Apology – and catching up!

The observant among you will have noticed that my posts have somewhat dried up of late.  There is a reason for that, or rather, lots of little reasons.  I have been working very hard at my RSN modules, and also at being a vicar’s wife and sunday school teacher, so when my blog mysteriously stopped working, I have had very little time to dedicate to fixing it.  Several times, I have sat down, dertermined to fix it, but it has out-foxed me.  The problem was that it could have been caused by any number of things from my web hosts to my plugins to my wordpress settings.  I won’t bore you all with the details, but I have finally managed to work my way through the entire set-up, updating, backing up and reinstalling as I went.  Of course, it would turn out to be the silliest thing – It was the theme I was using from wordpress.  So if my blog looks a little different, it is because I have had to switch themes.  I figured a change of colour scheme was preferable to having no pictures in a blog that is all about embroidered pictures!

Looking back a while to where I left off, I can see that I was just introducing you to my canvas work module.  Yikes, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then! Following on from this post, I will post several gallery style posts to catch you up to where I am now, so that those of you following my progress through the RSN certificate and diploma process can see where I have got to, and how I got here…  Once again, many apologies for the long absence!

A little word about facebook.  In addition to this blog, which is where I like to go in to detail about my projects, I also have a facebook page, which is regularly updated with snippets and photographs of my work.  If you use facebook, please do come along and like my page!


Introducing “Dunstanburgh view”: RSN Canvas stitches piece

Time and tide wait for no man.  My RSN certificate course progresses, and the next module is canvas stitches.  At this point in the syllabus, I technically get a choice between canvas stitches or black work.  But I fully intend to carry on after my certificate to do the diploma, and whichever module I choose at this stage I have to do the other as part of the diploma, so it doesn’t matter hugely.  And anyway, I was intrigued by the idea of using colours and textures to recreate a picture, and it was a technique I had never tried before.  My experience of canvas work is limited.  Really, up to this point, my idea of ‘canvas work’ fell into two categories: tent stitch hassocks (those solid rectangular kneeler cushions that hang from the pew in front in church, decorated all over in little diagonal stitches in tapestry wool by dedicated parishioners at some point over the last few decades) and modern bold, expressive textile art, loosely based on a theme and stitched with mildly frightening vigour in myriad colours of somewhat baffling threads, adorning the covers of 1970s books on the subject.  Neither of those two images particulary infused me with joy about the technique – prim and predictable, versus wildly exuberent and somewhat outdated. But the RSN brief asks us to steer a course through the middle way.  We are asked to choose a picture, and then interpret it in a variety of canvas stitches. So I was intrigued, and (I admit it) slightly sceptical.

Colour plates from Erica Wilson's Embroidery Book (top, Faber 1973) and Mary Rhodes Needlepoint - the art of canvas embroidery (bottom, 1974 Octopus Books)
Colour plates from Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book (top, Faber 1973) and Mary Rhodes Needlepoint – the art of canvas embroidery (bottom, 1974 Octopus Books)
Hassocks in churches all over the land are adorned with a simple form of canvas work ("Salisbury Cathedral, Hassocks" by Gaius Cornelius - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salisbury_Cathedral,_Hassocks.jpg#/media/File:Salisbury_Cathedral,_Hassocks.jpg)
Hassocks in churches all over the land are adorned with a simple form of canvas work (“Salisbury Cathedral, Hassocks” by Gaius Cornelius, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salisbury_Cathedral,_Hassocks.jpg#/media/File:Salisbury_Cathedral,_Hassocks.jpg)

Canvas stitches range from the simple small diagonal tent stitch (like a half cross stitch) through various versions of repeated diagonal or crossed stitches, finishing up with some quite involved or highly textured stitches that are arguably more like repeating motifs than a textured filling stitch.  The stitches are typically worked in wool, but stranded cotton, cotton a broder, silks, shiny rayon threads or mixtures of different threads work well.  The patterns or motifs are worked into open weave stiff canvas, which essentially forms a grid that you work into, counting warp and weft threads in order to form the shapes and patterns of the stitches.  The different stitch patterns all have exotic sounding names – ‘Algerian eye’, ‘Maltese cross’, ‘pineapple half drop’, ‘oblique Slav’ – not forgetting the endearingly enigmatic ‘John’.  They are recorded in various books, a lot of which are out of print and hard to find.  Although the RSN and various embroidery authors have published more recent works, I had a general sense that canvas work is a dwindling art.  That probably has a lot to do with today’s embroiderers having similar prejudices to myself, that is, that canvas work is either dull, or somewhat unfathomable and stuck in the 1970s,

