Needlework & Skirts – Guys in the Handmade World

First, let’s get one thing straight. I know that’s not a skirt, and I know that Alt.Kilt, the creators and purveyors of the fine and fashionable kilt in this feature, will probably flay me for saying so. But my deliberately provocative title is there for a reason, and that reason is one we probably all know too well. That despite the Scots’ fierce tradition and the general badass-edness of kilts these days, some people will never see them as anything but a man-skirt.

That, I think, is why needlework and skirts, or a highly accomplished art form and a celebrated outfit of Scottish clansmen, go so well together. Because despite the DIY community’s best efforts to encourage and include guys into the fold, it is inevitably with the caveat of it being with extra manly crafts. Carve yourself a new chair! Metalsmith yourself a new planter. Cut up leather and make rugged, testosterone filled wallet things!  Crafts and guys can’t seem to exist without some included excuse as to how this handmade craft is worthy of manly pursuits, and is even more rarely put into the context of traditionally feminine crafts. A man? Knitting? Making something with a needle? Still unfortunately a rarity. Even more unfortunately, a crafty guy is oft celebrated for his boldness of being a guy instead of his actual amazing quality of craft.

What about combining traditionally male things with this perceived feminine craft? Well, also a rarity depending on the context, but that’s why we were so honored when Alt.Kilt asked to collaborate with us on embroidering their hardcore kilts with designs that would suit guys’ tastes. So we thought we’d bring these two sides together: men doing needlework, and needlework for men. We just needed a guy who could take on both. Luckily for us, there is that guy. The guy who loves needlework for the sake of it, and the pure impressive quality of that craft. A guy man enough to wear an embroidered kilt and do needlework simultaneously, and look pretty rad doing it.

That man is none other than the revolutionary Mr X Stitch, aka Jamie Chalmers, and he’s been working hard through his wildley popular blog of the same name to show that stitching is a pretty wicked medium, no matter who is doing it. Still, despite embroidery’s advances in culture in the last decade, stitching as a guy still has its expectations and associations. We talked with Mr X about his similarly ironic introduction to stitching, and the wider world it led to. Jamie says…

I started for fun as I wanted something to do on a vacation and thought it would be funny to be a big guy doing cross stitch. Turns out cross stitch is a really pleasant craft and I was quickly hooked. I didn’t necessarily intend for things to evolve in the way that they did, but as my interest in contemporary embroidery grew, I decided to get out and make connections over here in the UK.

Through a growing love and by visiting events like the Knitting & Stitching Show, Jaime got to know magazine editors and other members of the UK craft scene, and things started to grow. Still, it’s not easy being a guy with a needle and thread.

Things are still evolving, but these are exciting times. I’ve gone through a fair few personal journeys in coming to terms with the socio-political paradigm that says that cross stitch is for grannies. I made myself do things like cross stitching on trains and in public, and some of my stitcheries have explored these feelings as well.

The biggest challenge for me was joining my local Embroiderers’ Guild branch – being a manbroiderer is easy online, but in the real world, in my home town, it’s a whole ‘nother matter.

Facing up to the stereotypes of stitching is difficult enough for embroidery in any context. The current world of embroidery started, like many revolutions, with a backlash statement that it was something that could be alternative, grungy, snarky, and counter-culture. That was perhaps easy to embrace from a woman’s point of view. “See!?” we said with our defiant needles, “We can reinvent this traditionally feminine craft and make it something new for ourselves!”

That was a great start for women, but it made it a slightly more difficult take for guys, who are still trying to deal with both the traditions and the new social associations of a reinvented feminine craft. This is especially hard when faced with a real, social craft world that the DIY culture has become. Where do they stand in this art, if it’s not for an assumed social statement?

It’s great to meet other men who stitch, as we’ve all gone through the same experience. The paradigm I mentioned before is very pervasive and I think all male stitchers have had to process the social responses to their craft. And I don’t think that’s going to change just yet.

