I finished Wild Rose the silk shading piece last friday, and as I sit down to blog about it, I find myself reflecting on the timeline of a project, and how a design brief and a spark of an idea gradually develop and grow into a finished embroidery. For me, a project falls into several recognisable stages.
The planning stage is luxurious and fun. I usually poke around google and other internet sources (a week or so back I finally joined Pinterest), as well as my own photographs and memories. Amorphous ideas bubble up to the surface and coalesce, usually far too many at once. Luckily, I have the Royal School of Needlework design briefs for the various modules, which stop me getting too carried away. The key to ideas gathering and planning is to lightly graze on things that interest you, trying to notice the common factors that connect the ‘hits’, gradually narrowing down and honing the idea. When the source image presents itself or the idea comes together, it is like all the lights go on. After that, I tend to fixate on the design, daydreaming, sketching and generally wearing it in like a pair of new shoes. By the time I am ready to start stitching, the design is already an old friend.
Beginning to stitch is a time of impatience. It takes a while for the first elements of the design to come together. It is also a time of hope. The design obsession carries through to this stage as I start to put some of the ideas in train, and there is a little nervousness- always wondering if I will be able to pull it off.
The tipping point comes about two thirds of the way through, when the thing under your needle reflects, mirror-like, the idea in your head, and you realise that it is coming together, there is more of it already worked than there is work left to do. Rather than feel this to be liberating, I start to feel a weight of responsibility. Hours of work have gone in to it, and so far, the piece looks good. Don’t stuff it up now, Emma. Every spare second goes into stitching now.
The end sneaks up on me. The very last job is to add a tiny circle of felt padding and cover it tightly with a lot of tiny, single strand french knots in various shades of beige and khaki, which had to be found in the stash, and shaded carefully to give the impression of it being a rather lumpy dome shape, rather than a slightly raised disc.
It is absorbing work, but suddenly I run out of places to put french knots. I put off the end for a minute or two, fiddling, tidying, fixing up, but there is no getting around it, Rose is finished. I open up the protective tissue paper to get a proper look, turn it around, and look from all the angles. Yes, definitely finished… Oh dear. Because there is no denying it, the first feeling is one of loss. This time around, I was prepared for this. With my last piece, I had a big rush to finish before moving house, and the end of the project marked the end of my time with my tutors and and my friends at Hampton Court. The sense of loss was quite intense and took me totally by surprise. With Rose, I finished on time with no great drama, a happy new studio with many modules ahead of me, but I still had that twinge of loss. It wasn’t until after I shared some photos and the congratulations started coming in that I started to think about the rose with a degree of satisfaction. This is my first go at silk shading, my first flower, my first attempt at some form of realism, my first module with Tracy in Durham, and my first piece since moving here and making the step towards serious embroidery. It still needs to be properly assessed for quality (as does the bird) by the RSN people who know their onions. But however she fares in the marking process, I am pleased with Rose, and she has taught me a vast amount.
The final part of the rose to be completed was the very centre, worked in bullion knots and french knots. These turned out to be a really important element in the whole design, because once the bullions were lined up with their corresponding shadows I had previously shaded on to the petals, the whole thing seemed to be thrown into relief, even though the design itself is flat, save for the bullions themselves, and a tiny circle of felt padding right under the centre circle. Quite a few people, on seeing the bullion knots, told me that they found bullion knots to be complicated and difficult, and voiced a certain awe at my plans to do all the anthers in bullion knots. But I really enjoy a bullion knot, and have never found them to be a particular hassle. There are loads of stitching resources out there, and I am sure there are plenty of excellent pictorial instructions for bullions, but I thought it might be nice, before I do the “big reveal” of Rose (and yes, she is finished!) to step through the construction of bullion knots. Please note, I am a LEFT HANDED EMBROIDERER, so I usually work with my left hand underneath and my right hand on top. Trying to hold my phone, take in-focus pictiures and do bullion knots one handed was enough of a challenge, and I really didn’t feel up to doing it wrong handed. If left handed embroidery is likely to confuse you, look away now!
