Thursday, 31 December 2009

Kate's Crow - the design

My sister, Kate, has a big birthday coming up in Spring 2011, and has asked me to make something for it. This might seem like a long way off, but there's a bit of work in what I'm going to do, plus it's to be part of a fire screen, which will also have to be made, so best to allow plenty of time.

Kate's asked for something similar to the Moon picture I mentioned last time, but with a crow rather than a hare.

Way back in our teenage years, two LPs we listened to a lot were Phantasmagoria by The Damned and The Raven by The Stranglers.

I knew there was a reason I'd kept my old vinyl records! The picture of the raven is pretty easy to spot, but if you look closely at the other cover, there's a small pink silhouette of a bird in the bottom right corner. I'm not sure what it is, to be honest, but it could be a crow; whatever it is, I still like the moody imagery on both album covers, and would like to capture something of that atmosphere in this piece.

Similar to Moon, there is a background of Celtic spirals forming a stylised moon design. A silhouette of a crow is overlaid on this, though is this case it's going to remain as a silhouette, with only the eye within the outline. Again, it'll all be worked in Gütermann no. 41 silver metallic thread, on a silk matka background, but this time in black.

This is rather larger than Moon, so needed a new spiral background design. I drew a circle 26cm (a little over 10") in diameter, then drew a basic plan of circles inside it.

I'm not much of a sketcher - I'm always happiest drawing things with a ruler, protractor and a compass!

I then needed to add the spiral designs themselves. Two very useful sources of both inspiration and the mechanics of drawing the spirals are Celtic design: spiral patterns by Aidan Meehan and Celtic art: the methods of construction by George Bain. Both are excellent on the technicalities, though at one rather tricky point, Mr Bain does rather throw in the towel and says: "The actual completion must be by hand and eye". Gee, thanks George! Still, he's right - I got fed up trying to work out the geometry, and other than the construction lines and the larger circles, I drew everything else freehand.

This rather scruffy drawing still shows the working out, as it were, but I'll lose that in the final version.

Working from photographs, I also drew up the crow outline; here they are together:

The crow's too small here and needs to be blown up a bit, but that's what scanners and printers are for!

The final stage was done on tracing paper: I traced the crow first, overlaid that on the spiral drawing, and traced that other than the bits falling within the crow outline.

And so we have the final design:

That should keep me busy for a while!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009


My new project will be similar in some ways to a picture I stitched a few years ago, so I thought I'd show you that first.

Entitled Moon, this draws on mythology from a range of cultures that associates hares with the moon, and sees the pattern of craters on the moon's surface as a hare, in the same way as in the West we see the Man in the Moon. Speaking personally, I like the hare idea better!

The details are a bit clearer close up:

It's entirely worked in surface embroidery: the Celtic spirals forming stylised craters are worked in chain stitch, while the hare's body is filled in with split stitch, plus there are a few French knots dotted about. The silver thread used is Gütermann Dekor Metallic no. 41; I've never tried machine embroidery with this, but it's ghastly to use for hand sewing. But, I love the effect it gives when used for chain stitch, so I use it a lot, difficult or not. The split stitch is in Madeira stranded cotton, and the design is worked on navy silk matka fabric.

Someone once told me this looked very 'witchy'. I'm not sure what she meant by that, but I decided to take it as a compliment anyway!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Turquoise Serpent is finished!

Here's Xiuhcoatl, the Turquoise Serpent, in all his glory:

To form the final panel, the completed embroidery needed to be stretched onto a piece of board. Depending on the size of the final item I might use mount board for this, but I felt this was just too large for that, so I used a piece of hardboard, cut to size.

As I've mentioned before, this is quite a tactile piece, and the padded suede is actually quite hard, so for a contrast, I covered the board with a layer of polyester wadding.

I forgot to take a photo of this, but using tailor's chalk, I measured up and marked the size of the board on the back of the embroidery; this makes lining things up later a whole lot easier!

Using the chalk marks, I laid the covered board onto the fabric, folded this over the board, and pinned it into place on the edge of the board. If I'd been using mount board, I'd have used ordinary sewing pins for this, but the hardboard is too, well, hard for that, so I used drawing pins instead.

These are just to hold the fabric in place for the next stage, so it doesn't matter that the fabric isn't stretched tight yet.

