Saturday, 29 January 2011

A cultural morning

Taking a morning off from sewing, I went to see a new exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery at the gallery at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.  This is entitled 'Writers of influence', and ranges from Chaucer to J K Rowling, via Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolfe and Dizzee Rascal (plus many others).  They're all fascinating to see, but the real star of the show, and what looks like making the exhibition a real blockbuster, is the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare.

This is the only portrait of him that has 'any claim to have been painted from life', as the caption put it, which is as good as we're going to get, and good enough for me.

This is quite a coup for the gallery as this is the first time ever that it's been displayed outside of London, and as something of a Shakespeare fan, I was determined to see it today, the exhibition's opening.  There were a lot of people there, most hearteningly of all a bunch of teenage boys.  They weren't on a school trip (it's Saturday), and they weren't there with their parents, they'd come along because they wanted to.  Maybe our culture's in safer hands than we give it credit for.

Photos weren't allowed in the gallery, of course, but outside in Mowbray Park, I did take one of a rather different literary figure: the Walrus.

Lewis Carroll (also in the exhibition) had family and friends in Sunderland, and stayed here often.  On one visit, he went to see the skin of a walrus, being displayed to the public by a sea captain (you had to make your own entertainment in those days).  Sunderland had a massive shipbuilding industry, and he would have seen many men heading to work in the shipyards.  They were wooden ships, and the men were woodworkers, or, of course, carpenters.  So, The Walrus and the Carpenter, surreal as it is, was directly inspired by Sunderland people and things.  Carroll's work was an influence on John Lennon, who wrote I am the Walrus.  He's in the exhibition too.

The walrus skin was stuffed and was on display in the museum for a century or so before finally falling apart; when I was a kid the head, mounted on a plaque, was still proudly displayed over the door.  That's had it too now, so a life-size bronze statue was commissioned in its stead.

Walking back through the park, I passed the statue of Jack Crawford, the 'Hero of Camperdown', and the boy who quite literally nailed the flag, or the colours, to the mast during a sea battle, giving us an enduring expression.

The inscription on the sculpture in the foreground reads:

'On open seas
or dry land
nail your colours
to the mast'

There'll be an exhibiton on in your local museum or art gallery or library, and it'll be every bit as interesting as this one and will tell you just as much about where you live.  Go and see it.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Gibside Chapel

You've been following me for some time now using split stitch to give (hopefully!) realistic shading to the Banner's flowers, but I've also used it for some small landscapes, including one of Gibside Chapel.

Gibside, on the outskirts of Gateshead, is now a National Trust property; most of the buildings are sadly now ruined, but the pretty Palladian chapel is still in good order, and the gardens and landscaping are beautiful.

As part of an outreach initiative, local craft groups, including the Embroiderers' Guild, were invited to spend a Bank Holiday weekend at the Chapel, giving demonstrations and answering visitors' questions.  As part of that, I decided to stitch a picture of the Chapel itself.

I took a photo of the Chapel from the front, and traced the basic outlines to form the design, which I then ironed onto linen.  Using the same split stitch shading techniques that I'm now using for the flowers, I could then fill in the areas for the sky (a rather sunnier blue than the reality!), the grass, including the shade under the trees, and most of the architectural detail of the building itself.

The trees and final detailing on the building were done with French knots, and some back stitch with a single strand of cotton for outlining.

Apart from a bit of artistic licence with the sky, I tried to keep the colours as close to the ones in the photo as possible; my hope was to produce what looked like a miniature painting, but in stitch.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


We have a new flower! The side panels have a flower on them that the top and bottom panels don't, the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).  Foxgloves are most commonly purple, but a wild subspecies, D. purpurea, subsp. heywoodii, has ivory or pale yellow flowers.

Here's the basic design, transferred onto linen:

I'm not sure why I added those dots to the transfer as they're just going to be stitched over, but never mind.  They do act as a reminder that something needs to go there!  There are a series of flower heads, which will all be attached to the same stem, with the largest flowers at the bottom and the smallest buds at the top.

As the flowers in the wild are very pale, I'm using the palest threads in my palette to stitch them. This means that they don't show up too well against the white linen, so sorry about that, but they'll be fine on the red velvet backing fabric.

Starting with the cups at the base of the buds, I used my palest green, Madeira stranded cotton 1409, to both outline them in buttonhole stitch and fill them in in split stitch.

