The logo on the Frolicking Teddies Cot Blanket was an interesting element to work. It consists of a letter “S” superimposed over an ice cream cone. Clearly as a graphical element, it needed to be consistent in feel – achieved by using the same thread in each part of the logo – but I also felt that stitches that would work for the “S” might not work for the ice cream cone.
In the end, I used the ordinary Braid Stitch for the ice cream cone, producing a strong, textured line. This is actually an easier stitch than it looks, and in fact when I have a broad line to cover, braid stitch is one of my favourites.
The “S” was a slightly harder question. I wanted it to be solid and “blocky”, and yet not to have excessively long stitches that might catch. I also wanted the thread to show to its best advantage. In the end I stitched most of it in vertical satin stitch, but outlined it in stem stitch and then created an ornamental line down the widest part, taking my cue from the pierced effect sometimes used for capital letters in illuminated manuscripts. I think this may well be the element I am most pleased with!
As this was a commission, of course I signed my work. One of the Marching Teddies is kicking a small cartouche in which my initials are worked – in Morse Code, as has become my habit, using French Knots and Bullion Knots.
I decided to line the Cot Blanket. With silk, of course. Although I rather doubted that it would be used except on special occasions, I thought it would be better to protect the back of the work from little kicking feet and little sharp nails! Attaching the lining was a time consuming operation, since I had to make sure it was very firmly attached, without pulling or dragging at any point.
I also provided a tiny leaflet explaining the idea of the design and saying a little about how it was done. This was my very first real commission, and I am glad to report that the client was delighted.
Remember I said that the Camberwell had other ideas for the background?
At this point the deafening racket of complaints from her became too much for me to ignore and I unpicked all of the background and reinstated it, differently. For instance, you might notice that the twinkly fabric for the water is puckered and gathered to create ripples on the surface.
I then pinned on the different choices of quayside fabric I had prepared, and the slip for the hull, and contemplated them for a while. Beside helping to clear up my choice, I realised that the picture was going to work better if I brought the edges in closer to the ship rather than having an expanse of sky above the mast.
So, those choices and decisions made, I moved on. I wanted to make sure that the prow “loomed” somewhat, so I put a layer of padding in the shape of the hull over the background. That should also help to ensure that the horizon line does not show through the slip, as well as differentiating the looming bow from the bridge and superstructure. So I also added a further small extra patch of padding to emphasize the flare of the bow – you can probably just see it.
The “Frolicking Teddies” were created in response to a commission to produce an heirloom Cot Blanket for a much-anticipated first grandchild. In the initial stages of planning, the child’s sex had not been determined, so we planned a gender-neutral design of Teddies. I was also asked to include the logo of the family ice cream business, so in the end settled on a story of exuberant, star-jumping teddies down one side, with the logo in the lower left corner, and a procession of teddies with ice-cream cones in their hands (sorry, paws!) walking from left to right.
Once the child’s gender and name became known, I chose the colour for the logo and embellishments, and then added his initials in the top right hand corner. The initials gave me some concern, in fact. I usually use Portuguese Knotted Stem Stitch when I want a heavy line, but when I’d completed the Teddies and the logo, I felt that that would create too heavy an effect in the top right hand corner. I settled on Heavy Chain stitch, which produces a smooth, strong line, but doesn’t have quite the overbearing personality of the Portuguese Knotted Stem Stitch.
Since the commission was explicitly for an heirloom, I used cashmere blanketing as the base fabric. Fortunately, since it’s not easy to get in the UK, we were visiting my husband’s family in Australia at the time I was sourcing the materials. It’s really a lovely fabric to work with, and I still have some left, awaiting further inspiration. Or another commission!
The teddies are worked in long and short stitch using Paterna Persian wool. The only challenge there was the tension of the stitches, since it was especially important not to pucker the fabric. At the same time, I didn’t want the stitches to be too loose and snag on anything…
The ice cream cones were worked in stranded cotton, and the logo, initials, and the Teddies’ scarves were all worked in a standard variegated pearl cotton. Each scarf is worked in several rows of a different line stitch – stem, chain, Portuguese knotted chain, and so on. This was a way for my passion for stitches to inform and adjust the design, while remaining closely within the brief.
