When I was about seven years old, my mother gave me a cross-stitch kit for Christmas. Along with several skeins of embroidery floss, it had a piece of cotton fabric stamped with the pattern of a little house, some flowers, and the motto “Home Sweet Home.” Oh, I struggled. I didn’t know to make all the stitches go in the same direction, and the fabric was not the even-weave kind that makes it easy to create uniform stitches. I did eventually finish it, and stuffed it in a drawer never to try cross-stitch again.
I was immersed in cross-stitch, though, when I was editing Chip Morris’s book, Maya Threads, that traces the evolution of designs and techniques in the clothing of Maya women in Chiapas, Mexico. Cross-stitch plays a huge role in textiles all over the country (all over the world, actually). You find it among the Tzotzil huipils of the central highlands, and the Tzeltal huipils of the jungle lowlands. You see it on shoulder bags, ceremonial cloths, household goods. The designs range from extravagant and wildly colorful to simple and understated, often covering every inch of the cloth. The skill and persistence, practiced by everyone from small girls to ancient crones, is impressive. Just look!
I’m much better suited to reading about cross-stitch and looking at lush photographs of it than I am to actually picking up needle and thread, and I love thinking of the kind of life where fine handwork is a source of personal pride, a cultural imperative even when such necessities as food and shelter are challenging. Maya women would shake their heads if they could see the crude old sampler of my childhood. What’s wrong with these gringas? They might say. The answer would be very complicated.