‘Navigating with needles’
Sharp Notions: Essays from the Stitching Life
edited by Marita Dachsel & Nancy Lee
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2023
$32.95 / 9781551529257
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Sharp Notions is a wonderfully tactile book (so bendable!) with full-colour illustrations, all beautifully designed by Jazmin Welch.
As a fan of the fibre arts whether as art installations or for every day beautiful and practical use, I very much appreciate the multi-layered approaches of the diverse voices of the stitchers and writers in the collection.
The editors, Marita Dachsel and Nancy Lee, are both writers and university writing instructors – Dachsel as an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria (who “knits on the sly”) and Lee, as an associate professor at the UBC School of Creative Writing.
As a child of immigrant parents, Dachsel knits while thinking of “the hands of my matrilineal lines doing similar work, making similar motions, creating a body memory…”
Lee also knits as well as crochets, embroiders, quilts, and sews. She has realized from her own experience in the practice of fibre arts that “the finished object is rarely the point.” It’s the process of creating that “is its own reward,” holding a loved one in one’s thoughts for hours for instance.
The fibre arts are like a “life preserver” Lee says and as the knitting and stitching kept both editors going, they wondered if others had the same experience.
Anne Fleming, a novelist and poet who teaches Creative Writing at UBC’s Okanagan Campus, is one of the contributors. She writes in “Protection” about a hand-knitting toy she and her sister had as children. (I also remember the tube with four hooks on top.)
Fleming came out as a lesbian to her mother one Fall following a haircut “short enough to prompt my mother to ask if I was a lesbian.” Relations with her parents “sucked” that Fall but her Christmas present was a trip to the yarn store.
There were some chores all of Fleming’s siblings had to do and some her brothers never did: “sewing and knitting were two of them. They were across the line.”
“I have thought about gender all my life,” Fleming writes. She reflects, in her thoughtful essay, on the unravelling of thoughts and deconstruction and reconstruction when it comes to yarn as well as gender roles.
Her reflections include Virginia Woolf who considered knitting “the saving of life” (for a time) and who said in A Room of One’s Own: “Two sexes are quite inadequate.” That is an assumption, Fleming says, “that is very close to contemporary queer ideas.”
Renée Sarojini Saklikar who was Poet laureate for the City of Surrey, 2015 to 2018, has written in “Textiles of the Real,” about the intersection of poetic practice and fibre arts practice.
The title of the essay is from one of its enticing and engaging sections which include “Before-time Memory,” “Living History,” and “Making to Resist: The Rajah Quilt.”
Saklikar ripped recycled computer paper and added magazine cut-outs to create a handmade chapbook. “Touching paper produces dreams of my ancestors, crafts people from Gujarat and Maharashtra,” she writes.
Saklikar has written an epic fantasy in verse with Bramah and the Beggar Boy in which “heroes turn to making as a form of resistance, including the fibre arts of weaving, spinning, and quilting . . . “ Her latest book is Bramah’s Quest, Book 2 of THOT J BAP (The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns).
Jenny Judge of Whistler, B.C. in her essay, “Transitions,” reflects back in journal entries to women artists who worked in fibre and to her mother’s sewing room where, as a child, Judge organized buttons into categories on the floor.
The fibre-art installation she starts in her sixty-first year, Phase Transitions, 2023, is made up of threads dipped into paint, each one threaded with plaster-cast sewing paraphernalia and found objects.
Her essay ends poignantly with memories of her father who died young at the age of sixty-one in 1990. She reflects on her own body: “I also know that on a molecular level my body is slowing, that my blood and life are being rearranged and will eventually crystallize, transition, just like the drips nearing the bottom of the hanging threads.”
Vancouver-based Bettina Matzkuhn exhibits her work internationally and writes of a project in her essay, “Carry the Land,” that was undertaken while participating in the Canadian Wilderness Artist Residency in the Yukon.
Matzkuhn became interested in drawing the outdoor gear the participants used while paddling on and camping by the Yukon River. Images from her series Gear includes Avalanche Lillies which features hand embroidery and painting on linen on a used backpack. Other backpacks feature “Sunsets” with hand and machine embroidery and fabric collage.
