Joanna Kabanoff is a stitcher and a historian, a combination that has evolved into a rich practice of textile designing and making.
Joanna has a PhD in History from Sydney University, a career as a writer and editor and a deeply lived experience of chronic health issues and disability. She was born in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, into a family of European and American migrants to Australia and absorbed a love of the American folk-art tradition of cross stitch from her mother, in addition to learning embroidery and quilting. Money was scarce, she remembers, but there was always a vibrant culture of sewing and stitching - and always the question: let’s see how we can make something with what we have?
Joanna has collected antique samplers for years. She finds herself drawn to the small and occasionally damaged pieces where she can recognise the quirks of the original stitcher woven into the design.
Antique samplers were used as an educational tool for 18th and 19th century working-class girls, she explains. Their stitching, so long laboured over, then became documents proving their education and ultimately their social and economic value within the narrow world they could access. There are as many stories embedded in each sampler as there are stitches dutifully worked.
“I started collecting antique samplers to learn from them, but I’ve come to see them as historical documents”. says Joanna. “Women’s history is so full of holes and especially for working-class women. The samplers speak of the lives of the girls who stitched them and the communities of women who shared and passed down their patterns to each other. There’s so much knowledge to be drawn from these artifacts”.
“A lot of people think stitching reproductions is just copying,” says Joanna. “But to me, it’s about bringing the designs back to life -it’s a collaboration between the original stitcher, myself and the stitchers who add their own creativity”.
Bushland Quaker series
In 2020, as the Covid19 pandemic took hold around the world, we all can remember how difficult it suddenly became to find materials for stitching. Joanna doubled down on her instinct to create with what she could find close to home. Taking Quaker sampler designs as her inspiration along with her deep love of Australian flora and fauna – Joanna, long a fan of Cottage Garden Threads, started using them in her designs.
“I wanted to create something reflective of home for me”, she says “and weave that into the traditional Quaker patterns. That’s how I started using CGT thread – they have such unique Australian colours”.
First came Joanna’s ‘Bushland Quaker’ design, which she describes as “a celebration of Australian flora (with a bit of fauna tucked in there too), in a Quaker style”. Her second Quaker design ‘Take Wing’ is a celebration of Australian birds in a Quaker style. And her most recent, ‘Autumn Leaves' features North American, European and Australia flora and fauna. As she says on her site: “I hope it reminds you of cooling days, dazzling hues and crunchy leaves underfoot”.
Bookshelf Edit thread collection and ‘In the Library’
Look at Joanna's stunning original design ‘In the Library' and you’ll be left with no doubt that libraries and bookshops are some of her happiest places. It’s a piece designed around Joanna’s extraordinary collaboration with CGT that has resulted in the designer thread range titled ‘Bookshelf’.
The thread names and the hues of the Bookshelf range evoke a richly layered image of a room full of books, objects taking on the patina of time, an inviting wingback reading chair next to a crackling fire, coffee and the luxury of time to sip it still hot, while settling in to read and to write.
And there is a passing nod to a few famous women of the page: Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Emily Bronte and even Anonymous (whom we all know was a woman).
Joanna’s inspiration for the Bookshelf thread range was a vision of an antique home library. Colours have been designed to mimic antique samplers which often age in interesting ways. Her thread names also reference the process of age that works upon the surface of other materials, like paper (foxing) and some precious metals (tarnishing).
“I think Pam is a genius”, says Joanna. “She has a remarkable ability to create colour combinations in variegated thread which adds such life to stitching”.
Ask Joanna what her favourite colour is, and she doesn’t hesitate: “Green! I have this colossal bag full of green threads”, she laughs.
It’s no accident that Pam gives the same answer when asked what colour is most difficult to perfect in thread. Perhaps the complexities of the hue are the very thing that make it speak to the soul. “People see colour very differently, but apparently, the human eye has the capacity to see more shades of green than any other colour”, says Joanna.
There is a gentle process of innovation in the way Joanna uses colour in her designs. “Cross stitching traditionally doesn’t use heavily variegated thread,” she says, “and I think there are huge creative possibilities in opening people up to incorporating it into their designs”.
Joanna sees herself as playing the boundary between cross stitch and embroidery. “I want to encourage people to innovate and expand the use of different stitches and materials with my designs. There are no rules”, she says. “A piece of art should be individual – and I see the designer as a facilitator for stitchers to create their own art”. Joanna is working on some new types of finishes and incorporating more embroidery stitches into her designs. “ I'd love to bridge the divide between cross-stitch and other types of embroidery. There's always so much to learn and grow”.
Reflecting on her stitching journey, Joanna says that the thing she loves most about the stitching community is that it brings joy. After the recent years of pandemic, as she says, “nothing is more important”. If you’re new to cross stitch, perhaps you’ve only every embroidered but want to give cross stitching a go. Joanna suggests starting with something small so you can have a quick finish! “ I'd recommend my CGT conversion of 'Christmas Bells' as a good starting point, or stitching a single motif from one of my Quaker designs - these make lovely ornaments, cards or pincushions".
On the horizon
“Oooh - SO many things! Lots of new original designs (including a new Quaker), and some beautiful antique reproductions”, says Joanna, “I'll be attending lots of retreats, including the Stitching in the Mountains Retreat, which I'm running with Lisa from Paddock Lane Designs. It's such a joy to connect with stitchers in person and admire everyone's beautiful work”.
2: If you're stitching using two strands of floss, make sure to separate them before threading them onto your needle. If you pull two strands off a length of floss at the same time, they are wound around each other. If you separate them and just run your finger down them as you thread them together on your needle, they will be slightly flatter, which makes your stitching a little bit neater. I was taught this by a very experienced stitcher when I worked in a needlework store many years ago, and I swear by it!
You can find a large range of Joanna's Charts new to our webstore.
You can also find Joanna here:
Website: Mojo Stitches
Instagram - @mojostitches
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