is happening in the garden (for instance, one of my favourite plants is flowering) then I might stitch an approximate pictogram that represents it. I generally allow between 10 and 30 minutes per day, depending on other commitments. Mostly the blocks are abstract shapes and lines, which I find more meaningful. Again, it’s all very personal, so you can plan as much or as little as you like, and you can make it as figurative or as abstract as you prefer.
(8) What are you going to do with it?
This strikes me as a slightly strange question. A stitch journal, as I understand it, is a bit like a visual diary. If you keep a written diary or journal, then it exists as a record of moments in your life. You don’t necessarily ‘do’ anything with it when it’s finished, nor does it have a functional purpose as an object other than being a reference point on which to fix your experience. This piece, when it’s finished at the end of the year, will be a completed object, not functional but with its own purpose as a visual witness of time passing. I have a previous post here where I think about how I will store the finished thing.
I hope that this has been useful. If you’re thinking of starting a stitch journal yourself (or any form of daily stitch practice) then you can do it any way you want to, in whatever way best fits your life. You’re welcome to use or adapt my template if you want to; if you’re posting your work online or on social media, please do credit my design. You can start any time you want to, you don’t have to wait until the 1st of January – that’s just an arbitrary date that we have culturally decided is the beginning of another year. Any new beginning starts with a moment, and that moment can be now.
The last day of April completes another month on the stitch journal.
April brought us news and worries of various kinds, some it partially resolved and some still ongoing. Daily stitching in a designated place like the stitch journal has helped to bring calm and focus, and to get a sense of the bigger, wider picture.
Each block is about an inch and a half or so, thereabouts. I don’t plan the stitches or draw a pattern, I just choose a colour and let the needle carry the thread wherever it needs to go. Some blocks turn out to be quite literal or pictorial, like the rapeseed fields and the lilac. Most turn out to be a little more abstract, which I prefer. I like the way abstract marks can mean more than one thing, and the way they can mean different things to different viewers.
A few people have asked what this is going to be, or what I’m going to do with it, and the question puzzles me a bit. To me, the stitch journal is a kind of visual diary, so it’s a bit like asking someone who writes a diary what they’re going to do with it or what it’s going to be. The answer in both cases, I think, is that it already is something. It is itself, a visual record of my voyage through a year, and that’s enough for me.
In the pagan calendar, the first day of May brings the start of summer: a season of growth and expansion, of colour and light. Everything in our garden has already grown enormously this last week or so. The hedges have grown more leaves to hide and protect the birds’ nests. The insects are multiplying to provide food for foraging animals, flowers are producing nectar for the bees and pollinators, tadpoles are swimming in the pond, and the circle of life is all around. Everything is connected, and everything depends on something else for its survival. I love being part of this beautiful pattern. And so May lies ahead in the blank space that is the future, and this particular future starts tomorrow.
Another month on the stitch journal, and in total (as of today) there are now 92 blocks of meditative stitching, each one witnessing the passing of a little more time.
I’ve deliberately not added space between the days because in reality there isn’t any. Day turns to night and night turns to day, and it is all just time. I continually find myself thinking these are days of my life that have gone forever. Not in a sad way, just noticing the transience and inevitability of it, the impermanence of living. Every day a bit less life left, but every day a bit more life lived. Philip Larkin (‘Days’, 1953) wrote ‘days are where we live…. Where can we live but days?’
I like the way the stitch journal is filling up with these moments, and I like the empty space that stretches ahead.
I wonder what this new month will bring. April is the cruellest month, according to T S Eliot. Everything is growing, leaves are starting to burst from their buds, and another cycle of life begins. In the garden my young flowering currant is looking particularly splendid at the moment, and I like to memorialise these little moments of recognition.
I finished the cover/bag for the stitch journal – something to carry it round in, and something to keep the sun off it now we’re heading for longer days.
