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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Juby Aleyas Koll: Pune embroiderer who is preserving an old craft, one stitch at a time

Juby Aleyas Koll has released an ebook that teaches 300 stitches through 2,500 photographs

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
March 22, 2021 1:47:25 pm
Juby Aleyas Koll

Once upon a time in China, there was a law that commoners could not embroider their clothes with a stitch known as the Blind Knot. It was to be used only on the royal garments of the emperor. Over time, people began to believe that using the knot could cause blindness. Its technique was a closely-guarded secret and even the French, when they visited China, had no luck in learning it. They went back to their country and developed the French Knot, a common stitch in contemporary hand embroidery. The Blind Knot is no longer wrapped in superstition or fear — and its two variations are provided in an ebook that was launched on March 1, titled Hand Embroidery Stitches for Everyone. The book is the handiwork of Pune-based Juby Aleyas Koll, better known as Sarah, who is attempting to rekindle interest in an art of hand embroidery, which was once a common pastime.

“Most people do not know that the needle we use in hand embroidery has remained unchanged in its design since the first time it was made. Recent research says that the needle was not even invented by modern homo sapiens, but another species of extinct humans called the Denisovans. When you study hand embroidery and the stitches better, you stumble upon such interesting stories. They are carriers of history. When an embroidery form is lost, a part of history is lost along with it,” she says. The book gives instructions on mastering 306 stitches through 2,500 photographs.

Excerpts from an interview with Koll:

At a time when most people do not pick up a needle, what was the experience of being interested in learning embroidery?

I have always been interested in art and crafts. When in school, during my summer holidays after Class X, the first thing I did was enroll myself in a hand embroidery class held by an old lady. It surprised me that I was the only one to learn hand embroidery. The others preferred machine embroidery and tailoring. The entire month I sat there alone, stitching with my hands while the others constantly questioned me on why I had taken up hand embroidery and did not use the machine. But, I loved to see what my very own hands could create. The satisfaction that I received creating each stitch was immense. I also found embroidery as beautiful as any other art, such as painting or pottery. Among my friends and family, I am probably the only one, who is actively involved in hand embroidery at the moment. A few friends and family members, who used to stitch, have confessed that they do not have the time or energy to spend on this art anymore.

Cover of Hand Embroidery Stitches for Everyone

The pandemic has turned our attention to activities, such as cooking. Do you see a rise in interest in embroidery?

When the pandemic hit, hand embroidery saw a surge in takers. More people were open to picking up the needle and thread. There was a notable increase in people searching for information on hand embroidery resources online. Most of them developed a lifelong hobby. It is the meditative and therapeutic quality of this art that kept people coming back again for more. Hand embroidery faded from the fancy of the modern generation. The good news is that the pandemic has given a chance to the younger generation to try out this art, and many of them love it.

In fact, in 2019, just before the pandemic hit, I created an embroidery circle called A Needle Bit of Joy. This group invited women from all spheres to spend some time in hand embroidery in each other’s company. Within a month, they already started mentioning how being in the circle helped them develop back their lost confidence, set a routine to their life, and bring creativity and joy back into their lives. They would travel from far, every single day, just to be in the circle. That is how powerful the therapeutic effect of hand embroidery was on them. Now, they have started to make small hand embroidered items which they sell under the label A Needle Bit of Joy.

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Embroidery is seen as a woman’s activity. Do you think the craft can transcend gender boundaries?

Hand embroidery has many benefits for people of all ages and genders. Soldiers of WWII did hand embroidery as a part of their physical therapy. Specially abled children are encouraged to work with needles and thread for their therapy too. It will surprise you that I had a counselor use the paper hand embroidery project from my website to work with a visually impaired child. Recently, men have also started to pick up needles and threads to create beautiful embroidery works. Embroidery enthusiasts like myself are happy when stereotypes are broken. If men can paint, sculpt and stitch, why can’t they embroider!? In fact, I have personally taught two boys of age 8 and 10 years and they enjoyed it thoroughly. Introducing hand embroidery to children at a young age can be beneficial, like many other art forms. It improves their hand-eye coordination and builds their patience. Since they have to decide many things before sitting for their project, it aids in improving their decision-making skills, problem-solving skills, and boosts their confidence. But, most importantly, hand embroidery provides the child with a creative way to express their feelings- much like music, dance, or painting.

“Hand embroidery has many benefits for people of all ages and genders.”

How was the process of writing a book on embroidery?

I started my research in hand embroidery in 2008. There was hardly any authentic information about hand embroidery online at that time. And for a beginner, it was not easy at all. With the backing of my husband, Roxy Koll, who already had a website of his own, we started a section on hand embroidery. I researched extensively about each and every stitch before making a tutorial post. We wanted to make sure that the information was first-hand, authentic, and easy to understand. I discovered so much interesting information along the way that my own interest in hand embroidery was boosted. The growing information on our website was well received and soon there was a demand for a book. We published our first ebook in 2019, which was sold in 44 countries. Now, we have published the second edition of the hand embroidery eBook. These stitches have been categorized into 20 stitch families to make learning and referring easier. Each of these stitches has undergone extensive research from various online resources and books. At times, when travel takes me around, I try to look for the local embroideries there and learn more about it. A couple of such embroideries that I got to understand are Sashiko from Japan and Amelia Ars from Italy. We are planning to embark on a ‘hand embroidery travel’ to learn more about hand embroideries around India.

“India has been a melting pot of various hand embroideries.”

What is the history of embroidery in India?

India has been a melting pot of various hand embroideries. Every time, people came here from somewhere, they brought with them a part of their culture, including hand embroidery. For instance, the Kutch embroidery of Gujarat has an impeccable similarity to the Armenian Marash work, which indicates a movement of people between these two places.

The Chikkankari is believed to have been introduced by the Mughals, especially Nur Jahan. The Kashmiri Zalakdozi embroidery is very closely related to the Suzani Embroidery of Central Asia. The interesting thing to note is that Kashmiri embroidery work is done exclusively by men, while Suzani is worked by women. The stitch used in Chamba Rumal from Himachal Pradesh is said to have its origins in China. The Paisley motif used in so many Indian embroideries is probably the symbol of the eternal fire in the Zoroastrian religion which originated in Persia (Iran).

This pattern, also known as the ‘mango pattern’ in India, was so popular with the colonial Europeans that it started to be duplicated in a place called Paisley in Scotland, which explains the name. I have written more about these embroideries and many others in the second edition of my hand embroidery eBook. There is also a lot of information on hand embroideries from outside India, like the Mountmellick Stitch, Candle wicking, and the Redwork, all of which traveled continents during major movements of people from Europe to the US.

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