Writer, artist and a wizard with the needle, Andrea Boekel works on a large canvas By Renuka Sadanandan Andrea Boekel can paint pictures with a touch so delicate and fine, it is almost ethereal. She paints mostly with needle and thread, and with words, at other times with the brush, yet always with an unmistakable [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Stitching it all up


Writer, artist and a wizard with the needle, Andrea Boekel works on a large canvas

By Renuka Sadanandan

Andrea Boekel can paint pictures with a touch so delicate and fine, it is almost ethereal. She paints mostly with needle and thread, and with words, at other times with the brush, yet always with an unmistakable passion to share the gifts and talents she has been bestowed with.

Andrea: Many more plans for the future

Hand embroidery was the skill she generously imparted to the impoverished women whom she met in the coconut plantation she and her husband owned in the North Western Province. Finding them languishing without employment Andrea taught them to sew focusing particularly on hand embroidery in the hope that it would bring some means of income. Their aptitude and talent took her by surprise and the work they produced she found “simply amazing”. Once the class had run its course Andrea found herself in a quandary. How could I say go home? How can I sustain this, she thought; so she set up a BOI company, Savannah (Pvt) Ltd with her own capital and found markets for the fine linen they were creating.

It was no instant success story for it was a challenge not just to teach them the delicate techniques involved in appliqué and hand embroidery but cultivate their eye for harmonious colour combinations that would impart to their work that distinctive look of quality. She brought them visual material and worked alongside them, not just their teacher, rather confidante, friend and counsellor.

They went places. In the 1990s, ‘Needlelore Handmades’ turning out hand embroidered and appliqued table linen, baby layette, quilts, cushion covers and so much more was exhibited all over the world in Tokyo, Frankfurt, Gothenburg, Sydney, Johannesburg, leaving Andrea marvelling how these items were coming from a place with no electricity, no running water. “It was ironic, it went to very select boutiques. Yet the producer and the end user were worlds apart.”
The company flourished for some years but the currency crisis of the late ’90s hit them hard and with the women themselves moving on in life, it was time to wind up.

Meanwhile Andrea had picked up Brussels lace after a trip to Belgium. Named after the city where it became popular in the second half of the 17th century, this was heritage work which the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as “of high quality, popular at court, and made professionally at workshops called béguinages (often associated with convents) by unmarried women whose lives were dedicated to the work. The laces were of the non-continuous-thread technique, the richly delicate designs near-naturalistic, almost weightless, and at times breathtakingly beautiful.” Andrea found it enchanting but frightfully expensive and in typical Andrea style decided to import the raw materials and produce it here. She now works with a few women to produce the intricate cobwebby lace and her bi-annual sales, very little advertised are always sell-outs.

Andrea’s embroidery: Painting with her needle. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

So how did the girl who by her own admission was ‘dreadful at sewing’ at St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo end up mastering these complex techniques? At school she had swept off the literary prizes and was the lead singer in an all-girl band. The artistic side flourished under the benign influence of renowned artist Ivor Baptiste whom she studied with for seven years and always interested in textiles she challenged herself to master needlecraft, seeing it as a different medium through which she could express herself. “It’s another form of visual art, painting in fact on fabric rather than on canvas with my needle. I was drawn to it because I didn’t believe art ended with brush and paint,” she says.

When she married a Dutch sea captain Rudolf Boekel, Andrea sailed with him on the private yachts he captained and living for a while in the south of France, Europe and the US, sought out galleries and museums to study needlework techniques, She took classes in Europe and America, enjoying these informal group interactions. “In the US, they are thrifty with textiles- a legacy of their Pioneering past. You can tell a country’s history by studying their textiles. Textile is a very powerful medium that is underused,” she remarks.

But now digress we must to her skill with words. Her initial work experience had been in an administrative capacity, but for Andrea, the voracious reader there was always the correlation between telling a story with words and telling a story with artistic expression. Living overseas in the Middle East, she began contributing features to the Khaleej Times and was soon handling their women’s pages. She also worked with UNICEF Abu Dhabi writing and illustrating educational materials on clean drinking water, breastfeeding etc. work that satisfied her social conscience.

Later back home she plunged into journalism at the Weekend Express, contributing also to travel magazines, whilst also working part-time at the Family Planning Association where she was their Public Relations Officer, her articles also appearing in IPPF and UNESCO publications.

It was when her three daughters began schooling that Andrea discovered another love- teaching. A stint as craft teacher at the Colombo International School brought home the fact that she had an innate ability to teach. At one stage she was taking 16 different classes, of children ranging from ages 5-13 and buoyed by the confidence that she could indeed command their attention, she launched into classes for adults.

“I was the first teacher to introduce a range of international needlework techniques to Sri Lanka,” she says. It was an all-female class, save for one man. The country was in turmoil but they found peace and comfort in their work and many of her students went on to become lifelong friends. “I always imparted all my knowledge- I didn’t hold back. I do believe that if a student becomes better than the teacher, it’s a tribute to the teacher,” she says, adding with pride that some went on to set up their own textile businesses. She herself sees needlecraft, with its meticulous artistry as something you can’t do for profit alone. “You’re never going to get paid for the effort you put in but you get paid in satisfaction.”

From a rural hamlet to world capitals: Andrea with her protegees

When her daughters went on to university in Australia, Andrea moved to be close to them and embarked on another rewarding chapter of her life as she took up a job as a Research Editor at one of Melbourne’s largest publishing houses. Before long, they had commissioned her to produce her own books and she was to research, write and design 12 books in all, elegant coffee table volumes on retail architecture, multi-tiered architecture, lifestyle and sustainable design that are today used in design courses in universities. All this, mind you, in a new country when well into her forties.

Recognition of her talent also came when two of Australia’s most prestigious universities, the Australian National University in Canberra and the University of Western Australia in Perth invited her to teach and she wrote and produced the content for a course on ‘Textile as a Medium’- not surprisingly with a focus on Sri Lanka. “Indirectly I told these true-blue Aussies about my country, about its impressive textile heritage,” she says.

Now back home for an extended stay – the creative sparks are all rekindled. With Canberra travel company ‘Active Travel’ Andrea is promoting the rich tradition of arts and crafts in the island. Their first textile tour was in August last year and come May, ‘Warp and Weft’ led by Sri Lankan born weaver Cresside Collette will see a group visiting weavers in the Dumbara valley, in Aluvihare – so much of heritage to show them, she says, full of enthusiasm for what she sees as a market for such speciality tours.

She’s also formulating courses in corporate etiquette and customer service, which she believes, young people could benefit from. And these past few weeks she’s been volunteering at a cancer hospice and teaching carers at a Koggala orphanage while working on her next big project -a book based on – ‘a true story’. Inspired by Australian writer Bryce Courtenay who penned his first bestseller in his 50’s, Andrea has many more plans, projects and dreams she can’t wait to explore, enjoy and share. “I’m still at that period when I want to learn, learn, learn. I’m not done yet!” she says.

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