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Last February I got laid off from my first full-time job, and the segue into freelance writing wasn’t manifesting as quickly or as lucratively as I’d imagined. I spent most of my time staring at a screen producing things that would only ever exist in a digital format. And that was when I was producing anything at all—rather than, you know, trolling Indeed for an incredible job that I was somehow the most qualified for out of everyone on the entire internet. What I’m saying is it was pretty rough stuff, and it occurred to me that I needed some kind of break between all that screen time. Enter: embroidery.
I needed to feel like I was making something that didn’t involve slowly eroding my eyeballs by the pale light of Google Chrome. So it felt like kismet when I checked Instagram and one of my friends had posted a photo from her friend’s embroidery pop-up. The frame was full of colorful hoops emblazoned with Bob’s Burgers characters, creative swears, and Twitter references. I’d done embroidery in high school, but I hadn’t realized people were using it to be cool now.
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A little digging revealed my experience wasn’t an isolated one.
A year and a half ago, Caitlin Goss, an ESL teacher, went to a feminist fundraiser and saw someone selling embroidered hoops featuring sanitary napkins with little red beads for blood. Two years ago, Joanna Nurse reopened her old online embroidery shop she’d let lapse and realized something was different. Brittany Uecker, whose pop-up had first inspired me, saw a cross-stitch back in 2013 emblazoned with the phrase: “Damn it feels good to be a gangster.” We all had the same thought: I didn’t realize anybody was doing it like this.
Our generation (by which I mean millennials, sorry about it!) seems like the most custom, artisanal, handmade generation ever—or at least, the most handmade generation since those olden times when handmade was the only option. I would guess that being unable to afford our parents’ taste in home decor, combined with a crushing desire to get away from the screens that dominate our lives, is what draws us to succulents-in-a-mug, mason jar decor and feminist crochet projects, like so many moths to the Etsy flame. Crafts, trinkets, crystals and plants: They all hit that sweet-spot of putting our Aesthetic on full display and interacting with the Real World—without draining our latte money.
“Crafts, trinkets, crystals and plants: They all hit that sweet-spot of putting our Aesthetic on full display and interacting with the Real World—without draining our latte money.”
Embroidery in particular, with its status as an old-fashioned art form and traditional “women’s work” label, offers a unique capacity for that famous millennial sense of irony. This is what Brittany (@cheeseywhiskersshop) has loved most about embroidery, ever since that first gangster hoop. “People really love to see a cursive curse word. A twirly fuck—people love that.”
She loves the inside joke of it all, the reversal of expectations when you take a closer look. “If something matches the aesthetic perfectly, but then when you read the text it says, ‘Do what your heart desires… unless you’re tired,’ you’re so excited you saw the joke. That’s how I shop. I like the ironic stuff.” The juxtaposition is the key to the whole thing for Brittany: “It’s a hybrid between these two things, old and new, and I don’t know if I’m getting too deep here, but we’re all kind of hybrids too. Maybe that’s why we like it.”
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In 2019, the craft of embroidery simultaneously inhabits two spaces: one online, and one offline.
Caitlin (@bitchenstitches) thinks social media is another ingredient in the millennial embroidery resurgence; the ability to connect with an online community—and access all kinds of patterns, tutorials and advice—has done wonders for democratizing the process. “Before,” she says, “people might have seen a hoop and nether thought they could have accomplished something similar,” and now they know better. It also doesn’t hurt that embroidery has room for every niche. “There’s erotic embroidery, there’s feminist embroidery, there’s men embroidering, nonbinary people, everybody. Anybody who wants to—it’s not just a bored white woman sitting at home anymore.”
Add all that to the fact that something as textured as embroidery looks fantastic on a platform like Instagram, and you’ve got the perfect medium for everything from deep-cut The Office references to colorful renderings of every genital possible. Brittany thinks embroidery is a natural next step following the graphic design boom—she feels like people have seen most of what print has to offer, and embroidery is something brand new. Joanna (@littlesasquatchembroidery) agrees that there’s something special about embroidery. “I feel that I’m able to portray things with stitches far more effectively than I can with pen or pencil for example,” she says. “Even with simpler designs, like quotations, the embroidery adds something to it—it’s tactile and dimensional, but there’s also something unexpected about it.”
