Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Constructs and Blackwork
So I’ve been thinking about “blackwork” a lot. This has been influenced by my research for an Expert panel for Athena’s Thimble, but also by some recent discussions on facebook. I repeated my assertion that counted reversible blackwork is really not the norm for 16th century English monochrome embroidery, and definitely ruffled some feathers. And I understand why- as a constructivist, I understand that knowledge is based on constructs, and it’s upsetting when constructs are challenged. In brief, a construct is a belief that is built and developed over time. As adults, our constructs tend to be very firmly built and solid- children have slightly more fluid constructs especially during the 0-5 years. Constructs include an emotional component, and people react violently in some cases when a construct is challenged. This is why you can teach a child that a cat is not a dog, even though both are furry and have four legs, but try to convince an adult that “blackwork in England is mostly not counted or reversible” and you will have a fight on your hands. And I understand. My very first pieces of blackwork were a charted counted reversible cuffs and collar. It was only when I really began LOOKING at what was there that I began to think maybe I wasn’t seeing the whole picture. And that took years of looking. People respond with exceptions, citing the portrait of Jane Seymour with geometric counted cuffs. Which is a valid example. However, where do we draw the line? If we can say, well, rough 70% of the paintings during this given time and this given place, and 85% of the extant items show these characteristics, then, to me, those would indicate something “true” about embroidery in that specific time and space. And I think we need to recognize that time and space are CRUCIAL- just because we have examples of a low-neck gathered camisa in Italy in the 16th century doesn’t mean that English smocks in the 16th century were made in the same way. Embroidery, likewise, is not necessarily universal in style and technique. We can say with some certainty: This is most common of the pieces and paintings we have. There are always exceptions, and those rare anomalous examples. We have an incomplete record, so we may have to change our constructs in the face of new evidence. If someone unearths a treasure trove of counted reversible cuffs and collars, I will rework my hypotheses. But we have to make our assertions based on the evidence at hand- not we “want” to be true. And this means understanding ‘the common’. If I’m judging A& or taking a class then I’m looking for an understanding of what we can prove are the dominating trends and characteristics, and NOT someone cherry-picking examples and pieces- that, to me, shows a lack of understanding about the art form as a whole, for a given time and space. But this also assumes everyone thinks like me- I strive to be a historian first, and an artisan second. As a historian, I have rules and confines which govern me- the historical record that exists is my teacher. I must make my decisions based on the reality of that record.