I finally decided that I wanted to use two layers of gauze for the sky. The apricot gauze has a slightly reflective surface, which would make the sky glow behind the ship.
I also worked blanket stitch around the outside edge of the panel. At this stage I intended to use a raised band stitch of some sort to frame the work, so the blanket stitch was to form the foundation of the final raised band.
Later I was to discover that the Camberwell herself had Other Ideas, and all of this was completely changed.
I think it is important to show some of the dead ends I investigated here, or at least to describe them. One thing that people who are at the early stages of their creative life always assume is that everyone else gets straight from “Germ of an Idea” to “Finished Design” without really passing through any points in between.
Any of us.
And we are not fair to them – and risk discouraging them – if we allow them to think that we do.
Oops. Rant over!
This next photo shows further progress on the slip for the hull, in which I worked on the superstructure of the bridge and living quarters. I pierced the cotton drill where the anchor chains are lead through the hull and worked one of the portholes on the bridge in a raised satin stitch boss. Almost all the actual embroidery here used ordinary stranded cotton, although sometimes I blended colours in the needle.
This shows the start of the work on the cotton twill which will form the basis for the hull and superstructure. I have used two layers of navy gauze where the shadows need to be darker and cut sections out of one of the layers where I want a lighter shade. The transferred outline – made using an iron-on transfer pencil – barely shows at all, and fades with age, so there is little risk of anything showing where it should not.
As the additional slip for the hull will cover the raw ends of the fabrics, I decided only to sew down firmly those elements that will be unprotected. I found that as I added embroidery and fabrics to my slips-in-preparation, they shrank – not something my books had ever mentioned, although it really should have occurred to me. That is why I ran the gauze down into the area which would be covered by the hull, although I only caught it down lightly. Although there will be padding under the hull, I was afraid that a strongly stitched line might show where it wasn’t wanted.
It is hard to see what I’m aiming for in these photos of the work in progress, so in this picture I have overlaid the slip made for the hull on the cotton drill in approximately the correct place to show the general effect I hope to achieve.
It was at about this point that the project woke up and started talking to me.
Before you book my place in an asylum, let me explain: that’s how I describe the feeling of having a near-absolute certainty of what to do next or how to achieve the next stage. Some of my projects never really do wake up, but the Camberwell chattered incessantly for the next several months, even when I decided to undo and redo some elements. When I was in doubt, I found that if I could in some way lay out the choices, they became blindingly obvious as soon as they progressed from imagination to fabric.
This shows the cotton twill with the basic outline transferred to it for embroidering. I decided that the whole ship would be made on this cotton twill and then the twill applied to the background fabric over the sky and sea fabrics, with some padding to raise it. I checked with my client (my cousin, remember!) to be sure that she was happy with raised and padded appliqué, rather than wanted something very flat, and on receiving an intrigued and enthusiastic “Go for it” started planning what would be padded and by how much.
The photo also shows the satin that I chose for the hull, with the design, again, outlined in running stitches.
The next stage was to apply a layer of navy net and a layer of navy gauze to the satin where the hull was in shadow, and stitch over those edges in navy satin stitch. I built up several layers of net at the forefoot, with lines of stitching to add form.
Then I added a layer of tawny net to the light side of the hull to cloud the colour slightly and stitched along the main plating lines of the hull to help reveal the shape.
The next stage on this piece was to stitch over all the edges that will not be covered by other stitches and fabrics to ensure that no raw edges show. At various stages in the project I chose different stitches for this job, but in this particular case I used buttonhole stitch to make the edge crisp and clear.
I could have left the background until I had made some progress on the Camberwell herself, but I wanted to be sure I kept the design balanced, and having the background ready so I could lay the cut outs on it to think about seem the best way of achieving that.
The fabric for the sky is a pale apricot coloured georgette. At this stage I still had not decided whether there should be two layers, to create a deeper colour and more dramatic effect, but as I was going to be working on the ship herself on a separate piece of fabric and applying it later, that decision could be delayed. I used a zigzagged back stitch in rust coloured embroidery cotton to attach the georgette to the backing.
The blue-green fabric I chose for the sea has a glittering thread running through it at intervals. I was hoping that this would create the effect of sunlight sparkling on the water, without drawing unnecessary attention to itself.
