Straight stitching

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Most embroiderers, myself included, have at least one book on their shelves called something like 101 Embroidery Stitches.  This is a bit like having all those programmes on an automatic washing machine: 80% of them are superfluous.  Most of my work uses a very small number of stitches: running, seeding, back stitch (whipped and otherwise), fly, herringbone, colonial knots.  But for a project that I have been doing for the last couple of weeks I decided that I would branch out a bit and try something new.

I wanted to do something with the lines and striations on some beach pebbles:

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I was also influenced by the spiky vegetation around the beach where I found the stones:

I wondered about lacing some herringbone or cretan stitch but in the end reached for the magnificent and ancient Constance Howard’s Book of Embroidery Stitches.  This is a real oldie but goody, black and white throughout but magnificently clear:

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It is now quite expensive on Amazon and the like, but there may well be copies in second-hand book shops and, if so, they really worth snapping up, particularly if, like me, you love seventies embroidery.  Plus Constance Howard apparently used food colouring to dye her hair, which makes her a style guru as well.

All that aside, I decided, unsurprisingly, to have a go at thorn stitch.  It is as prickly as its name suggests, but it is also really easy to do and you can use it in a lot of ways.  The basic stitch is:

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This is basically an asymmetric cross stitch over a base thread, which makes it very good for couching.

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This is a page from my sketchbook showing how I got to this point.  I had a go at it and found that I really enjoyed doing it.  Here are some dark photos of the end results (I experimented with a different form of lighting which didn’t really work):

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This is the basic stitch done in a fine perlé cotton.

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This is a thicker thread, but still a basic version of the stitch.  But then I decided to do some couching of a dyed knitting tape which I knotted randomly.  The couched knot approach is a brilliantly simple way to get a lot of texture into something, and this variation really did give me something organic:

 

I also used a mix of threads for the couching, some perlé and then some ordinary sewing thread.  After I had completed the pieces (which I will put up separately), I was so entranced by the possibilities of the stitch that I made a little sampler:

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I really enjoyed threading the beads onto the couched thread and then arranging and anchoring them with the thorn stitch over the top.  It’s a bit hard to make out but the sample second from the left has a wrapped or whipped couching thread, which also worked well.  The beads are from a charity shop necklace I took to pieces.

I used some other stitches to get a spiky effect.  I love fly stitch because it is easy and really versatile:

 

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It gives a softer effect, though, as it is a loop stitch not a stab stitch:

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Nice here in a very fine perlé thread.

And I used the stitch I learned at the Mandy Pattullo workshop that I went to, fern stitch, which is also pretty spiky:

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I have used this in other projects:

 

In this project I used it as a border:

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I started this project on a brilliant weekend with Sue Barnes at Shore Cottage Studio in Heswall.  I cannot recommend it highly enough and will post about it separately.

 

 

 

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Laura the fox takes a moonlight stroll in her new lacy black stockings

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Last week I went to Bristol Quilters’ workshop with Mandy Pattullo.  I had a great day.  Mandy Pattullo is an artist whose work I have admired since I saw it at the Festival of Quilts a couple of years ago.  Her work is with old and often recycled textiles and embroidery.  She was very generous in allowing us to photograph her work and so here are a few photos to show the sort of work she does:

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She gave us each a piece of a plain old quilt and some templates for flowers and hearts and things, as well as a couple of pieces of very worn old quilts which we used to start the background.  I decided early on that I wanted to make a fox as we are having fun and games with our dogs getting us up at 4.00 am most mornings to root out whatever is in the garden and which I think might be a little vulpine friend.

I was sitting between two great quilters, Alison and Nathalie, and they gave me the fabric for the fox’s body and legs.  I was really pleased to be able to use Nathalie’s Laura Ashley fabric for the fox’s body as this fits in with the project that I have been doing for ages.  Alison gave me the fabric for the legs – which I would make much finer if I did it again.  Foxes have black legs, surprisingly, and this was the best we could do, but they do look like lacy tights, which I rather like.

The method is to block in some thing like the fox body or a vase and then to take a water soluble pen and draw a line and then improvise round it.  I drew my line which I turned into a tree.  It’s done with chain stitch in stranded embroidery cotton.  The whole piece came together at the end when I put those black flowers clipped out of a quilting cotton and then stitched down with detached chain stitch and colonial knots, the latter done in orange to try and tie everything together.

The fox was done in needle-turned applique which I enjoyed doing far more than I expected.  Then I put a mix of slivers of leopard print cotton and straight stitches in a variety of threads, some of which were given to me by my good friend Mary from her mum’s stash:

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I embroidered the eye and nose.  I finished the piece with a backing of terracotta Laura Ashley fabric to echo the fox.

