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Octagonal Borders Taking Some Time To Resolve!

Picture of an octagonal border with two and a half large Milanese pinwheels in place. Somehow they look awkward.

I felt that the Octagonal borders needed to be less subdivided than the long borders, which in turn meant finding a large stitch pattern. After some to-ing and fro-ing, I decided that I like this one – Milanese Pinwheel (again from Jo Ippolito Christensen).

I’m not so keen on the fact that it doesn’t really tesselate neatly – there’s a peculiar shape left in the middle if you interlock the stitched in the obvious way, and it just didn’t look pleasing. So it was obvious to me that I had best space them out to create islands in an inner sea, as it were. Not like this, however – this was to be a set of five closely interlocked, leaving any partial pinwheels unstitched, to be replaced with some other stitch. But I think it’s already looking congested.

These Milanese Pinwheels (and partials) form a square. I'm not sure that's better!

So, trying again.

This time, four, spaced out to form a square. I’m really not convinced by this, either. The slanting sides of the octagons push the pinwheels too close together, so again we have a slightly congested look. Furthermore, as I observed with the borders for William Marshall, the square form can look very static, and in this case, that’s not playing nicely with the swirling movement in the pinwheels.

Four Milanese Pinwheels in a Diamond formation. This looks better, I think.

I think this does, however.

Upending the square onto the diagonal makes it possible to push the pinwheels further away from one another, and while it may only be a couple of threads, I think it looks less congested. That leaves room for me to put another, smaller, pattern “behind” the pinwheels, as it were.

You may notice that while I was wrestling in thought with those pinwheels, I kept on at the path.. So, now I have to do the pinwheels in the other octagon, and decide what to run into the background…

Overlay experiments

You may recall that I spent some extra time trialling other methods for creating the overlays. My original screenprint idea had long since been abandoned, partly because the past five years when I’ve been painting as well has given me much more confidence in myself, and partly because finding somewhere to make such big silk screens – as a one-off, what’s more! – was proving impossible.

When I’d looked again at the first overlays I used in the first photoshoot, it was clear that they wouldn’t survive much longer, so I thought I would try with my acrylic inks. I cut stensils and dabbed, I used brushes and painted, I played with pre-wetted fabrics and with spraying the fabric with water afterwards.

In fact, I had several wonderful messy days.

And as you can see, some of them were really striking, and wonderfully vague, and set against a plain background the washed out and tendrilly ones do create the appearance of decay and dissolution which is appropriate. The Amarna period was washed out of history in ancient times, and while Akhenaten has had the last laugh, for centuries his name and that of his Great Royal Wife were never spoken.

However, set in front of the embroidery, they confused the eye too much. The one on the left is too detailed, the middle one is seeping away before our eyes, and the one on the left has acquired spotches I never intended.

This one hasn't remained intact

And then there was this one. I had thought that using a brown or sandy colour would aid the “there and not there” appearance.

It certainly nailed “Not there” – it didn’t really show at all!

So in the end, as I described, I went back to the inktense blocks, but with the added support of some pastel fixative. Since I’ve used the fixative, and the overlays are now stretched over frames and not subject to abrasion in storage, I hope very much that I did indeed find the best solution.

But if anyone tries to tell you that artists and designers get it right first time – don’t believe them!

More on the Golden Accessories (honeysuckle)

The honeysuckle motif, green background completed, and first element of the strapwork in place

So, where had we got to…?

Ah, yes. Spiral trellis stitch in silk for the centre of the honeysuckle flower, and then the outermost narrow band of the strapwork in gold reverse chain stitch. Straightforward enough, you’d say.

Well, yes, but I’m out of practice with gold threads and these sort of stitches, and the whole thing involved more contortions than I thought possible. There are also , I think, a few places where I had to undo and re-do the green background, where I haven’t tidied up the back or held fast the stitches quite as well as I should have done. We’ll see how the whole thing survives…!

