Thursday, 24 May 2012

Mixing Embroidery Styles (1)

Mixing Embroidery Styles (1)

In my first blog post I said that you don’t need to know the rules but, rather, the techniques.  There is such a large body of techniques out there, knowledge that has built up over the centuries that we should be using to create our own style of embroidery.  In fact, it might be better to have only a scant knowledge of the various styles of embroidery.  In that way you will be more inclined to see something that inspires you and to mix it into what you might be doing.  Whether or not it is ‘right’ is only a matter of someone else’s opinion.
During the late nineties I bought a book by mistake.  I had only looked at the cover and, thinking it was a book on Stumpwork – which I was playing with at the time – I bought it.  When I got home and pulled it out of its brown paper packet I discovered, to my disappointment, that it was a book on the making of needle lace.  What on earth was I going to do with it?  I’ve never had the desire to make lace.  But, the more I paged through it, the more I loved what I saw and decided to set about working out how I could use it in my embroidery.
Most needle lace techniques are based on detached button stitches put together in an endless series of configurations.  By using back stitches to anchor those detached buttonhole stitches it became possible to use the needle lace techniques as an extension to my repertoire of surface embroidery stitches.

Instead of using, say, trellis couching over satin stitch in Jacobean embroidery I have often used needle lace stitches giving the embroidery a whole new slant, and making it into something very different from what’s out there.

Not a great picture here and I apologise.  My photography skills lag far behind any other skills I may have.  The photograph aside, what I am trying to show you here is how I have used a needle lace technique as a surface embroidery stitch to form the background to a single stump-worked flower and leaves.  It has added interest and made for a more complete design.

Last night I completed a key tassel with a highly embellished cap.  I have used stumpwork and bead embroidery, along with off-loom bead weaving techniques – more of that another day - what I am wanting to show you here is the beaded needle lace that I used to cover the top knob of the cap.  Worked with a perle no. 12 thread and Miyuki beads I have used these techniques to do something that is more akin to lace.  It nevertheless adds texture and interest to the final product.

Over the weeks (months, years?), I am going to keep coming back to the idea of mixing styles to create something new and exciting.  I’m going to encourage you to play and experiment, to look forward instead of recreating what’s been done before.  To add a 21st century slant to an old tradition and, at the same time, keeping those traditions alive.
Next week my life is going to be CHAOTIC. My naughty Boxer dogs - 2 boys - decided that forthwith they intended to have a personality clash and set about fighting to the death.  I got bitten in the process, we had the older one neutered and sent them to Boot Camp - i.e. a private dogs boarding school that has about the same daily rates as the best private boys' boarding school.  And it's NOT WORKING!  They have been trained six times a day and are now the most obedient Boxers in the world, but when they are put together they still want to kill each other.  Oh dear.  So, we are separating areas of our garden, buying extra kennels and generally making sure that they will remain apart.  
My son and I will be fetching them - in separate cars - on Monday to start this new regime.  No more long Sunday mornings, all on the bed together.  No more working in my studio with both of them lying at my feet, now it will be one at a time and the other in a separate part of the property.  It all seems to unnecessary, but that's dogs and you have to go with the flow.  When I got the younger one I was aware that we could encounter this problem, but hoped not.  It's been happy for two years, but no longer. 
So, with all this going on I hope that I have the inspiration to post something interesting next week! .

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


Embroidery No Longer Taught In Schools.  A Pity?