Turning it over, I mitred the first corner and pinned it in place. (Instructions and clearer photos on how to do this are on my 'official' site.)

The thread sticking out of the top corner is crochet cotton, which I often use to lace up an embroidery as it's quite strong, though linen thread is probably better. I pulled this thread through before pinning the corner as it makes things a bit easier, though if you're carrful you can do it afterwards instead.

Using this thread, I ladder stitched the top and side edged together, forming the mitred corner.

Without finished it off, I then took the thread diagonally across the board to the opposite corner, and did the same again. The other two corners were secured in the same way, giving neat corners with no need for trimming, and an 'X' of thread across the board. Anchoring the corners first also means that the fabric is now held in place on the board even before the lacing has been done, so the drawing pins can be removed.

Using a ridiculously long length of the crochet cotton, I secured it at the centre of the long edge of the fabric, and laced it with herringbone stitch backwards and forwards between the top and bottom edges.

With such a long piece of thread, it's next to impossible to stop it tangling, so I don't even try to pull the lacing tight as I go. I get all the lacing in position first, then pull it tight a thread at a time, before fastening it off. Once the first centre-to-edge is done, I returned to the centre, and laced it to the second edge.

I then did the same again for the short edge.

It makes rather a nice pattern, doesn't it?

The embroidery is now nicely stretched onto its board, but I couldn't leave it with the back like that. I used black silk dupion for the backing, as it gives a good contrast in textures to the satin of the front. It was just some I had in my fabric cupboard, though, and was dress weight rather than upholstery weight, so I ironed on some fine black Vilene, to add a bit of strength.

I then pinned this to the back; I folded over the edges and pinned them in the centre first, before mitring the corners again, and pinning them into position, then adding more pins round the edges, to hold it fast.

I then ladder stitched round the edge, using a curved needle. They aren't the easiest things to use, and I always find them awkward to thread, but they do come into their own with jobs like this, as they avoid the tugging at the fabric you get when trying to get a straight needle at the right angle.

After the back was attached, all that needed doing was adding a label.


Monday, 21 December 2009

Turquoise Serpent - the embroidery's finished

Just a quick post to say that all the embroidery on the Turquoise Serpent is now finished.

I've edged the body in two strands of couched Jap silver passing thread, to emphasise the coils; I could go for quite a distance without needing to finish off, so far fewer ends to deal with this time!

All the embroidery may now be finished and the piece taken off the frame, but there's still a bit of work to do to stretch it onto a panel, and finish it off properly. More on that next time!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Turquoise Serpent - silver infill

Firstly, an apology: posts have been very infrequent of late, and I'm sorry about that, and very grateful to those readers who keep coming back anyway. It's much appreciated!

With upheaval at work, a house full of decorators, and my birthday in there somewhere, I haven't managed to get nearly as much sewing done as I'd have liked, but I have battled on when I could, and have now finished the couched silver infill between the suede appliqué 'mosaic'.

I'm very glad that bit's done - I am so sick of finishing off the ends of the threads, I really am! It takes much longer than stitching them down in the first place. Still, they're all done now, and look much better in real life than in the photo (honestly!). It's not quite finished yet - I need to edge the body of the serpent, also in couched Jap silver, though that should be much more straightforward.

I don't go back to work until the New Year, so all being well, you should hear a bit more from me now than you have done recently!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Sunderland Embroiderers' Guild Christmas social

I'm a member of the Sunderland branch of the Embroiderers' Guild, and today was our Christmas social afternoon.

As well as a raffle and a sales table, plus very nice mince pies, everyone's rainbow squares were on display.

The eagle-eyed amongst you might spot two and a half of mine!

The ladies of the committee had also put together packs for everyone to make a Christmas tree ornament. We could choose between a star and a Christmas tree, and we all settled down to a happy afternoon of stitching and chatting.

I chose the tree - this is made of two layers of green felt with some wadding between them and stitched together with running stitch, and decorated with sequin waste trimmed to form a pattern. I put my tree up at home today, so when I got home I was able to put it straight on the tree.

I think if I'd spent more time stitching and less time talking, I might have got the sequin waste on straight!

Saturday, 5 December 2009

'300' slip case

The piece I'm working on at the moment is largely composed of appliquéd leather. I've used this technique quite a lot, usually alongside goldwork, but I've also used it with other techniques, including machine embroidery.