I drew out a little stamen on the calico edging of my piece, for illustrative purposes only. I wouldn’t normally use pencil lines for something as delicate as a stamen, because there is too much chance of it showing, and anyway, mine were being laid on top of petals already worked in long and short shading. I picked up two skeins of stranded cotton pretty much at random from my stash, so they aren’t colours I have been using on Rose.
1. Setting up for the bullion
Thread a small embroidery needle (a size 9 or 10) with two strands of cotton and cast on with a waste knot and three stab stitches. The strands can be both the same colour or two closely related shades of a colour, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Bring the needle up at one end of where you want the bullion to be, then take it down again at the other end. Don’t pull all the thread through, leave a loop on the surface like in the picture. Finally poke the point of the needle back up at the original starting point, leaving it sitting there, pointing up, without pulling it all the way through to the front of the fabric, and you are all set up.
2. Winding it up
Hold the needle steady with one hand at the back of the work, and with the other hand, pick up the thread that you left lying on the surface in step one. At the end closest to the needle, start to wind the tread around the needle. From this point on, you need to hold the thread so it doesn’t unwind, but without yanking too hard on it. The number of times you wind the thread around the needle depends on how long and fat you want your bullion to be. Go round and round as if you were constructing a little spring on the needle, starting at the bottom near where it emerges from the fabric and working your way up slowly in the direction of the point. You don’t want to be piling all the coils up on top of each other, so much as wrapping the needle neatly. I went round ten times in the example above. When you think you have enough, take up any slack on the end in your hand, and push the loops down the needle so that they are neatly stacked together, looking a little bit like what you want the finished bullion to look like. This is your opportunity to check the length. Flatten the needle to the surface of the the fabric, where you want the bullion to lie, keeping the coils compressed. If it it too long or too short, then wind or unwind loops as required. In this case, ten was just right.
3. Pulling through
With the needle back in its vertical position, you are now ready to pull everything through. You still have hold of the end of the thread, don’t you? just slacken the tension a tad. When you pull the needle through, the eye end and the double width of thread it carries need to work their way through every single loop on your needle, and if you are holding the tension too tight, you are going to have a battle on your hands. Don’t let go of the end, but shift your grip a little so that the finger and thumb are softly holding the needle shaft with the loops around it, preventing them from coming unraveled.
Bring your other hand to the front of the work and use it to slowly draw the needle fully through the fabric and the little tunnel that is formed by the loops on the needle, just as if you were threading a bead. Don’t panic if the loops get pulled about a bit, become spread out or a bit bunched up, that is normal, and you have your finger and thumb stopping any unraveling. just draw the thread through slowly, taking up the slack under the fabric, then the excess from the working loop, until you feel it start to come tight. At that point, you can let go of the loops. You will probably have a slightly untidy selection of loops on your stitch. Again, this is no cause for alarm. pull the thread down and in the direction of the stitch, and use your fingernail or a needle to push the loops together. If they are still a bit bunchy, hold the loops and give the end a good tug. That should sort them out and bring them in to line.
4. Finishing off
If some of the loops overlap, you will see a slight thickening at the base of the stitch, which might be exactly the effect you are after. But if, say, I wanted a sausage and got a pear, then I can usually sort it out by sliding a needle under the bullion and stroking the loops in the direction I want them to go, whilst keeping a gentle tension on the free end, until the bullion is the shape I want. Then the final job is to send the needle down through the fabric right near the end of the bullion to finish off the stitch.
Bullions, it turns out, are very versatile. The one above is simple and straight, but they also do lovely curves, just by varying where the needle goes own at the very last step. A tiny step to the left or right will help the bullion sweep a curve. if you make the bullion a couple of loops longer than the length required, then tuck the needle underneath the end to tie it off, the bullion will stand up, making a little arc.
