Thursday, 29 October 2009

Aztec serpent - making a start

My new project is now underway. I've drawn a new head for the serpent that looks a bit more threatening than the rather cheery one I had before, grafted it onto the body, along with a longer neck, and have made a fair copy to work from.

I've also done all the usual setting up stuff: made a transfer, ironed it onto some linen, attached the linen to the back of the fabric to be worked (black silk satin, in this case), mounted this onto a frame, and gone round the edge of the design in small running stitches to get it through to the front. So this is as far as I've got:

The satin hasn't come out too well in the photo - it's not really speckled and blotchy, that's just the way the flash has caught it.

I don't much enjoy the setting-up part of a project - it's a bit tedious. But it has to be done and done properly, to give a basis for the embroidery to come. Now on with the fun part!

Monday, 26 October 2009

New project - Aztec serpent

As the project I've been working on has been suspended a little unexpectedly, I didn't have anything else lined up. So, I've decided to do something just for the fun of it!

There's been a lot of coverage recently of the exhibition of Aztec art and artefacts at the British Museum, featuring some amazing items. My favourite is the double-headed serpent in turquoise mosaic:

As luck would have it, I recently bought some turquoise suede from the sales stall at my branch of the Embroiderer's Guild, and it seems ideal for an Aztec serpent done in similar techniques to the Fire Lizard.

So far, all I've got is some reference material and a rough sketch:

You can see several different versions of a design on the same piece of paper here, as I tried to find a layout I was happy with. If you look closely, you can also see the grid I drew to block out the proportions.

I quite like the coils, but I'm not sure about his head - he looks a bit too jolly!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fire lizard

An idea for a piece of embroidery can hit you when you least expect it. One evening, I was watching a nature programme on TV when the phone rang. I paused the programme and settled down for a chat, but as I talked, I kept looking at the image on the screen.

The picture was of a little lizard, that rolled itself into a ball when it was threatened. It had curled up, and was biting its own tail. There was something about this that struck me - it somehow looked almost heraldic, and I felt that this was something I wanted to stitch.

To give me something more than just an impression to work with, I photographed the TV screen:

As it is, this is a bit fiddly, so I simplified and reduced the number of sections in his body, and with the aid of a compass, made him more circular. I also reversed the design from the original, as I just felt it worked better.

This design fits nicely into a 7" circle, as part of a series of roundels I was working on at the time.

As it's a bold shape, and in keeping with the heraldic feel, I wanted to use strong colours and simple but effective techniques and materials. As such, I used a black silk satin as the background, with cotton lawn onto which the design had been transferred as a foundation.

After the design had been transferred to the front with small running stitches, I appliquéd each section individually in a fine red leather, with slightly padded gold kid for the eye. Each section was then outlined with a single couched Jap gold thread, to give definition and to lift it.

Here's the finished piece:

I think he looks rather fierce!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Stained glass

The parade of plumbers, heating engineers and window fitters have now left the house, for the time being at least, and things are getting back to normal. The highlight of the recent work was getting stained glass panels in the living room windows.

Aren't they fab! I'm really pleased. They were inspired by the work of Leonard Evetts, especially a window in a church in Newcastle, illustrated in a book on his work:

They were designed and made by Bill Hodgson from Abbey Restoration, as part of new timber framed double-glazed sash windows. The old windows were about a hundred years old, and were broken and draughty; the new windows throughout the house should last another hundred, and be a lot warmer and quieter!

Regular readers may want to know that the banner project is going to have to be put on hold for a while. I'm not sure when it'll be back, but when it is, I'll let you know. In the mean time, I'll be working on other projects, so I'll still have plenty to write about.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Pectoral Cross of St Cuthbert

Work in the house is coming along nicely and all being well I should be able to get back to my sewing next week some time. In the mean time, I thought you might be interested in some of the inspiration behind Fiona's design for the banner.

The description of the lost medieval banner just called for a red cross on a white background, with no further mention of how plain or ornate that might have been. While this would seem to leave us with quite a free hand, it was unanimously agreed that the central cross design should be based closely on the pectoral cross of St Cuthbert.

This beautiful cross, designed to be worn on a chain around the neck, was found buried with St Cuthbert when his coffin was opened in 1827, and is now on display in the Durham Cathedral Treasury.

From the Durham Cathedral publication The Treasures of Saint Cuthbert:

Pectoral cross, circa 640-670
W. 6 cm. Garnets set in individual gold cells on a gold cross-shaped base plate. The central garnet is mounted on a white shell of Mediterranean origin. English. The arms are decorated with beaded wire, dog-toothing and dummy rivet heads. The suspension loop is secondary. Repairs show that the cross was not new when buried in the grave of St Cuthbert in 687. A number of decorative elements and the general concept of a cloisonné cross show an awareness of Kentish jewellery of the 7th century, but the shape of the cross and the use of dummy rivets may place the piece in a Northumbrian environment.