Machine embroidery in many ways is going through a similar cycle, albeit a few years later than the traditional hand craft. The industry was slow to respond to an alternative idea of embroidery, which was in fact the very catalyst for the creation of Urban Threads. Things were more attainable for those who could just pick up a needle and thread and make things for themselves, but for machine embroidery, it meant waiting for a whole industry to turn around and notice. Its application can also be its biggest barrier to new audiences. If all you see of machine embroidery as a guy is logos on golf shirts and trucker hats, what is your expectation of the medium as an art form? This is a thought shared by Mr X:

One of the biggest issues with embroidery is that it is often just an aesthetic product. I think that men often like crafts that are more practical, so the current expansion in digitized embroidery, as championed by your good selves and our man Erich Campbell, is a great sign as it shows that men can pimp their clothes, as well as their cars. Hand embroidery is a great craft for soothing the soul, as it is both meditative and creative. However, it’s still quite a way from being cool in the mainstream and so we (the stitchers who want to change this world view) must use all the directions possible to overcome the paradigm that we face.

So where does that leave digitizing, and machine embroidery as an art form for guys? Well, as Mr X puts it optimistically,

I think there are some technological barriers with digitizing, but men like gadgets.

Well, he’s not wrong about that.

Sadly, he’s also not incorrect about it’s barriers. While machine embroidery might in some ways have the wizard-tech appeal to perhaps lure in tool-minded guys, it is still a relatively unknown and cost-prohibitive medium to dive into with abandon. Couple that with expectations of what kinds of designs are out there to even interest guys, and it’s still a large hurdle to overcome as a medium with artistic merit.

So, what’s the biggest barrier was to getting guys into craft, hand or machine alike? What can we do to get more guys into the fold, so to speak? Jamie has a couple of ideas of where there can be room for improvement.

The embroidery industry has a part to play in the reason why men don’t stitch. There’s not a lot out there for them to enjoy – a simple visit to any major craft store validates that statement. However, the changes in technology that we’ve seen in pattern design software and digital printing will go some way to changing these perspectives as it allows more creativity to come from the individual at home.

Perhaps embroidery’s biggest problem then is its assumed use and audience. If we can get past the “who” and the “what for,” maybe we can just look at it as pure design, out of context of what we think it should be. That, luckily, is exactly what Mr X Stitch and many other contemporary craft blogs and communities are working hard to do.  For example, the Mr X Stitch blog has a section where you can read specifically about contemporary male embroiderers in their eMbroidery feature. A vast wealth of artists are using the internet to bring a voice to their craft, and it’s hard to think that with enough exposure people will only ever associate “craft” with doilies, wooden ducks and grannies. Handmade has come back in a big way, and men have never shied away from making things with their hands. It’s just that we need to change our ideas as to what those things they might make are.

It’s good to see that the internet is enabling artists from around the world to discover one another and be inspired by each other. I think the prevailing schools of thought about gender and embroidery will remain for a while, however if the mainstream craft industry shifts to accommodate these changing views, and if the profile of embroidery as a valid art form and a craft that men can enjoy continues to rise, then we’re in with a shot.

Perhaps the most optimistic way of looking forward, then, is through the experience of sharing and collaborating on what embroidery is, and what it can be used for. We were absolutely thrilled to get a chance to work with Alt.Kiltand custom embroider one of their awesome creations to showcase on one of the manliest dudes in the embroidery world (we love you Mr X!). Their interest in utilizing embroidery and even machine embroidery as part of their traditionally guy-friendly offerings (though I wouldn’t mind one myself) is a good sign of things to come. Hopefully, the more we show that putting needle to thread results in cool things no matter what your gender, the more we’ll see people take it up in new ways. Reassuringly, the guy with arguably the most accurate finger on the pulse of the embroidery world seems equally optimistic about the medium.

I know that the stuff we do with needle and thread is really powerful on a spiritual level as well as a practical and political one, so I remain absolutely optimistic that we can turn the tide and get more people to share the love of the stitch.  We’ve barely gotten started, and I think people had better watch out!

Many thanks to the folks who worked to pull this feature together spanning two states, two continents, and many months. To Alt Kilt for providing such an awesome creation to display embroidery on, Mr X for being such a good sport about modeling, and Emma Beckett for the photography. Love those Celtic designs on the kilt? Grab em’ right here.

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This project is part of The Lab, a UT initiative to experiment, collaborate and innovate to see just what can be done with the art of embroidery.
 
Check out our other projects by searching for the UT Lab tag.
 
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17 Responses to “Needlework & Skirts – Guys in the Handmade World”

  1. 1
    Peter says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. As a male embroidery designer, I can’t tell you how hard it is has been to find a comfortable voice, an audience or many other guys who share the hobby/business of embroidery design. I’m very happy doing ‘manly’ crafts, but I’ told I’ve a knack for machine embroidery design. I’ve only been doing it for a short time, and I’ve plenty to learn still, but UT and Mr X Stitch certainly keep me hopeful enough to continue.

