While attending a residency in Budapest, mixed media artist, Sarah Pedlow, discovered Hungarian/Romanian textiles. Through research, travel and meeting traditional artisans, her interests led to ThreadWritten Textiles. This product line and company supports traditional craftswomen and communities through fair wages, and preserves traditional styles and techniques through the design and development of contemporary home and fashion accessories.
I met Sarah at her home office. The walls and furniture were hung and draped with spectacular, stitched fabric from around the world. In addition to collecting, Sarah studies and teaches textile arts herself. She showed me an example of embroidered smocking she was working on.
Sarah Granett: How did your interest in textiles begin?
Sarah Pedlow: I was interested in surface design and patterning. I’d go to fabric stores and vintage shops and find great patterns. In 2006 I did a small business program, and I was thinking I would start a business where I sewed bags from fabric that I found and that I loved.
Then in 2009 I was in Hungary at an artist residency. I decided to check out the ethnographic museum and I was bowled over, Wow this stuff is amazing. There was a large exhibit of the written embroidery, the írásos [pronounced: irashosh]. The graphic quality, single colors, and dense patterns stuck with me. I felt that it was something I could work into a contemporary design.
SG: Why is it referred to as “written” embroidery?
SP: Before being stitched, the embroidery patterns are “written” or drawn on fabric with ink. The first patterns were “written” with a combination of soot and water in the late 1700s.
SG: Did you also have sewing in your life growing up?
SP: My grandmother sewed and my great aunt sewed. My great aunt gave me a sewing basket, and I might have made a little embroidery at some point, but I never got that into it. My mom never sewed. There wasn’t a working sewing machine around.
In college I focused on photography and some mixed media work. After college I wanted to work with my hands more, and that lead me back to sewing. I sewed together photographs printed on Kodalith (clear film), and used wire and other materials from the hardware store. Around that time I asked my grandmother to help me sew a dress. She had much more patience for turning things inside out and ironing every step of the way than I did!
My MFA thesis show was an installation of a tile floor – it wasn’t sewing, but I took the grout lines in between the tile and extended them to become a sort of net or weaving – a lot of my work at that time related to fibers and weaving.
SG: Can you tell us about your travels and how ThreadWritten came into being?
SP: Well, I’d fallen in love with the embroidery I’d seen first in the museum in Budapest in 2009. And I liked the idea of making a bag that people carry around and use. I researched the írásos style, and learned it comes from Kalotaszeg, Transylvania, which was part of Romania until the end of the First World War. So off I went to Romania, a country I never thought I’d visit.
SG: Such an adventure!
SP: I traveled to Huedin, Romania, where I connected with a local embroiderer. She drove me around, helped me meet people who were doing the work, and translated for me. It was wonderful, but the quality of the work we saw wasn’t always so good – you could see gaps in the stitches.
SG: That must’ve been a little frustrating.
SP: Yes, but on the way to the airport to leave Romania, I overheard two people speaking English, and a woman was saying she was a textile artist on her way to Budapest for an exhibition. When we got to the airport I approached her and said I was looking for people who sew írásos. She said, Oh you mean this? and she opened her suitcase. Right on top was a Kalotaszeg “written” pillowcase. She kindly offered to help.
Also, I was hearing from many people: You are here in June. Everybody’s out in the field, cutting down hay or working in their gardens. It’s the wrong time. Come back closer to winter.
SG: What was it like to get into this world of traditional handcraft and village life, coming from fine art and the MFA experience?
SP: There’s something that’s so down to earth and connective about this kind of work that’s made by hand, as a symbol of one’s heritage, and given as a gift to commemorate events in one’s life. It feels so different than fine art. This is what people have been doing in their homes, it comes out of necessity. They were making ornate, highly decorated shirts, from weaving the cloth to embroidering the cuffs, as a symbol of pride and display of craftsmanship. And buying a shirt for a village festival was neither thinkable nor possible in a small remote village two hundred years ago. Some people still dress in traditional costume for holidays and special church services. There’s such a richness in that history. There’s a lot of joy for me in learning and working out of that tradition.
In our culture there’s a lot of art that isn’t accessible, either conceptually or because it’s in a gallery in Chelsea or a museum in a large city. Traditional craft is something that people are making for personal satisfaction and use in their everyday lives.
I was recently talking with an artist friend who is now a psychotherapist about an idea of “embodied creativity”, wherein the way we live our lives, what we do, how we act, interact, communicate, as well as what we make can become our (art) work. This touches on performance, but also speaks to a different way of valuing the art and creativity of living, making one’s home, and connecting with one’s relatives and ancestors.
SG: There’s an ethnographic role in what you’re doing–
SP: Sometimes I dream about getting a PhD in anthropology, visual culture and textiles. I’m trying to explore that work on my own. It has been wonderful to explore the practices of Hungary and Romania and experiencing their way of life. I come back and share through my products and the classes I teach. So while I am designing something new, I’m also documenting a traditional practice and updating it.
SP: The video was made as a gift to the local community, and to document the embroidery stitches.
SG: I really enjoyed watching it. It’s very simple and records the everydayness, and the relationships that happen around the activity of sewing. It reminds me of the generation before my parents — in my family — those women were sewers and crocheters, and the tempo of sitting around doing that work is something I know through them, from childhood.
So getting back to Threadwritten — what are your biggest challenges in starting a company?
SP: Apart from funding — an angel investor would be welcome! — finding time for marketing, blogging and social media is a challenge.
SG: What do you most love about your work with Threadwritten, in which you take on many roles, including researcher, finder, designer and business person?
SP: It all stems from the basic joy of making something from scratch, and all the learning along the way. The creativity in conceptualizing the business and designing products, the adventure of the travel and search for artisans, connecting with beautiful people and their tremendous skill, and then sharing what they do and what we create together.
SG: And you’re teaching classes now in the Bay Area. How’s that?
SP: Yes! It’s a lot of fun. I teach people the Hungarian written stitch in a workshop at the Handcraft Studio School in Emeryville, a great place to learn crafts with a contemporary spin. My next class there is in September. I’ll also be teaching in Marin at Once Around, a lovely art and craft store in Mill Valley in September. Along the lines of living with “embodied creativity”, a friend developed Handcrafted Mindfulness, which combines meditation and knitting. She and I are holding a weekend retreat in West Sonoma County in early November.
SG: And anything else coming up?
SP: Yes, I am returning to Transylvania via Budapest in October for my annual trip! I’m looking forward to seeing the women and planning embroidery production for the winter. New embroidery and sewing pattern kits will be available soon on my website. And my new tote and clutch bags will also be ready for pre-order soon!
Photo Credits: All photos by Sarah Pedlow, except Hungarian Embroidered Shirts, Sarah Granett.