One of the ways to work a simple tent stitch for canvas work ("Basketweavestitch" by Velvet-Glove at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Basketweavestitch.png#/media/File:Basketweavestitch.png)
One of the ways to work a simple tent stitch for canvas work (“Basketweavestitch” by Velvet-Glove at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Basketweavestitch.png#/media/File:Basketweavestitch.png)

So it was that I came to the first challenge – to find a design to interpret in canvas stitches.  Having invested in the RSN stitch guide, I had a slightly more up to date idea of the sorts of pictures that could be rendered in canvas stitches, and it was more varied than I had imagined.  The module brief was wide open – it just had to be an interpretation of an image.  They did say that having water in the picture usually gave good results, but that was about it for guidance!  I had an idea to use one of my holiday snaps from last year.  the Frith family is totally in love with the Northumberland coast, and it is our favourite holiday destination.  The big skies, vast sandy beaches and seabird-encrusted islands tick every box.  a friendly welcome, a place to get close to nature, a castle on every horizon, a place of pilgrimage, and unlimited beaches and rock pools. It is a place where we instantly feel happy, all three of us.  In particular, we love to pick a day with good weather and head off to Dunstanburgh Castle.  This is the place:

The Frithlet and me on the grassy approach to Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland.
The Frithlet and me on the grassy approach to Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland.

There is a mile-long grassy approach that slopes gently up to the castle gate, which is mostly manageable with my power-assist wheelchair wheels, with the revd dr helping.  A few places at the final approach are a little steep and rocky for a wheelchair, which requires me to bail out and scramble as best I can on crutches while the Revd Dr takes the chair up and the spry little Frithlet capers round like an excitable mountain goat.  By the time we get up to the castle, we are all flushed with windblown excitement and achievement.  Once inside, there are ruins to explore and a gorgeous wild flower meadow.  There are rock pipits dashing about, skylarks overhead, butterflies everywhere.  if you exit through one of the breaks in the curtain wall, you find yourself out on the cliffs of the headland.  at the right time of year, there is thrift and rock samphire, and the sound of nesting kittiwakes.  There is a particular spot, right on the very tip of the headland, that we make a bee-line for.  We call in the Frith family secret picnic spot, though it isn’t actually a secret (well, not any more!).  Here we can sit and eat our picnic surrounded by sea and castle and view.  It is high on the cliff to, and down below you can see razorbills bobbing on the sparkling sea, puffins flying past, kittiwakes everywhere.  to the left, you get a view of the pristine sands of embleton bay.  We last visited ‘our’ picnic spot almost exactly a year ago,  a truly beautiful sunny day in late May.  The pinks (sea thrift) were out and I set about trying to capture it all with my camera.  At the time, I was right in the middle of my Jacobean crewel work module down at Hampton Court, and I knew that the genie was out of the bottle, an that embroidery was going to be a big part of my life.  I had a strong feeling that I might one day want to try capture the essence of this place in embroidery, so I set about taking detailed photographs of colours and textures:

I came across the pictures whilst pondering my project, and I wondered if this could be the subject I was looking for.  I hesitated a little, for several reasons.  Firstly, it was very textured and detailed, and my idea of canvas work is that it would be blocky, flat, and almost pixellated.  Secondly, there were curves and diagonals  – surely canvas stitches were all rectilinear? how would that work? thirdly, this place is special to me, and the day I took these pictures was one of those shining golden days that stay forever in your memory, never tarnishing, just acquiring the patina of nostalgia.  I wasn’t sure how I would feel if I couldn’t do it justice.  Probably just very frustrated, but what if it somehow changed my relationship with the place? I decided that this last objection was me being silly and sentimental, and sent the pictures, along with another possibility, taken further up the coast at Holy Island, to Tracy for perusal.  She immediately picked up on the fondness I had for the Dunstanburgh image, and approved the content as appropriate for canvas work.  Just to be sure, I asked the other embroiderers in the studio for a quick vote as to which of the two they preferred.  the vote in favour of the Dunstanburgh image was unanimous.

