Jane Morris blackwork Part 1: Finding Janey, and musings on Ehlers Danlos Syndrome

Blackwork is a counted thread technique that was popular in Elizabethan times.  It is traditionally worked with black threads over white linen, in detailed repeating patterns or textures.  it made a good adornment for collars and cuffs in times when lace was an expensive luxury.  however, the fashion caught on, and there is even a famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth herself wearing a garment with blackwork sleeves.

Queen Elizabeth with blackwork sleeves

Most often these days, blackwork is used on samplers and simple decorative designs; however, the patterns can be used as shading in more detailed designs – different effects can be obtained by varying stitch pattern and size, pattern complexity, and weight of thread.  I chose to depict Jane Morris (‘Janey’) because of an existing interest in pre-raphaelite art and Janey’s remarkable personal story and influence.

Who is Jane Morris (nee Burden)?

Jane was spotted by the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones in 1857, as they attended a performance at a theatre in Oxford.  Jane was from a poor background but she embodied the pre-Raphaelite concept of beauty, and Rossetti persuaded her to come and sit for him and William Morris as an artist’s model.  Morris fell for Janey, and in due course they got engaged, despite the fact that Janey was not in love herself.  The match was advantageous; Janey’s education was poor, as she had been destined to follow her mother in to domestic service. William Morris gave his new wife every possible opportunity to read and study, which she availed herself of eagerly, becoming an accomplished linguist, musician and embroiderer, with deportment and manners that allowed her to move in the highest circles of society.  Rossetti never lost interest in Janey, despite his own relationship and marriage to Lizzie Siddal.  In 1865, three years after Lizzie’s tragic early death from an overdose, Jane Morris began to pose for Rossetti again, and a deep emotional attachment kindled between them.  In 1871 Morris and Rossetti took out a joint tenancy on Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, ostensibly to use as a summer home, but in reality to become a secluded venue for the long running affair between Rossetti and Janey.  William would absent himself for long periods, on research trips to Iceland and other places, fully aware of the liaison  www.preraphaelitesisterhood.com/jane-morris-an-enigmatic-muse .

The photograph of Jane Morris, June 1865, John Robert Parsons
Photograph of Jane Morris, posed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his back garden, taken by John Robert Parsons in 1865

A photograph is like an instant freeze frame of a point in time. In 1865, Janey and William had been married for six years, and had two young daughters, Jenny and May.  Rossetti arranged for a series of photographs of Jane to be taken at his home in London, by John Robert Parsons.  Rossetti himself was involved in the posing of the photographs, and he used the finished results as the basis for some of his paintings.  (www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/sa140.raw.html ) Rossetti’s wife, Lizzie Siddal Rossetti had died three years previously, and Rossetti had sunk into despair.  Painting Janey was something that Rossetti found compelling; she “consumed and obsessed him in paint, poetry, and life” and it seems that his obsession with Janey helped to lift him out of his depression.  The photograph I chose for my black work is one that was taken in Rossetti’s back garden.

The light source and pose struck me as familiar, and while I was researching, I found similarities between the photograph and Rossetti’s later painting Proserpine (1874).  This is what gave me the idea for my embroidery.  I wanted to show the two sides of Janey, and her two relationships, married into the same image; The photograph of Mrs Jane Morris, wife and mother, and the painting of Janey as Proserpine, a beautiful young woman, swept away from her family, seduced and tempted.

