A common thread: how embroidery became the ultimate lockdown hobby

With its small start-up costs, portable equipment and endless online inspiration, embroidery is the perfect home-based hobby

Model railway building, juggling, origami. The resurgence of niche pastimes and interests – beyond showing off your latest sourdough on Instagram – has proven to be a mental health salve during the continuing global pandemic.

And when it comes to hobbies – a sub-section of life that has often been relegated to a footnote on a CV – the pandemic has been instrumental in encouraging people who otherwise wouldn't be spending such prolonged periods at home to try their hand at something new, or return to something they enjoyed in childhood.

Enter embroidery, a practically made-for-lockdown pastime that its fans say has allowed them to find balance and reconnect with their creativity.

"I've always been into making things by hand, and doing embroidery reconnected me to that part of being human that likes to create and forge things by hand," says Natalya Konforti, 34, a Florida native who founded the artisanal company Glitches and Stitches in Dubai three years ago.

“We are so disconnected these days between the price tag we see on an item and the work that goes into making it, so I do think that post-pandemic, there will be a great appreciation for heritage crafts and personalised products.”

Konforti, who started embroidering five years ago when she was living and working in France, set up a series of socially distanced embroidery workshops at community space Kave, in Dubai's Alserkal Avenue. She soon discovered that the common thread pulling together those who attended her sessions was a desire to move away from what she calls the "cookie cutter" world of mass-produced, factory-made garments and gifts.

“The name of my company is an homage to the imperfections that come from making things by hand, especially in first-time projects,” she says. “I wanted to inspire people to get in touch with their creative side, to understand the work and effort that goes into making something.”

The Japanese have a word for it: wabi-sabi, meaning beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

"One of the other things I've learnt through embroidery is to stop throwing away old clothes, or anything really, but rather mending them in a way that adds to their story," says Poras Dhakan, 35, a lawyer who embroiders in his spare time.

And it's a sentiment echoed by Orsolya Bizouarn, 40, who took up embroidery seven years ago after returning to the hobby she loved as a child. "Sometimes it's hard for people to appreciate the time and effort that goes into something handcrafted," she says. "But I think now, more than ever, people are looking for unique pieces. They're turning away from mass-produced items and back towards art, and that's a good thing."

‘Making mistakes is part of the process’

While some of those who attend Konforti's workshops have been embroidering for years, many picked up the hobby only as a way of killing time when the pandemic began.

"I started doing embroidery during the lockdown period in Dubai," says Claire Parsons, 29, a marketing manager from Dubai. "Having quite a lot of time at home and knowing the hot summer months were coming, I thought it was the perfect time to learn something new that I can do in the comfort of my home.

"Learning a new skill is always great, no matter which one it is. It allows you to spend some time researching techniques, materials, tips and also meeting like-minded people. You just need to learn a few basics, be patient, try a few things, make some mistakes. It's all part of the process."

And for many embroiderers, a major attraction has been that it’s a hobby requiring focus and no distractions.

"For the past 15 years I haven't stopped, not even for one day because I am always so busy," says flight attendant Jessica Tuite, 37. "But now, I've met a whole new group of people from different cultures I wouldn't otherwise have met on a Tuesday night as I'd usually have been out at a ladies night. It's had such a positive impact. I've come out of it a different person."

She says the pandemic forced her to stop and sit down. "When you're embroidering you get into your own world, and nothing else going on out there in the real world matters. You can be in your own artistic, colourful space for hours."

A gender-bridging pastime

Embroidery goes back millennia, weaving a rich history through the fabric of time to reflect cultures, record history and act as a way for marginalised groups to document their lives. So, plucking a defining moment from its historical narrative is practically impossible.

However, it's worth noting that during and after the First World War, injured and disabled servicemen returning from the front lines were encouraged to take up embroidery to ward off the "melancholy" and shell shock we now know as PTSD. And St Paul's Cathedral in London is home to a five-panel altar frontal created by 133 wounded soldiers who were staying in hospitals across England at the time.

"I use it as time dedicated to me," says Dhakan. "I make time to sit down for an hour and turn off my phone. It's very much a digital detox."

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I was told they usually wouldn't see men there.

Interested in how his own involvement with the art form challenges gender norms, Dhakan recently established an all-male embroidery group called Backstitch Boys and revealed his surprise at the gender imbalance in the art form.

"If you go to Satwa, you'll find that the majority of embroiderers are male," he says. "That's because in India and Asia, it's a lot more of a gender-neutral occupation. The first workshop I went to, one to the ladies said to me, 'Well done for being here,' and I was surprised as it's not brave or significant of me to be there, in my opinion," he says. "I was told they usually wouldn't see men there. Even a small step that challenges gender stereotypes is significant. I mean, why shouldn't men embroider?"

Focus, stitch, create, repeat

As with many art forms that require focus and concentration, embroiderers talk of the meditative quality of their favourite hobby, saying that hours can pass unnoticed.

"It has a calming and relaxing effect," says Konforti. "The repetitiveness of the stitch, doing the same thing over and over stimulates visual and precise motor skills. It's called the 'default mode' or 'positive constructive daydreaming', during which the brain focuses and you can't do anything else at the same time. You get into different states of thinking."

For others it forces them to switch off the TV or phones.

"It's very meditative," agrees Dhakan. "With embroidery you can disconnect and find yourself meditating through stitching. Plus, there's the whole aspect of planning what you're going to do."

Bizouarn says it's relaxing and provides the perfect me-time. "It's a time when I can do something for myself, that's only mine, not for kids, friends or family," she says. "What's exciting is that you never know what you'll end up with."

More information on Glitches and Stitches is at www.glitchesandstitches.com