So, it was buried with St Cuthbert at his death in 687, and so may well have belonged to him in life.

In its use of gold and garnet, it has some stylistic resemblance to other Saxon decorative pieces, such as many of the items excavated from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, or in the staggering Staffordshire Hoard, discovered earlier this year. In one of the news reports on the Staffordshire treasure I caught a glimpse of what looked like another gold pectoral cross - it looked plainer than this one, though similar in some respects, but I haven't yet been able to find a photo of it to check.

Since its rediscovery in 1827 the cross has become an unofficial emblem of Durham generally, so that it would have seemed odd if we didn't use it on the banner.

As the description of the banner made it clear that it needed to be predominantly red, there's a lot less gold that would be called for in a closer representation, but we've still tried to keep it pretty close, with goldwork round the edges and in the central disc, and with the satin appliqué representing the garnets. The "dummy rivets" the description above mentions I've done with sequins!

So it's not an exact copy, but I hope you agree that it is at least recognisable as St Cuthbert's cross.

The image of St Cuthbert's pectoral cross is the property of the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

That's all the appliqué done!

I've now finished all the appliqué pieces for the second cross:

There are 11 satin pieces per leg, so 44 per cross, then the 4 around the centre for each cross, making 96 in all. When I first worked that out, I wished I hadn't (I still had about 70 to go!), but now they're all done, so I can look back and feel quite pleased. I think this one is working out better than the first cross, so I think this is the one that'll be going on the front of the banner.

Progress is going to slow up for a while now - I'm going to have a house full of workmen for the next week or so, then personal and work commitments mean that sewing is going to have to take a back seat for a bit. I hope not for too long though - I'm so close to finishing the second cross, and starting on the next step, which I'm looking forward to. I'll just have to be patient!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

More appliqué, and a problem solved

Or at any rate, I think it's solved. Take a look at the picture below - does that look straight to you?

I hope it does. It didn't before, or not to me. I tried to ignore it, and to tell myself that it would look fine to everyone else, I was just too close, but it was no good: it just wasn't right. One leg of the cross - the bottom one in this picture - looked wonky.

I looked at from all angles and from varying distances, and the more I looked, the worse it got. Something had to be done. In a worst case scenario, the cross would have to be done again from scratch, but I wasn't keen on that idea, so wanted to try other options first.

If you recall, I transfer the design onto the front of the fabric by going over an outline on the back with small running stitches. Looking at the back, I'd gone over the outline fine - I hadn't gone wrong there. This was actually encouraging - I used the same transfer for both crosses, and the first one was straight, so this one must be too. So, the problem must be with how I had the fabric on the frame.

Tugging it further over to one side wasn't going to work as it was too taught, and I didn't want to risk any damage by pulling at it, so I took it off the frame completely and, after a great deal of measuring and comparing, laced it all back up again.

I'm much happier with it now - my photo isn't quite straight, which doesn't help you judge, but it really is much better. It just goes to show, though - you can't be too precise.

So, back to the appliqué. I'm half way through the third leg:

Two of the appliqué pieces still have their tacking stitches in, which I hope gives you some idea of how fiddly this process is! You can't really tell here, but they aren't yet stitched down properly - I just catch them down at the corners first and then check that they're central, so that they're easy to take off and realign if necessary. Once I'm happy that they're right, I can sew them down properly.

This image also shows the order I'm stitching them on - instead of starting at the top and working my way down, I do the top ones, then the bottom ones, then back to the top, then back to the bottom again, until they meet in the middle. This helps with the spacing, and also helps ensure that I don't veer off half way down, but keep the line of satin pieces central.

You might notice that the left-hand guide stitch is well off; I left plenty of slack in these stitches so they don't leave a mark on the velvet, and it shifted when I stitched the appliqué piece over it. It started off straight, honest!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Banner update

I haven't mentioned the banner for a while, as I'm just doing things I've already described when I did the first one, but the second one is coming along fine. Here's where I've got up to:

So, I've got the appliqué done on two legs, so two to go plus the sequins and gold kid triangles. I'll let you know how I'm getting on once I've got a bit further.

Friday, 2 October 2009

York Minster - All Saint's Chapel dossal

A stunning example of goldwork in (fairly) contemporary ecclesiastical embroidery can be seen in All Saint's Chapel in York Minster.

This magnificent dossal (or hanging behind an altar) was made in 1972 by the Minster Broderers, from a design by Joan Freeman. On red silk, the design is worked in padded gold kid and couched gold thread and cords, with some beading. I haven't described working with kid or other fine leather yet, though as with couching, it's a simple technique that can be used to great effect, as here.

I love this piece - the design is deceptively simple but perfectly composed, and the colour scheme - just red and gold - shows it off without any distractions. Although I keep saying that goldwork techniques are simple (and they are!), so much hinges on their execution, which here is flawless. Although the Great Processional Banner is an astonishing piece of work, I much prefer this one. Beautiful.