Sarah Gray: Stitch in Time
What’s an ancient, mindful practice people have engaged in all throughout time to help focus on the present, relax, and unwind when the threads of life get knotted?
In past generations, the traditional sewing-art was a common, peaceful, and pleasant pastime most females knew how to do. The slow, meditative, and artistic stitching was often worked in social circles where, with tea, friends, and sympathy, ladies embroidered their way through the trials, situations, and circumstances of life.
During a conversation with Sarah Gray, a longtime local embroideress, I learned that the delicate, decorative technique is “as old as sewing.”
The sixty-something grandmother, who was born and raised in Santa Barbara, added that there are many forms of the craft and some version is found everywhere, in every country. “Chinese and Japanese silk embroideries are breathtaking. In the West, embroidery’s been a constant in decorating clothing and housewares since the early Middle Ages. Styles changed with the times. For instance, 18th-century clothing is often covered with beautiful designs. In the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, Medieval forms of embroidery were reintroduced. The Royal School of Needlework in England came out of this movement. Similarly, in the 1960s and ‘70s in America, a folk revival of sorts started a new craze for embroidery.”
In more modern times, like now, there are even prominent fashion designers who use it in their lines. Alexander McQueen, for example, often covered leather jackets with elaborate swirls of intricate embroidery.
So, how did gals pick up this skill, back in the day? They learned from the older women around them, which was exactly the case for Ms. Gray. “My mother and grandmother were both accomplished embroiderers,” she said. “My grandmother enjoyed doing things like monograms on her family members’ linens and clothing. My mother, like me, worked with her own designs. My grandmother gave me a sampler when I was little and I still have it. I embroidered a strand of my long hair into it, thinking (but not believing) I would get old someday.”
Continuing her remembrance of things past, Ms. Gray said, “There were many years when I didn’t embroider, but I picked it up again when my oldest daughter got married. I wanted to make the chuppah and designed a canopy with pomegranates in silk. That was the restart of things and after that I couldn’t stop. It was so much fun!”
Since that time, Ms. Gray, a mother of three, has made many needlework-embellished things for her home, family, and friends, all of which feature her original designs. There’ve been quilts for her grandchildren, towels and pillowcases edged with pink floral sprays amid entwining green vines, and a current project, a large scarf for her youngest daughter, which has a big red octopus stretching across the silk.
In addition to turning out gifts and household items, Ms. Gray also travels about town with her basket, hoops, fabrics, and threads to give classes, either in groups or private one-on-one tutoring in people’s homes. With a background in both instruction and embroidery, she has combined decades of professional experience with artistic accomplishment to create a unique service: an embroidery teacher who makes house-calls. “I was a teacher in various academic subjects for many years and loved it,” she explained, “So, in teaching embroidery, it’s two of my favorite things put together. I’ve led small classes for children in a variety of settings and then also go to those who prefer to learn in their homes. My favorite student is my seven-year-old granddaughter, who has learned to do French knots and does them everywhere!”
While many in the current, younger generation are well-schooled in social media, technology, and various other electronic-world pastimes, fewer know how to do this kind of handiwork, but Ms. Gray has found that interest in learning embroidery is on the rise. The day I interviewed her, she was wrapping up a workshop for ‘tweens during which the girls had assembled in the living room of a home on East Mountain Drive where they learned back stitches, satin stitches, a feathery kind, and daisy chains. Ms. Gray’s next-day student was an older lady, a resident of the Lower Village area who used to embroider but has forgotten much of it. For her, a custom-designed “refresher course” has been the ticket.
Embroidery is a very accessible textile-art, versatile, and easy to get into whatever one’s background with stitching, including those who’ve never needled a thing. “We can start with a very simple sampler,” Ms. Gray said. As for materials and tools, no worries. She comes to her classes with all the supplies required; it truly can be said this teacher’s got the whole nine yards.
Those who’d like to learn how to keep calm and embroider on can text or leave a voicemail for Ms. Gray at (805) 448-2320
Rebecca Lee Moody has been a correspondent and freelance journalist for 30 years. She grew up in Montecito and has enjoyed being a periodic contributor to the MJ since its beginnings.