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Craftsman celebrates the age-old power of cross stitch

By Jackie Mallon

Nov 30, 2018


Timo Rissanen is Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons School of Design and an avid cross-stitcher. He sat down with FashionUnited to explain how he’s making this ancient form of embroidery contemporary, reflecting the Trump era and addressing the future of the planet into the bargain.

Why cross stitch?

It’s a family connection. My grandma did a lot of embroidery, and eight years ago I made two garments for an exhibition in Chicago from her sheets which my sister had wanted to burn. But they were monogrammed by my grandma, the holes I repaired with cross stitch to match hers. I was itching to do something with my hands again and starting to lose the connection to any kind of practice. I had also found a book of poetry I’d written as a teenager, most of which were terrible as you can imagine but one or two were not bad. I thought cross stitch would be a new way to write.

Did you learn the craft from your grandmother?

I taught myself cross-stitching text by doing a short phrase every day for 100 days and posting it on Instagram. Instagram built the discipline into it––I was accountable––and by the end I had a finished piece dense with text. I had this random skill of cross stitching one specific font. It’s not a particularly useful skill but I love it. That piece was also then chosen for two different exhibits.

Is the extent of the labor involved part of the appeal?

Cross-stitch is an easy but slow way to communicate. I like the slowness because so much of our world is not slow, it gives a balance. I’m working on pieces I started three years that are still not finished, and that’s fine. Then again I just posted a piece this morning that probably took about three hours.

Do you add imagery or work only with text?

There’s one project I haven’t publicized much which I’ve been working on with a friend in Australia where we assign each other a bird to stitch every month as we’re both birdwatchers. The species are either critically endangered or extinct, a situation not limited to birds, of course, because amphibians have been very hard hit too, hundreds of species of frogs are gone. But people respond to birds fairly easily. They tend to be more charismatic than say insects. The project will be finished in 2020/21 and we hope to exhibit it with the purpose of bringing attention to the loss of biodiversity. One of the pieces features a tiny Columbian bird who lives in mountains but with climate change the bird has to climb higher and higher until eventually the mountain ends and he will have nowhere left to go. It’s a project I feel very strongly about.

You address politics too among other subject matter?

Eighteen months ago, I did a residency in Australia on a collective piece based on people’s thoughts of what they wanted to say to mankind one hundred years from now. That piece now lives in a library in Australia. The political themes are partly just me processing the events of the last two years. I just finished a portrait of the president whose name I don’t like to say. I’m also working on a series to do with being gay and sexuality because I thought, back in my twenties, that by now we’d be done with equal rights for gay and transgender people, but we’re actually going backwards. We have powerful people like our Vice President who is an existential threat. I use cross stitch as an outlet and can take out my feelings on the cloth. Some pieces I’m working on right now are quite explicit so I might not post them on Instagram. To me it’s political even how some things and not others are blocked on Instagram: what are the lines of decency and who gets to police them; how women get policed in a way that men don’t.

there’s something primally human about working with your hands

Timo Rissanen

Is there a return to handcrafts as a reaction to AI and virtual experiences?

I see the two sides as complimentary. AI can bring about positive change, but I think humans have been doing things with their hands for tens of thousands of years, whereas the technological change has just happened over the last couple of centuries really and the digital technology just the last few decades. I don’t think we’ve evolved with it all yet. But there’s something primally human about working with your hands and I notice when I cross-stitch in public people just wanted to sit and watch. I do think there is some dopamine release that happens. I see a real movement in textile and fiber art even among artists who didn’t usually do textile-based work. Some in the arts can’t bear the word “craft” but I have no problem with it, and am happy to be described as either artist or craftsperson. I don’t see them as separate, because craft can connect us to where stuff comes from.

Is cross-stitch occurring in the classroom?

Yes, the students are deeply interested. They ask for demos and I use it in my lectures. Students over the past decade are really interested in making things. In the textile MFA at Parsons there’s emphasis in craft but in connection with technology. From what I can see it doesn’t seem that students treat technology and craft as opposites; they often go hand in hand in really beautiful ways. It’s important that students are adept with the latest technology but also find their voice through craft.

How does technology figure in your work?

I use Photoshop to manipulate the image for cross stitching to get the colors, composition how I want. A digital tool converts the image into a cross stitch pattern. I love the traditional way of doing things but am greatly reliant on technology as well.

Is there an intersection between cross stitching and your commitment to sustainability?

Yes, in the value of making and interest about materials. However I would love to know where the cotton comes from and unless I buy organic thread I don’t. I have written to my thread supplier, DMC, but they don’t respond. I appreciate their high quality but there’s no information on origin of fiber or dyeing processes, and organic options using low impact dyes have limited colors. In the global fashion system, hand embroidery threads mightn’t be the most urgent issue, but nonetheless I think we need to get to everything. So if the thread companies ever want to talk, I’m right here.

Is there any recycling or upcycling opportunities in your work?

I often work with reclaimed materials. In thrift stores if you know where to look you can find boxes of old threads. And then when my grandmother passed away I got all her materials, some of those threads are fifty years old.

Do you think there is space for these quiet practices in our attention span-challenged social media culture?

I think so. If you search for #craftivism, which is the cross between craft and activism, there are many people, particularly women, using embroidery to express things; there’s a history of this: from the seminal book, “Subversive Stitch”, to a jacket that exists from the late 1800s from a women who was in a mental hospital and embroidered her life story on it––I consider that a form of activism because it’s claiming a voice in a situation where you’re silenced. Social media is a great platform to connect with other voices and facilitate building networks. I have people connecting with my work from all over the world and I like that part of it, although this morning’s breaking news that Facebook used the fashion industry to influence the 2016 elections is scary. I’ve been on Instagram for about seven years––I didn’t post anything for the first three–– but there’s something about the simplicity of it in comparison to Facebook.

Do you sell as well as exhibit your work?

It is for sale. When I was part of an exhibit in Los Angeles the curator told me my pieces were the most expensive on display. I lowered them to to align with the next most expensive pieces but afterwards learned that many women artists are completely underselling their work. One piece of mine took seventy-five hours, and to me the price was reasonable at an honest hourly rate. Someone buying is a different sort of validation because you know they want to look at it for longer. I’ve been very fortunate in the amount of exhibits which have included my work, six this year, and a piece currently on show at Parsons. I’m racing through some highly sexualized work for a February exhibit in L.A. called Stitch Fetish. There is a global subculture of erotic embroidery with artists, and while there’s something quite homely and timid about embroidery, some of the work is anything but tame. A lot if it is lighthearted but there is the serious side of women's rights, equal rights for sexual minorities. It’s a privilege to uplift and give a voice to things that need to be voiced.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos TimoRissanen.com

Timo Rissanen