At the Beating Around The Bush Embroidery Convention held during April 2012, the entries for a worldwide competition were displayed and judged.  The last, and most coveted, award went to the piece of embroidery that had received the most votes in the Viewers’ Choice section.  It was a beautiful wool embroidered quilt, each block a separate Beatrix Potter scene, stitched by Claire Edwards.
When Claire came up to the podium to receive her award, she told us an interesting story.  When she was about 6 or 7 years old and being taught how to embroider at school, the teacher would inspect her pupils work from time to time.  The little girls in the class were made to line up, clutching in their hands the work that they were doing, and a ruler.  Need I go on?  If their stitching wasn’t up to scratch their hands were smacked with the ruler.  Claire received this treatment and, more to the point, has never forgotten it.  As she said, this experience made it all the more incredible that she continued to embroider up to a level where her work is now good enough to win such an award.
I’ve been involved in embroidery for about 25 years and I cannot tell you how many people I have come across who were put off embroidery whilst at school, because of similar treatment from teachers and, so often, nuns at convent schools.  What a pity that is.  Eventually all girls become women who can no longer dash around hockey fields chasing balls, and they will be looking for a more sedentary hobby.  Unless other inspiring influences were present in childhood, many of them will not consider any form of needlework because their school experience put them off for life.
But, you might say, that would have been in the 60s and 70s and things have progressed since then.  Nobody gets smacked anymore.  It’s true that a ruler on the hands has been “ruled out”, but I was unhappy to discover a few years ago that, in essence, things haven’t really changed that much.
My daughter went to a chi-chi girls' private school, the kind that puts out full-colour brochures claiming to nurture, recognise the individual for what she is......  You know what I’m talking about, all private schools employ similar window dressing tactics.  By and large that was true of the school that she went to, but no school is ever perfect.  In grades 8 and 9 all of the girls were required to do a semester or two of all the subjects that were on offer, after which they chose the 6 or 7 subjects that they would focus on during the last 3 years until they matriculated.
During the six months that she was doing home economics she was required to embroider a gingham embroidery table cloth.  Sadly, the fabric that was provided was a nasty piece of polyester gingham, not even the real thing.  But I digress.  She was required to finish the project during the Michaelmas holidays and spent many enjoyable and relaxing hours stitching.  She’d always been a little scornful of what she called my ‘embroidery effort’ but found herself enjoying what she was doing.  A day or two before the end of the school holidays she said, “actually Mum, I’m beginning to see why you enjoy embroidery”.
On the day school started she hadn’t quite finished.  She had, probably, an hour’s work left to do.  She took it to school and asked the teacher if she could have one more day to complete it.  She did want to complete it.  The teacher told her “no, you hand it in right now and you will lose marks because it wasn’t finished”.  Well, that was it.  The project was never finished, will never be finished and one more person was lost to embroidery.  Teachers don’t seem to realise how one nasty remark or action can put a child off something for life.
I failed needlework at school.  Dismally.  But my highest marks were for Art.  And that’s where I’m going with this.
In the same way that children aren’t, but should be, taught how to fill in a tax return or apply for a mortgage bond in order to equip them for adult life, they should learn how to sew on a button and put up a hem.   Further than that, embroidery should be taught in the art class.   It is not a “domestic” science, it is an art and one of the finest there is.  I can “paint” far more effectively with a needle and thread than I ever could with a paint brush and in the context of school, art teachers are likely to be far more inspiring than home economics teachers ever would be.  There are, of course, some exceptions.
Making young girls do something that they don’t enjoy and find difficult at that stage in their lives is guaranteed to put them off forever, particularly if the teacher is herself unartistic and uninspiring.  Like many other things, it is better to let them try it when they want to.  If the adults in their life are stitching, and enjoying it, they may eventually be inspired.  Then, when they are looking for a hobby they may try it and probably enjoy it for what it is.  Relaxing, therapeutic, creative and for many people, addictive.  It is up to us to design and do projects that are attractive to younger women.
Nothing is ever black and white and one should always consider all the aspects before forming an opinion.  So, is it a pity that embroidery is no longer taught in schools?
On balance, I think not.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Hand Embroidery Is To Machine Embroidery...

Hand embroidery is to machine embroidery what home cooked food is to microwave meals.

Threading up a machine, choosing a design from a disc and letting the machine get on with it cannot possibly compare with the rich textures, the variety of threads, the vast body of techniques that have built up over the centuries and the sheer pleasure of hand stitching to the exclusion of everything else that is going on around you.   Machine embroidery does, however, have one advantage.  It has not been around for long enough to have built up a book of rules.
I went to the launch of a book late last year.  This beautiful book was filled with the most exquisite photographs of African wildlife and the launch was attended, by and large, by members of our local camera club.  The venue was set up with numerous large HD television screens and in between the wine and snacks the author gave us a Power Point presentation of the photographs in his book.  The images he had chosen – and there were many of them - were, without exception, pictures that “broke the rules”.  As each slide came up the audience would gasp at its beauty, and he would go on to explain what the “rules” dictated and how, by doing the exact opposite, he had created what was up on the screen, the photograph that took their collective breath away.
He touched on everything from picture composition to focus, from balance to lighting, from exposure to colour.  I stood there, quaffing red wine, thinking oh boy, here is someone who is truly creative and has not allowed himself to be boxed in by the photography police.  A person after my own heart.
What is it about the human race that causes people to want to prescribe to creativity?  Why is it that for centuries the moment someone does something creative there is a whole team out there wanting to create margins and parameters?  Make rules?  Stifle creativity?  There is hardly an art or a craft that has not been subjected to rule making and sadly, hand embroidery might be one of its biggest victims.
A rebel at heart, I am often told that to break the rules you do at least have to know what they are.  Um, no.  I don’t agree.  All you need to know are the techniques.  So called rules only box you in and stop you from exploring your creativity.  That is not to say that you should allow yourself to produce shoddy work.  You should aim for perfection realising, at the same time, that what you are doing is handmade.  That you are human, not a machine.  You do need to take pride in your work and produce the best result that you can.
Take a walk through any shopping mall and go into the clothing and decor shops.  Look at the design on embroidered clothes, accessories, fabrics and soft furnishings.  It is youthful, colourful, fresh and exciting.  We need to be inspired by that.  We need to mix our styles, try out modern fabrics, modern threads, beads, sequins and whatever else we can find.  We need to invent our own techniques and styles without embarrassment, without feeling the need to satisfy the Mother Grundies who disapprove of anything that is not historically correct. 
The human population moves forward all the time and if we want to keep embroidery alive, to make it attractive to the next generation, we need to move forward too.  We must not ignore the vast heritage of embroidery, but we must stop looking back and reproducing what has been done in centuries long gone.
I’m a busy embroiderer, designer, author, teacher, columnist, housewife, mother, dog lover.............and so on.  I can’t promise to post every day or even every week.  I am going to post every time I have something to say.  I intend to be rebellious, informative and inspiring.  I hope that you will join me on this journey.