Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spark into flame

 The Romans thought of artists as “having a genius”. Unlike the modern humanist idea that artists ARE geniuses, they believed that artists were visited by entities that gave them a spark, an idea that either burst into creative flame or was dumped on the ash heap. Whatever happened, the artists had a partner in success or failure. Their “genius” brought them divine inspiration. This notion, learned from a TED presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat Pray Love” fame, makes total sense to me. Great ideas do seem to spark out of nowhere…or more likely, from everywhere. 

My genius brings me vintage textiles, imbued with the spirits of the women who made them so long ago. These bits and pieces are sometimes buried in other works or in plastic garbage bags in the corners of carpet shops. They wait for my genius to strike a match, to bring them back out into daylight.

Like the small Uzbek embroideries I’ve been carrying around with me for the past 7 months. Originally parts of hats, belts and robes, these painstakingly hand-stitched wonders came to me as part of a poorly executed new patchwork quilt, used as centers of cheap bright polyester squares. Such small pieces, less than 8” square by the time they come to me, are often from a larger original work, so some of them ‘match’. They are of little value to wholesalers no matter how detailed the handwork, in comparison to other complex pieces like a silk carpet. But a woman still poured many hours of her life into designing the intricate patterns and stitching each tiny stitch.

So I save them, until I decide what new life they’ll have. These red remnants just called out to be slippers. There is a certain magic to red, the color that represents love and prosperity here in Turkey, in fact all over Asia. What better color to dress your feet?

I cut the embroideries into toe shapes – this is always an approximation, starting larger until I get it right to fit a small to medium sized woman’s foot in this case. Dense woven pieces like these have no stretch to them, which is why I make the rest of the slippers from pieces knitted in cotton so they will conform to the wearer’s foot. I especially love the floral patchwork on the backs of the embroideries. No scrap was left unused in the household of the woman who stitched these!

The soles are a double-ply of true tomato red and black cotton in my favorite alternating rib pattern. The backs are in red cotton ‘lace’; using delicate patterns in thick, sturdy yarns compliments the delicate looking but durable embroidery. Finally, I knit an I-cord drawstring to ring the top so the wearer can securely keep the slippers on her feet.

The first slipper goes together with some trial and error, but that’s part of the fun. The pieces are hand-sewn with cotton thread, then all seams are chain-stitched for extra strength. As with all two-piece projects, my greatest challenge once the first slipper is made is finishing the second one. If only my genius knew how to use a needle!


  1. Wonderful post: excellent description of the project, excellent photographs as well. Lovely idea and description to have a visiting entity, a genius sparking ideas! I think I was just visited by an entity, as I have a couple of wonderful Usbekistan embroidery pieces and they are just waiting...
    And I can understand so well your final comments regarding the challenge of making the second slipper the same as the first one... on the other hand, there is no need for two slippers to be identical, is there? ;-)

  2. Thanks Laura, and sorry for my late response! Been getting lots of strange comments in Japanese, so yours got lost.

    We do get visited by entities, when they want to appear, not on our schedule - whether I'm working with textiles or writing. The trick is to make the most of the visits when they happen!

    And since supposedly no two feet are alike, I guess you're right that slippers don't need to be either.