It’s basically a quilted/lined tube with a circular base and a casing around the top for some hand-dyed ribbon to tie it closed. Initially I was a bit disappointed because it turned out bigger and bulkier than I intended, and the stitch journal rolls up quite small. And then I saw this:
I bought the large wooden bobbin some time ago with no real purpose in mind. But – what do you know – it fits the stitch journal cover *perfectly*. And furthermore, the stitch journal itself fits the bobbin *perfectly* if I hem the edges:
So the over-sized cover is actually exactly the right size, I have a purpose for a spare bobbin, and a permanent home for the stitch journal when it’s finished. I don’t know about you but I call that a roaring success. An accident for the most part, for which I can’t take much credit, but a success nevertheless.
So I’m taking this as a little life lesson: most things really do turn out OK in the end.
I don’t feel very productive at the moment. It’s not really a question of being stuck, since I think I know where I’m going next in terms of creating a new series of art work. Nor is it a matter of not knowing where to start, because I think I know that too. It isn’t lack of energy or motivation either as I have plenty of both. It isn’t even the unrest and terrible conflict out there in the world, I don’t think. I wonder if it is to do with the season. We have just passed the spring equinox, where day and night are perfectly balanced, and I wonder if the temporary desire to stand still, to look and think for a while, is an expression of that pivotal moment of poise, standing between two halves. I see a lot of people calling this the first day of spring, but in fact the equinox is the mid-point of spring, since it falls exactly halfway between the midsummer and midwinter solstices.
Despite the hesitation in starting something big, I do like to keep busy and I usually find myself in the middle of something. At the moment it’s a useful thing as well as a decorative thing – and it’s interesting that I feel the need to make the distinction between useful and decorative. It’s that old establishment-driven art/craft chestnut, isn’t it, where art is purely decorative and craft is useful. I like to think textiles work confounds that over-simplified distinction.
Anyway, here I am, finally getting to the point after a bit of waffle and introspection. I’ve started making a cover for the stitch journal, which will be a cylindrical bag. I’ve made a start by layering strips of ribbon and tape onto a piece of hand-dyed cotton sheet.
The strips of silk are from a hank of white sari ribbon that I dyed and ironed flat. I’ve turned the edges under by about 1/8″ and attached them with very simple straight stitches. I will probably go back and add more hand-stitching. It’s an intuitive process, and I will know when it’s had enough.
When all the vertical lines have been attached, I will add this horizontal band of silk expertly and beautifully eco-printed by Jane Hunter:
This will keep me busy, while I think about where I’m going next. I find the mind ticks over nicely while the hands are engaged in some quiet stitching.
I have taken to rolling up and pinning the stitch journal, just to stop it getting so unwieldy. It’s a long strip, about 7 or 8 feet, and it tends to unroll itself as I stitch each daily block.
I unrolled it today, just to see everything in context. Winter into spring.
And what I find myself thinking is: those are 69 days of my life that I will never see again. I know I was there, because I stitched each block. But do I remember all those days? I don’t. And, of course, we can’t possibly remember everything. We only tend to remember the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad things that happened on those days.
I’m deliberately choosing not to mark the stitch journal with numbers or dates, because the calendar is arbitrary really. Who decided that our years begin on January 1st? We are born, and we live for some days, and then our days end, and the calendar has very little to do with it. The calendar just gives us something on which to pin and memorialise our experience. The days just join up.
I found myself wondering about how many days we can expect, in general. If you live to be 80 you get about 30,000 days. You spend about 10,000 of those days asleep. Factor in all the other practical necessary things that take time – washing, cooking, eating, going to work, etc – and it really isn’t very long. Factor in war and disease, for those people in terrible circumstances, and it’s even less.
This isn’t about making the most of every minute, or trying to cram more things in because life is short. Sometimes just being alive – just being – is enough, and sometimes that takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. Even when we’re sitting still, time is passing and taking us along for the ride.
I wonder about the empty space still to come, the section of blank sheet that is still to be unrolled. The days I will stitch together. The white sheet, that is the foundation for the stitch journal, is antique/vintage French metis (a linen/cotton blend), and will itself have seen birth, life, and death. So much time rolled up in my hands. We are lucky to be here.