Manga Cross-Stitch: making something new

Cover design (UK edition) © Ilex Press

Cover design (UK edition) © Ilex Press

My latest book, Manga Cross-Stitch, finally hit British bookshops and  last week. It should have gone on sale in mid-June, but the Gods of Shipping had other ideas: hopefully they’re now appeased, and the U.S. launch next month will go ahead without a hitch.

I’ve already seen the first review – in the August 2009 issue of SFX, scooping the usual craft mags. Quite aside from the surprise of seeing an embroidery book reviewed there at all, I was  happy to get a positive reading from Leah Holmes. A friend emailed on Friday to tell me the book’s in the shop at the Victoria and Albert Museum. SFX to V&A – an interesting journey.

Like my next book, due in October, Manga Cross-Stitch didn’t have the easiest of beginings. When I started pitching it a couple of years ago, reactions varied from hearty laughter (turning slightly embarrassed as it dawned that I was perfectly serious) to complete disinterest.

Luckily, I’ve been there before, so it didn’t faze me. My first book, Anime! A Beginners Guide to Japanese Animation, was a hard sell. Back in the late 1980s nobody thought there was any interest at all in Japanese cartoons. Even as late as 1991, editors were telling me it “might make a chapter in a book on TV SF”, but there just wasn’t enough material or enthusiasm for anime to support a book devoted to the subject. The Beginners Guide finally appeared in 1993.

I already knew there was interest in using counted thread embroidery in ways far removed from the usual image of Victorian flowers and cute animals.  Julie Jackson’s 2003 book Subversive Cross Stitch had stirred up a hornet’s nest of witty, funny, thoughtful stitching. I also knew there were people interested in anime and manga-style cross stitch – I’d seen plenty of designs on the internet. Unfortunately most of them used copyright characters, sometimes in new and original designs but sometimes copied straight from scanned art or frame grabs – nobody seemed to be making original images. Working on the Mac with a chart programme had convinced me anyone could make original designs, or vary charts to personalise them, and seeing the work of gifted friends had demonstrated that , even working on someone else’s model, the skilled crafter brings something uniquely their own to the end product.

So I just kept pitching the idea for Manga In Stitches. The working title came from the general reaction: I outlined the idea for a book bringing together manga, anime and cross-stitch, and listeners were immediately in stitches. (For anyone unfamiliar with British slang, this indicates irrepressible, near-hysterical laughter.) Finally, the wonderful Tim Pilcher, Commissioning Editor at Ilex Press, saw the potential and championed the idea all the way through to signing a contract.

Of course, that was just the start. I’ve been a needleworker for most of my life – my grandmother taught me to embroider when I was four, and my primary school taught needlework to both boys and girls. I’ve been designing cross stitch and needlepoint on the computer for years. This, though, was my first craft book, and the one thing I knew from the beginning was that I didn’t want it to be like any other craft book.

A spread from the book

A spread from the book

Books can change attitudes, in small things as well as big ones. A craft book isn’t on quite the level of The Audacity of Hope, but my dreams for it were  pretty audacious. I wanted it to have all the energy and graphic edge of anime and manga. I wanted to get anime and manga fans excited about learning an ancient craft, where the slow burn of skill and effort grows beauty organically. I wanted to get stitchers excited about a new form of visual grammar. I wanted to show that trusting and revelling in your own creativity is far more fun than bootlegging someone else’s work. I wanted to overturn the artificial divisions between craft and art, smash the stereotypes that say otaku are all juvenile geeks and stitchers are all ladies of a certain age with a predilection for pastel cardigans.  I wanted to change a tiny part of the pattern of the world, one stitch at a time.

Now, that was more than a grandiose dream – it was a contract with a six-month deadline. I had to turn an idea into a working text that could be understood by people across two different art forms, and newcomers to both, as well as generating a mass of new designs, turning them into cross-stitch charts, and getting enough samples stitched for photography. “Be careful what you wish for” is a phrase that springs to mind, usually, as here, too late to be useful.

I was, of course, lucky to have an in-house designer of unusual quality in Steve Kyte, as well as a folder full of my own design ideas. I was also lucky in recruiting a wonderful team of stitchers from all over the world through the forum. So the next six months were a blur of charting new designs, sending charts and materials out to the sample stitchers, adjusting thanks to their feedback, and writing the text. It was hard work, and alongside my speaking work and pitching the next project, it meant twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

It was one of the best experiences of my writing life. Craft books have totally different demands than other non-fiction: clarity and brevity are everything, and the word is so totally subordinate to the image that they’re the BSDM of the writing world. I learned much in terms of focus and discipline. I also rediscovered how demanding and rewarding it is to lead one creative team while working with another – because while I was managing my stitching and writing schedule, I was also working with the Ilex team, making small contributions to the design, editorial and packaging processes.

A spread from the book

A spread from the book

They suggested putting all the charts on a CD, so that the book could be used to showcase the ideas and methods I wanted to get across. They persuaded the designers of my chart software to let them put trial versions of both the Mac and PC editions on the CD as well. They also produced something that looks absolutely stunning.

Last week I led my first Manga Cross-Stitch workshops at the Japan Foundation. More workshops are planned at the Japanese Arts Festival in Richmond in a couple of weeks’ time. Hopefully the rest of the reviews will be good, and stitchers will enjoy using the book and sign up to the idea of unleashing their inner artist and creating their own works. If everything goes really well, the stash of design ideas for Manga Cross Stitch II: The Masterclass is already growing…

Traditional crafts are amazingly flexible instruments. Just before the book appeared, on 21 May 2009, The Sun newspaper ran an article headlined Why cross-stitch is achingly hip again, carrying pictures from a new range of kits inspired by urban street art. Textile and needle arts are refusing to be stuffed into any stereotypical closet. Stitchers wear their traditions proudly, but are not restricted by them.

Make something new. Shift perceptions, one stitch at a time.

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