This vase of flowers was on the table in a motel room we stayed in, many years ago. For some reason they caught my eye, and for our whole stay – which was full of activity and outings – I wanted to paint them. But we were never in the room for long enough during the daytime.
Finally, on the morning we were going to leave, I got out my paints, sat down, stared very hard, and painted this. I’ve noticed that if I really want to paint something, it often works much better than paintings I’ve done because I want to practise painting.
I don’t think I even bothered to take a photograph. Everything I wanted to remember about the vase is in the painting.
When we got home, however, it seemed to me that the painting offered possibilities as the basis for a simple embroidery.
A very simple embroidery, but, as you see, making use of a variety of stitches.
The vase was textured glass, not clear, and I represented that using lines of coral stitch among the stem stitch. I didn’t work it more densely, because I wanted it to have a certain lightness of touch.
The twigs were very rough and twiggy, so I used scroll stitch.
Finally, the simple shapes of the flowers were best represented using my neatest and most careful satin stitch. All I really wanted from them was the colour.
I haven’t the vaguest idea what to do with the embroidery, so I’ve laced it over a board to keep it tidy. But I thought you might be interested to see one of my very rarest stories – I know other designers often do detailed watercolours of their designs, but it’s not how I work. More often, I have a rough idea in my head, and work on each element while I’m planning the details of the next, waiting for the piece to tell me what it wants.
This has turned out well, but I’m still slightly bewildered that it happened at all!
I found some pictures of Tynemouth Priory online to help me draft my design, and then went rummaging for pictures of vessels built on the Tyne that were in service at the time of the war.
Of course this is all entirely speculative; we have found Great Grandfather on a crew list of 1915, but unfortunately so far we haven’t found any images of the ship. His crewmates include many local lads, of course, but also Danes, Finns, a Russian, and even other Swedes. There must be so many untold stories there…
In the first draft, I was still working on the idea of the gold cross being like the St George’s cross, and I was very disappointed that the Swedish flag almost seemed to vanish.
In the second, I corrected that misapprehension, trialled a vertical rather than diagonal division, and used a different vessel, this one slightly smaller and coming inward rather than departing.
I’ve also moved the Priory to the right a little so that there is rather more of a sense of balance.
In the third draft, I reinstated the diagonal, left the Priory shifted rightwards, and returned to the first vessel. I’ve also slightly enlarged the Priory.
As I look at these, I find myself thinking that the design rather resembles naval ship badges, so perhaps what I need to do is to shrink the whole design a little, tweak it a little more, and edge the circle with a wreath or rope motif.
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!