It is unusual for me not to have a strong mental image of how I want the finished project to look, but since the technique was so new to me, and due to my somewhat underwhelming preconceived notions of canvas work, I honestly had no idea what I might be likely to be pull out of the bag for this one!

Blank canvas - no preconceived ideas, just an outline and a photograph.
Blank canvas – no preconceived ideas, just an outline and a source photograph.

Embleton bay from the secret picnic place

A new home, a new tutor, and a new project!

Let me get this out of the way straight away: I am really sorry for the long radio silence.  Last summer we upped sticks, and moved from our little curatage in Oxford to a new parish in West Yorkshire.  With all the packing, moving, unpacking, settling in, transferring my RSN certificate course from Hampton Court to the Durham satellite,  etc. etc., the blogging has taken a back seat.  But my needle has not been idle – far from it! More on that later.

One of the major changes to my life has been work.  Back in Oxford, I was working four days a week and squeezing the embroidery in around the edges.  After the move, I have continued working for my old employer, but I have decreased my hours, and very soon I will be stopping altogether to focus entirely on embroidery.  As well as having more stitching time, the shift in my lifestyle has had a profound effect on almost every aspect of my life: better management of my disability, seeing more of the family, and getting involved at church.   Reader, I am very pleased to be able to tell you that I am profoundly happy.

My corner of creative chaos!
My corner of creative chaos!

Another big change for us has been moving from our “bijou” terraced curate’s house in north Oxford to a vicarage.  As vicarages go, this one isn’t huge, but for us, and compared to anywhere else we have ever lived, it seems jolly spacious.  I even have my own studio, of sorts – it is actually the dining room, but it is just big enough to accommodate a desk, a sewing machine and my embroidery trestles. Never before have I had the luxury of my own little domain, where embroidery things can stay out all the time instead of having to be squirrelled away into plastic boxes and stacked up in the corners of rooms so that other people can use the house for non-embroidery-related purposes.  And what is more, this dining room – which henceforth shall be known (somewhat pretentiously) as “my studio” has a big south-facing window that floods the room with natural light and gives me a view of the garden, my bird feeders, and beyond – the Calderdale hills.  The studio is smallish, untidy, rather cobbled together as regards fixtures and furniture, and – in my humble opinion – utterly perfect.

The view from the studio in sunnier times
The view from the studio in sunnier times
A visitor in the snow
A visitor in the snow

Since moving up north, I have had to change the arrangements for my Royal School of Needlework certificate/diploma course.  Until then, I had been very happily installed at Hampton court, with wonderful tutors and a fabulous setting.  My particular part of West Yorkshire is pretty much as far away as it is possible to get from an RSN base in England, except perhaps if I lived somewhere down at the end of Cornwall or way out on the coast of East Anglia.  But nowhere is too far away in this little country of ours, and the Durham studio, run by Tracy Franklin, is about 2 and a half hours’ drive away.  Luckily, I was able to get started before Christmas by dint of a bit of ducking and weaving, pouncing on studio spaces here and there.   Since the new year, however, I have become an established Thursday girl, travelling up every other week for my fix of tuition, inspiration and fellowship with the other students.  I had been so deliriously happy at Hampton Court, I found it a real wrench to leave.  But the welcome from everyone in Durham has been very warm, and it soon became clear why Tracy’s students are so devoted. Once again I have found a place where encouragement and inspiration flows freely, and it seems to me that Tracy’s students have a deep seated trust – I think we all feel she will go the extra mile for us.  So, you see, I have well and truly landed on my feet.