In the picture above, I have made the brown bullion slightly longer so that I can curve it around the yellow one. putting the needle through a fraction to one side helps it to curve.
As well as being short and fat, bullions can be long and thin. On the rose, most of the filaments of the stamens were worked in stem stitch, but for some of the front-most filaments, My tutor tracy had the idea that I could do some very long, thin bullions, to give the area some depth.
The thin bullions are worked with a single strand, but otherwise the technique is the same. I and careful not to add too many loops, because if they end up overlapping in the finished knot, the stamen would look a bit lumpy!
Bullion knots can feature in all sorts of ways, not just stamens. In my jacobean piece I used rows of parallel bullions to shade a petal turnover. A few big bullions formed the thorax of a butterfly, and tapered, curved bullions were the claws of the bird of paradise. I think their reputation for being fiddly and fussy is somewhat undeserved. I suppose they do involve a few steps, but they are very pretty and quite satisfying. Just as well, because there were hundreds of them on the rose project!
In my last entry, I wrote about how Wild Rose came about, the research, the sketching and the framing up. Now it is time to catch up to the present day.
Once Tracy had rearranged her studio for me (so that I could sit comfortably and so my wheelchair wasn’t blocking the door etc) and helped me frame up, we set about choosing the colours of stranded cotton. Note that I am using ordinary cotton embroidery thread for this – ‘silk shading’ as in shading on a piece of silk, not shading with silk thread. Colour-wise, you will remember that Wild Rose is a kind of mid-pink, with dark purply-pink shadows and very delicate cool pink highlights. the stamens are yellow and orange and the very centre is greenish yellow. The stems and leaves are a good range of different greens. We started with the leaves to get my eye in with the technique, so we picked out those colours first. We had no trouble there, both DMC and Anchor have extensive ranges of greens, so we were able to go straight to the ones we wanted. I was even able to use some of my own extensive stash of skeins that I have built up over the last few years. I have discovered that when people learn you have a passion for embroidery, it sometimes happens that their eyes light up and they say “my mum/grandmother/aunt was a very keen embroiderer, I have all of their threads at home, I don’t embroider myself but I cannot bring myself to throw them away – would you be able to use them?” I love to take in orphaned stashes. It feels like it connects me to a previous generation of embroiderers. When you open box after box of carefully curated threads, you can feel the love and care that has been lavished there. I know that sometimes, I can spend whole evenings just arranging my materials, soaking in the colours and the textures, and feeling all the potential stored up in them. With inherited stashes, I am sure generations of embroiderers have been just the same, and with inherited stashes, it is like they come pre-loaded with love. The sad thing is that cotton is an organic substance, and believe it or not, it has a shelf life. At some point, it will inevitably lose its lustre and become fragile, although this can be delayed with careful handling. Most of the “heritage” stashes I have been given have been packed and stored with the utmost care, and are therefore suitable to be incorporated into my working stocks. Some skeins are not usable, but because of what they mean to the donor, I usually keep them too. This means that my stash of stranded cotton is pretty enormous, and periodically growing (NB – if you are reading this thinking “I have a stash I don’t know what to do with”, the RSN accepts donations, and it might be worth asking at your local arts college or school if they need any).
I digress. My thread stash has that effect on me. Where was I? Yes. we chose the greens without too much bother, and I got started, going around the outline of each leaf in split stitch, then, from the tip downwards, I established my foundation row of long and short stitch. Tracy kept a close eye on my stitch spacing and the angle of my stitches. For L&S, you need to establish your angle according to the contours of your design, for simple leaves, the stitches usually form a V out from the central vein, and the angle is maintained all of the way down in order to get realistic shading.
