Slow Stitching

My Aunt Jane was a professional dressmaker and alterations instructor. She has excellent hand and machine workmanship but if she could avoid handwork and accomplish a task on the machine, she did. Focusing on her work she found the most efficient way to get the job done without sacrificing quality.

In her later years, retired from teaching and sewing for others, Aunt Jane learned to quilt. She showed me a series of hand appliqued and hand quilted wallhangings that she made in a class. As she held them out for me to see, she groaned and said, “All that handwork!” But she did it. And her quilt work is as beautiful as her dressmaking.

Last month I visited my aunt, now 85 years old. I showed her my new book, “Back Basting Applique, Step by Step”. She looked at every page in the book then closed the cover, handed it back to me and said, “It makes me want to cry.” I asked, “Why?” She smiled and said, “All that applique! It makes me want to cry!” Ah yes, it’s handwork, of course it makes her feel like crying!

As for me, I love applique. I’ve been making appliqued quilts for over 25 years. When I learned to applique in the mid-1980s I stitched entirely by hand. Then I found ways to speed up my sewing – I discovered freezer paper applique and clear nylon thread and was soon making and teaching invisible machine applique. It was fun. It was fast. I was hooked.

With my Bernina sewing machine I got good results but my students were not always successful. Some came to class with old machines prone to tension problems expecting the same results I got with my machine. They were frustrated and so was I. So, I made a decision to quit teaching invisible machine applique, saving us all the aggravation.

But I didn’t stop teaching freezer paper applique – I just switched back to hand sewing. I got nice results. My students got nice results. Everyone was happy.

I wasn’t intentionally setting out on a grand return to hand sewing. I didn’t plan to abandon my sewing machine in exchange for needle and thread.

But something was afoot. Enthusiasm for handwork was spreading. At Quilting Bits and Pieces in Eudora, KS, where I teach appliqué and quilting classes, the customers come from miles around to shop for supplies and inspiration. Known locally for hand work, specifically twilling, embroidery, applique and more recently, Brazilian embroidery and crazy quilting, the shop is a haven for hand stitchers.

When did we slow down? When did I slow down?

I thought back to a visit with my friend Rachel in the summer of 2000. As we chatted I pulled out my handwork and enjoyed her shock when she saw me sewing by hand. When we were neighbors a number of years prior, I was all about doing things fast – and all on the machine, yet there I was doing hand stitching – slow stitching.

Rachel’s amusement at my hand sewing in the summer of 2000 marks a transition in my quilting life. It was the beginning of my return to doing more hand applique. In 2002 I learned about Back Basting Applique – a needle turn, hand applique technique. Now it’s my favorite appliqué technique.

I had no idea that a movement was underway – a slow stitching movement. Just recently I heard the term for the first time, so of course, I did an internet search. I was curious. What is ‘slow stitiching’ anyway?

Slow stitching is embroidery and applique; it is handwork and machine work. It’s stitching – any stitching that is slow, careful and methodical. I found images of hand stitched garments and quilts. I found stories of taking time and developing a relationship with your needle and thread as you sew. You might say that slow stitching is an attitude. Sure, it’s mostly about handwork but it isn’t exclusive to handwork. I think my Aunt Jane’s perfectly machine stitched cuffs and collars and beautifully machine bound button holes are slow stitching too. Aunt Jane didn’t like all the handwork associated with dressmaking; she was focused on the finished product and getting the job done and yet she never lost sight of the importance of working slowly and carefully toward her goal.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not giving up my sewing machine, but let’s slow down. Let’s get to know the feel of the fibers in our hands as we move the needle and thread through the cloth or as we pass it under the machine needle. Let’s enjoy the journey and do some slow stitching!