I am now a member of The Embroiderers Guild, and when my membership card arrived, so did some information about a project they are doing in collaboration with SSAFA, called “100 Hearts”. It offers embroiderers and textile artists the opportunity to create their own memorial to all those who fought and died or came back changed, to all those who kept the home fires burning, and, in summary, to all the many untold stories of that time.
Now, generally speaking I’m not very good at responding to a brief I’ve not created myself, but as I sat reading the information and pondering whether to join in, I thought about my Grandmama, who taught me to embroider, but who would probably be bemused and (I hope) impressed in equal measure by what I have done with what she taught me. Her father was a Swedish immigrant to the UK, who became a British citizen shortly after her birth. He won’t have been a young man when the war broke out, and I’m sure he wasn’t called up, but he was a mariner, and I expect that he was working in coasting freighters, keeping the supply of food and fuel moving. From that I thought that he could stand for the many immigrants and naturalised citizens who, in the face of the hysteria and suspicion of the time, continued to serve their adopted home loyally and well.
So my design will be specific and local – he lived in South Shields, and I’m using the headland and the shape of Tynemouth Priory to stand for that – but it stands for much, much more than that.
I will be searching to see what more I can find out, about Great Grandfather, about what he might have been doing, and about what records there may be concerning the war service of immigrants and naturalised citizens, and we will see what I manage to come up with!
To begin with, I want Tynemouth Priory to be set against a “sunset” of the two flags of Sweden and the United Kingdom. I had originally misremembered that the gold cross on the Swedish flag was essentially the same as the cross of St George, but no, the vertical line is set closer to the hoist (the part of the flag nearest the flagpole).
Once I’ve decided how large my sunset needs to be, I can start stitching it while I go to have a look at Tynemouth priory….
This post has its roots in some conversations I’ve had with friends who are involved in education and enrichment, and in our mutual realisation that, although we may have different words for it and although we may face it differently, there is an experience we all recognize, and which it is very hard to coach students through.
No matter what you are doing, there is always a point early in a project where you find yourself staring at a blank sheet, wondering where to begin, what to do, and how to approach the challenge. This happens in every field of endeavour, whether it is obviously “creative” in the sense of painting, embroidery, or sculpture, or in a more academic field such as mathematics (The Australian is a mathematician, so I know about these things, even though I’m not one myself). And it isn’t limited to beginners.
You stare at your blank sheet, mind racing – or frozen – completely overwhelmed. Everyone devises their own strategies to overcome this, and the sooner you find your own, the easier your life will be.
The first is to pick something – anything – and try it. I am coming to realise that one of the signs of not being a beginner any more is the willingness to do work which may be abandoned – unpicked, reverse stitched, torn up as leading down a blind alley. Sometimes you have to see What is wrong, and How it is wrong before you can pick the Right Thing.
Another very useful strategy is to create limitations – to lay down rules that limit your choices. The idea is that part of the reason you’re overwhelmed is that with so much you could do, it’s almost impossible to choose which. In mathematical or computing terms, what you need to do is restrict the search space. It might seem paradoxical, but when you restrict your choices it can become very much easier to make progress. So the strategy of making a set of rules, or creating a framework within which to make decisions (to write a sonnet, say, instead of blank verse), can help you get started. Once you’ve got started, you can then decide to break the rules if the effect will be better. The important point is that you’re now over the Fear of Blanks and into the flow of the project.
When I’m working on a new project, I have to make decisions about the design, the fabric, the colours, the threads, and the stitches. Some of those decisions may be made for me. For example, if the project is “domestic” – a table runner, a cushion, the cover for Maggie the Magnifier – then I know where it’s going, and the colours will have to work in the room in question. Or if I’m embroidering a garment I already have, I have no choice about the fabric, and very little choice about the threads. I don’t have to worry about those, and can spend my energy on design and stitch choice.
But in the case of The View of the Excavation, for example, I had the design, but I then spent days – weeks! – staring at it and wondering what stitches and colours to use where.
So finally I devised a series of Rules:
1 – Narrow, plain stitches for distant figures, becoming broader and more textured close to the front;
2 – Pale colours for distant figures, more emphatic colours close to the front;
3 – Ground features in the same colour and stitch wherever they are.
I still had freedom to choose stitches, threads, and colours, but The Rules restricted the range within which I was choosing, and so made the decisions easier. Furthermore, because I’d picked a stitch and thread for ground features, I could get started, and think while I stitched, which meant that as I came to apply my various rules, the blank fabric was already no longer completely blank.