This slip case was made to hold a first edition of the graphic novel 300, by Frank Miller. If you've read it or seen the rather noisy film based on it, you'll know that it's a version of the story of the battle of Thermopylae. As such, the design of the helmet was based on ancient Greek coins, while the background was inspired by the stylised look of the book itself.

Closer up, you can see that the background detail is free machine embroidery, while the helmet is hand stitched.

Regular readers will know that most of my work is meticulously planned, but with the machine embroidery, while I knew the effect I was after, I didn't mark it out at all, but just worked on the lines until they looked right.

For the helmet, I drew it up with the various sections together, but when cutting it out from copper kid leather, I cut them out separately, and when placing them on the background - also just done by eye, without any marking up - spaced them out, to enhance the stylised effect. The kid is slightly padded with craft felt, to give added depth and create interest with shadows.

I haven't made a slip case for a while; each one is entirely tailored for the book it's made for - not just the design but the slip case itself is custom-made to fit. Next time I make one, I'll describe the technicalities of putting the slip case together.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Couched silver infill

I'm currently adding the silver infill between the appliquéd turquoise suede 'mosaic' pieces. This is couched silver thread, using a single silver passing thread, and worked as I described in my 'Goldwork - basic couching' post.

One big difference to the goldwork piece I described before is in the amount of starting and finishing there is to do. In that case (and this is definitely my preferred option!), I used two threads in parallel, and went round and round the shape to be covered with the couching, and when it was all done, finished the threads off. Two thread ends at the start, two at the end; just the four to take through to the back and fasten. Not this time - each gap between two appliqué pieces needs its own length of thread, which needs starting and finishing. I'm spending longer fastening the ends than I am actually sewing!

Still, it's worth it, I think. Here's a section of the Serpent, before the silver thread was added.

Next, I'm couching down the thread a section at a time, so I can finish off a group of ends in one go. This should give you some idea of how many of them there are!

There were six ends just for this small piece; all finished off neatly at the back, and we get this:

I'm quite pleased with the overall effect. I'm part way through the infill, so here's work so far.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Turquoise Serpent - all the leather appliqué's finished

I've finished applying all the leather 'mosaic' pieces to the Turquoise Serpent. And here he is:

I'm quite pleased with how the leather appliqué has gone; I'm pleased with the variety of shapes, and I'm pleased with the overall feel of it. The photo doesn't give any sense of the depth of the padding, which actually raises the appliqué off the background quite a way - I should try and take one from the side, to show how raised it is - but what it really fails to convey is what the appliqué feels like.

It's a more tactile piece than I'd envisaged, which I really like. Normally, my work is to be looked at, not prodded, though some of the 3D pieces do rather ask for it, but it's hard not to with this one. The stitching round the edge of each suede piece has worked rather like quilting, so that it bulges up in the centre of each one. Combined with the soft pile, for want of a better word, of the suede, it's very nice to the touch.

I mentioned when I first started the appliqué that I was leaving small gaps between the pieces deliberately. Now all the pieces are on, I'll fill the gaps with couched silver thread. I think this could take a long time...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Newcastle upon Tyne Embroiderers' Guild open day

I didn't sew a stitch this Saturday, but I had a very good reason: I spent a very happy day at the Embroiderers' Guild Newcastle upon Tyne branch open day. I was a member of the Newcastle branch for many years (I'm in the Sunderland branch now), so it was a lovely opportunity to catch up with friends from the Guild I haven't seen in a while. It felt like I'd never left!

The open day was a day-long event featuring top-of-the-range speakers and vendors.

This is just one of the sales tables, and they all seemed to be doing a roaring trade. Embroiderers are magpies at heart - we can't resist shiny new threads or fabrics or beads, and will buy them whether we need them or not. I was very good and hardly bought anything - only a medium sized embroidery frame (I have a terrible weakness for frames - I just can't go past one without buying it, even though I really don't need any more), and a range of beautiful silk threads in red, dusty pink and gold (ditto).

The morning's speaker was Josie Storey, on the theme "Ideas and Inspirations". Josie is a member of the Ebor Textile Group, and spoke about some of her work with the group for exhibition.