I mentioned that my needle has been busy, and it is my great pleasure to introduce you to my beginner silk shading project – Wild Rose.  This is module 2 of my RSN certificate.  At certificate level, the silk shading brief is to produce a still life type design, with some form of botannical theme – flower, fruit or vegetable.  I spent a good deal of time clicking through the internet gathering inspiration.  As I went, I got a fairly good idea of what I didn’t want to do, as well as what I did.  to start off, I was pretty set on finding a British wild flower, ideally not pink, and not a cliche. I bet everyone does a wild rose, I thought.  For a long while I was pretty keen on doing a delicate blue flax flower, but I needed to get a petal turnover in (part of the brief), and flax flowers are too neat to really do that convincingly.  I really don’t know how I ended up looking at wild roses after having originally set out not to, but howe’er it was, they turned up in my Google image search, and all of a sudden my homing instinct clicked in.  Petal turnovers? check. opportunity for delicate shading? check. light and dark? check. Some larger areas of colour, check. Design that means something to me? well, actually, as it happens, yes.  The wild rose, or dog rose, was/is the favourite flower of several people who mean a lot to me, some of whom are no longer with us.  Maybe that is what made it feel so right — who knows.  Wild roses are generally white or pink, and although I am really not one for pink things, I knew that I really, REALLY did not want to spend weeks stitching with white, almost white, almost-almost white, white-going-on-cream, white-going-on-silver, apple white, not-quite-ecru, and tending-towards-lemon-yellow.  I am happy to save white for the white work module in the diploma!  So that left me with pink.  But the source image I settled on in the end was actually a free desktop wallpaper image that was offered at www.wallpoper.com (the rose is found here), and it was a nice definite pink, with a lot of light and shade, not a feeble pastel affair.

Working up the wild rose image
Working up the wild rose image – late drafts.  Not shown is the recycling basket full of distinctly mediocre attempts.

As ever (for me, anyway), the first step was to sketch it a lot.  I am not one of those quick and clever artist types who seem to be able to instantly distill out the essence of an image and effortlessly achieve correct dimensions, perspective, shading etc.  To get really familiar with the shapes, relative dimensions and shading I need to draw over and over, gradually exploring and refining the design.  The sketching and colouring in helps me to properly look at the subject.  Also, I didn’t just want to do a straight copy of the photograph, in order to fit the brief (and to satisfy my need to tinker) I added to the image in places, and simplified in others.  I made the leaf outlines simpler, changed the petal turnover, added a second turnover.  I also widened the stems and added thorns, and finished off the leaves that were cut off in the photo.  I worked feverishly on all of this before my first trip to Durham, in order to make a good impression on my new tutor.  I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I packed it all carefully into my portfolio the night before.

Ha.  Hahahaha.

What did I do? I bloomin’ well forgot to take the portfolio with me to Durham.  I remembered my slate frame, my lunch, my needle book, my wheelchair, my favourite scissors, my pretty glass-topped pins and a whole array of haberdashery.  But not the flipping design! So much for first impressions.  I am lucky that my tutor and the Revd Dr bailed me out.  As I trawled up the M1 in terrible traffic towards Durham, I was on the hands-free to my husband, who was rapidly learning to use the scanner function on my computer, and scanning and emailing all of my work to Tracy.  So when I finally arrived, late and rather flustered, Wild Rose was there, ready and waiting for me, as was a much needed cup of coffee! I was able to get her (Rose is a she, naturally) transferred on to a pretty piece of pale beige silk and frame up.

Framing up Wild Rose
Framing up Wild Rose

All that hat has brought us up to approximately mid November, 2014, approximately three months ago as I type this.  Since then, my relationship with Rose has, shall we say, blossomed (sorry).  There is lots to tell about my first foray into long and short shading, and really, it deserves a post all of its own.  Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait months this time! 

RSN fire regulations… and bagging a bargain

Hobbycraft selling anchor stranded cotton for next to nothing

Hobbycraft selling anchor stranded cotton for next to nothing

I have had a fair few emails back and forth to the RSN this week, but before I get in to that, I just have to tell you about Thursday’s trip to Hobbycraft.  Then, when you have read that bit, you can all get up, dash over to Hobbycraft, grab a stash of embroidery threads for next to nothing, then come back, sit down and read the rest.