Each of the first two rules could be elaborated further, so for Rule One, I picked two different pale colours to choose between, and chose one stitch to use. Again, the decisions are thereby reduced and thus easier to make, which means that progress can be made while thinking about the next stage.
This is the manifestation in embroidery of one of the reasons that school maths can be dull and repetitive – it is trying to inculcate skills which will allow us to work mechanically on the simple stages or processes of a problem or puzzle, leaving the brain free to tackle to the more complex parts that will require serious, creative, and inventive thought. My sitting quietly working the “easy” bit while I think about my next step is exactly analogous to the mathematician rattling through some calculations while they consider what part of the problem to tackle next, or the writer writing a descriptive section while the back of their mind is busy mulling over the plot.
So next time you’re stuck over something, try this: pull some rules out of thin air and stick to them. Then break them. Thoroughly. And with enthusiasm!
When you last saw Akhenaten I was starting to sink the ends for the headdress. There were so many ends to sink, and so much tugging to do so, that I was beginning to worry that I would lose the texture of the basketweave. So I threaded some old, blunt needles through the floats to keep them raised, and reduce the rearrangements and tweakings I needed to do as I went along.
And once all the ends were duly sunk – which took several sittings! – the crimson section of the headdress did turn out rather well.
The next section will be golden, and will bear the cobra and the vulture heads, but I’m not quite sure how to tackle it, so I’m going to leave the ideas to marinate a bit before doing it. I think it may be separate from the rest, and run up over the crimson, which is why the basketweave couching runs further down the head than it ordinarily would.
I rejoice to report that the Amarna Backpack is finished!
Well, nearly. It is in want of a lining, and it needs a weight in the end of the strap that weighs down the top.. But I have finished and assembled the bag itself, and in the process I have learnt that I am not keen on constricted tubes of crochet – so not keen that I ended up doing broader tubes. They might have taken more yarn, but they involved less muttering!
The pattern worked out rather well, I think. It is deeper than the pattern in the magazine, and more complex, because the main section involves three colours in each row. The three yarns tangled constantly while I was working this section, and the pattern hasn’t quite turned out as neatly or as evenly as I might have hoped, but I am still rather pleased that it is genuinely reminiscent of the inspiration!
I may have to change the placement of the straps, but until I have used it a few times – I want to carry sketching things in it – I won’t be sure what will be comfortable, or even useable…
I went to the knitting shop where I bought the materials just before Christmas, to buy materials for another project, and was highly entertained to find that I am there known as “The Egyptian Bag Lady”, because the project intrigued them so much. So next time I go, I must remember to take the backpack with me so they can see it.
I’ve decided that Akhenaten’s headdress should continue with basketweave couching in crimson twist. I was in a quandary about the padding for this – it would be dreadful to have white padding leering at me where the twist changes from up to down – when it occurred to me to colour my own. So this is the ordinary cotton “string” used for padding, which I have coloured with one of my inktense blocks and a little aloe vera gel, and then waxed once it had dried.
Of course, the colour didn’t seep all the way through, as you can see from the whitish-grey ends of the couched pairs here, but at least the colour will ease back rather than drawing attention to itself.
You would think, by the way, that the waxed string would be fairly easy to couch in place, but it wasn’t. It had a will of its own, and far too many ideas about wandering off!
But it worked beautifully.
As I understand it, basketweave couching can be worked turning the thread at the end of each row, or sinking it. I would have liked to have turned it, as that is the more economical technique, but I felt that this would create the impression of a compact and complete shape, whereas – however stylised it is – this shape represents a three-dimensional object, the headdress wrapping around Akhenaten’s head.
That means more than 70 ends to sink, through silk, thin padding, and calico.
The embroidery on the new cover for Maggie The Magnifier is relatively simple, but it does involve a few favourite stitches.
First and foremost, Braid Stitch. Not the Infamous Plaited Braid Stitch – I was sure I wouldn’t have enough wool for that! – but the ordinary Braid Stitch. I’ve been fond of it for years, as it makes a good, strongly textured line, and it’s much easier than it looks. It’s also fairly easy to work in the hand, and this was very much a holiday period project, using bits and pieces I could easily get hold of, which didn’t include my embroidery hoops!
The central rosette uses satin stitch (not a favourite, exactly, but very effective!), Romanian Stitch, and in the centre, a little knotted stitch that I’m sure I know from a book, and has a name, but it just came swimming up out of my head, unattributed, as though I was making it up as I went along.