I also found a piece of white cotton twill – slightly lighter in weight than the material used in uniform “tropical whites” but very similar – which seems the perfect choice for the base fabric (for so many reasons). This fabric provided a sturdy basis for the superstructure and the hull, which would involve both fabric appliqué and embroidery.
The Piano Shawl was only a metre and a half square (only!), so there wasn’t really space for a stave in each corner, even if Elaine had wanted four melodies included! At the same time, there was enough space in the corners that without something there, the whole thing looked half-hearted and unbalanced.
So I had to do something. I traced some of the stems and devised a very light floral motif, consisting of four stems and a few leaves. The main stems are worked in Broad Chain Stitch, using a plain stranded linen thread, which I used in the stems on the main design elements too, but the shorter, smaller stems are worked in Portuguese Knotted Stem Stitch, using a variegated silk thread. I used several different variegated silk threads for the leaves throughout the Piano Shawl. Again this is by no means a naturalistic treatment – the flowers are something like dog-roses, but the leaves (all worked in Fishbone Stitch) aren’t like any I’ve ever seen in a garden before!
My final picture is a shot to show my initials in Morse Code in one corner, pretending to be a caterpillar!
The picture also shows the centres of flowers, which were the same across the piece. The thread is a variegated, almost untwisted rayon thread, and it is used only in the centres of the flowers. It’s very like the thread I used for the headdress of the Prince’s Companion in the Persian Fantasy companion piece.
Now that I have seen the Piano Shawl in its destined place, I am happy with it. The overall effect is light-hearted without being entirely frivolous, and the time spent in Elaine’s music room pulling threads, and draping them over the furniture to make sure that they would all match nicely, wasn’t wasted.
However eccentric it might have seemed at the time!
The Camberwell Panel was a commission from my cousin. I documented the design and progress of the work for her while I was doing it, and she has given me permission to share it with you as well.
The Camberwell was the ship her grandfather retired from in 1938, and when we found this photo in the family home, we thought it would make an ideal subject for an embroidered panel. Although the Camberwell was a merchant vessel (a collier, in fact), the looming prow in the picture reminded us of the liner posters of the 1930s, so that was to be the inspiration for the panel.
That idea in turn lead me to decide to use appliqué as the basic technique, embellished with embroidery. The flat blocks of colour used in the posters of the period would be most easily produced by appliqué, and it is a technique that I’ve never used seriously before. I thought it would be fun to try.
So I began by scanning the photo and then tweaking it digitally to get a sketch. With Master Mariners on both sides of my family tree, the last thing I wanted was to get the rigging wrong!
Once I knew what size the panel was to be (decided on the basis of where it was to hang) I could use a projector to project it at the appropriate size and create a basic pattern.
Then I spent some time playing with colour schemes. We settled on something vaguely reminiscent of the the Art Deco period …
Since I had some requests for more details about the Piano Shawl, I rummaged around in my photographs to try to come up with pictures that might explain a little more of what I did and how I approached it.
I knew that I would be using some variegated threads and some plain ones, so the first decision I made was that I would use each in particular places. In that way there would be a scheme of sorts that would guide me.
First of all, the ribbon stave was definitely going to be variegated. It would help to create a ripple of life around the design, and incidentally, since it felt like miles of stitching, I would be able to feel the progress I had made in an afternoon in the colour changes. Then I felt that the colour alone did not provide sufficient structure, so I developed the scheme further – the chainette ribbon was couched down as the middle line on the stave, and also used for bar lines and clefs. The next two lines of the stave (one on each side of the central one) were worked using pearl cotton, in Portuguese Knotted Stem Stitch, which is a favourite of mine. I used it elsewhere for some of the stems, in a very fine silk thread which produced a very different effect. The two outer lines of the stave were stitched in ordinary chain stitch using a rayon bouclé which was serious trial to stitch with, but which looks really effective.
The flowers themselves I worked in ordinary stranded cotton, using about six different shades of browny-pink, and creating an entirely un-naturalistic variety of light edges and dark edges, strong and weak colour variations. There was the risk of producing something too stately if I tried too hard, and since the Shawl was destined for a grand piano, the surroundings were going to be pretty stately already. A grand piano is a pretty dignified and imposing piece of furniture!