Maria, Hen Empress of all the Russias

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If you have been following my blog for a bit, you will know that every New Year’s Day I make a doll which either says something about the past year, or about the one coming up.  My rule is that it has to be completed from scratch in one day.  This year I knew that I wanted to do some work on Easter eggs, and Fabergé Easter eggs in particular, and so I decided to start work on that by making a Fabergé hen.  After all, you do need chickens to make eggs, the old – which came first, the chicken or the egg conundrum notwithstanding.

I started off by adapting a pattern from one of the Tilda craft books:

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I was rather pleased about this as these books are a regular impulse buy and I never actually use them.  The pattern had to be adapted as the chicken had bloomers on:

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I don’t really think that a Fabergé chicken would show her underwear, so I had to cut those out immediately.  I decided to make mine in felt for some reason which now escapes me, so I made the wings and stitched them on:

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I used a ready made motif from Aarti J and sequins from a bumper pack bought at Paperchase.  Paperchase and Tiger are a really good source of cheap sequins, but they do come in variety packs so you can’t be choosy.  Then I started to encrust the body with beads.  This is where the plan went awry.  It takes a while to encrust a felt chicken with jewels:

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So I broke my one day rule.  This seemed a reasonable sacrifice given what I wanted to achieve.  You can see that I used another Aarti J motif for the eyes.

The second snag came when I got round to the crown.  Because I have spent over thirty years in the educational company of a medieval historian I know that because she is an empress she needs an imperial crown, which is a closed crown.  A crown would be easy to make:

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A nice strip of gold fabric with some points joined into a ring.  But an imperial crown needs a bit more thought:

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Much fancier.  In the end, despite a lot of internet searching which resulted in instructions for making tiaras for Barbie on YouTube, I resorted to that old favourite: the pipe cleaner.  I pushed it through some gold tube knitting yarn that I bought at a knockdown price in Homescene, and cobbled it together with some very plastic-y bead braid and a button which had lost its shank which was lurking in my collection.  I have no idea where this bead came from, no recollection of buying it nor of my mother’s giving it to me:

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The beak is two separate quarters of giant sequins from a garland I bought in Habitat’s closing down sale stuck onto the felt underneath and the wattle is from the same garland but sewn on.  I am adding these provenance details because people often ask where I get my beads.  The large pearl beads come from a five pound bargain bag from Hobbycraft.

The whole crown affair is rather wobbly and what my native dialect would describe as makkled together, but it represents the outer reaches of my chicken jewellery-making skills.

I am quite happy with the finished article:

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Of course, Fabergé would have hated it.  It is cobbled together and it is too irregular for him.  He loved very fine craft skills and a neo-classical style, so this would have appalled him in its cheap materials and cobbled together making.  On the other hand, he loved novelties and small animal knick-knacks, so he might have given a half-smile.

Finally, she is called Maria because this was the name of the first Romanov empress for whom Fabergé made an Easter egg.

More on the Fabergé egg project later.

Field notes from Utopia

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A couple of months ago, I went on a fantastic weekend at Shore Cottage Studio.  I have blogged about this before, but, to recap, it is a gorgeous studio on the Dee Estuary which runs short courses on a variety of activities (textiles, glass making, photography, laser cutting, for example).  It is run by the family team of Sue, Laura and Kris.  This is the word cloud of their trip advisor feedback:

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Word clouds make patterns in which the largest words are the ones most frequently used.  I am very interested to see ‘love’ so prominent here.  I suspect it comes from comments such as ‘I love the Studio’, but I thought it was a place which just about ran on love.  That’s why this post is called ‘Field notes from Utopia’.  I felt loved the minute I walked through the door and that is a utopian feeling.  So this post is about my embroidery, but also a little bit about Utopia.  If you aren’t interested in Utopia, just skip to the pictures of the embroidery, which I hope you enjoy.

