Sewn Up

I hope you’ve been throwing out the cross, long and running stitches, readers, since September is National Sewing Month in the USA! Observance of the month began in 1982 with a proclamation from President Ronald Reagan declaring September as National Sewing Month “in recognition of the importance of home sewing to our Nation.”

Now. If the very idea of sewing is throwing up images of old ladies sat by the fire, basket of threads, needles and crochet patterns at their feet, then think again. Sewing is sew this century, sew this season! Why, the Month’s official website has as its current project an iPad cover – doesn’t get more cutting edge than that! And previous years have been well-stitched to issues of contemporary life. 2009 National Sewing month had the mantra Reuse, Remake, Restyle, encouraging a sustainable side to stitch craft. 2008 incited sewers to Go Green! Sew Green! by using organic fabrics and compact fluorescent bulbs in the sewing room. Yes, the sewing room.

To help along all our industrious urges is today’s artist Diego Velázquez (1599 – 1660) who’s right up there as the greatest figure of Spain’s golden age of the arts (which reached its peak during the reign – from 1621 to 1665 – of his major patron, Kind Philip IV). By 24, Velázquez was already working as a royal painter: he spent most of his life working for Philip in Madrid, coming up with innovative, excellent portraits of the royal family.

This Needlewoman (c. 1640/1650) is of another order entirely: it’s a small and humble work. It’s not a bread-and-butter painting for the artist, but rather the kind of thing he would work on during his down-time, the sort of subject that interested him personally. A woman sits, head-down, working fabric with needle and thread. It’s quiet and intimate, an effect enhanced by the especial technique the artist uses. Velázquez had looked hard at the visual effects of light on form and does not go in for strong contrasts of light and dark, instead at this stage in his career he’s gone soft, showing a more general glow of modulated light and shade to sculpt that beautiful bosom and shape that graceful face.

In fact the face, with its flushed cheeks, smooth brow and refined eyes and nose is the only area of this painting that appears finished. The work as a whole remains incomplete, revealing the artist’s steps as he went: the canvas is prepared (or primed) with a grey base before the main bulk forms are worked in with darker paint. Onto that layer come opaque shades before the final glistening transparent glazes that create the effect of someone seen in a filtered light. At every stage the paint is applied in a particular way, from a more clotted richness in the under layers to loose creaminess on the top.

You’ve got to admire an artist who with a few swift strokes of the brush can position her hands so deftly as to instantly imply the repetitive motion of the sew, giving the work a compelling sense of ticking actuality. Also, I admire the way Velázquez imparts a sense of dignity to such a simple scene. Manet (who admired Velázquez above all other painters) put it well when he said: “Velázquez… makes the journey worthwhile… He is the supreme artist; he didn’t surprise me, he enchanted me.” So enchanting is this in fact, that if this doesn’t get us stitching away, nothing else will.

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