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This is the page from my notebook/sketchbook about the piece:

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I really enjoyed the workshop and meeting Mandy, who was great.  I want to do a bit more in this sort of style but without the old quilt as I don’t have one to cut up.

C is for children’s art

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Some of you might know that I have been on quite a lengthy period of sick leave.  One of the things that I have done during this time is to follow a web-based mixed media art class.  It follows the letters of the alphabet and there is a drawing exercise and a mixed media assignment every two weeks.  We are now at the stage of being asked to produce a series of work based on what we have done so far.

C was for children’s art.  I am not particularly well-versed in children’s art, although I do have a lovely painting by my godson in my office, but I was really taken with an image in Jonathan Fineberg’s The Innocent Eye which is about the influence of children’s art on modernist painters.  There was a child’s stripy head which influenced Jean Dubuffet which I absolutely loved.  So I thought I would work with that, although unfortunately I can’t find a reproduction of the picture.   I was also doing some drawings of faces and experimenting with very simple cartoon-y faces.  I thought I might do something with Joan Eardley’s wonderful paintings of working -class Glasgow children.

I think these are stunning and decided I would make some dolls based on these.

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But I still couldn’t quite let go of the stripy head so I made some little pieces in my scrap book using either paper or washi tape which is lovely Japanese printed masking tape:

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In the end, I thought it would be more of a stretch to do the stripy faces than the dolls which I know how to do.  I made a template and cut out some striped fabric to make the heads.  I bonded them to some remnants of heavy furnishing fabric linen.  Then I drew round the template in my sketchbook.  I was struck by how the simple round heads looked so much like the work of Bjorn Wiinblad, who is one of my favourite artists from my childhood.

When I was in Copenhagen last year I made my lovely Danish second family take me out to the Arken Gallery to see a big Wiinblad exhibition.

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I remember these illustrations from my youth.  I remember seeing his work or a very good copy of it on chocolate boxes although I can’t remember the brand.  These plates with illustrations of the months of the year are so familiar to me that I think the chocolate boxes must have been by Wiinblad or a follower:

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I love his super-decorative style:

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and those decorated noses:

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I thought I would work on these.  I did some sketches and in the bottom right hand corner where I was working out the pyramid shape of the headdress I suddenly saw Elizabeth Taylor popping up:

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She looks really badly sun-burned but still gorgeous, and so I decided to make a series based on the fantastic headdresses she wears in Cleopatra:

and she wore mad stuff in real life:

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I used gouache which is one of my favourite forms of paint because it is so blocky.  The colour is very bright and very flat.  This whole project has a very illustration-like feel and gouache was traditionally used in art layouts for advertising material.

So far I have made up two of the series.  The first is the flower pyramid which I did in stickers in the sketchbook but with huge sequins from Tiger, a treasure trove chain store, in the piece:

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Were I to do this again I would be more careful not to get that purple stripe over the mouth, but I was going for a naive childlike approach.  The second piece uses beads and a very fancy button:

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Both were really good fun to make and I stuck very closely to the sketch, which is unusual for me.  The sketch allowed me to make templates to cut out the hair, but also to check the eye placement and so on.

The point of the class on children’s art was to try to remember our joy in drawing from childhood.  I used to love to draw and to make collage, and I think the simplicity and boldness of this helped me to remember those feelings.

Finger painting 2

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The first exercise in the finger painting course that I have been following was just to make finger prints.  I was really inspired to do this by the exhibition of Richard Long’s work at the Arnolfini in Bristol.  There was one small room full of his finger print drawings.  Here are some examples:

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There are lots of really good illustrations of these pieces on his official website.  They really reminded me of the print of the slave ship carrying bodies crammed into the hold for the Atlantic passage:

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I found the paintings hypnotic, probably because of the repetition of the same shape: the human finger tip.

The instructions in the course were to use no colour straight from the tube.  Everything had to have a little bit of some other colour in it.  This resulted into some lovely marbled effects:

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It’s not a technique for people who like to control their work.

It also reminded me of my fascination with the flints in the National Museum in Copenhagen.  I have blogged before about how you can see all Scandinavian design in these flint axe heads, which have a pure, functional form and a respect for materials which you see in Scandi-style from furniture to textiles.  I can stand and try to sketch them for hours.  This is a page from a different notebook, pages made at the National Museum in Edinburgh, but the principle holds:

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And I have long wanted to do something with these forms as an applique piece.  The fingerprints pretty much capture the subtlety of the colours and forms.  Possibly the next stage is to try them out on fabric.

