My hosting provider has had an alarming few days, with their machine going down with no warning. Furthermore, when they came to restore everything affected, they discovered that as part of that failure, the backups had silently failed (which is something we’ve experienced at home, so we sympathise!).
So I have lost all the comments on the most recent post, even the ones I’d already replied to.
If I haven’t replied, I’m not ignoring you, I just haven’t received your comment.
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!
This year Meredithe and Anne have come up with the idea of managing “Significant Progress” on six old projects or Works In Slow Progress, with room for six entirely new ones – because we all know how easy it is to be completely knocked for a loop by a shiny new project or sudden obsession with a new technique! – and have called the project “6 and 6 in 2018“. I wasn’t a very organised contributor last year, and I probably won’t be this year, but I do intend to try!
For the sake of accountability, here are my “old” projects:
First of all, “Eve In The Garden of Eden”. This means constructing and covering the box. That in turn implies the use of glue, which as I’ve mentioned before, makes me very nervous indeed. It will probably take some effort to get up the courage to tackle it at all!
Secondly, the Nefertiti Shawl. It’s such a lovely cheerful colour that I want to be able to wear it, which should be incentive enough, wouldn’t you say?
Thirdly, the Amarna Backpack. I’ve made a fair bit of progress here, and I’ve learnt a few useful lessons, but I want it to be useable, and preferably lined, by the middle of the year.
Fourth, the Christmas Angel. It really is simply a matter of getting it set up so it is convenient to tackle this one, but of course in terms of work to be done it has strong competition, from number five.
Fifth, of course, is Akhenaten. I’ve put him away over Christmas and missed him terribly, so I have a strong feeling that he’s going to send the rest of them to a distant second place!
Sixth isn’t really a single project, but rather the crystallisation of ideas which are already bubbling in my head, like the Faience Necklace, and the beginnings of ideas for the Vision of Placidus. There are some that need to be out on paper for the next stage of mulling over. Anything that helps with that will make this year a huge creative success!
In most cases, I didn’t even look at the projects, in spite of my very best efforts. In my defense, when I made the list, the projects for the Head of Nefertiti, Akhenaten, and my two little Amarna Princesses hadn’t even occurred to me, and they completely distracted me! Their project for this year – “6 and 6 in 2018” takes this possibility into account, allowing for reports on six old, or at least long-running, projects, and six brand new ones which pop up out of nowhere. I can’t be the only one who gets completely taken over by new ideas!
So, here’s the round up…
1Eve in the Garden of Eden – all I need to do here (all!!!) is to make the box. At the moment the fabric is pinned out to straighten it a bit. I think I can call this “substantial progress”!
2Nefertiti Shawl – I’ve recently written about the headache that this has given me. I need to get all my silks out again, and think hard about the next stage. I think I may have the faintest hint of an idea for it, but as I say, that needs much more thought.
3Queen Anne style teacloth – I got something done on this when we had a bit of a heatwave, and I’ve worked out the stitches for the Blue Flower. I just haven’t done all of them yet. “Progress”, but not “substantial progress”, I think!
4The Modern Stitch-Off – I think I will decide that this is finished, but I reserve the right to change my mind!
5The Christmas Angel – I made a good start on the background, but there is a good deal more to do – again, “Progress”, but not “substantial progress”.
I think it is fair to say that since I was ambushed by some wildly exciting ideas, it’s scarcely surprising that my attempts to finish other projects fell somewhat by the wayside. It was a nice idea, and I’m glad that Meredithe and Anne came up with it, but we none of us allowed for my wayward spirit of invention!
My primary purchase at Harrogate was a new, floor-standing working light. I’m hoping it will make a difference to working during the poor light of winter, since otherwise whole days go by when it is too dark to embroider.
First of all, if you’re thinking of getting one, think as hard as you can beforehand about what you want it to accomplish and when you will use it. Then if you can possibly go somewhere to meet your potential lights, do so. The technology has been changing a great deal, and there are several varieties on offer. The advantage of doing this at Harrogate was that The Craftlight Company had a whole stand of different types of light, and several people available to talk to.
My choice has now arrived, and I have to say that the early signs are good. The reach of the light from the source is much better than on my old desk-lamp type working light, which would be fine for a desk based form of craft but isn’t so good for embroidering at a floor standing frame or even in an armchair. It was easy to set up, and I’m beginning to learn what adjustments have the better effect. Since the lights are set around a magnifier, I have the option of using it as a standard lamp or as an illuminated magnifier, and I’ve yet to settle on my preferred option.
All this is being complicated by the fact that I have a new prescription for my embroidering glasses!