For the buds and flowers themselves, I'm using two shades, 0101, which is a pale ivory colour, and 0103, which is a very pale yellow.  I've used these colours before on the Banner, for the pearlworts, so using them in combination again helps keep a consistent look.  In case you're wondering why I didn't use 0102, while it's a very nice colour by itself, it has rather a peachy tone, which doesn't go at all with any of the other shades of yellow that I've used so far, or with the particular greens that I'm using either.  So far, with the split stitch shading, I've always been careful to use two colours next to each other on the shade card, to give as soft a gradation as possible; even though 0101 and 0103 (obviously) aren't next to one another, both 0102 and 0103 differ in the depth of their shade from 0101 by a similar amount.  In other words, 0103 is just as pale as 0102, just a slightly different colour, and one I think works better.

Back to the stitching.  I used the ivory 0101 to outline the flowers, and I filled in the body of the side-on buds at the same time:

Foxglove flowers are relatively long and bell-shaped, and I want to give the impression that my flowers have an interior that you can look into.  As of course they're actually flat, I need to try and achieve this with shading.  To start with, I defined the inner edge of the 'bell', with buttonhole stitch:

Again using 0101, I filled in the top lip of the bell, above the buttonhole-stitched 'edge', and also along the bottom, real, edge:

The stitches along the top are parallel to the edge of the flower, while the ones along the bottom are perpendicular to it.  This should help with the shading, and give contrast between the outside and interior of the flower.

I then used one strand of 0101 and one of 0103 to fill in the centre of the smaller circular buds, part of the interior of the bell-shaped flowers, and all of the exterior:

For some reason, this looks a much brighter yellow in the photo than it does in real life; it's actually much more subdued than this.

Finally, I used two strands of 0103 to fill in the rest of the interior of the flowers.

There's still something missing, though.  Remember the dots on the transfer?  Foxgloves have small spots on their interior surface, mostly towards the rim, in a slightly darker colour to the rest, and these now needed to be added.  My first thought was to use French knots, and I started to do this, but it looked terrible, so they came out again (I should have taken a photo to show you how bad it looked, but I didn’t think of that until it was too late.  Sorry).  Instead, I added small stitches, just a millimetre or so across, in the next shade up, 0104:

So with that done, here are all the completed foxglove flowers:

I'm very pleased with how they've turned out - I think they do have a sense of depth about them.  What do you think?

Friday, 14 January 2011

Half the ferns

There are quite a lot of ferns on the side panels, and I'm afraid they're still not my favourite to do.  The eagle-eyed amongst you when studying the Banner design may have counted up nine ferns on the left panel.  If so, you either more eagle-eyed or better at arithmetic than me, as I managed to miscount the number on the bottom panel and stitched one more than I needed to.  I was annoyed about this at first, until it occurred to me that it meant I had one less to stitch later on.  So, carrying that one over, I just have eight to do now instead.

And here are half of them:

When stitching the previous lot of ferns onto the background fabric of the bottom panel, I was struggling to fit all of the leaves into the space, and in all bar one case, left one leaf out.  So, I'm going to miss out one leaf per fern at the stitching stage this time, which is why the bottom one is crossed out.  I thought I'd better leave myself a prominent reminder, or I'd end up stitching them anyway by mistake!

So, having found a way to save myself a bit of work at least, here they all are:

There's still another four to do, but at least that's half of them out of the way.

Next, it's a brand new flower, the foxglove.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A sheet of wood avens

There's just the one sheet of wood avens for the left panel, and here it is:

There aren't any here of the largest size that we had on the bottom panel, but there is one of the tiny ones, which is very fiddly to do.

As before, they're outlined in buttonhole stitch, filled in with split stitch, and have centres in French knots.  Here they are, completed:

Some rather disappointing news is that the Spirograph panels failed to sell, so I'll be getting them back, as the gallery need the space for their next exhibition.  Oh well, maybe next time...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Dragon

At the top of the page, as the big headline image behind the name of the blog, is the Dragon.  He's quite possibly my favourite thing I've ever made, and I don't know why it's taken me until now to tell you about him.  Here he is, looking splendid:

He's 3D and entirely freestanding, and is in goldwork, using coloured threads to couch the gold thread down; the idea was that this would look like scales.  His underside and the underneath of his wings are couched with a plain thread, so they look gold rather than coloured.