I am really interested in utopias because they are so contradictory.  One person’s Utopia is another person’s dystopia.  For example, in HG Wells’ The Time Machine we have the Eloi who seem to have the perfect peaceful, aesthetically beautiful life but who are actually so calm and refined that they are unable to achieve anything new or creative, plus their life depends on an underclass called the Morlocks, a dystopian troglodyte society who only come out at night, but who have the energy to do stuff and in the end to rise up against their oppressors.  One reading of the novel is that the Eloi represent a communist group, and, as we know from our own recent history, communism is seen as paradise by  some and oppression by others.  Utopia and dystopia again.  This was the plot of endless episodes of the first series of Star Trek.  Captain Kirk was always finding new civilisations which looked wonderful at first sight, but which were always inferior to Earth.  And tribes of cultural studies scholars have provided readings of this as code for the Cold War struggles in the US when Kirk and Spock and Uhuru were created.  I am also interested in utopian communities’ carrying within themselves the seeds of their own destruction (we are going in for political economy a bit today).  So, religious groups often go off into the wilderness to find a pure place where they can practise their beliefs without persecution or pollution.  The problem is that sooner or later differences of opinion arise, and no-one is quite pure enough to satisfy the demands of the leader so you get a split and another attempt at a utopian community elsewhere.  These sorts of communities can topple over into cults which often end disastrously, such as David Koresh and the Branch Davidian.  Finally, I am interested in the role of place in all this.  Very often utopians leave a place they consider toxic to go and set up a new purer place elsewhere.  Utopias always seem to be places of tension, reactions against, flights from, black and white situations where you are either right or wrong.  There is not much space for grey in Utopia.

Anyway, for me, Shore Cottage is a form of Utopia.  It is a place where I felt completely at home, loved and cared for, and able to develop my creativity.  I was there as part of a project looking at the anthropology of the Dee Estuary and to do a short ethnography (although really there is no such thing: ethnography done properly is an extended business).  Ethnographers make field notes and so my embroidery represents field notes in cloth.

I designed it to look like an artefact an ethnographer might take with them, so it rolls up:

The linen has a toile print of a river, which is the nearest that I could get to an estuary.  The tree rather appealed to me.

It unrolls to show several ‘leaves’ or panels:

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The piece uses the fabric and thread that I dyed on the weekend with Sue.  Some of them were left whole just to show the effects such as this microwaved tie dye:

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This is a really brilliant simple technique for hand dying cloth which I will use again. There is also a piece of overnight rust dyeing:

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Brilliant results overnight onto this piece of linen.  The marks were so beautiful that I didn’t want to mask them with stitching or embellishment.

I kept the stitching pretty simple on the rest of the panels:

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This is fern stitch with variegated thread onto a thick blanket-y wool that I dyed.

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This shows simple straight stitches arranged as seeding, vertical cross stitch and some running stitch.  I used the big black and white bead as a sort of sample, like you might get in a ethnographer’s collection of material.

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This is a variation on a theme.  I love these big disc beads.  They remind me of pumice or some other sort of lava.

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This is  a found piece of curtain fabric and the pom pom is part of it.  It is stitched down with layered fern stitch.

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This is also a tiny found sample of furnishing fabric.  I loved the indigo and white.  The white thread is quite thick and reminded me of sashiko.  I wish I could get my stitches that even.  I am not sure I quite like the uneven spacing of the mauve beads, but had I been making this in my tent by hurricane lamp in the nineteenth century, I might not have been able to get them straight, so I left them.

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Another bead and seeding combo.

I wanted to use these little wooden hands because of the importance of the hand made on this weekend:

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I got them from Artchix Studio, which is run by a lovely Canadian woman.  I have lots of things from her shop, but I have stopped using it because the postage is ruinously expensive and then there are charges on top when the parcel gets here.  Gorgeous, unusual, inspiring stuff but now very pricey.  That aside, these hands are lovely.  They are about two centimetres long.  I like the combination of the handmade and the manufactured.  They are all alike and symmetrical, and yet they have a real charm for me.

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The above is some knitting tape which I dyed and couched down and then stuffed with brown glass beads which I got from a Hobbycraft cheapo clearance bag.  I also recycled some embroidery I did a couple of years ago.  They maybe jump a bit, but I think they look slightly like sketches of landscapes that you get in ethnographer and explorer notebooks:

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This is another picture of part of the piece showing how the panels fit together:

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You can just about see in the top left-hand corner that there is a heart shape.  I found a stone on the Dee Estuary beach which had the suggestion of a heart on one side and I thought that this was emblematic of the Studio.  I was really pleased when Sue noticed that a heart had emerged from the hand dyeing on this swatch.  To the left of that, which you can see in the picture at the top, there is a piece of embroidery taken from a vintage tablecloth I bought from a textile fair last year.  This refers to the hand-embroidered vintage tablecloths that they used at the Studio and which I really enjoyed.

This has been a long post, so thanks to reading to the end if you did.