I do, however, offer one warning – apparently the light is also good for sufferers from SAD. I remember reading once that such lights are most beneficial when used at particular times of day. It’s certainly a very “wake-up” sort of light, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d better not use it after dinner, because the one time I did, I was awake for hours longer than I wanted to be!
Once everything had dried, I could sit back and look at my trees.
This is the first one I did. It used some multicoloured merino in the trunk, and two greens from the beginners felting kit I bought on eBay a while back. They’re not very nice greens, but all I’m doing is investigating the technique.
There are only two or three layers of wool in this one, which means there are gaps in the felt, and the junction of the trunk and the canopy is a bit flimsy. Gaps in the felt for the canopy are no problem at all – they would help to add depth to the finished piece. Since everything will be caught down (somehow – I don’t yet know how!), strong, dense felt isn’t really the aim here.
The second experiment had the addition of some short staple (that is, short fibre length), very crinkly wool. I was hoping it would result in greater shrinkage, which it has a little. It also produced a greater variety of shades in the canopy, lightening and interrupting that rather dull green. This may have promise, and the felt itself seems a little more stable and would be easier to stitch into.
Since the fibres are rubbed and soaped and rolled, and generally beaten up, it’s not surprising that the effects of trying to place the fibre colours to create a particular appearance is, to put it mildly, an inexact science. I wonder whether I could combine needle-felting with wet-felting to make the results more controllable?
In the final experiment, I added crocheted chains and some tangles of yarn as well. Some parts of the chain didn’t felt in quite as well as I might have hoped, but with more crocheted chain and a better understanding of how to felt it in more thoroughly, it might produce a very good effect.
My semi-spun yarn on the trunk has worked, though, and looks even better in real life, although, again, what it needs is the courage of my convictions and rather more of the same.
So, not a completely unsuccessful experiment, and certainly a good basis for further experiments, perhaps with added stitching…
I’ve been struggling with a sore and stiff shoulder for some months now. It’s made me reluctant to go back to Eve In The Garden of Eden because at this stage she demands perseverance in a single, small stitch for the gold groundwork. The Head of Nefertiti has involved more variety, and earlier signs of progress, while the canvaswork is perfect for evenings.
However, my shoulder is beginning to ease and I’m feeling more willing to experiment. So I had a very entertaining morning last week (it was on Instagram and Twitter) having a go at something I saw on someone’s blog a few months ago and thought might have possibilities for the underlayer of my planned Vision of Placidus panel. If what you see looks familiar, please let me know and I will gladly edit the post to give credit!
Now, the Placidus panel is going to be about five foot by four foot, so even using some of the chunky threads I am happy to use (… and may even spin for the purpose!), it will take quite some effort to cover it. So I thought maybe I could wet felt some rough elements – trees, rocks, clouds, the stream, which could then be applied and tweaked, improved and generally titivated with stitchery.
In the absence of a real – waterproofed! – studio, therefore, I was to be found squatting on the kitchen floor, using a Lakeland Limited tray for cleaning oven shelves to contain the splashes and soap. I must have looked distinctly odd, but I’m accustomed to that!
In the case of the final experiment ( I did three), I rummaged for some fine crewel wool and made a crochet chain, with some very slapdash and freeform loops added in, and laid that down first, with a tangle of leftover yarn.
I also fished out my spindle and had a go at spinning and doubling some wool to create a different effect on the trunk. That didn’t work too well – the yarn kept unspinning itself. My shoulder isn’t up to a concerted attempt to crack spinning, so I made do with what I’d got, and backed it with various other wools to hold it together.
At this point – creaking slightly in the lower back – I decided to stop, rinse everything off, and let my trees dry before going any further. .
I decided, as I stared at the printing of this blocky pattern onto gauze, that I wanted to use the transparency of the gauze as part of the finished effect.
I don’t have a destination in mind for this piece which will give me a theme, so I decided that, in order to highlight that one quality, I would use a single thread (as it happened, a variegated silk), and design a fragment that would allow me to experiment with the effect of stitch cover and openness.
I leafed through books about pattern, saw nothing that gave me the combination I wanted, and then evolved the fragmentary organic sketch on the far left to give me the balance of line and form I was looking for. Incidentally, this is quite possibly the swiftest and shortest progression of any sketched design I’ve ever come up with!
It’s astonishingly difficult to trace a design onto a fabric which is essentially invisible, and still harder, I might add, to follow the lines when you have finally put them there!
I used Hungarian Braided Chain Stitch for the stem, satin stitch for the solid side of the leaf, and Jacobean trellis for the flower-head. Clearly that gives me a solid coverage, and a firm line; I was hoping that the Jacobean trellis might offer a sort of half-shade.
