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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sew, Sew, Sew Your Coat (May 20, 2012)


Coincidences make for such happy discoveries.

While at the library recently I glanced at the New Arrivals shelf. One book was displayed on a miniature easel and its cover caught my eye. On the cover was an animal with every color imaginable on it, and dozens of different buttons giving it a funky, textural look. The book’s title was Hoopla: the Art of Unexpected Embroidery. Clearly, this book had been placed there for me to discover! I bee lined for the checkout desk.

Hoopla appealed to me because one year ago I learned to sew with a machine and since then I’ve been fascinated by textiles, fiber arts, sewing and experimenting with material and mixed media. The timing of discovering this book was good. It’s not a book about traditional things women did hundreds of years ago when ladylike needle-and-thread activities were one of only a few pastimes women were allowed to do. No, this book is about artists today who have added their own twist onto a traditional art form. The effects are unique, sometimes subversive, and very 21st century. The book mentioned a male embroidery artist whose story made him stand out from the others profiled. I knew I had to read his story and I tracked down his autobiography through the library. Ray Materson’s book Sins and Needles really grabbed me. The subtitle is A Story of Spiritual Mending. It’s not a religious book but it does chronicle Ray’s emotional healing in jail after a stumbling journey through drug addiction. Ray shares the story of learning embroidery art as therapy, his parole, and national recognition as a talented artist. This book pulled me in and I finished it in two days. There is not one recipe for a good story but for me, a compelling story with ingredients like addiction, incarceration, creativity, hope and redemption is very likely to be a page-turner. 

Let’s talk coincidence. Chance led me to Hoopla, which led me to Sins and Needles. An unplanned moment is also what led to Ray Materson’s first embroidered piece. Ray was serving a long sentence in a Connecticut prison and like many inmates, television became one of his connections to the outside world. Ray had lived in Michigan as a child and he’d attended football games at The University of Michigan. On New Year’s Day 1989 Michigan was going to play USC at the Rose Bowl and Ray intended to watch the game on tv, cheering them on. Here is how he recounts the first time it occurred to him to try to embroider something:

I noticed a pair of socks hanging on the tier railing about two cells down. They were new-looking white tube socks with dark blue and yellow stripes…A pack of cigarettes…was a steep price to pay for a pair of socks, but I wanted them…The richly colored stripes on the socks had a sheen to them that reminded me of the jerseys and embroidered hats that were ubiquitous in Ann Arbor…(In my cell) my attention was inexplicably drawn to a plastic Rubbermaid bowl that I used for storing coffee…I noticed that the bowls’ circular mouth was roughly the size of the sewing hoop my grandmother used when she was doing embroidery…That’s when I made a decision: In my own way, I was going to Pasadena to attend the Rose Bowl and cheer the Wolverines on to victory…I emptied the remains of my coffee container…rinsed out the bowl and went to work cutting off its circular mouth…I cut another ring from the bowl’s snap-on lid to use as a fitted loop that would hold a piece of cloth tightly in place. Next I drew a simple block letter M on a torn-off scrap from the sheet on my bunk. After securing my design cloth onto the hoop, I set about pulling the thread from my maize-and-blue-striped socks…and wound it around the barrel of a pen…Sewing needles were made available to inmates for the purposes of mending (and)…they could be signed out routinely…An hour into the project I stopped counting the number of times I pricked my fingers. In the meantime, I had to interrupt my work frequently to untangle knots in the sock thread. It was a tedious learning process, but I persevered. I worked on my Michigan M for two days, during which I learned a great deal about handling a needle and experienced a deep sense of enjoyment in the process. I also felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time—pride in myself…I needed a hat, so, with blue shoelaces, scraps of cloth I collected from other inmates, and the elastic waistband from a pair of boxer shorts, I pieced and sewed together a simple visor cap…I used a yellow Hi-Liter pen to “dye” the elastic. The next step—cutting the M from my base cloth and attaching it to the cap’s bill—concerned me, because it requires a sharp tool. It was easy to dismantle a disposable razor and remove the blade, but I knew that if I were discovered with a loose razor blade in my possession, I could be in serious trouble…(So) I was extremely cautious about cutting out my embroidered handiwork, and after the razor blade had served its purpose, I flushed it down the toilet. With the M in place, my cap was completed…Come January first, I was going to be watching the Rose Bowl and cheering Michigan on to glorious victory. I was confident that my hat would successfully transport my spirit, if not my body, to Pasadena. I was happy. I had a dream!…A mystique immediately surrounded my handcrafted maize-and-blue headgear, which—I was proud to discover—my fellow inmates presumed to be store-bought. I was even more flattered when requests for embroidery work started coming in.

Soon Ray was creating embroidered art for other inmates, exchanging his work for cartons of cigarettes, the prison currency. He began doing small autobiographical pieces of art, too. Most of his pieces were only 2.25 x 3.25 inches in size, sometimes with as many as 1200 stitches per square inch! Embroidery became a way to turn his seemingly endless time in prison into something productive, emotionally satisfying, and in his own words, healing. Ray’s cell sales gave new meaning to the term “cottage industry!” With each autobiographical creation he was dealing with his past, surviving his present imprisonment and feeling more hopeful about his future.




Many inmates admired Ray’s work and it proved to be a good conversation-starter. In the rough, untrusting environment of prison, it brought people together. A few inmates found Ray’s interest in embroidery unmasculine, and one took to calling him Betsy Ross. But Ray shook it off. Unlike most inmates, he had something he really cared about, with which he could fill his days. Two crucial developments occurred with the help of the other: Ray’s recovery from addiction and his passion for art grew simultaneously.


Although I don’t know what it’s like to be in prison I do know that at times when I have felt unhappy, creativity has been therapeutic. For Ray, it seemed to become his lifeline. Ray was paroled in 1995, and started a new life with family, art and his long-lost freedom. The story was really gripping. For me it was a good reminder of how priceless freedom is.



The timing of reading Ray’s book feels relevant because just this week I finished an art piece which is comprised of many small works of art. We’ll see if it is chosen to be part of the juried art exhibit at the fair. I hope so, but even if it is not chosen, at least I finished a piece! I started this artwork exactly one year ago, after submitting a piece to the fair last year. Into my head popped the idea that I would do one small piece of art every day for a year. Each piece would be 2” x 2”, creations made of colorful paper, fabric, paint and found objects. When brought together these pieces would make a vibrant paper quilt chronicling my year.



I’m so glad about my serendipitous discovery of the book Hoopla, which led to my discovering Sins and Needles, which reminded me how glad I am to be able to create and to have the freedom to do what I want, when I want to. So thank you, librarians, for displaying books that grab readers and inspire us to think, discover, learn and dream.



Love Thy Library.


Go hug a librarian today!

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