Embroidered Art of Tilleke Schwarz

The Writing’s On the Wall: The embroidered art of Tilleke Schwarz

In the top left hand corner of Into the Woods by Dutch textile artist Tilleke Schwarz is stitched the phrase, ‘a kind of folly is hitting the Embroiderer’s Guild at the moment’. The words may sound familiar to some; for others they remain enigmatic. Schwarz embroiders textiles that brim with such references. When they click, we begin to compose an entire narrative around their presence. When they don’t, they act like teasers, waiting to find their place in one of the countless narratives her textiles offer.

Schwarz explains that the fragment of text in the upper corner of Into the Woods was taken from a letter to the editor published in the march 2002 issue of this magazine in which Viviane Prayer writes: ‘A kind of folly is hitting the Embroiderers’ Guild at the moment. Get back to the basics and reach the real people, please.’ Rather than take issue to Prayer, Schwarz notes, ‘the use of language in this text. To me it is so very English in its sense of humour [and] choice of words.’

Artists have long borrowed text from other sources and incorporated words and phrases into their works. Textile samplers in particular offer a rich history of words and symbols that were used to teach the rudiments of spelling and grammar, as well as act as a record of stitch techniques. These textiles passed information from one generation to the next at a time when paper, chalk and ink were, by comparison, expensive. Although a sampler’s order and the precision of execution were held in high regard, Schwarz notes in an article she penned for the American magazine Fiberarts: ‘Typically, a sampler does not follow conventional rules of composition There may be several focal points related to each other rather than one central focus.’[1] Schwarz’s own artistic work initially looks to be a departure from the traditional sampler, in fact she cites contemporary artists such as Raymond Pettibon as influential. Closer inspection of her work reveals that her subject matter and compositions can be understood as a response to the text found in traditional samplers and fine art.

Schwarz’s textiles map our contemporary society. Many of us might now hesitate at the thought of writing a letter because we spend so many hours at the computer. We sigh at the unnecessary time needed to write out fill sentences, familiar instead with the informality of emails and truncations of mobile phone text messaging. These are just the things that Schwarz captures in her embroideries. Rather than order and precision, she mixes layers of symbols and phrases in a pastiche of modern time management.

Of Into the Woods she suggests that the woods are a metaphor for modern life. We are living in a time, she seems to suggest, when the frantic pace of our lives make it increasingly difficult to see the wood for the trees. Fleeting visual images are glimpsed from car or train, squeezed into commercial time slots, and appear as uninvited pop-ups on the internet pages we are trying to read – but only for a moment because the search engine has just responded with 2,378 websites we need to read first.

For embroidery to be capable of speaking to the historical and the contemporary is not such a new capacity.[2] Rozsika Parker notes in her foreword to The Subversive Stitch: ‘The art of embroidery has been the means of educating women into the feminine ideal, and of proving that they have attained it, but it has also provided a weapon of resistance to the constraints of femininity.’[3] Schwarz’s embroideries continue this tradition of narrating contradiction. The feminine is not at issue, but the chaos and cacophony of contemporary life certainly is. In fairness, if one were to apply Parker’s observations right to the letter, Schwarz would use digital media to critique current chaos. But Schwarz is loyal to the stitch and thread – materials that are the exact opposite of the slick and impersonal world growing around us. Embroidery, a labour and time intensive medium, is used to question the speed of life.

Count your Blessings includes a litany of warnings the artist documented while travelling in the States and Australia. Litigious American culture is reveals in a take-away coffee cup lid stitched with ‘caution may be hot/sip with care’ – as though we didn’t know that when ordering. Duplication Prohibited is particularly amusing considering the images reproduced on the pages of this magazine. And from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, Schwarz copies, ‘members of Aboriginal communities are respectfully advised that a number of people depicted in photographs in this room have now passed away.’ Nearby, the same museum explains, ‘the well-being, feeding and maintenance of the fish in this room has been considered with great care.’

Schwarz records oddities in language, moments and contexts that strike the ear and eye as unusual. She sees that there is a method to our madness; a pattern behind the fragments and chaos but it doesn’t necessarily reveal the better side of society today.

Of her work she explains: ‘The viewer is invited to decipher connections or to create them, The viewer may assemble the stories or produce chronological or casual structures. Actually the viewer might step into the role of the author.’ Schwarz’s embroideries operate in a manner similar to Parker’s observation that embroidery acted to both instil femininity and offered a powerful tool of resistance against it. If samplers make narrative and stitch orderly, Schwarz makes her textiles like the modern novel. They revel in their experiment and demand real effort from the viewer. The fact that your understanding of the information contained is at odds with someone else’s is a positive thing. The fact that a second or third re-reading of the text or textile presents a different experience, open to an entirely new interpretation, is also acceptable.

But perhaps Schwarz’s gravest and most revealing critique about our lives today can be found in the silences of these works, the brave areas of untouched fabric. Among the mayhem they represent those moments when the internet crashes or the cell phone drops off line: those moments when we just don’t know what to do with ourselves anymore.

[1] Tilleke Schwarz (1993) ‘Contemporary Samplers in Europe and the United States’, Fiberarts 20(1): 38-41.
[2] Kerry Rudgley (2003) ‘Sew Cool: Illustrations Embroidered in Style’, Embroidery 54 (November): 22-6.
[3] Rozsika Parker (1984) ‘Foreword’ in The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. New York: Routledge.

Embroidery magazine (Nov./Dec. 2004: 12-15)