A Project of a Lifetime

25th September 2020

How long would you devote to a single embroidery project? We all know that needlework is not a quick process. From the moment we first thread the needle through to putting in the final stitch, we can expect tens, or even hundreds of hours of meditative activity. Add in the inevitable unpicking and it is pretty certain that some projects are going to take up weeks or even years of our lives.

For some stitchers, this level of devotion is just par for the course. They wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the thought of the years ahead. Take Brother Martin Sneller for example. Brother Martin is a retired chemistry teacher and practicing Lasallian brother now living in the Philippines.

He recently completed a giant, cross-stitched table of the elements after 20 years of stitching.

After starting the piece in 2000 as he was recovering from a back injury, this labour of love has been a part of his life ever since.

Or take the delightful 86-year-old lady who hand stitched this exquisite chair. As well as designing the piece and using samples from nature to get her colours absolutely correct, she devoted 25 years of her life to its completion. It is little wonder that sitting in it is absolutely forbidden.

Probably the first question many stitchers might ask is ‘didn’t you get bored?’ Brother Martin admitted that he did ‘get tired of the same project.’ As such, he started and completed others in the meantime – some 20 or 30 altogether which he gave away as gifts. But even with these distractions, he always returned to his opus, adding stitch after stitch in the knowledge that each one brought him one step closer to his ultimate goal.

There are many ideas around the value of dedication to a project or a cause. The benefits include a sense of purpose, continuous satisfaction and, depending on how you mentally frame the project, plenty of micro-achievements leading ultimately to the final, wonderful macro-achievement. 

However, as with many things, there are also downsides which many of us will recognize in a trail of once started and now abandoned (or perhaps we should say ‘postponed’) projects. These include boredom, a feeling of being stuck or bogged down, and the complete loss of focus or motivation that arises from the inexorable tug of that new and shiny thing just crying out to be started.

Although both of the dedicated stitchers referenced in this article are in their 80s, lifelong commitment to a project shouldn’t just be something exclusive to the older members of our community. It is true that there are many laments bandied around today about how younger people can’t focus thanks to screens, digital technology and the frenetic pace of life they are forced to keep up.

However, devoting oneself to a passion and working slowly and inexorably on it is, we would argue, universal.

Perhaps some projects we begin today need to be approached with a mindset that it could take a decade or two for their completion.

When something takes that amount of time, the fruits of people’s labour are rare and precious fruits indeed.

For this we can all look to Brother Martin for inspiration. He openly admits to the tedium he faced stitching the border of his piece, but says that during those periods, he would keep his motivation going with other projects.

Perhaps the lesson is that no matter how frustrated we feel, we should never label any project as ‘completely abandoned’. In time, we may pick it up again and continue on, always holding that ultimate goal in our minds.

Whether you have spent hours, days, weeks or even years on a project, what we can all agree on is it’s the journey which is important. The journey takes time, it demands love, brings ups and downs, joys and frustrations. The journey is both the thing that drives us, and the thing that paralyses us. 

In the end, once the time has been spent and we finally view our achievement framed on a wall, it will act, above everything else, as the reminder of that journey. Or, as Brother Martin says, it serves as ‘something to admire’ and to remind him of ‘all of the various stages’ of his life that it preserved in each and every stitch.

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