The pros and cons of versatility

A friend just posted something on Facebook about Constance Howard, who set up a Department of Embroidery at the Goldsmiths College of Art. The video picked up on her opinion that “you don’t need to know hundreds of stitches. But you need to use the ones you do know well!”

There is a lot of sense in that. My mother-in-law, who does probably know hundreds of stitches, in recent years has said that she prefers to embroider using only about a handful of them – stem stitch, fly stitch, chain stitch, buttonhole, French knot – because with them she can make whatever she wants. As this pretty-much-exclusively-chain-stitched tea cosy demonstrates.

Tea cosy embroidered in chain stitch

On the other hand, I do think that my willingness to try all sorts of techniques has been helpful to my development as an embroiderer, if only because it showed me which things I liked and wanted to learn more about (hello goldwork!) and which things were just not for me (I’m looking at you, stumpwork). If I’d never ventured beyond my first steps in stitching I would be doing only cross stitch. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m glad I did try other things! So I’m not sure I agree with her belief that “a desire to try everything can actually have a detrimental effect on your work as a textile artist”.

When I mentioned this to a friend who knew Constance Howard (through his grandmother, an accomplished needle artist), he said “‘Know (about) and have decided not to use’ is a perfectly valid state for any stitch – if you don’t learn/try them you don’t know whether you want to use them.” And I would agree with that. I get what CH says about versatility being a possible enemy of artistic development, because you can get bogged down in adding lots of variety for the sake of it, or feel unable to decide which of the umpteen techniques and stitches in your repertoire to use (although I have found that often a design suggests its own technique); and there is always the danger of being a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, and master (or mistress) of none. Still, on the whole I feel you need to know things in order to make an informed decision as to whether they are appropriate for the design you’re working on.

Of course the easiest way of avoiding that decision is to get a kit and follow the instructions, and sometimes it’s really enjoyable to do just that. Did I mention that stumpwork was just not my thing? I wonder how that little stumpwork butterfly made its way into my Sarah Homfray shopping basket a while ago… I’ve even made a start on it! It’s challenging because I’m trying things I haven’t done before, reassuring because it also includes stitches and techniques I’m already familiar with, and relaxing because someone else has made all the decisions for me smiley.

Sarah Homfray stumpwork butterfly kit The butterfly attached and wire couched

PS With regards to the Jack-of-all-trades thing – is it really such a bad thing to be moderately good at lots of things? I will never be as good at goldwork or crewel embroidery as some of the frighteningly talented stitchers out there; but I enjoy my projects, I produce quite decorative results, and I am creating something that is as good as I am capable of creating. You don’t have to achieve Grade 8 in order to enjoy playing the piano, after all!