“When someone buys something, they want it to be theirs. Influencers are all getting the same shirts and jackets from people, and if you can be the person who can make it a little more unique, they’re way more excited to wear it and show it off. They feel like it’s theirs.”
Brittany has seen the magical effect firsthand. “It’s enthralling,” she says. “When I embroider live, you should see people. It’s like they’ve never seen someone mend something by hand before.” Part of Brittany’s work involves live embroidery events, where companies pay someone like Brittany to stand by and customize purchases with simple stitch work for a few hours. She says it’s funny that this is where the money is, because the stitching she does at the events—initials and hearts and clusters of stars, most commonly—is so much simpler and less impressive than what “all of us girls are capable of.”
Brittany’s stitched for influencer parties—she went to Coachella last year—and she says what people really want most, besides their Instagram handle on their sleeve, is personalization. “When someone buys something, they want it to be theirs. Influencers are all getting the same shirts and jackets from people, and if you can be the person who can make it a little more unique, they’re way more excited to wear it and show it off. They feel like it’s theirs.”
Caitlin also loves embroidery’s ability to elevate a piece of clothing. Not a big fan of capitalism (which, really, who is anymore?), she’s always been a fan of recycling and upcycling clothing, so the ability to make old clothes truly her own holds power for her. She taught her boyfriend how to stitch, and now he stitches patterns on his shirt pockets. She loves the concept of making clothes “into conversation starters, things that are unique and special to you.”
I don’t think it would surprise anyone to learn that new-wave embroidery seems to manifest in two major trends: The Memes and The Movements.
Some people, like Caitlin and Joanna, see embroidery as a very real way to work through their struggles—both internal and external. Caitlin funnels her passion for community organizing and social justice into her art. “It’s always a process of figuring out how to appreciate, advocate and support marginal groups rather than borrowing or commodifying them,” she says. Caitlin’s art is all about body positivity, empowerment and self-love, all deeply personal themes for her. She describes her stitching as a way to channel her rage and insecurities into a message. A lot of Caitlin’s work features bodies, and most of these bodies, she says, are self-portraits.
For Joanna, embroidery has been crucial for expressing her deepest convictions. “I’ve done quite a few designs reflecting my support for issues like LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights,” she says. “After the U.S. presidential election, I found embroidery very helpful in expressing my feelings about the state of the world,” Joanna, who’s from England, adds.
“Brittany’s hoops are her babies. She loves each one, never forgets a stitch, and can usually tell you what she was watching when she was making it.”
Brittany’s interests differ on this one. While she’s definitely on the “fuck the patriarchy” side of things, Brittany says it’s just not what she wants to stitch. “It gives me a lot more feelings before excitement to stitch about politics. There’s a lot of bad emotions with it, and I’d rather stitch something from The Office that makes me happy every time I look at it.” A scroll through her Instagram shows she’s really committed to stitching what she loves: Netflix references abound. Brittany’s best-selling hoops are things everyone loves from the internet: The Office and Bob’s Burgers, namely. “My brand is movie quotes, colorful, ironic, sassy stitches, and that might also be my downfall. A lot of big accounts only do one thing and can’t break away from that formula, and do insanely talented work. But I don’t want to stitch the same things over and over; I don’t get joy out of that.”
Embroidery is Brittany’s escape, and she navigates her practice accordingly. She prices her stuff on the low side, because for her, this is still a hobby over a profession, and she’d rather see her hoops getting adopted. “I want them to have homes!” she says. “I want them to be loved.” Brittany’s hoops are her babies. She loves each one, never forgets a stitch, and can usually tell you what she was watching when she was making it. Her philosophy is “make the things you want.” It’s impossible, she says, to predict what other people are going to want. You’re much better off making things you like because if no one buys it, you’re stuck with it anyway.
“It’s impossible, she says, to predict what other people are going to want. You’re much better off making things you like because if no one buys it, you’re stuck with it anyway.”
