The cushion Jane Prior picks up from a window seat in her kitchen is cased in a colourful, finely stitched pattern.
“This is petit point canvas work. It’s a bit like cross stitch,” she explains. “Years ago ladies used to have an evening purse with petit point, but they seem to have gone out of fashion.”
Although painstakingly done by her own hands, Prior doesn’t seem to have a lot of emotion for that particular work.
Her real love is designing. And once the pattern for a petit point has been worked out, she says it “just becomes a hard slog going in and out of the holes.”
Prior prefers to cast aside the “surface stitchery” and add depth to her pieces with dimensional needlework.
She spends hundreds of hours stitching life into her delicate designs, using her own patterns — and for the most part, stitching them freehand.
An artist by nature, she began painting as a small child.
“I can’t remember not painting. It gives me the ability to design my own things. On the whole, with a few exceptions, ready-made designs are pretty static and boring. They haven’t got the soul in them. They are designed to be done quickly. So I design my own, which is much more satisfying.”
When she gets an idea she does a rough drawing and a rough painting, determining the colours she wants. She transfers very little of her drawing to the fabric, perhaps just marking out the proportions, like where the skyline and water will be.
“This sounds awfully pretentious and when I read this stuff in magazines, it drives me nuts … but sometimes — it’s part of the creative process I guess — but sometimes things just work out slightly differently. Although you have your initial design on paper it is really only a very rough draft. Most of the stitching is executed freehand and you go where the work takes you, so it never turns out exactly as you thought it would. But that is wonderful.”
Prior, who lives in Whiteway, was born near Liverpool, England on the Wirral Peninsula. Growing up in the UK, there was no shortage of fine embroidery, both ancient and modern.
“I think textile arts and embroidery have a greater profile in Europe and is recognized as a true art more so than in Canada,” she says.
“There are exhibitions of needlework and all the great houses have historical needlework because it was much more fashionable in those days and the churches are full of needlework too, so it’s more part of life than it is here. So you kind of absorb it without knowing it.”
She and her husband David moved to Newfoundland when he began working as a doctor in Gander, where they lived for 30 years.
Prior got hooked on needlework back in the ’50s when she was 9 or 10 years old.
“All the girls were wearing circular skirts. I embroidered a dog’s head on the pocket of my skirt. That was it.”
Then it was on to handkerchiefs with initials.
“Linen handkerchiefs are a bit of a rarity now, but when I was a girl you could not go out without one. Then I became a student and there was no time for embroidery.”
After she got married in 1968, she picked up the needle again, branching out into different kinds of work and going to a few classes. That’s when she became bored with ready-made designs and began doing her own.
But it takes time and perseverance. Some of Prior’s pieces have taken hundreds of hours to complete and she often works late into the night. She spent more than 500 hours completing a piece call “The Cove”, and a tapestry chair took more than two winters to do.
“Most of my projects take a winter of evenings, more or less.”
Limited time can pose a problem for some women, she says.
“If I’m really into doing something and I have to stop to cook, I get really cranky. So I think a lot of women cope with this by not doing it.
“Historically, I think that’s why there haven’t been as many women artists as there have been men, because (women) have to look after other people. In a way, if you want to pursue an art you’ve got to be kind of selfish, don’t you,” she reflects, using writing as an example. “Because to have to say: to hell with what the family wants, I’m writing this chapter now. And if you’re stopped from getting it down, you get really frustrated.”
While Prior is stitching one work, she’s planning the next. Her current work in progress was inspired by a sunset.
“I saw a sunset and I loved the colours. It was almost dark, but you still had the colours of the sun going down. And I’ve kind of built an imaginary scene around that sunset.”
Being largely self-taught and because of her unorthodox ways, Prior figures, “The purist could find fault with my work. But you know what? I don’t care; I do what I love. For me my needlework is total freedom, it is my little universe — I can do what I want, how I want, when I want.”
She hasn’t taught any classes as such, but she does have some valuable advice for beginners:
“The kind of thing that I do takes a lot of time and, for want of a better word, stick-ability. I think anyone who wants to embroider should start off by embroidering a little picture, like a sampler (that says), ‘An embroiderer is known by what she finishes, not what she starts.’”