The honeysuckle piece again, with Ceylon Stitch in gold added to the strapwork.

The next was gold thread again, and Ceylon Stitch. There’s only space for two columns of the “chain stitch” effect in each strap, so everything is quite tight and compressed.

I’m struggling quite a bit with the Japanese needle and the fragile gold thread here. I’m sure I became more at ease with it when I was doing more of the Tudor and Stuart style, so I’m going to just continue. From any reasonable viewing distance, the breaks shouldn’t be obvious, and in truth, at this point, I just want these finished and added to the heap in the parlour dome!

All stitching in place

Finally, the strapwork is completed with plaited braid stitch in silver. And if I’ve said the gold was fragile, the silver was even more so – as in fact I commented, a decade or so. As I said, my suspicion is that this relates to atmospheric conditions while the thread was being made. It’s not helped by the fact that, even after a few inches of revision stitching, Plaited Braid Stitch has left my muscle memory and every twist and turn was hard-won.

I still like the look of it, though!

Another day of photography (second helping)

The complication of the overlays against the panels is introduced by the facts that the overlays are slightly bigger than the panels, they are transparent, and the overlays themselves are heavy. In any final display, the overlays will be screwed to the wall, but we couldn’t do that in Bernard’s studio!

Nefertiti overlay suspended over the panel, using fishing wire and tripods

When we took the original photos, the panels were put on the very edge of a table, tied using fishing line through that convenient gap between the lower panels and the higher ones to an extremely heavy tool box, and with the background hanging behind. Since I wanted to include the frame of the overlays, that wouldn’t do.

Photo taken by Bernard, of me checking the placement of the overlay to decide whether we need to shorten or lengthen the fishing wire

So here is what we ended up with! A section of background is laid on the floor, with the panel laid on it. Then we set up a set of tripods on either side, poles between them, and ran a length of fishing line from pole to through eyelets in the back of the frame. We get the shadow that reveals the overlay to be a separate thing, and several ways to adjust the whole thing until it works.

It did rather turn the studio into a low-budget version of that scene from the film Entrapment where the cat burgler is practicing avoiding a mesh of lasers with a mesh of strings with bells on, but that just meant a certain hilarity entered the proceedings!

Me on a photographer's ladder

It also meant the deployment of a ladder for the viewpoint to be high enough. It’s a proper ladder for the purpose, and it was sturdy enough – Bernard was happily standing on the platform at the top to take the final shots, which I wasn’t quite up for, as you see.

I do think the set up will produce the right photos for the purpose, but my goodness, photography really isn’t “Just Point And Shoot”. Bernard also tweaks the raw files to make sure that they bring out what he saw when he took the photos, which means that we have something really good to start from. Technology has improved immeasurably since Mary Chubb’s time, but even so, there are losses in quality as you add processes, and to have something decent at the end of a sequence of design, layout, and printing processes, you have to start with something really excellent.

Another day of photography (first helping)

A cluster of half finished watercolours of basket children and labourers from EES digs

I’ve been working hard on the manuscript of the book I’ve written around the Dreams of Amarna, and one of the things I want to do is stitch the story together with pictures of the ordinary Egyptians working on the dig. They are honoured in the stitchery (View of the Excavation and Loading The Felucca), but that didn’t seem quite enough.

Setup for photographing watercolours or other small flat things

So I’ve been doing lots of little watercolours of labourers, basket carriers, and fragments of the dig and the scenery, and now I’ve sorted out the overlays (there will be more about my experiments with ink and inktense later), I bundled up the whole kit and caboodle and took it across to Bernard Rose Photography to see what he could do.

Overlay of Akhenaten suspended in front of a peachy-yellow backdrop paper, reflectors all around it.

We rattled through the watercolours in fine style, as apart from occasionally flattening a piece of paper (I tend to paint a bit sloshy…!) there was little adjustment needed.

