A mother-son jugalbandhi … over Embroidery

It’s not usual for mother-son duos to bond over needlecraft, but when that happens, unused bits of cloth at home get colour and sparkle.

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Every now and then my son, Rishabh, and I, go on long and rather frenzied binges that have nothing to do with either TV shows or particular foods, though what we do does involves needles and occasional painful jabs.

In the last few years I have discovered that I get high on embroidery. This late-discovered passion for needle and thread has certainly taken me by surprise. Like many girls of my generation, I too did my share of needlework in school under duress and with no great enjoyment. I could neither get the hang of practical sewing — the running stitch simply staggered away from me like a wayward drunk in large and small wavering lines, and my hemming became a tug of war with one lot of stitches veering one way and one lot stubbornly slanting the other. I fixed buttons like I was fortifying them for a storm. Needless to say, I absolutely did not have the patience for, or interest in, embroidery. After producing the required number of ugly pieces for the year and scoring just enough to pass, I deemed my job done. Needlework, I declared, is not for girls.

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I have no idea what the boys did during those endless hours of SUPW or Socially Useful Productive Work, because while we girls were routinely pushed into ladylike (and homemakerly) activities that also included cooking as we got older, the boys were probably herded into suitably manly activities that slotted them too into neat gender roles without choice.

My son Rishabh, on the other hand, has always liked to work with his hands. His interests are broad and range from wood-carving and clay-moulding to quilling and crocheting. Basically anything requiring nimble and patient fingers. As parents, it never struck me and my husband as odd that he took so easily to certain activities conventionally considered ‘feminine.’ When we saw how good he was at what he did, all we could do was look on in awe and encourage him. And since we didn’t make a big deal of him taking an interest in the crafts, he has never seen his involvement in them as breaking some sort of a gender barrier either. It’s just something he enjoys doing.

When Rishabh was fairly young — he’s almost 16 now — he discovered embroidery through friends and teachers in school. As I watched him execute pieces that went from relatively simple to moderately challenging, I got curious myself, and gave in to a seemingly latent desire to prove myself capable of creating something pretty. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to work on a project independently without someone to prod me to keep it moving, so I told Rishabh I’d like to work with him. What’s more, I suggested rather rashly that we begin with cushion covers, because, you know, so simple, right? But Rishabh is the guy you want on your side when vaulting ambition and recklessness get the better of you. He agreed instantly. I suppose I could say he was only twelve at the time, and therefore swayed by my persuasive powers, but the truth is he transforms into something of a demon once you put an idea into his head.

The quality of my work hasn’t dramatically  improved from my girlhood days — the stitches still run away from me like they want to be over and done with the torture of it all.

The watchman’s wife had a sewing machine and agreed to stitch our covers for us. We didn’t know that the embroidery comes first and the finishing of the ‘structure’ later. Turns out the lady’s tailoring skills were as untried as our embroidering skills and she stitched us jagged shapes in various sizes, some of which looked like jholas minus handles and others like tea-cosies and random deep pouches. We refused to give in to depression, however, and spent the summer embroidering our stubby little fingers away (speak for yourself, Rishabh says, insisting that his are long and elegant, and he may be right).

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Our partnership is not about spending huge sums of money. For example, the fabric we select for our adventuresome hit and miss endeavours are usually some long discarded or ignored pieces of cloth that are in good shape, not faded or worn out, but merely out of job because they have lost their appeal or relevance in their current form. The selection of design or motif I leave completely to Rishabh. In the throes of planning and executing, he often spends hours just working out the details. This includes research on YouTube for designs, patterns and kinds of stitches. He sits with a sampler and tries out various stitches and makes sure there is a mix of easy two-step ones for me — at my request — as well as intricate ones for him to try out. We simply love shopping for thread and have discovered two stores on Commercial Street in Bengaluru that treat Rishabh like a VIP because they love the idea of a boy who’s dedicated to the craft. “What are you making this time?” the gentlemen who run the shops are always curious to know.

So what’s in it for me? Fun and enjoyment. It’s not like the quality of my work has dramatically improved from my girlhood days — the stitches still run away from me like they want to get to the end of a line and be over and done with the torture of it all. But I’ve learned to take it lightly and not beat myself up over every single mistake. Also, the best thing about stitching and sewing is that it can all be undone and you can actually make a fresh start. Not to mention it’s therapeutic and can make even a difficult day bearable. But most of all, I value the time spent with Rishabh. With my daughter I was able to bond over reading and writing and with my son it’s been the needle and thread. As a guide — because let’s not have any illusions here, he’s clearly the one that shows the way and the one I look to for help — he is caring and considerate. He is infinitely patient and forgiving of my mess-ups, and until he found me this wonderful metal and wire thingamajig we call the ‘threader,’ he used to thread the needle for me every single time.

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What do you get out of it? I asked Rishabh. I like spending time with you, he shrugged. I like the companionship and the silly jokes we share.

I also suspect he likes having the tables turned. After all, how often does a child get to gently chastise his parent and watch her squirm in sheepish apology?

And by the way, we did manage to, slide, squish and pummel our cushions into their odd-shaped covers. Some are loose, some tight, and some just right.

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