Marion van der Fluit
Antique Jewellery Researcher - Haute Couture Embroiderer
Article for The Embroiderers Guild
Back to the Future
In repurposing old embroideries and household linens, Alexandra Drenth gives a voice to the past and the emotions and memories entrusted within their once treasured threads.
‘Embroidery is essentially a personal art’, wrote Walter Crane in 1899.
In Amsterdam North, the Netherlands’ capital city, lies the residence of the Dutch modern day embroiderer Alexandra Drenth, to whom Crane’s words surely apply. Drenth became involved with embroidery in 2007, whilst working as photographer. The large project she photographed fascinated her, as did her interest in the possibilities of textiles. Later the same year she placed an advert in a local newspaper asking for old embroidery linens to help raise funds for the charity Mamma Cash. This organization defends the rights of girls, woman and transgender people worldwide. Forgotten labours of love, long stacked away in attics and closets after people had lost interest in them, were sent to her in abundance – a total of 185 square meters of embroidered cloth. In the end she produced 27 wall hangings from them, which were auctioned off in aid of the good cause.
But even when the auction was over and done with, people were still sending her embroideries. Each one had its own story to tell about illness and grief, or happy occasions like birth and marriage. And it was this- the past expression of the inner feelings of woman – that became the basis of Drenth’s work. As many of the pieces were old, most had acquired stains or holes. Drenth decided to cut into the old textiles and recycle them in an artful way. Beautiful tiny embroidered snapshots from the past found a new life when stitched onto shirts, coats, capes and even a chasuble.
Behind Drenth’s work is a deep consideration of life. Her vision of the continuation of life after death is made clearly visible. She had, at the tender age of 20, worked photographing the deceased in a mortuary, a somewhat unusual occupation at the time.
‘The materials that I use are transformed: everything in life is about transformation, from birth to death,’ she says. ‘I’m always pushing the boundaries of tradition to express my own feelings. I like old embroideries but not shown on the wall behind glass. I change them, for example, into a piece of clothing not to wear but to look at. It doesn’t have to be wearable. I love textiles that have already had another function, are worn out and tell a story. Those things are already beautiful by themselves. People sometimes recognize the used, old embroideries, which bring back memories and emotions: they made something similar, or remember their mother’s or grandmother’s pieces.’ Drenth also uses old linen shrouds, which in the past were produced in the Netherlands as part of a girl’s dowry, who would learn how to embroider them at a very young age.
The lessons began with a sampler of the alphabet in cross stitch, followed by a collection of other stitches and patterns to serve as a reference in later life, a practice not always enjoyed by the makers. Cross stitch was also used for initials to mark the shrouds. Some have beautifully embroidered edges and are hand sewn. They have no pockets, as wealth and status cannot be expressed in death. Men in the Netherlands used to wear shrouds on their wedding day after they were washed and carefully put away for their burial. However, these perfect examples of work, many with private, personal feelings attached, became disregarded over time due to changing customs. From making collages of existing embroideries and textiles, Drenth evolved to producing more and more embroidery herself. By adding embroidered song texts or poems, her works became more personal. Words express emotions, feelings or a message.
Usually she works on two or three objects at the same time. Drenth finds the embroidery easy to handle and says it can be worked on wherever she travels. She often embroiderers with French knots, running and back stitch. For Drenth it is not about the difficulty of the stitch, rather that stitches are a means used to express herself. An old green chasuble bought at a fair, is having a makeover using her textile collage technique. The work is being completed on a large table in a corner of her living room when I visit.
‘I see my embroideries as works of art, an object to enjoy. Creating them makes me very happy. I do a lot of research and get my inspiration from flora and fauna. I use all kinds of shapes, from animals to people and vice versa. At the moment, for example, I’m intrigued by women transforming into fish. My inspiration comes from Africa. In my early childhood I lived in Sierra Leone, I recall swimming amongst the fish there every day, I often dream about water and fish. Dreams are sometimes a starting point for me.’ People always ask how long she works on an object: a question she doesn’t like, as there is no simple answer. Adding and taking away is a daily routine until she is satisfied. ‘I can’t work in a hurry: it can take months for me to find the right composition. Embroidery is something very personal for me.’