Josie is mostly known for colourful textiles, but in these pieces has chosen to explore whites and soft, muted shades, as a challenge. They're all loosely connected by the theme "Secrets", with hidden pockets and openings.

The effect of the work collected together was both calming and intriguing - the subtle colours were restful and meditative, while the secrets within each piece excited the imagination.

The photos don't do them justice, but seen up close, the detail on each one is exquisite, with far more work on each than may be apparent at first glance. They're also more colourful than a casual look might lead you to think, with tiny flashes of reds, greens and blues.

Lunchtime gave an opportunity to head back to the sales tables, in case I'd missed something the first time round, and to have a good look at the exhibition of members' work.

This is only a small part of the work on display, and shows a few of the rainbow squares that all the branches in the Region are working on. The Newcastle branch has around 50 members, who work in a wide range of styles, but who are all clearly very productive! There was a lot to see, and hardly time to give everything the close attention it deserved.

In the afternoon, Fay Maxwell spoke on "A Happy Accident". Fay is a highly amusing and entertaining speaker, who had brought along an enormous amount of her work, which she passed out for a close look as she spoke, until the entire audience was buried under a pile of beautiful, brightly coloured cushions and bags!

Fay specialises in using traditional crewel work stitches and skills on her own fabulous contemporary designs. The cushions are hand dyed wool blanket felt appliquéd onto silk, and embroidered with tapestry (not crewel) wool and perlé. My favourite were the fruit and vegetable designs - the apples and pears cushion (half concealed here) and the beetroot cushion next to it, though they were all very striking. Fay deliberately limits herself to no more than five colours in both fabrics and threads for any one piece, and shows what marvellous effects can be reached using a limited palette.

Fay also showed us a stunning series of bags made from layered, slashed and burned fabrics, and samples of her new work, her own interpretation of cross stitch.

This close-up shows a large panel heavily worked in free cross stitch, with some stitches a couple of inches across. Fay applies different weight canvas to a background, overlays that with layers of sheer fabric, and then stitches into them, beginning with large stitches in thick threads and strips of fabric, then getting smaller and smaller with finer and finer threads. The finished pieces are very effective, but incredibly, Fay herself isn't happy with some of them, and wants to do them again!

The day ended with a raffle, and tea and refreshments provided by the committee. It was all thoroughly enjoyable, chatting to friends, listening to the speakers and seeing their work, and spending too much money on the stalls! A big thank-you to the Newcastle branch ladies, who worked so hard to make the day such a success.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


I mentioned in a previous post that I don't like sewing with a thimble. Following that, my mum suggested that I might get on better with a tailor's thimble, which made me think about how I use them, and why I don't like them.

After tracking tailor's thimbles down online (local sewing shops and department store haberdashery departments don't run to them), I've tried sewing with different types of thimble, to see how I got on.

The only ceramic thimble I have was a holiday present from a friend, and as it doesn't have any dimples in whatsoever, I assume it's only meant for decoration rather than use, so I didn't even try with that one. It can continue to sit on the mantelpiece in my workroom and look nice, without needing to earn its keep.

Dimples are important: they hold the end of the needle, and stop it skidding off. Another ornamental thimble- another present from the same friend - does have dimples, if only on the end, so I gave that one a try.

You can see that I can use it to push the needle through the leather and all the padding quite successfully. I have quite small hands and this thimble is a bit too big, which doesn't help, but even so, I find this rather an awkward way to sew.

The thimble I've been using up to now is better, but still not ideal.

As you can see, it's absolutely covered in dimples, so no matter what angle you use it push the needle, it's not going to slip. This thimble is actually silver - I bought it at an antiques fair - and while I'm fond of it, not only does it seem too good to use, on a more practical level, it worries me that silver is a soft metal, and when pushing the needle through something tough, the end of the needle could go straight through the thimble and into my finger. Like any stitcher, I'm no stranger to stabbing myself in the fingers with needles, but there's no need to go looking for trouble.

You might notice in the photo that I'm using the side of the thimble to push the needle. I always use a thimble like this - that's why I don't like using the sort that only has dimples on the end - but I'd never given it much thought, and never investigated tailor's thimbles.

