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images particulary infused me with joy about the technique – prim and predictable, versus wildly exuberent and somewhat outdated.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.
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,
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:
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!