    • Mr. X does us a great service with his passionate work for stitching, and I cant say enough how much I appreciate his own voice and work. Peter, there are many more of us out here, some of us even career embroidery designers. ;) Being so lucky as to have the incomparable Mr.X mention me in this piece makes me even more committed to being a resource for all who pursue embroidery digitizing/design, with a special regard for helping men get past that imaginary boundary that tells them that embroidery isn’t a ‘manly’ pursuit. If you ever want to shoot the breeze with someone with 12 years in the business, I’m here to help. :)

    • Wren says:

      I’m a bit confused – are you saying you aren’t comfortable with women embroiderers? Do you think all women are only interested in teddy bears and cutsie designs?

      • Niamh says:

        Of course not! The very foundation of Urban Threads was the assumption that our audience wanted MORE than cutesy teddy bear designs, for men and women alike. I myself was very disappointed that the industry mostly assumed A) Everyone was female and B) Everyone liked cutesy stuff. As a woman in this industry I was looking for something more than cute and fluffy.

        We’re working to dispel both those ideas, so people of all types can enjoy different kinds of designs for stitching. The point of this article was that while the idea that people don’t always want cute is starting to be accepted, male stitchers are still somewhat unrecognized as a demographic.

  2. 2

    I’m a fan of Mr X and all the various corners of this “movement.” What concerns me, though, when we start “celebrating” men participating in these sorts of arts, is what often happens under these circumstances. Suddenly the male POV becomes the “serious” or “professional” aspect — see cooking, fashion design, home decorating — and the female becomes “hobbyist.”

    Make no mistake, I think every gender should revel in the things that light up their brains. I’m just…sayin’.

    • Niamh says:

      I think it’s a very fair point to make! I believe the same mentality that instantly celebrates the male instead of the art does a disservice to everyone. Women have no special social expectations about doing an art like needlework, and therefore it is assumed a hobby. However men perhaps get more recognition about just being a dude than an talented artist, which can be equally annoying.

      I think the main thing we need to keep fighting for is to change the perception of needlework from merely a “craft” into being recognized as a legitimate art in itself, utilized by artists of all kinds and backgrounds. Every artist who wields a needle with talent deserves to be recognized as one.

  3. 3
    Jessica says:

    A great article! It’s wonderful to finally read a piece which celebrates and encourages male embroiderers whilst recognising that simply being a man shouldn’t overshadow talent. I’m a professional embroider and there have been a number of frustrating occasions where my skills and talents have been overlooked in favour of a male stitcher, simply because they are male. Well done Mr X for all your work in giving contemporary embroidery a voice and addressing the gender issues within the industry, and well done Urban Stitch for writing a really well rounded article! May it encourage many men to take up the needle and help in the battle for the masses to recognise embroidery as an art form!

  4. 4
    Elfie B. says:

    Who has a needle in hand has a point.

    Imma stitch that.

  5. 5
    Pam says:

    Great discussion and totally agree with She Fights Like a Girl. But what I really wanted to say was … the kilt is totally awesome and Jamie just looks the goods in it!
    On another sort of unrelated topic – is it just me or do others find it difficult to track down the part where one can actually make a comment? I had to go through three screens (all with the article on the kilt and Mr X Stitch) before I finally located the Comments page. If there’s an easier way, please share. And haven’t totally made up my mind about the new-look website, but at the moment preferring the old one. Just in case you’re gathering opinions. And while I’m at it, wondering why no newsletter in my inbox today. Gremlins?
    But, hey, UT team – love your work!
    Cheers, Pam in Australia

  6. 6
    Blytherules says:

    Although there are many embroidery businesses owned by men, when it came to going to a sewing & embroidery conference there were no men there in the past. My grandfather was the single male who would attend starting in the 1980s. My grandmother would design knitted garments and he would do the knitting on the knitting machine and she would sew and he would do the machine embroidery. There was nothing to keep him from his embroidery machine, and I gladly supported his endeavors! It was wonderful having a male in the family to share these activities! My nephew wanted to learn to sew when my niece started learning and he did quality work. It was challenging to find good male sewing projects, but he made “car” pillows and pants while she made dresses, etc. Even finding good male fabric was a difficult. I like Urban Threads for their edgy & male appropriate designs including the techno, tattoo and celtic inspired art. Guys, just grut like Tim Allen on Home Improvement and sling that needle! …and…have fun while doing it!