The original design was actually based on a cut-out-and-glue-together mobile from a book (Dragon Mobiles by Anne Wild); as this was meant to be hung up rather than standing it needed a little adaptation to make sure it was level, but not too much, plus some areas, like the wings and legs, needed to be made in two pieces rather than the one used in the mobile, to give a front and a back.

There are quite a lot of individual parts, each of which was stitched separately.  They were then cut out and mounted onto thin card (for the flat bits), pelmet Vilene (the wings, which were also wired), or a flexible plastic (the underside, which forms quite a complex curve).  All the sections were then ladder stitched together, then pearl purl was couched over the seams, to hide them.

He's a few years old now, and as he's been shown quite widely and hauled in and out of boxes, he's starting to show his age.  The main problems are with his ankles, which have got quite weak; the card inside must have bent, and once there's a fold there, it'll always bend at that point.  I think surgery may be required - I need to open his legs up and splint them somehow.

Because of this, and because I don't want him to get tatty, he's now retired, and no longer goes out, except for very special occasions.  Here he is relaxing at home, in his spot on a bookshelf:

I've made a few 3D items (such as the Dodecahedrons) and I'd like to explore this further when I get the opportunity, but I don't think I'll ever made something I'm as fond of as my goldwork Dragon.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Starting the second panel

Back to the beginning and starting the second Banner panel.  For no particular reason, I'm doing the left-hand side one next, which you may be interested to hear introduces a new flower.  More on that when the time comes.

Mostly, however, it's flowers you've already seen using techniques I've already described in detail.  As such, I'm going to be going into rather less detail this time around, unless something worth mentioning comes up.  I'll keep you up to date with progress, though - you won't be missing anything, just not getting the blow-by-blow account.

I also thought I might write the occasional post on non-Banner matters, such as previous work of mine, or even touching on the 'inspirations' idea lurking in the sub-heading in the top banner and I'm afraid largely ignored thus far.

That's for the future, though.  For today, pearlwort flowers. There's just the one sheet of them to do for the left panel:

And completed:

That dark speck to the lower left is blood, which I also managed to get all over the embroidery frame before I even noticed I was bleeding, but not on any of the flowers, which was a relief.  It's a dangerous business, sewing!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Looking back - and forwards

Happy New Year!  I hope it's a peaceful and prosperous one for everyone.

In reflective mood, I've been looking back at what I achieved, on the embroidery front, in 2010, and I must admit to being pretty pleased with it.  There's no knowing what the future holds, of course, but it could turn out to have been a landmark year for me, with a couple of major steps forward.  Time will tell.

I started the year by finishing a project - Kate's Crow:

This is (or will be, very soon) a birthday present for my sister, Kate, and it immediately became a favourite of mine from all the work I've done.  I'm glad it'll be going to a good home!  I designed the firescreen frame, but it was made, beautifully, by Little Newsham Forge, and it was a very exciting day when I saw the completed piece for the first time.

I had ideas for a small exhibition sometime later in the year, and after my first ideas just didn't work out (and I'm still not telling you what they were!), I decided on a series of three goldwork hangings using designs based on Spirograph spirals.  These ended up as panels rather than hangings, and look quite dramatic:

Just for fun, and as a bit of break from miles and miles of goldwork, I made a couple of appliqué cushions, which I rather like:

A friend said they look "very designery"!  I think this is a good thing...

The Spirograph panels and the cushions went on to take a starring role in one of the two big events of the year - being invited to submit work for the opening exhibition of a new gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, the North East Art Collective.  Here are two of the panels and the cushions on display there:

The awful weather put a bit of a dent in some of the gallery's plans, but with Spring just around the corner (I sincerely hope), it'd be great to think that this could bring my work to a wider audience.

The year's big story, though, was the return of St Cuthbert's Banner.  This is the biggest and most prestigious commission I've ever had, and it's both an honour and a pleasure to be making it, even if it has rather taken over my life.  The year ended on a high, with the completion of the bottom panel of the front of the Banner:

So, what does 2011 have in store?  A lot more to do on the Banner, which won't leave much time for anything else, which in a way is a shame as there a couple of things I would very much like to do for the Embroiderer's Guild - a Regional exhibition and a Branch project - but I doubt I'll be able to, sadly.  Though maybe if I aim small I can squeeze them in.  We'll see!

And we'll see what else turns up too.  Who knows what I'll be looking forward to in 2012!