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They are really compelling to make, and I have done sheets and sheets of them.

What I did yesterday

 

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Something slightly different today.  I have been working on presentations of working women in a suite of magazine issues from 1984-1985.  The magazine is Working Woman, which I just about remember.  It gave lots of very sober advice to women about how to succeed in the executive positions they were just beginning to get after the second wave of feminism.  There are some timepieces like why we should have Sunday trading which seem like social history now, and some very dull solid advice pieces on pensions and employment rights, as well as really thorough profiles of blue-chip companies (including the late lamented Habitat group), presumably so that you could prepare yourself thoroughly for interview or investment purposes.

My colleagues, Sam Warren and Harriet Shortt and I have been looking at the advice given to women on how to present themselves to be taken seriously at work in terms of clothes and accessories, hair and make-up.  I don’t want to rewrite the article here, but I thought I would put the drawings I did in the blog, just for interest.  I did them because I have decided that this is a much easier way of handling things than trying to get (expensive) copyright.  So these are sketches to illustrate a text and not beautiful drawings, but they were fun to do and I hope you like them.

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Relaunching the Laura Ashley quilt

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I have had a new lease of life with my Laura Ashley project.  My huge Body Shop/Anita Roddick quilt has finally gone to its new home and this seems like a good time to make a start on the large Laura Ashley piece.  As ever it will be made in panels because this is only way I can manage something as big and heavy.  I will post pictures of the other panels I have soon, but wanted to show you a finished one based on the outlines of clothes.

So many of the scraps that I stared my patchwork career were fents – the bits that are leftover from cutting out pattern pieces – that they keep on creeping into this project.  This is a page from a sketchbook project where they re-emerged:

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This panel is all hand-stitched and I had a good time manipulating the fabric using a kantha type stitch which relies on running stitch in parallel rows to ripple the fabric:

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I also really enjoyed using stem stitch.  I have never been able to do this until I got a lesson from the fantastic Tanya Bentham.  I love in this picture – where I am playing with the idea of the red thread which binds us all together – the way that the stem stitch sits on top of the kantha-y stuff:

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Really, though in this post, I just wanted to post some pictures taken in very strong sunlight.  One reason is that this is so rare.  It is dark, cold, grey and wet here, so a crisp sunny day is a real luxury.  I have posted before, however, about how much I love to photograph my work when there are strong shadows and contrast.  I love it because in close-up (with the wonderful new camera) the textiles take on a sculptural look:

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I will post a bit more about this panel, but I know that some people read my blog on Sunday afternoons, and I wanted to have some nice pictures for them.

 

Gillian Travis at Malvern Quilt Show

 

 

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There was a lot of lovely work on show at Malvern, but the ones I liked the absolute best were Gillian Travis’ Indian quilts.  I think this is probably because my own work is going through such a figurative phase.  I loved the vibrant colours and the clever techniques

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Nice use of block printing over the finished piece, here, for example, and I like her substitution of foil for glass shisha mirrors.  I also really liked the use of a small mini-quilt on the side of the main piece picking up a design element:

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The figure here is a very clever layering of black tulle.  This is the ‘detail’ quilt

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I also admire the machine quilting in metallic thread, which really isn’t as easy as it looks here.

Her book with Pat Archibald, Dual Journeys in Stitch is absolutely gorgeous and had the weird effect of making me want to reach not for a needle but my sketchbook.  I did say that I wouldn’t use many photos as people are  increasingly nervous of having their international property stolen, so she has a lovely blog, website and facebook page, so there is plenty of opportunity to see the work.  Here’s one more quilt to finish the post:

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The joy of making

 

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I am not entirely sure what this post is going to be about.  I spent quite a lot of the weekend sewing, which was a massive luxury.  I am preparing a new talk which will be given its first airing next week, and I am desperately trying to finish some samples.  The picture at the top of the post is an example of the drawing with the machine technique that I have just begun to experiment with.  It is a made-up plant in bud stitched onto linen and what I always call cotton bump – curtain interlining which has a great texture for pieces like wall quilts which don’t have to be washed.  If you do wash it you get a great antique effect.

I thought it would be worth talking about something called ‘flow’ in the creativity literature, because I really experienced it when making these small panels.  I enjoyed making them very much, but it was more than just liking doing the work, it was more like what William Morris called ‘joy in work’, an extra dimension to having fun with a hobby.