Then, however, matters became more complicated… The overlays are big, and the fabric is slightly shiny, and I hadn’t worked out how to hang them. So we started with the easy bit – overlays on their own, in front of a background. You get a hint here of the reflectors spaced all around, and just the general sense of engineering involved. There are two pairs of tripods with poles between them, one with the background, the other supporting the overlay, suspended on fishing line through eyelets. Then there are the tripods with the diffusers on, and out of shot, there’s the tripod with Bernard’s camera in place.

Design placement for the overlays

One corner of the frame mounted overlays held up by a small plastic pot

So, we left the overlays mounted, but determining placement wasn’t entirely straightforward.

I didn’t want the images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti over the whole panel, just over the sandy part of it..

The panel of the Map, with a mounted overlay propped up in front of it.

So once I was happy with the mounted gauzes, the glue was dry, and the glue pot firmly shut, I got the panels out, laid them on the floor and found some little pots to hold them up at the corners.

You can see from this photo that the gauze is fine enough that it is not going to interfere with the view of the panels – except for those who want to examine very closely, and I think we are going to be able to come up with something for them!

The panel of the Excavation with the original overlay of Nefertiti laid over the frame.

The mounted gauzes are bigger than the panels, deliberately, so I had to take that into account as well. You can see that I’ve not got Nefertiti quite right here – I was using the old overlay to work out placement – she’s too close to the centre.

The panel of the Map, with a secondary gauze of Akhenaten laid over the top, and some paper helping to mark where it is to lie.

Once I’d worked out where they were to be placed, I took copious notes. I had to work on the images from the back, because of the size of my padded mat, so I not only had to make sure I had the right placement – I had a story in my head for who would be in front of each panel, and they weren’t interchangeable!

Found and to be finished

Tudor-inspired octagonal design of an Acorn surrounded by gold and silver strapwork

Very long term readers may recall that over a decade ago, I was working on some additional designs from the Tudor and Stuart Goldwork course, became thoroughly fed up with them, and shoved them in a dark corner until my good temper returned.

It’s taken a while…

Anyway, I’ve found them again, and while the Parterre Knotwork is being difficult, the Amarna finish-work is being difficult, and Aethelflaed is being difficult, I thought I would see whether my good temper had returned, and I could get them finished.

Tudor style design of a honeysuckle sprig surrounded by dark green tent stitch. There are furry bits of unpicking and knots of thread starting all around, and the green isn't yet all in place.

The Acorn was completed – some time in 2012, apparently, and I’d started on the tent stitch for the Honeysuckle, and found myself with some miscounting and unpicking, which I think may have contributed to the loss of temper.

So the first thing to do was to finish all that tiny dark green tent stitch. In fact what you see here was some considerable way into the process – almost all the right side outside the strapwork gaps is new – but with my new-since-I-started working light with magnifier, and my working spectacles, it actually went rather better than a decade ago.

The same honeysuckle motif, green background completed, and first element of the strapwork in place

The first addition was silk Spiral Trellis for the centre of the flower – I enjoyed that, even though it’s so tiny. So now I can start on the gold and silver strapwork!

First up is reverse chain stitch, which was a relatively easy way in. I like the stitch, and find it useful, so it’s familiar. The round-eyed Japanese needles are less so, and I struggle to thread them, but they were such a feature of the Online University courses that I feel I should persevere with them.

A closer look at the overlays

In the process of mounting a gauze overlay on a frame,

It occurred to me that I rather skipped over quite a few elements of the rather haphazard development of the overlays, and a slightly closer view of the way the overlays have been managed might be rather interesting, at least for some of you, so here we are.

In fact I got the framer to make two frames, one the frame that will be seen, which is what I painted gold, and the other a fillet, very fine “infill”, in effect, that will not be visible, but will be part of what keeps the gauze tensioned and in place.

Close vew of one corner, with the fillet in place. The next stage will be to fold the gauze back over fillet and frame, and glue and trim it to place.