So, hobbycraft.  I had something to take back and exchange, so I popped in to the Oxford branch, picked up the rotary blade I needed, a couple of packs of needles and went to the checkout.  While I was there, I chatted to the cashier, whose name was Katherine (lovely lady!).  she pricked up he ears when she heard me say embroidery, and then she dived under the counter and surfaced with a huge box of Anchor stranded cottons, all pristine and brand new in their little boxes, untouched and neatly skeined.  They were all marked 25 pence, which is a big saving on the usual 85 pence anyway, but then she told me that they were 10 for £1.  I had to get her to say it three times.  I don’t actually need stranded cotton – I have a large collection (Anchor) passed to me that belonged to my church warden’s mother as well as my own stash (DMC).  But this was too good to pass up, and I spent 15 min sorting out 20 skeins of loveliness for the princely sum of £2!  Katherine told me to pass on the message to anyone who might be interested, so this is me doing just that.  Happy hunting!

Now the other thing.  Having paid my deposit and started getting excited about my RSN course, we hit a Snag.  The disability.  Ah yes, I was going to write something about EDS, wasn’t I? must get around to that.  Anyway, I have difficulty and pain with walking, and problems with the most revolting fatigue that kind of closes a thick fog around your thought processes, makes you feel sick when you move, and seems to multiply the gravity around you, making it hard to get up and easy to fall over.  I use a wheelchair, which means I can function more or less like a human being.  For me, using a wheelchair is much more about victory than it is about defeat.  It’s simple, tailored to my needs, beautifully engineered, comfortable and rather swish.

My Quickie Helium, ready for action
My Quickie Helium, ready for action

As you can see, it’s a nice bit of kit, and very practical. Except were it comes to stairs. You see, the RSN’s apartment in Hampton Court Palace is on the second floor.  There is a lift, then it gets a bit narrow and windy, then once you get into the apartment itself, there is another small flight of steps up into the studio.  I knew about all of this in advance, and I was confident that this would be fine, because although walking hurts, and it’s tiring, with repercussions the next few days in terms of flare up, I can walk as well as wheel.  I can even do stairs, providing there aren’t too many and I don’t have to do them lots of times. On my visit, I satisfied myself that the access arrangements were commensurate with my level of function/level of determination (caveat: they probably wouldn’t work for someone with less lower limb function than I have, best check it out for yourself if you are thinking of going).  All was well until the course leader mentioned it to someone from the health and safety department at the palace.  Unfortunately, that person had not met or spoken to me, which led to a couple of unfortunate assumptions.  firstly, that I was a wheelchair, and secondly, that I was a problem that required solving (this does happen quite a lot).  So when this person heard of someone planning to come to the RSN who was a wheelchair user, what they imagined was an inanimate wheelchair.  And of course, in the event of a fire, lifts are out of bounds.  If you only imagine an inanimate wheelchair (rather than a person with a mobility impairment and plenty of their own ingenuity), you tend to end up thinking “crikey, how are we going to get that chair down a winding narrow stair case when the fire alarm goes off?” almost as if the person is a piece of furniture.  The stair well doesn’t have a wheelchair refuge, and is not suitable for an “evac chair” arrangements.  This little chain of thoughts basically wound up with the H&S person telling the course leader that it wasn’t a suitable venue for me.  I then received an email telling me about other places (satellite centres) I could go to instead, the comparative driving distances from Oxford, and the fact that I wouldn’t be able to go to them on my day off.  Would I be able to change my day off? because the satellite centres at Bristol and Rugby don’t run sessions of a Thursday…  Whoah there! go back a bit… this is all because you can’t carry me down the stairs when the fire alarm goes off?  But you don’t need to carry me! I can walk!

All this was quite easily sorted out, as it happens.  Most wheelchair users and others with impaired mobility, particularly those of us that work, have encountered the whole “how do you get out in a fire” thing.  I even have a personal emergency evacuation plan, which comes along with me, and which I adapt for the venue.  I give it to the fire officer so they know what to expect, and can train the marshals if required. The RSN apartment situation fitted perfectly with one of the three possible alternative plans I have in place already, and all they needed to do was ask.

