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The Tapestry That Kept Glasgow in Stitches

`WE didn't know how we were going to do it! Everybody was surprised when it was really, finally done. It's beautiful. So many hands ... have gone into it.'' Brij Gandhi, a member of the strong Asian community of Glasgow, Scotland, speaks with great appreciation. ``I think the credit goes to the women who finished it off.'' In fact, a fair bit of the credit goes to Mrs. Gandhi. The hand-embroidered panel - ``February'' - which she is talking about was made a year ago by a multicultural group of women and girls. These volunteers came from the city of Paisley, about 7 miles west of Glasgow, and from the Indian and Pakistani population of Glasgow. Mrs. Gandhi was asked by ``Needleworks Enterprises,'' the organizers of this 12-panel project, to invite Asian women to take part in its making. They came - in some cases shyly - and greatly enjoyed it. In fact, the internationalism spread wider: There were two Thai helpers, two Argentinians, and a Brazilian. Also, some Asian school children worked on it and mothers came with their young children. Even some six-year-olds were given the chance to contribute. Since they couldn't yet sew, they were provided with beads and glue instead of needles and thread. Some people just came once and helped, but most, once they'd started, couldn't stay away. Although the work took place (every Thursday and Friday throughout February 1990) in full public view at the main Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, some women worked on separate parts of the panel at home. It was a true community project, a sharing of stories and skills. One participant thought it was like ``the old sewing bees'' that were once common. ``People told you their life history!'' There was a sense of reviving old methods, of remembering. This is confirmed by Susan Green, coordinator for the entire project (called ``Keeping Glasgow in Stitches''), which resulted in a panel for each month of 1990 and involved over 500 people. She describes how ``people came and said, `Oh, I used to do that!''' Ms. Green delighted in the ``wee Glasgow women coming in - they can do such amazing things.'' Some hadn't done embroidery for years; others ``sit and knit and crochet all the time anyway,'' so the panel was an exciting extension of their normal activity. The enthusiasm generated by the ``February'' panel in particular was remarkable. It was intended from early on to be a multicultural project. Women from Paisley were asked to take part because the classic design known as the paisley pattern comes from their city. But the origins of the pattern, with its characteristic motif - some call it a ``teardrop,'' the ``pine motif,'' or the ``pear'' - comes, says Irene Woods, one of the Paisley contingent, ``from India originally. It traces back to all sorts of ancient origins.'' So the connection with the Asian population was apt. She also points out that the ancient yang and yin (symbol of male and female) - ``the symbol of perfect balance'' - appears to be composed of two such paisley motifs conjoined. ``It's black and white, white with a wee touch of black, black with a wee touch of white.'' And so this symbol - sewn by Mrs. Woods - was placed right in the middle of the panel, poised like an unlikely monochrome egg in a wonderfully ropy and colorful nest at the exact top of the tree. It is this tree which is the basic design for the 15-foot panel. From its branches are suspended a gorgeous array of paisley motifs worked with great inventiveness and variety, which are meant to be leaves. It was in these ``leaves'' that the overenthusiasm ran special riot: Far too many were made. But rather than waste them, a further panel has since been made that incorporated many more than the February panel could. To Mrs. Gandhi's band of Indian and Pakistani women this ``motif,'' she says, ``is a very common one. We love flowers, and mango-type of patterns.... We like very bright colors.'' The European women I spoke to remarked on it: Here were combinations of turquoise and vivid pink, shiny royal blue, and sinuous bands of fierce orange running parallel to hard strong reds. To the Scottish Irene Woods such colors together seem, at first, ``gaudy'' perhaps. But since working on the panel she confesses she has bought a couple of Indian waistcoats in a gallery in Edinburgh. ``One of them is so absolutely beautiful,'' she says. ``Sisha'' mirrors featured in the February panel. Some of the Asian women taught the others the difficult and laborious technique involved in securing these little mirrors into the embroidery. ``It looks straightforward,'' Mrs. Woods says, ``but it's not. You've got to ... hold the mirror down with your thread and gradually build up - it's almost like a spider's web - round the edge, to hold the mirror in place. The mirror is caught down, a crisscross round the edges until it's secure.'' Sequins, also much in evidence in the panel, have a hole through them for the thread: much easier. The central tree dominating the panel is meant to represent the ``Tree of Life'' - again somehow connected with the origins of the paisley pattern, and again a symbol with significance in many different cultures and religions. Making the panel meant a path-crossing of people with different religions. Irene Woods is one of a group who had already made an embroidered panel for its (Church of Scotland) church in Paisley, Castlehead Church. Her interest in the project was sparked by an encounter with Clare Higney, head of ``Needleworks'' and whose idea the project was. She recalls the excitement of starting work on the panel - after much discussion and planning. There was a``mass of materials: scraps, fabrics, threads, and trimming - fabulous! Wonderful to rummage in, some of it the most beautiful colors. You thought, Ah! That color goes with that - and then you were off!'' The 12 panels of the project are designed to hang in order, and the patchwork background colors have been carefully arranged so that there is a consistent merging of one panel into the next. These colors were partly dictated by the time of year they symbolize. So the February background is predominantly made up of dull, dark greens. This proved an ideal way of setting off the brilliant, often shiny and iridescent, embroidery imposed on it. The color that sticks out in this rainbow display is a vivid violet. The panel's basic design was deliberately uncomplicated. ``A simple bold design,'' says Lorraine Davin, the professional embroiderer and weaver who oversaw its making, ``allowing for lots of small detail.'' In the tree's roots flourish a delightful community of insects, beetles, flies, a worm, and flying around the trunk, a bee and a dragonfly. The most exotic birds imaginable perch (more or less) on the ends of the branches, while a gossamer dove of peace soars above everything. A horizontal piece of weaving was specially made by a professional, Sarah Sumsion, to represent the river. It is an Ikat weave, a kind of tie-dye technique, permitting a subtle merging of colors. One woman from Paisley modeled a sewn collage after her photographs of the city's skyline, creating a kind of layered effect of materials depicting towers, spires, and roofs. Some machine stitching was used to stop fraying edges, but almost all of the panel is hand-sewn or hand-embroidered. The upper regions of all 12 panels made for the project were done by a core group organized throughout the year by Malcolm Lochhead, the chief designer. He is elated by the way the project has revived a community sense of craftsmanship. And certainly this Monday group has brought about firm and lasting friendships. It is they who undertook the finishing - the bringing together - of the panel so praised by Mrs. Gandhi. The tree is on a 7-foot panel; the border makes the entire panel 15 feet. It includes the large letter ``L'' (the panels together spell out ``GLASGOW 1990'') and a depiction of Glasgow Cathedral, with the city's largest mosque, and a star of David. ``The top of the panel,'' reads the wall label at the Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, where the panels are currently on exhibition, ``represents the spiritual origin of the city and its principal religions.'' This top space also sports the words ``The Clyde made Glasgow and ....'' The March panel - on the subject ``The Spirit of the Community'' - finishes the sentence. It reads: ``Glasgow made the Clyde.'' It is the River Clyde that not only runs through the city, but also runs symbolically through the 12 panels of the ``Keeping Glasgow in Stitches'' project, binding them together. A book is promised on the project, presumably going into detail about the amazing degree of commitment and downright invention that went into its completion. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/utap.

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