 

Bjorn Wiinblad meets Elizabeth Taylor meets Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile

Basically today is a photo gallery of the pieces I made based on Bjorn Wiinblad’s paintings.  This one has hair made of hearts which were cut out with a sizzix cutting machine.  Once I discovered that you could use it with fabric with bondaweb already attached, I was away.  But it really only came to life with the sequins.

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This one also has die cut pieces.  The flowers here remind me of those floral rubber swimming caps which were so fashionable when I was growing up.  Again, the big acrylic gems which are stuck on are what brought it to life.

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This one was in the last post.  The headdress here is made from cheap sequins.

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This one is most like the Cleopatra which inspired the series, with a few details:

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This one is directly based on one of Wiinblad’s paintings, including the patterned nose:

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Finally, the woman in the magnificent hat.  This felt very clunky because Wiinblad never painted a hat like this as far as I could see.  I had no end of trouble making it work. but once I put the golden feather or spray of leaves on it it suddenly burst into life.

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I really enjoyed making them.  They are meant to be joyful and not to have any social commentary in them at all!

 

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.

Dragon Hide 3

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This is the third dragon hide in my series with my Grate Frend, Beatriz Acevedo.  I am aiming for 25, but we’ll see how far I get.

This one is made from a bag of beads I got for three pounds in a sale in Hobbycraft.  I have used about half of the acrylic jelly beads which I just thought looked like dragon scales.

I started by quilting the green silk, which is a sort of pale yellowy sage green not the silvery looking green in the photos.  It absolutely refused to photograph in its true colours.

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I did some bubble quilting, then stitched on the beads with two strands of black embroidery cotton, and then because something was missing, I filled in the gaps with big seed stitches.  I started to put tiny seed beads in the gaps between the big scale beads, but they really didn’t add anything for once.  Equally putting on more of the scaly beads didn’t seem to improve the piece.  Here are the close-ups:

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I love this piece because I really like work which is heavy with beads.  This is dense and drapes beautifully.

Dragon Hide No 2

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As suggested by the title, this is the second blog post on my series on dragons with my grate frend, Beatriz Acevedo.  This is another piece which has a lot of stitching on it because I had time over the Christmas break to spend stitching, which I generally do while watching television.  Christmas is good for this, otherwise I can spend hours watching the specials and become slightly goggle-eyed.

This piece started with a piece of strange stretchy dress fabric which I bought in a lucky dip bag at the Knitting and Stitching Show in October:

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It is choc-ful of lycra which makes it quite difficult to sew, but if you distort the fabric it just springs back, so it is hard to make a mess of.  I thought it looked like a reptile hide, and so I backed it over some very heavy yellow silk and a thin curtain interlining and then stitched into it.  I tacked it down using fly stitch, which I use a lot, but which went a bit odd when I decided that I liked it portrait rather than landscape.  I fixed this by stitching over the top with more fly stitch:

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and then I added a lot of beads which I had got very cheaply in the Hobbycraft sale in Nottingham with my mother.  The whole thing jumped into life, though, when I added some tiny red seed beads:

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just enough to move the eye around.  I remember from some distant history of art class that medieval stained glass artists often put dots of red around the edge of windows as the eye reads these as a frame.

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I enjoyed working with this unusual fabric and making a magical pelt whether or not it has been splashed with dragon blood…

House and home

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This is a quick post today, to some extent to show I am still alive.

I am planning a series of events with a visiting quilter from the US, Marybeth Stalp, and one of them involves a workshop in which we will invite participants to make something as we are talking.  I thought that it would be nice to have a domestic theme, and that we could make houses.  Houses have nice simple shapes and are something we can all have a go at making recognisable.  So I have been making some samples.  This is my first attempt.  The house itself has got to be achievable over the course of the workshop, but I know from experience that people are going to ask what they can do with them.  So I put this one on a backing fabric and all of a sudden it became a tree house, so I added some leaves and a bird.  It’s become a bird tree house.  I am really interested in that conversation with the materials, when the picture tells you what it wants.  This one wanted to be a bit whimsical, and possibly, and this might be fanciful, it wanted to remind me of the importance of living creatures and their needs for home as well us humans.

As usual, this is made entirely from scrap fabric which would otherwise go into landfill, including the thread which came from surplus floss for embroidery kits.  The bead for the eye and the button for the doorknob came from a tin my mother found at the back of a shelf.