The Proserpine myth and DGR’s painting

Proserpine (Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone) is the mythical daughter of ceres (Greek: demeter), the goddesss of fertility, growth and the harvest.  Proserpine was abducted by Pluto and taken to his realm in the underworld.  Ceres tried desperately to get her daughter back, and by appealing to Jupiter and withholding the harvest, she finally secured proserpine’s return, on one condition: that she had not eaten or drunk of the food of the land of the dead. Either by her own accord, or because Pluto forced her, Proserpine was found to have eaten four seeds of a pomegranate.  She was allowed to return to her mother, but for four months of the year she was compelled to go back to the underworld, because of the four pips she had eaten.  The myth says that that Ceres, delighted at the return of her daughter, caused the trees to send forth blossom, and all of the crops to sprout green, the origin of spring time.  The yearly return of Proserpine to the underworld was marked by the fall of the leaves, and all of the crops seeming to wither and die for four months – winter time. (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proserpina )

Two of DGR’s versions of Proserpine, with Janey as model

Casting Janey as Proserpine must have seemed natural to Rossetti, remembering the long summers they spent together at Kelmscott, and the times they had to spend apart when she returned to her husband.  It is a theme he returned to many times, and worked on 8 separate canvases of proserpine.  By that time, he and Janey were seeing each other very little, the affair having ended, and Rossetti’s mental health was in a precarious state.  At this time, the series of photographs taken almost a decade previously must have been very precious to him, and no doubt very important as source images, just as they are to me today.

Combining the images

The main figure of Janey in the embroidery is taken directly from the JRP photo, cropped and enlarged.  In the black and white photograph, Janey is wearing what appears to be a silk dress.  Proserpine is painted wearing a very similar looking dress, and a portrait of Janey done by DGR has her wearing “the blue silk dress”.  It is tempting to assume that it is the same dress in all three images, and I have used some of the detailing from the paintings on my embroidery.  Around the central image, I have incorporated details found in the Proserpine paintings.  The square of reflected light on the wall behind her, the curl of ivy framing her face, and the bowl on the left of the picture.  In the painting, Proserpine holds the fateful half eaten pomegranate, but in the embroidery, the pomegranate is in the bowl, uneaten, and the future is undecided.

 Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – A connective tissue connection?

I have a disability called hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) that causes, pain, injury and multiple symptoms due to a genetic structural deformity of the connective tissue.  This affects me in a lot of quite debilitating ways; I use a wheelchair for mobility, and I have to structure my life around management of chronic pain and acute injuries such as dislocation or fracture. Whilst examining my images for this project, certain features of Janey leaped out at me straight away as indicating hypermobility, and it made me wonder if she had hEDS or another hypermobility spectrum disorder (HSD).

Jane Morris showing hypermobile traits in her hands and facial features, and details from DGR’s paintings showing his fascination for her long, graceful, and exceptionally bendy hands.

She has very long, slender fingers and wrists (arachnodactyly) and some facial features that are in common with myself and many people who have EDS (deep set eyes with lax eyelids that give the eyes an appearance of a downward slant).  Looking at all the photographs together, as well as DGRs paintings, some of the charismatic, graceful pre-raphaelite drape of her limbs seems to suggest hypermobility – an abnormally large range of movement in the joints.  Obviously, there is no way to prove categorically that she had a HSD, but it is known that she was often indisposed, suffering from undiagnosable illness that has been attributed in the literature to everything from a spinal condition to being entirely psychosomatic (www.ncgsjournal.com/issue42/parkins.htm ).  Her continual exhaustion, sciatica, pain in her back and limbs sound very familiar to me as symptoms of hEDS.  Even the lack of definitive diagnosis is, in itself, suggestive.  To this day hEDS and HSDs are often misdiagnosed, misunderstood, and in some unfortunate cases the patient is disbelieved entirely for years before a diagnosis is finally made.  hEDS and hypermobility spectrum disorders are genetic in origin, and are often inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern.  Again, it is pure speculation, but pictures of May Morris (Janey and William’s daughter) seem to show similar deep set eyes, laxity of eyelids, and long thin fingers.

One of the symptoms of my hEDS is hypermobility of joints.

Jane Morris was, like her husband, a bright and voracious polymath, she was an artist and embroiderer, she campaigned for social justice, she found fascination in everything, and she had to overcome pain and infirmity that was poorly understood by everyone. The more I researched Janey, the more attracted I became to her as a subject.  As I worked on my piece, I felt I was getting to know the woman behind the intense gaze.