For more complicated shapes, the angle changes with the contours. Long and short shading is truly a fundamental technique of embroidery, and it is extremely easy to get wrong. For this reason, I have historically regarded it with a degree of trepidation. I did some long and short shading on Birdie, which allayed the worst of my fears, but I still knew I needed to have my wits about me. At no point when doing L&S stitch should you neglect any one of the following:
Stitch length: as the name suggests, the idea of long and short stitch is that the stitch length is varied, to facilitate a merging and blending of the rows as it builds up. You end up with a row of parallel stitches with a sharp edge where it goes over the split stitch edging at the edge of the shape, and a sort of feathery edge on the inside of the shape. the next row in is worked into the feathery edge, and that row is feathery on both edges. Apart from the edges of the shape and down the vein line, there should be no solid joins where the shading happens. If the stitches are too short, blending is hard. if they are too long then they wriggle about, the surface gets lumpy and the contours and shading look wrong.
Angle: as mentioned, the angle needs to be consistent, and to follow the contours if necessary. contouring angles needs lots of concentration so that the stitches don’t pile up at one aen and spread too thinly on the other. Surprisingly, even keeping the angle the same also requires concentration – angles have a habit of drifting.
Colour: shading happens in two directions. not only does the shade vary as you travel into the shape – i.e. row upon row, but it also varies as you travel along a row. so you have to plan each row and introduce new shades gradually as you go.
Spacing: like satin stitch, the stitches need to lie down parallel to one another, with no gaps between them. To begin with, mine were a little too far apart and the fabric showed through. This was because I was trying very hard not to get them too close together – if you do this, they all pile up and your surface and edging becomes lumpy.
Points: the points of the design (leaf tips etc) must be pointy. This is not as easy to achieve as it sounds. The final stitch of a point needs to stick out further than you think it does to make the points pointy. This only works if you have your stitch angle spot on, I discovered.
Edges: this mainly involves being very precise over exactly where your needle goes down, and spending time inspecting your work from all angles. It is easy for edges to become a bit “nibbled”
Big picture: when you are eyes-down, it is easy to concentrate only on the current square millimetre. I soon realised that by doing this, you can lose track of the design – the angle of the incident light, the position of a shadow etc. and if you make the shading too fiddly, you run the risk of not actually achieving your goal. Sometimes, I thought I had changed a colour too rapidly, but when I stepped back I realised that was what was needed at that point in the design. I found there was a great urge to obsessively blend and use lots of different colours to make transitions gentle, only to find that when I stepped back, all my careful shading averaged out into one fairly standard mid green leaf. Once I started being more confident with my colour changes, things became a lot better.
Once we established that I was OK on the leaves, we started trying to find a set of pinks. This was considerably more challenging. You see, there are two kinds of pinks going on here. There is a rosy pink, the kind of pink that starts off as pale red and gets paler and paler. then there is what I call a “cool pink” – it starts off as a kind of lilac-pink and fades from there. The source image I chose fits neatly RIGHT BETWEEN those two ranges of pinks, and we had a bit of a job finding what we needed. we had to pick out a real hotch-potch of Anchor and DMC strands. The shadows were another headache – we couldn’t match them excatly, and had to plump in the end for a set of purply-greys and some darker pinks. They seem to be working OK though.
All in all, long and short shading for the beginner can be quite taxing. Having said that, once you get going, it becomes much easier. I think it is safe to say I am no longer scared of it. My tutor says that it seems to come quite naturally to me – that is very nice to hear, if I could choose one technique to be a natural in, silk shading would definitely be that one. And I am certainly enjoying myself! I can happily manage an entire day just trundling along (it really isn’t a quick technique) and have to be quite strict with myself as regards taking breaks and looking after my ergonomics. Not to mention the fact that even the eye end of a size 10 needle is really quite sharp enough to make holes in me. I tried a thimble, but it made me clumsy. So I borrowed a technique from another blog and put tiny patches of superglue on the side of each middle finger where the needle rests. It seals up the holes beautifully, and protects my finger tip without loss of dexterity.
So far, I have got as far as doing most of the leaves, the stems (in stem stitch), and three petals, including one with a petal turnover on. That brings us to here:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!