“Embroidery has always been my creative language,” Matzkuhn writes. “It is opulent, and I cherish it for its capacity to reflect the natural world.”
While not living on the land which she has visited, Matzkuhn thinks of “carrying the land: “to have a reciprocal relationship, the carrying and treading in balance.” She writes: “I am of it in that I owe it my respect and attention.”
Macayla Yan of Victoria writes in her essay, “Migration Threads,” of her hand-embroidering of two hoops joined by a thread. In the left hoop, she stitches “a representation of the coastlines surrounding my ye ye’s (paternal grandfather) one-road village in Toisan (Hoisan) county with a mark to indicate the village’s location.” Yan uses “plant-patterned lace that I received from my po po (maternal grandmother) …”
“In the right hoop, on the same lace I embroider a representation of lək̓ʷəŋən (Lekwungen, currently imposed with the names Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations) Territory with a mark showing my grandparents’ house in North Park, a historically industrial and recently gentrifying neighbourhood.” As Yan guides her needle “between the fibres of lace, I can only attempt to appreciate the enormity of grief and pain wrought by settler-colonial domination.”
Yan’s sensitive essay explores the honouring of ancestors and the impacts of migration, racism, and our relationship to occupied land.
Theresa Kishkan lives on the Sunshine Coast and in her essay, “Seams: Piece-work in 20 Uneven Pieces” writes of two patchwork quilts she created. Her essay, in twenty sections, reflects on some time away from home when her husband has double hip replacement surgery, ending up also, with a paralyzed foot.
With their forty-first wedding anniversary approaching, Kishkan looks back on their relationships and on the various threads of quilting and life including the threads guiding her husband’s skin to healing.
“How long will a path of thread last, how long will the layers hold together, the strong cottons, the batting, the pieced backs?” she writes.
Annie Boyer’s The Undying is quoted as well as the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Sappho and Eavan Boland in this expertly crafted essay.
In “The Carole Quilt” Eliane Leslau Silverman of Salt Spring Island writes about the Salt Spring Seals, a group of people who have swum in the ocean, year round, for almost twenty years. When one of them loses a son to a car accident, the others work on twelve-inch quilt squares to become an object of beauty and love for Carole.
Danielle Geller of Victoria in “Heirloom” writes about weaving, its history and impact on her own life.
“Breathe,” by Vancouver-based mixed-media artist Jan Wade includes her writing; images from her embroidery masterwork, Breathe; and an excerpt from an interview between Wade and interdisciplinary artist Deanna Bowen.
Jan Wade’s Soul Power, a retrospective of her work, was the first solo exhibition by a Black female artist in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 90-year history.
There are many other essays from other parts of Canada and beyond including “Reading the Beads” by Danielle Lussier, an Indigenous law student who lives in Kingston, Ontario and Lia Pas of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan who with a chronic illness focuses her creative energy on anatomical embroidery as described in “What is the Body But a Matrix of Threads?” It is her image of she breathed that graces the cover of Sharp Notions.
Rob Leacock, an Episcopal priest in Little Rock, Arkansas writes about knitting in “The Art of Being Alone,” and Kevin Shaw of Ottawa, Ontario appreciates his mother’s love as shown through her knitted socks in “Turning the Heel.”
The process of creating is a rich journey of memory, an acknowledgment and honouring of ancestors, healing and insight. I’m grateful that these creators are also writers who can share the many benefits of navigating with needles. Their words sing with passion.
Mary Ann Moore is a poet, writer, and writing mentor who lives on the unceded lands of the Snuneymuxw First Nation in Nanaimo. Her full-length book of poetry is Fishing for Mermaids (Leaf Press, 2014) and she has a new chapbook of poems called Mending (house of appleton). Moore leads writing circles and has two writing resources: Writing to Map Your Spiritual Journey (International Association for Journal Writing) and Writing Home: A Whole Life Practice (Flying Mermaids Studio). She writes a blog here. [Editor’s note: Mary Ann Moore has also reviewed books by Lisa Ahier, with Susan Musgrave, Stephen Collis (ed.), Maria Coffey, Lorna Crozier, Katherine Palmer Gordon, and Donna McCart Sharkey & Arleen Paré for BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster