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!
Although putting the fringing on brought the whole thing to life – which goes to show how important the finishing details are for big projects – I was very relieved when I delivered the Piano Shawl, and it settled into its destined home as though I’d sat there to stitch it. As I don’t have any rooms decorated in similar colours, I wasn’t confident when I finished the piece, until I saw it in place. Phew!
I created a booklet to go with the Piano Shawl, which included a short description from Elaine, describing why she wanted it, and the following, describing how I tackled the commission.
From the Embroiderer’s Frame
This was an intriguing project, growing out of several conversations, visits to the Client’s house, and an assortment of research in libraries and online for suitable images and inspirations. The ultimate inspiration was a scene in a painting in which the black polished surface of a grand piano was broken by a patterned shawl.
I was asked for a piece that would suit the room and the grand piano, and would in some way incorporate references to Music. I prefer, with this sort of piece, to find some way of allowing the client to contribute, not just with a brief, but with some element of the design, so I devised three possible ideas,
- a piano keyboard stretched into a ring, which would allow for a variety of stitches and techniques
- a series of instruments rendered in a broad, slightly “graphic” style
- a more “romantic” design of flowers
In adapting the inspiration to circumstances and ideas, we decided, rather than using a scattered all-over pattern, to develop an undulating stave design, entwined with flowering stems. The flower patterns were developed from the shapes used by my grandmother in one of her embroidered tablecloths. As she set me off on my embroidering way, I always try to include some idea or reference in big projects! We chose to pick up the floral pattern of the carpet, dusty pinks and apricots for the flowering stems, and take the blue background as the basis of colours for the stave. Then I asked Elaine to write out for me the musical elements that she wanted to have put on the staves.
In the event, this piece involved far less variety of stitch technique than the other design ideas I had thought of, but at the same time it gave scope for a much wider range of variegated threads. The blues used in the stave are brighter than those in the carpet, because darker colours would have dragged the design down, making it seem less light hearted. There is always a balance to be struck in embroidery between the naturalism that is available through needlepainting techniques and producing something that is clearly an embroidery. I almost always choose to do the latter, because the textures of fabric and thread as they are used in embroidery are what interest and inspire me.
My initials and the date are included in Morse code, on diagonally opposing corners.
Now Elaine not only has her Piano Shawl, but something for the archives as well.