  7. 7

    Loved this article as my husband is great with my embroidery machine and i am sure that with my new one, he will be doing even more with it! Not only are there not enough “male” designs but there are not enough sophisticated clothing designs out there! That is why I love Urban Threads! For so long, all there was only “bunnies on towels”. Hard to get excited about that when what you want is to embroider an 18th century waistcoat front or a 19th century evening bodice! keep pushing the envelope everyone!

  8. 8
    catsatararat says:

    I do see the point of the article even though I think it did as much to reinforce the prevailing view as to dispel it by emphasising how unusual it is to see men sewing and embroidering.

    But if you want to see the needlecrafts work of men you might look to some of our military. The most beautiful x-stitch I have ever seen (saying something as I was a keen x-stitcher myself for many years and saw the work of some true masters in this field) was done by naval officers when at sea. They took up this “craft” and knitting/crochet as the tools/materials are compact (very limited space for personal stuff on board), portable, low-tech (no need for batteries, internet, etc) and offered the chance to be creative. I was thrilled to learn my local electrician was making a x-stitch wall hanging for his grand-daughter, and happily help him with thread selection for many of his projects as his wife is not a stitcher. And many prisons offer sewing/embroidery as training courses for men as they also face the limitations of small spaces and the need to foster positive creativity.

    I think as much as anything it is a case of opportunity. Social norms still require women to play a primary domestic role, and as a woman I have no problem with that as psychologically many women are more suited to that field – as long as they have the choice as individuals to go in other directions if they wish. But as we are an aging population that lives longer I think more people – men and women – will come to so-called “crafts” later in life as they find their previous more strenuous sports and activities are no longer as appealing to the aging joints. This is NOT to say that sewers/embroiderers are little old grannies! But someone – man or woman – who no longer has to run around after the kids will obviously have more time to devote to a new pastime than a parent with all the demands of babies, toddlers, early schoolers and teens. And men in that age group are seldom equipped with the social networks to learn crafts. Our local Embroiderers Guild was overwhelmed by the interest expressed by men when they invited guests to their meetings. The men were interested but had never felt welcome as so many women regard their craft time as a time for bonding with other women. So we started talking about having a men’s group and occasional joint meetings.

    Perhaps the “fault” also lies with women who want a small section of their lives to be just for them and not necessarily something they wish to share with the men in their lives. Nothing wrong with that but it could also contribute to the male view that they are not welcome in the sewing/stitching world.

    I teach in this field and I find the start-up age is around 40 to 80yo, or around 8 to 12yo. And at 8 to 12yo both boys and girls are interested. Most (no, not all) of the youngsters will drop the crafts they learn for a while, but they will usually come back to them when their lifestyles allow them more leisure.

    Perhaps the best way to overcome this “hurdle” is simply to invite the men to join in.

  9. 9
    not ur av grandma says:

    I have know for many years that men have knitted, x cross, crocheted, hooked rugs etc for ages. Mr. X is not the first x cross that I encountered after all lets not forget Mr Rosie Greer a pro football player who is not tiny doing x cross. As for the Navy they have been doing hand projects way, way way back when for socks and sweaters for the cold climes. It is only in the last few years that the men have been able to come out of the closet if you will as crafters and not required to be homosexual. I do want to thank UT for their wonderful designs especially the tats that just came out. My husband saw them and bought them and now the dragon is on his new e-reader.

  10. 10
  11. 11
    Ande Spenser says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. A lot of my guy friends are deep into the arts and/or crafting, whether it be sewing their own Ren Faire gear, crafting zombies, or writing novels, painting, or any number of things. They would totally love this guy’s blog.

    Some of them would certainly be interested in decorative embroidery, especially after seeing this kilt! I sense some serious kilt envy coming up when I show them this sweet, sweet project.

    I am really glad that Urban Threads has so many really cool unisex designs. I have a metaphysical shop, and I have stitched several of the designs in the Celtic Majesty pack for rune or tarot bag designs, and they are particularly popular with the guys.

    In my niche, the stereotypical customer is a middle aged female. I am so happy that UT has so much more that I can offer to people of all types! Gothy, Celtic, chakras, even some new age woo-woo LOL

    Way to go, Thread Masters! all of ya.

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