I think it is safe to assume I am the first wheelchair user they have had on the certificate course.  I think we all learned something here.  Hopefully, Hampton Court have learned that disabilities are as individual as the people that bear them, and that if you need to know what adaptations or precautions are required, the best expert is the person who actually lives with the impairment.  I have learned (again) that you can’t expect people to know what you need or don’t need if you don’t tell them.  Because this is old hat to me, I tend to forget that it is is weird and new for others.  Another lesson is this: people usually mean well.  I could choose to be upset that I was being discussed as a “problem” or being thought of as a piece of furniture.  Or I could be happy that people wanted to spend their time and effort trying to make sure I was safe, and that in the end everything was fine and I had a chance to be an ambassador for any mobility-impaired people who may come after me.  Let’s make it a better day. I choose happy.

For more tips on how to handle able bodied people, or to grab a humorous insight into living as “differently normal”, please see my good friend Hannah Ensor’s Stickman Communications site.  In particular, her blog entry 12 tips for dealing with able bodied people, is just perfect.

I’m going to the Royal School of Needlework!  Wheeeeeeee!

(did I already mention that? I’m sorry)


The Royal School of Needlework – and me!

Something rather exciting happened this week.  On Thursday, I went to Hampton Court Palace. Not to go and see this wonderful, grand and historic playground of King Henry VIII, but for something entirely different.  You see, tucked away in an upstairs apartment off the Fountain Court resides the headquarters of the Royal School of Needlework.  Anyone can visit, by prior arrangement, and they frequently have exhibitions of embroidered work from their huge collection of archived and donated work.  But my visit was for more personal reasons.  For a while now I have been pondering the question “how do I make the leap from enthusiastic amateur to professional level embroiderer?”  Many people have been very kind about my work and my designs, but I know I need to step it up a gear so that I can set about designing (and taking commissions!) with more confidence.  over two years ago at the Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace, I found myself at the stall of the RSN, and the lovely lady there gave me a leaflet about their courses, and showed me some of the exquisite work of their certificate and diploma students.  My first thought was “too expensive” followed by “I could never be that good”.  I bought a book from them and went on my way.  In the year that followed, I got increasingly itchy-fingered as regards the embroidery vocation idea.  I tried out different ways of honing my skills, with books and practice and workshops, not to mention other people’s blogs (like Mary Corbet over on Needle n Thread) and YouTube tutorials, but it was very slow going.  Without some sort of structure or critical assessment it feels a bit like stumbling around in the dark.

In search of the perfect techniqe: satin stitch
In search of the perfect technique: satin stitch

The following October found me at the knitting and stitching show again, and yes, there I was again, looking wistfully at the RSN brochure.  But somehow, this time, the cost didn’t put me off quite so much, to the point I was wondering if it could be somehow managed. Also looking at the work on display made me think “I want to stitch like that” instead of “I could never stitch like that”.

So that is how I came to be visiting the RSN last Thursday, with a head full of questions and ideas and the inevitable self-doubt.  After surmounting the inevitable challenges of accessing a second floor apartment in a historic royal palace with my thoroughly 21st century wheelchair, I was shown into a smallish room where around 10 people were sitting around the walls facing into the room, each one in their own little work space pod of embroidery heaven.  All of them were embroidering amazing projects, all completely different.  Two tutors moved between them, and there was a quietly productive, friendly sort of a atmosphere.  The tutors assured me that they would help me with everything step by step, so that I could start producing the work that I wanted to be able to achieve.  The course is four modules : Jacobean crewel work, silk shading, gold work (yay!), and a choice of canvas stitches or blackwork.  Each module includes 8 teaching days that can be booked as convenient, so it is completely flexible, and will fit with my current job and family commitments.

Did I sign up? Of course I did – there and then!  My first teaching days are booked in early March, and I will soon be totally immersed in Jacobean crewel work, very busy, and hatching schemes to fund my next module.  Excited just doesn’t cover it!

2014-01-25 15.01.03


This excited post is dedicated to mum, who not only encouraged me to go for it, but also put up actual cash to help with the cost.  Thanks mum!