Caitlin and Joanna have come to similar conclusions. Each considered, and still consider, embroidering full-time, but each has rankled at the constriction that would involve for them. Caitlin stopped taking custom orders to focus on her own interests—“It’s a hobby, but I’m also an artist, and I’d rather make what I want to make.” Joanna echoed the desire for autonomy: “I realized I would rather keep making what I enjoy than taking commissions I find uninteresting or trying to figure out what’s popular and capitalize on that. In an ideal world, I just want to make each design once and then move onto something new.”
Joanna says she basically just sells her hoops because she doesn’t feel a need to keep them around after she’s finished with them. “It’s still really exciting for me every time I get an order.”
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In addition to offering artists avenues for political and creative expression, embroidery provides an opportunity to embrace imperfection.
When I spoke to Caitlin, Brittany and Joanna about how embroidery helped me overcome my particularly crippling strain of perfectionism, they echoed the sentiment in response. This is a field where those little flaws are a strength. Sure, it’s still hard to ignore imperfections in your own work, but in embroidery, Caitlin says, “The hiccups just make it more special.”
This is especially important as big corporations like Target—and even craft stores like Joanne’s and Michael’s—have started selling pre-made hoops on the cheap. “I mean, Michael’s?” Brittany moans, “Come on, we buy our supplies from you!” The fact is, no matter how committed these stores are to screwing their own clientele, there’s no substitute for style. Every single artist brings something different to the table, made up of their skills, technique, talent and eye, and it’s something Target just can’t emulate.
“Every single artist brings something different to the table, made up of their skills, technique, talent and eye.”
Brittany loves the interpretive nature of embroidery. “A lot of us are referencing shows we’ve seen, but we can literally do the same thing without it turning out the same way,” she says. “I’ve seen so many pumpkin Dwights, but for some reason, I’m attracted to the one you did. I could say it’s the depth or the way you stitch or the framing but it’s really just a gut thing.” (She’s referring to a hoop I did of a scene from The Office where Dwight Schrute gets his head stuck in a pumpkin; I had no idea she had seen it, and we had to pause the interview so I could openly weep.)
Brittany loves buying other peoples’ hoops; not only is it a way to support the community that’s embraced her, but it’s also a way for her to see all these little differences. She loves the distinct creative choices artists make. For instance, when you flip the hoop over, everyone has a different way of dealing with the threaded backside. Some people leave the cotton on the edge, others have a whole backing with a logo or and some just leave it be; Brittany, herself, hot glues a second piece of cotton over the back to conceal the stitching.
“Embroidery offers these artists a chance to experiment without fear of judgment, and they’re always trying something new.”
Embroidery offers these artists a chance to experiment without fear of judgment, and they’re always trying something new. Brittany is figuring out how to incorporate watercolor in her works (“I don’t even know if you’re supposed to put watercolor on cotton,” she cried, to which I responded “Who cares!”) Last year, Joanna only read books authored by women, and stitched a little (breathtaking) portrait to accompany each one.
Caitlin, who’s had a soft spot for American tattoo art ever since her tattoo-artist brother showed her the style, has been working on a series of pin-up style works. She explains that a big part of sailor tattoo culture was getting tattoos of exotic women to show where they’d been, and she was enjoying the process of turning it on its head. She recently reworked a classic pinup of a woman in a martini glass, emblazoning with the text My Body, My Choice. It’s called Not Just Your Lady Luck. “She’s not just a reminder the places you’ve been—consider the girl herself, and her autonomy,” Caitlin says.
And of course, embroidery provides its artists with real, tangible evidence of their work—a small satisfaction many digital creatives don’t experience often enough.
My journey into stitching paired so perfectly with my first full year of freelance; each small accomplishment in thread providing balance for swarms of unanswered emails, failed pitches and job windfalls. As an actress, Brittany related to me on an almost painful level. Just like most of the work I’ll ever do is digital, there are so many projects she’s done where “there’s nothing to add to a resume and no IMDB credit, or you can’t get someone to send you the footage, and my self-worth goes down because I did this work and have nothing to show for it.”
She says the tangibility of embroidery is really important for her. “It’s not about productivity, it’s about completion when you’re ready. It’s about feeling good about the time I’ve spent when it’s done.” She smiled when I nodded fervently to this last part and said, “There’s a type of person who does embroidery, I’m starting to notice.”