A qualified success, I’d say. The printed pattern doesn’t create a shadow, and the Jacobean trellis shadow isn’t a sort of half-depth.
But, my goodness, the shadow of the stem and the leaf work exactly as I hoped! The gauze itself almost disappears, leaving the printed pattern floating above the surface, and the leaf and flower thrown forward by their shadows.
Any book on embroidery will usually tell you about methods for transferring designs to the fabric. In fact, I think some of them are guilty of plagiarism – although from whom, in the best traditions of the circular firing squad, it would be hard to know.
Last week there was a discussion on Twitter relating to the Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off and particularly concerned with transferring the design once you’d chosen it, and I suddenly realised that not one of my shelf (ahem, shelves!) of embroidery books actually suggested which method might be most appropriate when, or what hazards or difficulties they present.
So I thought I would pull together what I’ve picked up and found out over the years…
First, Prick and Pounce. This is one of the oldest methods – almost certainly the only one available to the Lady’s Magazine subscribers. I’ve come to it relatively recently, but I use it a lot. It’s not good when my tennis elbow flares up, because pricking holes in the pattern is a slow and repetitive business, perfectly designed to produce a repetitive strain injury. It’s also not good – as I discovered with the pashmina for the Stitch Off – with a mobile fabric which is a little widely sett for the thickness of the constituent yarns. I had to reinstate the lines with a dressmaker’s chalk, which wasn’t nearly as precise as I would have liked!
Next, the Light Box method. Actually, not having a light box, it’s a “tape it to the window and do your best” method. I did this with the Gentleman’s Glittering Nightcap, and it worked fairly well, but it’s limited to the size of your window or lightbox, whereas Prick and Pounce is limited by the size of your table! I also become nervous when using indelible ink such as the (recommended and provided) Pigma pen. I’m always terrified of inadvertently drawing a line somewhere I can’t cover it.
Which leads me on to a caution. I’ve used quilter’s “disappearing” felt pens instead in the past, and had one of the scariest embroidery experiences I’ve ever had. First of all, the lines didn’t last quite long enough for a hand stitcher, and then…
When I washed the piece, the lines reappeared, and what’s more, they kept coming back. I can’t remember what it took to be rid of them, but certainly some prolonged soaking in detergent was involved.
Hair-raising doesn’t begin to describe it, and as mine is nearly a yard long, that’s no joke!
I used a Transfer Pencil for the Map of Amarna. This works nicely – provided you remember to reverse the pattern if it needs it! – if the fabric is a natural fibre. However, it can be hard to keep the transfer clean as you make it, and then there is a risk that you will transfer indelible smudges to the fabric.
I’ve also found that the lines sometimes spread as they transfer, which may or may not be a problem, depending on how detailed the design, and how much unembroidered fabric may be showing. As it always says on the packaging – test the whole process on your fabric before using it for anything important!
In the case of a really tricky fabric, such as the velvet for the Camberwell Panel, Running Stitch through tissue paper works really well. It’s rather time consuming, but then, I don’t think any method is especially swift.
There are soluble fabrics which I know many stitchers recommend, but I’ve only worked one piece using it, and the design drawn on the soluble film was hard to see, so I can’t describe it as an unalloyed success.
In truth, a stable natural fabric such as linen will probably happily accept anything thing you do, and the fragile, “difficult” ones will each require a different response. The trick is to remember to pause before starting, to make sure you pick a sensible method for the fabric and the design!
I don’t usually go to workshops at the Knitting and Stitching Show, but since I’ve taken to going to the Thursday evening opening as well, I thought I would have time this year.
And I did. I went to a workshop on Spinning Silk Mawata with Ruth MacGregor, and came back with my very own drop spindle to play with.
First of all I’ve never been to any fibre related workshop at which there were tubes of handcream on the table! Secondly, although I have – literally! – written a book about spinning, I’ve never held a drop spindle in my life and I had no idea what to expect. My book is about industrial spinning, and the machines always did the difficult stuff…
It turns out that silk mawata is a web of filament that can be drafted (stretched) and spun fairly easily – it’s a forgiving material, and because silk is so strong and the filaments are so long, it’s easy to draft and create fine threads. Of course, that means that spinning heavier threads is going to take a bit more thought and care.
Or – since Ruth taught us how – there is always the possibility of twisting two threads together to make one. In the photo above you can see my early efforts. The two light ones are both fairly simple plied yarns, but speaking as a fancy yarn specialist, the dark one is a slubbed gimp yarn. I just wish I could claim that that was exactly as I designed it to be!
So I came home with a packet of silk mawata caps and some silk tops, so I can play and learn to make the thread I want to make.
Eventually I want to be able to spin in both wool and silk, and use some of my yarns in the Vision of Placidus panel…