Read more about stitching janey here…

Jane Morris by Emma Frith – detail

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

Wild Rose: the big reveal

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.


Working up the wild rose image
November 2014: Working up the wild rose image

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.

Getting started: the split stitch outline of the leaves, and the beginnings of long and short shading.
December 2014: Getting started: the split stitch outline of the leaves, and the beginnings of long and short shading.

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.

5th February 2015: Oh! It looks like a rose is happening here... Don't mess up now!
5th February 2015: Oh! It looks like a rose is happening here… Don’t mess up 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.

27th February 2015: The final moments of the rose project tick by
27th February 2015: The final moments of the rose project tick by

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.

27th February 2015: Wild rose project completed
27th February 2015: Wild rose project completed (click image for a larger version)


Thorn detail (click image for a larger version)
Thorn detail (click image for a larger version)


More thorn detail (click inage for a larger version)
More thorn detail (click image for a larger version)
Stamen detail. This is a straightforward crop of the bigger image, with no added camera effects, yet for some reason it looks like a painting not an embroidery.  Even to me, and I embroidered it!
Stamen detail. This is a crop of the bigger image to get more of the stamen detail, there are no added camera effects, but the loss of resolution is making it look like a painting instead of an embroidery – even to me, and I embroidered it! Oh well.


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! 

Jacobean birdy is finished!

In my imagination, there are literally hundreds of blog readers out there, waiting with bated breath, all asking themselves “But what has happened to Emma’s embroidery? Why hasn’t she sent an update?”  To answer the second question first, I have been incredibly, breathlessly busy.  I ended up having to finish birdy in an almighty rush to get it finished before the end of the summer term, because it became apparent that we were going to be moving house to West Yorkshire in August, and that would mean that I would need to transfer my studies from Hampton Court Palace to the Durham RSN satellite.  I couldn’t bear the idea of getting so close but not finishing, and having to move to a different venue and new tutor with a nearly finished piece, and my tutors at HCP not being able to see the finished article.  That required some serious hard graft, including several very late nights.  On the last night, I was determined to stay up until it was finished.

At 1am, disaster struck.  My bobbin of the palest green ran out.  When I went to replace it with a new skein, there wasn’t one… And I realised that I had actually used two whole appletons skeins of it, and that was all I had.  I could have cried – how could I have got this far only to run out of a colour so close to the end? But then my eye fell on my orts pot (orts = leftovers).  I have a little pot made out of the bottom half of a plastic bottle, and it is attached to my trestle so that I can pop the little odds and ends in there so they don’t get tangled up with the working thread.  Sifting through the leftovers, I found a few lengths that were not too fluffy, frayed or short.  Thank goodness I hadn’t emptied the thing!

The orts pot that saved my bacon!
The orts pot that saved my bacon!

I made it as far as 3am before my poor hands could no longer hold a needle and my spine would no longer hold me up (you will remember I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, that causes constant pain and fatigue, and injury is extremely easy).  To my disappointment, I still had the hillock outlines to do, and of course serendipitous butterfly to insert.

The night before my last day at Hampton Court Palace.  Working to 3am got the fillings into those hillocks, but the outlines were still to do, and still a paint splodge to be turned into a butterfly!
The night before my last day at Hampton Court Palace. Working to 3am got the fillings into the hillocks, but the outlines were still to do, and still a paint splodge to be turned into a butterfly!