Here is a close view of the corner. This is the point where I had quite a bit of wrangling to do. The gauze stretches over the front of the frame, and around the back, and is then caught into the ledge that would normally hold the glass. There is double sided table on the frame, and double sided tape on the fillet, and in effect I used it to tack the gauze in place.

So I worked from front to back, and around the frames, to make sure that the gauze was taut, and on the straight grain. Then we (at this point, The Australian was acting as Studio Assistant!) hammered nails through the fillets and the gauze and into the frame. And then turned it over, all panicky in case something had sagged.

Frame resting on cream dessert pots to raise it over the main panel, and with one of the old overlays laid over the top.

Which, fortunately, it hadn’t. So then I spent a bit more time wrangling the gauze, gluing and trimming it in place. In fact as long as the glue holds long enough to keep the gauze held back until it doesn’t want to straighten into odd directions, that will do me, but the other advantage of copiously gluing the gauze (me and glue – aren’t I being brave!!) is that it now won’t fray.

The next complication is that I need to work out how to get the design element in the right place, given I don’t want it bang in the middle…

So it turned out I hadn’t finished…

I took out the finished Amarna panels to measure them recently, and found the overlays looking faded and muddy, so I need to do something different…

Two frames on the floor, being painted gold

Cue much experimentation and puzzlement. It came in two parts. The first was, can I use different media to create the image in a way that will be more stable? The second, can I make the overlays less susceptible to damage?

That second part was easily answered – I have always expected that the overlays should be properly framed, so I just (a word to beware of!) have to work out how to do so. I had concerns about tension and keeping everything square, but when I talked to my fabulous framer, she seemed much less worried than I, so I commissioned her to make some large frames in plain wood that I could paint with gold.

An experiment with acrylic ink on gauze, producing a face of Nefertiti

Yes, I know one can buy mouldings which are already gold – they’re all much too bright. I don’t want the frames drawing the eye, I want you to look through and past them, into the main panels.

Then I did some experiments to see whether I could find new ways to put the faces on the gauze, less prone to disintegration. I had a lot of fun playing with acrylic inks on small offcuts stretched over embroidery frames, picture frames, anything to hand. I sprayed water on the gauze before, or after, painting on the images. I tried thickening the ink with pva glue or aloe vera gel. I tried ordinary acrylic fabric paint. I stencilled. I dabbed with a sponge. I tried all sorts of experiments!

Frames covered in gauze showing the faces of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, drawn using quick diagonal cross-hatching with inktense blocks. They are set at an angle so that you look through them.

And once the ink was dry, even black ink seemed to vanish. The fabric paint filled up the weave too much, and created a rather clumpy effect.

So in the end I went back to the inktense blocks (in purple, not that you can tell!), put my newsprint style guides under the gauze, and put them in, quickly and vigorously. Then I sprayed the gauze lightly with the sort of fixative pastellists use for soft pastels. I have no idea at all whether this will work in the long run, but it seems to me it has a reasonably good chance…

Some Thoughts on the Path

Some test stitching for the "path" sections of the parterre. Both of them look a bit busy.

While I’m thinking about the large octagonal borders (they’re proving very tricky to plan!), I’m also thinking about the “path” section. I really like both of these stitches, but they are both much too close in scale to the stitches in the border, and I think they’d be much too busy as well. The path is much the largest area, and I need to keep it from fighting with the borders. There needs to be some calm somewhere!

Several variations of yarn and thickness of thread in a single stitch.

This is more promising, but the lower experiment with lots of different colour combinations and thicknesses is also too busy. I think if I can stretch out the variations to create larger sections and make the colour changes less strident, this might work. The stitch grows quite quickly, as well. I just hope my stash is equal to the task…

I wasn’t intending to start on the path yet, but given the already-referred-to difficulties I’m having with the octagonal borders , I wanted to be making progress somewhere!

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