Until now! A tailor's thimble differs from an ordinary sewing thimble in that it doesn't have an end: it's designed to be used using the side of the finger. As this is how I work anyway, this suits me very well. It also leaves the finger end free, which is handier than you might think, as it allows me to work in a more natural fashion, pulling threads through the fabric and so forth. It's also made of steel, and so is unlikely to allow the needle end through.

I hadn't thought about it before, but it also means that I can control the needle and push it at the same time, which is useful, though this is also possible with a sewing thimble with side dimples. I had problems photographing this as my fingers were in the way, but I hope you can see what I mean.

I still don't like using thimbles much - they get in the way, they keep falling off, they're just awkward - but I think for me, the tailor's thimble is the least worst option.

And finally...

All this experimentation did have a purpose, and the Turquoise Serpent is coming along. Here's work so far:

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Slow progress...

The Turquoise Serpent is coming along, but not all that quickly, I'm afraid. Still, here's progress so far:

One of the reasons I haven't done as much as I'd expected is that it's taking longer to cut the suede 'mosaic' pieces to shape than I thought it would. I want them to be interesting shapes and all different to each other, rather than a load of square blocks, but that does take longer, to get them all fitting together nicely.

Still, I'm happy with how it's coming along.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Turquoise Serpent - leather appliqué

I'm now adding the appliqué pieces. They're all going to be in leather this time - I've had enough fiddly fabric pieces for a while!

I started with the mouth, in red leather, and teeth, in silver kid.

I then added the turquoise suede "mosaic" to the detail over the eye.

This was followed by more turquoise suede, forming the mosaic pieces for the head.

The gaps between each piece are intentional - they'll be filled in later. Other than the mouth and teeth, I'm cutting each piece out as I go along - I don't have a plan of what's to go where; each one is cut to fit the ones next to it.

Using leather is much faster than using fabric - no folding it round felt, tacking overlaps, etc. - but it is a bit hard on the fingers. I'm using a leather needle, or else it would be next to impossible, but with all the layers to go through, it's still quite tough. I've been forced to use a thimble. I know many people can't sew without one, but I've never found them comfortable to use. Still, sometimes they're necessary, and this is one of those times.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Turquoise Serpent

I've been doing some reading, and it seems my serpent is Xiuhcoatl, the Aztec fire deity, and the embodiment of the dry season and the weapon of the sun. As Xiuhcoatl is something of a challenge to pronounce and spell for a Northern European such as myself, I am happy to report that it translates as 'turquoise serpent'. So from now on, that's what this piece is going to be called.

Back to business. The eye and the detail over the eye (it's not really an eyebrow, but I don't know what else to call it) need to be raised even more, and so have been padded with additional layers of felt, in the case of the over-eye detail, the final one covered with more black satin.

The rather wobbly lines are marking where the mouth is to go; it's next to impossible to keep a line of stitches straight when going through as much padding as this, but the good thing about marking out a design with stitches rather than a pencil or a transfer or even chalk, is that they can be pulled out in a moment and won't leave any mark.

I then added the eye, in pewter kid. This is the first thing not to be just background, and so marks something of a step forwards!

Some proper colour should be coming up next.

Apologies for the awful photos, by the way - I need to find a better way of photographing the black silk.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Aztec serpent - padding and covering

Did I say the fun part came next? I'm not sure why!

I want this piece to be raised rather than flat - stumpwork, I suppose - so it needs to be padded. As it's fairly large and I want it to be quite noticeably raised, I used carpet felt. I traced the outline of the design and stuck it to the felt with 505 fabric spray glue, then cut out the main shape with craft scissors:

and a craft knife for the tricky bits inside the coils, giving the complete shape:

After shaping the edges to give it a more rounded profile, and using the tacked outline as a guide, I stitched the felt shape onto the background fabric.

The poor serpent now looks like he's made out of a haystack rather than turquoise. Carpet felt definitely has its uses, but it's nasty scratchy stuff that sheds everywhere and makes me itch, so it can't be left like that. To provide a proper background for the rest of the work, I used the same technique as for the calligraphy cushions, cutting out the shape again in ordinary craft felt, and covering this in the same black satin as the background.

This time, the felt was cut a bit larger than the actual design, as it needed to be big enough to cover the raised carpet felt shape. I then stitched it over the raised shape, and removed all the tacking stitches.

The padding catches the light in this photo, which gives some idea of how thick it is. So, after all that, I can really make a start this time!