I got to Hampton Court early, and sat down knowing I was going to have to stitch very concertedly if I was going to finish.  I knew I wasn’t going to get it completely mounted, it takes a full day to do that.  I would have to be content with just finishing the actual design… but even that was going to be a struggle.  This isn’t a blog about Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, or I could write a comprehensive essay on the things that were aching, burning, creaking, popping and swelling. To add to my woes, it was a hot June day.  One of the things that often happens with EDS is that the autonomic nervous system misbehaves, and this leaves us with the rather baffling ability to get heat stroke if the temperature goes above the level our bodies are accustomed to, even if objectively speaking, that is ‘only’ 23 celsius.  So there I was, three hours sleep and in a bad way, locked into a battle to subdue a bird.  First, the borders of the hillocks went in – raised chain band.  I did all the ones in the background, but when I got to the long one along the front I had to change plan.  The weaving in and out required for raised chain was not easy with worked areas either side to snag the needle, and fingers that felt like they didn’t belong to me.  It felt like I was battling every stitch.  And anyway, I felt like the foreground needed a little something different.  It would need to be raised and textural to go with the raised chain band on the other borders, and it needed to be QUICK!  Everyone else had gone for lunch at this point (not I – oh no!).  The answer was french knots, worked in two or three strands, with different colours of green mixed in the needle to give dimension and shading.  I also added some little groups of five light blue knots, like flowers strewn in a grassy meadow.  I don’t know how many french knots there are in that front foreground border – hundreds.  I certainly got good at doing french knots!  When the tutors got back from lunch they were amazed by how quickly I had done them.  French knots are often seen as fiddly, but really, compared with the raised chain band and the needle weaving that had gone before, they were refreshingly simple!

2pm, and the planned work was finished.  But what about the unplanned bit? do you remember back when I was pouncing and painting the design, I splodged my paint?  I named my splodge serendipitous butterfly, and determined that the splodge would become the body of a butterfly.  Wearily (and with trepdation) I took up my pencil to draw a freehand butterfly on my canvas.  Under normal circumstances, it is not a good idea to draw straight on to your canvas when you are incredibly tired and your hands are swollen and unresponsive.  Yet that is what I did, not having a whole lot of choice available at the time.  Then I threaded up some blue and improvised a stitch plan.  I based it on a gold work butterfly I did for something else… I think it came out all right, considering!

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After casting off serendipitous butterfly, I fussed and fretted over some details before finally realising…. It was finished.  You might think my first reaction would be relief, or joy, or pride… no, my first reaction was loss. I actually cried.  Birdy had become such a friend, a guide through my first attempt at “real” embroidery.  I had loved every second spent with him, even the painful ones.  But after some gentle words from my tutors, and some lovely admiration from my student colleagues (all of whom are talented embroideres whom i respect enormously) all of those other feelings came along as well.  I am proud of my jacobean birdy, as well as being very grateful to all who encouraged and supported me.

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Finished - both birdy and me!
Finished – both birdy and me!

Pouncing on Birdy, and the arrival of the Serendipitous Butterfly

Post written 27th march – sorry, I wrote it but got behind!

My trip to Hampton court last week saw me packed up as if I was planning to move in.  Slate frames are not small!  Fortunately, I had been given a giant plastic bag for it, which also contained my A3 portfolio with my stitch plan, colour plan, and my completed pricking.  then there was a rucksack containing my seat frame with practice stitches on it, my wools and needles and scissors and bits and bats… and my lunch.  I have a fold down luggage rack on the front of my chair which took the frame bag, the rucksack went on the back, and my handbag on my lap. and tentatively and precariously, I wheeled myself over to the apartment looking like a variety of pack animal.

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The pricking of JB.  I will keep it safe, because it can be used again, if I want to recycle any part of the design