Flow is a term coined by Mihályi Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian theorist of creativity and happiness, because in his field work his interviewees told him that they were experiencing something that felt like being carried along by a river.  Csíkszentmihályi was interested in what happens when you become so immersed in something that you lose all track of time, and although you have worked hard you have more energy than when you started.  Sewing can definitely be an example of this, when your mind seems to go into a different mode of thought.  For this to happen, Csíkszentmihályi posits three conditions:

  1. You have to be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.  So you need to know roughly what you are trying to achieve – quilt or a panel or garment.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.  So, is it any good?  Is the sewing machine doing what you want it to do?  Does the thread keep on breaking?  Have you estimated amounts well?
  3. You have to have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and your own perceived skills. You have to have confidence in your ability to complete the task at hand.  So, it must be hard but not too hard.  You have to work at it, but not be so challenged that you are tense or anxious.

The flow state is characterised by a number of requirements:

  1. You have to be completely in the moment and to be able to concentrate fully and intensely – which you can do when working, particularly if you have a room set up for it like me.
  2. There has to be some action like sewing and this requires awareness of what is going on, again a sort of focussed concentration.
  3. You have to lose yourself in it.  I think that this is akin to a phenomenon which I often have, and which other makers understand but those who do not make find hard to comprehend, which is the feeling sometimes when I make something that I didn’t make it, that it made itself and I just provided the hands.  Very odd.
  4. You have to be in control, though.  You make the choices and the decisions, which we all do when we sew – or draw.  You decide when to finish a seam or what stitch length or tension to use.  When I am doing the free machining, I decide on the way I move the fabric to produce the appropriate mark.
  5. Time, as I mentioned above, is distorted.  You don’t know if you have been sewing for fifteen minutes or three hours.  Time seems to stand still.  Great sports players talk about time slowing down so that they can make the perfect shot at their leisure.
  6. You feel that what you are doing is intrinsically valuable and worthwhile.  So even while you are making you feel things going well, producing something desirable if only to yourself, that even if no-one ever saw it, it is worth doing.  It is pleasing to the maker.  It is rewarding in and of itself.

And it makes you feel better.  I tried to write down what I felt during the sewing session, which is difficult after the event.  I described it as stimulating, bewitching, addictive, cleansing and energising and flow.

The reason is, I think, that I rather fell in love with what I was making and, all false modesty aside, it was really easy.  I got my background, used some 501 spray to hold it to the cotton bump and then cut out my applique and stitched with a very heavy dark grey thread:

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Really easy, and yet the result was very pleasing.  I began to reflect on whether this was because I was making something very derivative which struck me as being in good taste which I recognised as arty rather than being something authentically mine.  I wondered if this was a different manifestation of the just show up and provide the hands and the universe will do the rest phenomenon.  I am not sure.  I don’t know if this is derivative or does mark a new departure in my style.  It is heavily influenced by Janet Clare, but I see myself in it.  Certainly in scenes like this:

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which has quite a bleak and melancholy feel to it.

But I want to return to the joy and delight in bunging down some fabric, stitching into it and amazing yourself with what emerges.  I was happy to see these pieces turn up:

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These eggs were made with really gorgeous tiny fabric samples of silk, cotton and wool furnishing textiles.  I couldn’t throw them away despite their size, and was so glad when I found a use for them.  Lay me a pretty egg is a reference to a commenter on a recent post telling me that it was her dialect for someone making a mistake – a nicer version of ‘he really laid an egg there’.  I wanted to use the phrase.

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These are made up berries, but the quality of the line for the stem and branches really delighted me.  This sounds immodest, but I had the feeling that I could have closed my eyes and this would have come out right.  It is also completely different to my usual drawing style which is a single continuous line filled in with a watercolour wash:

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This is  sketchbook page showing my usual simplified but quite definite drawing style.  The sketchiness is great in the embroideries.  It allows for all sorts of instant corrections if the drawing goes badly:

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This is another interesting example of this project allowing me to explore some theory that I have worked with for years in a new way.  It is a good example of action research – but that would have to be the subject of another post.

 

Revisiting a classic

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I have been working on a new project, which I will blog about shortly, and I thought that I would get out my copy of The Shining Cloth by Victoria Z. Rivers.  It is a great book, a bit of a classic now, published in 1999.  Every page has something gorgeous on it, and the photographs are stunning.   It’s a study of ornamented clothes from a wide variety of countries, but mainly Asia and Africa.  Most of it is tribal costumes.  I pick the book up from time to time when I want some ideas about beading.  I have used it so often that the cover came away from mine as I was using it, which gives it a battered field guide quality which I really like.  I was looking for neckpieces to study, and I find drawing is the very best way of studying something and seeing how it fits together.  Here are the drawings I made from various pages:

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I am making a series of neckpieces which I will share in my next blog posts.