The buds, or finials, or whatever they are, are in nested fly stitches, outlined with further fly stitches, and you will note, from this view, that I stuck to my decision to draft the design by hand, and not tweak and even it up. This is very much a piece of domestic, informal embroidery, and there’s no reason for it to look glossy and machine made.
I’ve not been finishing any of the Amarna pieces for presentation, because once mounted and framed, they take up much more space, and also because I’m not sure which pieces are going where. However, the needlefelted pieces are not going to form part of the main panels, and I rather think it may take more than one attempt to get them just right. I’ve decided I want to present them rather as pieces of fresco are presented in museums, on a background which is similar in colour to the main colour, but not close enough to mislead.
So the first thing to do was to find a suitably-sized artist’s canvas, and cover it with some padding and then a nice woollen fabric which is a warm yellow, slightly darker than the felt background. Then I cut around the Amarna Geese to make a rough, uneven shape. I should probably have cut off a head or something so that the fresco would look suitably fragmentary, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to do that!
I used a fine woollen thread to attach the felt to the background fabric, as far as possible remaining within the thickness of the felt. That was quite tricky, and I wonder whether there might be an easier way. I’m glad I didn’t start with the two princesses!
My Morse Code signature is in double straight stitches, following an edge. And there’s a bit of a corner left open there. I might do an extra goose head and add it in as a separate fragment!
Working with goldwork in a European winter is optimistic at best, and much as I enjoyed working the Detached Up and Down Buttonhole Stitch with Return, it took rather longer than I might have hoped. When I managed to sit down with a quiet mind, a good light, and plenty of time, I found that the work would speed up. It was tricky to keep it even – I didn’t entirely succeed, either – and I wondered, halfway through when it was rather too late, whether I should have worked it “upside down” as in Jacquie Carey’s book “Elizabethan Stitches”.
I have decided to keep working on the head and the crown, at least until I don’t know what to do next, so the next section was to be the top of the headdress. Now, although the colossi don’t show Akhenaten wearing the combined crown of upper and lower Egypt, I’ve decided to reference it in the colours for the headdress.
So the top section of the headdress is a zigzag of sliver plate. It’s not as even as I would like, perhaps, and I am wondering (I’m doing a lot of wondering with this one, aren’t I!) whether I should have started at the bottom and worked up. I’m not sure I have enough left over to do it again, so unless and until I decide I can’t bring myself to leave it this way, I’m going to remain content with my very first effort using silver plate.
The Coiled Wrapped Silver Strip finishes off the metal thread frame for the cartouches beautifully. It fits between the rows of crinkle strip and pearl purl, and almost balances on top of the pearl purl, so it’s raised quite high.
And once the first cartouche frame is finished, there’s the second one to do!
Then, finally, the last stage before the adventure of turning it into a box is to add the gold webgimpe, which is a rather stiff woven ribbon.
I know it looks a bit twisted, but the next stage is to block it. Then I have to tackle the question of glue again. It will be a while before I tackle that challenge!
Meet Maggie the Magnifier, so called to distinguish her from Jenny the Jensen Magnifier Light. Maggie was a Christmas present from my cousin. She’s wonderfully sturdy, with a nice heavy base, and notwithstanding the base mentions 1815, we think that was the foundation of the company, and Maggie herself is probably from the 1920s. She will be very useful for details and work at the table, rather than at my embroidery frame, but she needs a cover, both to keep the dust off, and to stop her setting fire to things on those rare occasions when the sun comes out.
Making the cover seemed a good way to pass the time over the period when I had Akhenaten hidden away, so I used a piece of brushed bouclé fabric and some rather lovely wool thread I got from somewhere-but-I-can’t-remember-where.
Since I did the Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off, I’ve become very conscious of what I learnt that I didn’t anticipate – becoming aware of how much more often an embroiderer of that period would have reckoned that Close Enough Is Good Enough, how often a pattern would have been sketched on by eye, rather than prick-&-pounced for precision, how much effect and speed would have trumped detail. I’m trying to apply that myself – when I don’t need exactitude, I don’t intend to strive for it. I hope it will make fun new projects more fun, and more “free”. This is a perfect candidate for that approach.
The basis of the design is a floral pattern from a rather gorgeous book called “Pattern and Ornament in the Arts of India”, with curlicues in the corners of the square of fabric. I practiced a couple of times in a notebook, and then simply drew the design in chalk on the fabric and started stitching.
This is going to be one of my New projects for this year…