When I got there, we pounced my pricking.  I realize this jargon sounds a bit weird, so here is the explanation for the uninitiated!  From the last update, you will remember that I had got as far as finishing the design on paper. So the next thing to do is to transfer the design. To do this, first I traced it on to some strong tracing paper.  then I went around all of the lines with a kind of mounted needle, pricking evenly-spaced holes around all of the outline.  when that is done, the pricking is pinned into position on the framed up fabric.  next, a fine grey powder made of ground charcoal and (I think) cuttlefish bone is applied to the pricking.  The powder is called “pounce”, and by varying the proportions of the ingredients, it can be nearly black to pure white. With a rolled up pad of felt (a “pouncer”), you gently move the pounce over the smooth top surface of the pricking with a circular movement.  it only takes a tiny bit of pounce to do a big pricking.  When you have pounced the whole design, you remove the pricking, and lo! you have a lovely “join-the-dots” version of your design.  The next job is to find a very fine brush and some tubes of watercolour.  You need to mix a colour that is similar to the background, that contrasts just enough to be seen.  For my linen twill, yellow ochre and a spot of ultramarine made a dull taupe colour that did the trick.  It needs to be the consistency of single cream – not too watery that it splodges everywhere (more on splodges later!) and not so thick that it won’t go on.  Then you join the pounced dots with a very thin line of paint.  Once the paint is dry, you turn the frame over and give your (drum tight!) fabric a couple of smart taps to get rid of the pounce.  a baby brush on the front surface sees to any remaining bits.  you are left with a painted version of your design.

This is the version of events that is blithely trotted out at the beginning of all the RSN stitch guide books, and it is very definitely best practice. But there are drawbacks.  The first is that you will almost certainly have to make your own pounce, unless you are good friends with a professional needleworker who has a secret supplier. Once you have mastered pounce alchemy with your pestle and mortar, you have to make yourself a pouncer (tightly rolled felt sewed into a cylinder) and mount a needle somehow (this can be as simple as sticking a crewel needle in a cork, though you can buy purpose made pricker needle mounts).  so much for the prick and pounce.  But what about the painting? well.  Even if you are an experienced painter, you will soon find that painting on linen twill is a bit of a pain in the behind.  It is ridged in texture, and it seems to dislike the paint. I wasn’t able to achieve a lovely thin, even line.  Even the floor boards in the work room were conspiring against me – every time someone walked past, they bounced and I blobbed.  Then for some inexplicable reason, I did a REALLY big blob, where a really big blob should not be! Ooops.  Not much to be done about it, except turn it into a “feature”.  so Jacobean Birdy looks set to gain a Serendipitous Butterfly for a friend!

The first stitches go in!  this is the supporting "ladder" of stitches for my raised stem band (just starting to go in on the right hand side)
The first stitches go in! this is the supporting “ladder” of stitches for my raised stem band (just starting to go in on the right hand side)

After the painting was done, we were ready for real stitching.  as with all projects, you start with the rear-most elements, and for Jacobean Birdy (Shall we call him JB?) that means the main stems and the hillocks.  The main stems are going to be worked in a stem band, so that means that the first job is to lay down a foundation like a ladder all the way up, with the stitches evenly spaced 2-3 mm apart. the stem band will be woven around these stitches.  The large infills for the hillocks will be a good place to show off the textured stitches, so I have started with laying down a lattice in one and burden stitch in another.  Burden stitch is not something I have tried before and it was a surprise headache.  all the stitches have to be so even, so well spaced, so vertical… It took 3 attempts to get this far and I am still not sure about it!

lattice going in. I am not sure about the lazy daisy filling - that was a demo by my tutor, I have yet to decide what embellishment I want in there.
lattice going in. I am not sure about the lazy daisy filling – that was a demo by my tutor, I have yet to decide what embellishment I want in there.
Burden stitch.  I am not sure I like the way the shading worked out.  For some reason the, darkest green towards the bottom is a much thicker thread than the dark blue below it or the mid green above it.  I will probably remove it at some point and try again - fourth time lucky!
Burden stitch. I am not sure I like the way the shading worked out. For some reason the, darkest green towards the bottom is a much thicker thread than the dark blue below it or the mid green above it. I will probably remove it at some point and try again – fourth time lucky!

