Bénédicte Meffre (French Stitcher known as Hémiole) is passionate about historical embroidery and shares her research and experiments on a very interesting blog (see below).
A meeting out of time …
Interview: Claire de Pourtalès
Photos: © Bénédicte Meffre
Saint-Sylvain © Bénédicte Meffre
Fox, 13th century © Bénédicte Meffre
Where are you from ? What landscapes have they seen you grow up? What influences did they have on your work?
I am from the south of France. But during my childhood, we made many trips and we visited many museums. They have probably shaped a certain view on our heritage.
The encounter with embroidery – how was it? What techniques, what first impressions?
When I was a student, I don’t know why my mother sent me some embroidery material and I tried it a bit at random. I was quickly technically limited and I got to buy myself books to learn. I was drawn to these quiet moments. Those were the first impressions: a lowering of the tension and an appreciated isolation from the tumult.
Can you tell us about your background?
I started historical reenactment as a hobby in the early 2000s. Very quickly, embroidery emerged as the theme I wanted to explore.
This is how I started to work on the reconstruction of an embroidery workshop in the Middle Ages.
Following a move and a change of life, 10 years later, I created my historical costume design company, offering embroidered accessories.
For the past few years, I have been trying to create more mediation content around historical embroidery.
What training (s) do you have?
After another life, I trained myself on costume, embroidery, history. Mainly through books. But also in contact with people during all these years practicing historical reconstruction.
Even when you’re self-taught, you don’t really train just by yourself. I had the chance to be part of several associations (Fief et chevalerie; Historia Aquitanorum) with people who taught me a lot and encouraged me in my research, with a lot of emulation.
I have also worked with historians who have pushed me to considerably improve my approach and thus be able to offer ever more qualitative work.
Dragon © Bénédicte Meffre
Do you have a preference for an era in embroidery?
Many ! I really like the naive embroidery, the things that seem a little awkward.
During the medieval period, I really like the abundance between the 12th and 14th centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries there are also a lot of interesting styles.
Your materials, fabrics, threads, tools: how do you choose them?
It’s a constant balancing act.
Regarding fabrics and threads, I try to work with materials that are consistent with the era from which I am inspired: the composition, the type of weaving, the spinning. This is of course not always possible and the goal is to get as close as possible to what we know.
For the colors, I select colors close to those which were obtained thanks to the techniques of the time.
All this requires not only to be interested in the result (the costume, the embroidery) but also in all the techniques which are related. It’s a part of the job that I find fascinating!
Regarding the tools, of course for my demonstrations, I have tools reconstituted by specialized craftsmen. They are made from objects of archaeological excavations or representations on paintings or sculptures.
In fact, many tools have stayed the same since the Middle Ages and in the secrecy of my workshop, I work with modern tools (needles, scissors, looms).
Tools © Bénédicte Meffre
Renaissance flower © Bénédicte Meffre
Do you work with specific weavers, dyers?
When the project lends itself to it, I try to work with a professional dyer friend (l’Atelier de Micky) who offers naturally dyed yarns (and fabrics to order). She has an excellent knowledge of ancient techniques (especially medieval). This allows us to offer the most realistic possible reconstructions.
And we can rationalize things in all directions, natural dyes have a “je ne sais quoi” that gives extra soul.
What are the goals behind your work, your blog, your research?
Originally, my blog was mainly used to keep a journal of my research for the reconstruction, to put everything down, to keep a track.
Over time, I began to do historical mediation, whether through events, conferences and newspaper articles or books. Always about costume, embroidery or textiles in general. The blog is part of this mediation work.
I then try to transmit historical and technical knowledge but I also talk about the society, the women and men behind the crafts.
Wimple stitched with golden threads, 16th century © Bénédicte Meffre
Do you have a publication project?
When I released my first medieval embroidery initiation kits, I was asked to create them with counted stitches. So I tried to explore the question further. I was able to realize that it is much more varied than the image we have of it.
I started writing a series of articles on these counted stitch embroidery from medieval times.
I offer to describe these styles of embroidery from the observation of historical pieces.
The first article in the series was on predominantly white embroidery, the rest will focus on polychrome and grid embroidery.
What response do you have from the public? Is it still a specialized audience?
It is very variable. The people who follow my blog right now are mostly people who enjoy historical reenactment as a hobby. The same goes when I write for specialized magazines.
Opus Anglicanum © Bénédicte Meffre
But doing mediation in other contexts, I meet another audience. Obviously the subject is not always as thorough as in my articles where I have the time to detail the sources and develop my approach.
As I try not to limit myself to the purely technical aspect but to evoke society, everyday life, this often leads to interesting exchanges, including with an audience who had no specific interest in embroidery (or of the other subjects that I also talk about).
In the end, what is your favorite activity?
I take great pleasure in all the different facets of my activity. Research obviously excites me, but for example at the moment, I am really passionate about the creation of educational projects which have a real coherence and which allows me to bring people exploring medieval embroidery.
It is also the beauty of working in connection with historical reconstruction, on the one hand the intellectual stimulation of research and on the other, the creation.
The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire