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A couple of cultural quirks in Brazil, at least in the circles I run in, involve re-using things. A few examples:

Every time I give a gift, the recipient carefully unwraps it, returns the wrapping material to me, and then appreciates the gift. With one friend I’ve made a running joke out of re-using the exact same wrapping paper (a lovely Florentine print) over and over, refolding it each time to fit the gift.

If you give someone some leftovers or cake in a Tupperware-type container you will get the container back, at least neatly washed and dried. In some cases it will be returned filled with an equivalent dessert or snack. I am less diligent about returning the containers, so I have a drawer full of all sizes and colors and shapes. I am very aware, however, of where each one came from, and when I know I will see a certain person again I do try to remember to dig up their container and take it along.

The subject came to mind today when I was buying fancy trim for sewing projects. Good quality trim is expensive and hard to come by. I was pleased to see one time that the most beautiful medieval liturgical embroideries were often cut off of their original vestments or altar frontals and re-used on new garments at a later date. Hopefully this generations’ best sewing efforts will be the seeds of the next generations re-use of trim, embroidery and good lace!

An example of the re-use of older embroidery on newer vestments can be seen in this article:

Wearing old clothes

This video reminded me of some anecdotes, which I have jotted after the video.

  1. I briefly competed in carriage driving, at pleasure shows that took place on historical properties around New York and Connecticut. The appropriate clothing for this activity included: boots, stockings, long skirt, long sleeved blouse, driving apron (a sort of heavy fabric apron tied over your clothing to protect it from the dirt kicked up by the horses), leather gloves, and a large straw hat. One of the first things I noticed was that I didn’t need any sunscreen or bug repellent. In fact, I felt surprisingly comfortable, despite the summer heat. I had my own private shade pod!
  2. My mother remembers that she began making all her own clothes when she was a young teen, and that in high school she had 3 skirts that lasted the whole four years. She hemmed them liberally so that the hem could be raised or lowered each year to match the current trends. As Abby Cox mentions in the video above, there’s something special about using clothing you make yourself. It fits you, you can adjust it to your changing body shape, and you decide what you want to wear.
  3. Abby Cox also mentions the bodily privacy that the full clothing of the past or in some other cultures offers, particularly to women. She mentions how modern clothing is usually so tight fitting and small that every detail of a person’s physique is on display. I thought that was a very interesting perspective. It brought to mind the one time I tried on a burqa that an acquaintance had brought back from a trip to Bahrain. It was immensely cozy. The sense of privacy was truly refreshing. I only tried it on, but that brief experience was enough to make me aware of the existence of that sense of privacy, which I only otherwise experienced if wearing a costume of some kind.

God willing I will begin making my own dresses this year. I’ve ordered my first two patterns and am buying fabric…. I am confident in my hand sewing skills after spending a year embroidering and making clothing for saint’s statues. News to follow!

Ongoing angels

The angel I began embroidering is still underway. The text “Gloria” got done and redone several times as I experimented with stitches for the lettering. The wings are currently on their third revision, as there needs to be the right sort of layout of feathers to please my eye, and I had only sketched it loosely. I took out the second try, drew a design more clearly, and am now re-addressing that. Not sure how I might vary the colors. I like the multicolored wings found in many depictions of angels:

Red and white wings for Saint Michael
Red, green and peacock-eyed wings on a Gothic painting of Saint Michael
Blue, gold and Peacock wings on this Saint Michael
Rose and slate gray/blue wings on an Eastern icon of Saint Michael.

There’s an enormous variation in the styles and colors of wings. Mine’s going for green and gold at the moment:

Experimenting with shading, metallic thread, pencil drawing, lettering and hands and faces.

On another note: I’d like to thank Sarah Homfray for her excellent, encouraging and calming series of embroidery videos which I watch repeatedly. And also Steve Young, a horse trainer whose long, real-time videos with chatty commentary are also great company while I stitch.

I really miss being around horses. Today my former trainer sent me a video of my elderly mare. She looks great for her age!!


I’ve spent the last couple years looking at a lot of old liturgical embroidery (in books, online), studying how faces are done. I’d helped a friend plan a machine embroidery of two angels a couple years ago and it was a lot of work getting the features just right. We worked with a professional embroidery machine programmer, and though she did a lovely job it was challenging learning how to communicate what we wanted. So they turned out well enough, but it was enormously time consuming. Then again, embroidering things by hand is time consuming. But sometimes doing something yourself is a time saver over explaining it to someone else.

So I had started practicing simplified ‘cartoon’ faces based on romanesque and gothic art, using Adobe Illustrator, thinking that if I could give the programmer vector art instead of paper sketches that might help a lot. But though I enjoy that process to some degree, I really enjoy working with tangible materials, and the other day decided to just pick a simple design and embroider it and see ‘where the shoe pinches’, as my voice teacher used to say. Doing reveals problems and challenges to work on in a way thinking about it never does.

I chose a simple angel in stained glass with heavy outlines and little detail, traced it with a pencil on a piece of white cotton (gently! so as not to damage my laptop screen!) Were I at home I would have printed it out and taped it to a window and then traced it using the window as a light box. But I am traveling, so very gentle pencil tracing is the solution. Since the main point was to just to practice, I didn’t worry about the exactness of the tracing.

Anyway, I started out outlining the head and features in dark brown, then filled in with a couple shades of pale pink. I’m not sure yet whether the heavy outline around the head was necessary, but given that these images will be seen from a distance, I think the heavy and simple features and outlines are helpful. I would like the fill to seem smoother, which might be possible with more careful stitching using my magnifier (which I don’t have with me).

Then I did the hair, starting with a dark ochre, then a medium ochre, and finally a pale yellow for highlights. I thought that turned out rather well, though here and there the direction of the hair got a bit random, as I ‘painted myself into a corner.’

Then I filled in the neck, and I will wait to see later if the ‘shading’ on the side of the neck looks okay or would be better done in another color or not done at all.

And then I thought I’d try some metallic thread I found on the trip. I started with three strands, which was not easy to work with. The thread is springy and stiff, and sometimes the three strands didn’t lay smoothly together and once one strand somehow fell out of the needle and got left behind for a few stitches. After a while I switched to using just one strand and repeating each stitch three times to give the weight and thickness I wanted. That was much easier. I started filling in the halo between the rays, making a contrasting direction with horizontal stitches using only one strand (with no repetition).

The metallic color is not exactly what I would prefer – a warmer gold is more to my taste – but it’s good practice, and a good way to get to know that kind of thread. All the thread is DMC. I’m using a piece of cotton like that found in bedsheets – it has a nice smooth surface and tight weave and stays put in the embroidery hoop without stretching or bagging too much.

We’ll see how this goes! I do hope you find these examples encouraging for trying your own projects.

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus

Again, in Europe, I am struck by the number of holy things now languishing in museums. The thousands of holy relics, the thousands of abandoned altars. Were they simply profaned at some point, taken and displayed? Or was there some sort of ceremonial desacralization performed? Can you desacralize the relics of a holy man or woman from centuries past?

If angels attend to each church and altar, do they simply wander away when that church or altar is turned into a mere tourist site, with no further sacred function? Or do they linger there, guarding their posts until the end of time?

Having read that Saint Francis of Sales made a point of greeting the holy angels of the places he went and the guardian angels of the people he interacted with, I was touched. I hadn’t thought of that, but I’ve often prayed to the saints whose relics languish in museums. Perhaps many other Catholic tourists do the same, whispering prayers as they stroll through the galleries.