Getting started with ‘Jacobean Birdy’ – design, colour choice and framing up

On 6th March I had my first day at the RSN, kicking off for my first module in the Certificate.  You will remember that the first module is Jacobean Crewel Work, something I haven’t really done before.  The first day of the course is given over to design work, framing up, and colour selection.  I arrived bright and early on a sunny day, with the Hampton Court bulbs in glorious colour – a beautiful spring scene. I had a folder full of sketches I had made of some possible design elements.  I didn’t design the whole thing ahead of time, because it is important for the tutors to be involved, to ensure that the design is well balanced, not too complex or too bland, and to make sure there is plenty of scope to demonstrate technical ability on a good range of stitches.  But I did make sure I put in a lot of research, and sketched out a number of different ideas in different shapes and sizes so that we could pick things out that would work.  You may remember the birdy that I came up with a few weeks ago.  After Birdy  came Strange Fruit.  Strange Fruit caused a bit of hassle.  I was after something pomegranate-like (the stylised pomegranate is a very common feature in Jacobean work), but all the pomegranates I saw on my Google images search left me feeling rather diffident.  Pomegranates, I felt, should be swollen, ripe, bursting with seeds and juice and be somehow sensual.  I pulled off a load of pictures of real pomegranates to act as inspiration, and I found myself fascinated by the way the fruit develops, and the lovely shapes it makes.  But I still couldn’t actually seem to draw what I wanted until about 2 days before my course was due to start, until one afternoon at work it suddenly hit me and  I sketched this on a piece of printer paper:


It is part flower and part fruit, and it appears to be wearing a corset. there are deep slashes to reveal the juice-filled interior – it feels almost indecent, though it is only a fruit!  finally I had something that ticked all my “pomegranate” boxes.   Anyway, that’s enough about pomegranates, I have got off topic.  My first job on arrival at the RSN was to assemble everything into a suitable design.  My tutors were wonderfully supportive and encouraging, and it didn’t take very long to come up with a design that included both Birdy and Strange Fruit.  I am very keen to put my design up here, but before I do so – a gentle word on copyright.  I have drawn these designs myself, and I may want to re-use them in the future.  Please respect my work and property, and don’t use my designs without consent.  Also, if you see anyone else using my designs, please do tell me.  With that little bit of housekeeping out of the way, here is a little sneak preview of my stitch plan:

Stitch Plan for "Jacobean Birdy with Strange Fruit" [working title!]
Stitch Plan for “Jacobean Birdy with Strange Fruit” [working title!]

With the design finalised, I traced it neatly on to heavy tracing paper ready to make my pricking (more on design transfer next time) and started on framing up my linen twill.  To keep the fabric stretched taut in all directions, we are using a slate frame.  This is a very traditional heavy wooden frame (Mary Corbet has a photo tutorial about them here on needle ‘n’ thread if you are interested).  Sewing and stretching the fabric took most of the afternoon, but I did have a quick break to peruse the collection of Appletons Crewel wool with my tutors to choose a colour scheme. I wanted the accent colour to be orange, which left me the two other main colours to pick.  The design brief told me I needed to pick two main colours in five intensities/shades and one accent colour.  Appleton’s wool has a two digit  colour number, followed by a third digit that denotes the dye concentration used.  So for example, my three oranges are 866, 865 and 864, with 866 being the darkest and 864 being the lightest. After pulling out various hanks in lovely colours, we found a combination that really attracted and interested me, and seemed to set each other off nicely – that is them on the top of this post.  I hope you like them as much as I do.  Jack the degu would have quite liked them to make a nest out of, but I didn’t let him get his paws on them!

"Mum says that wool is cruel; it had better not try anything on her or I will shred it and make a nest out of it!"
“Mum says that wool is cruel; it had better not try anything on her or I will shred it and make a nest out of it!”

By the end of the day at Hampton Court I was totally exhausted, but even though I hadn’t got as far as casting on, I had achieved loads.  A design, a stitch plan, a colour scheme and some framed up fabric.  The other students and the tutors made kind remarks about my design, which I found very touching, although the design is about A3 size and quite complex – it is going to be a tough job getting it all done! I was sent away with instructions to finish my pricking, transfer the design and practice my stitches – I look forward to showing you what I have been doing on that score.  But we’ll leave that for another blog.

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)