The problem of the pomegranate

Firstly, sorry for the long time between posts.  We are a clergy family, so passiontide and Easter are particularly busy for us, which means progress on poor old birdy has been rather slow.  By the time Easter day came around, our whole family was exhausted.  Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (my disability) is painful and exhausting at the best of times, but we keep on top of it.  I say we – everyone in the family helps with this.  The Revd Dr does most of the household hard graft – laundry, washing up, tidying, bathing the Frithlet.  The Frithlet himself (aged 6 at the present time) prides himself on being a “young carer”, and insists on helping, especially when it involves pushing my wheelchair at speed.  He’s a also quite good at nipping up and down stairs, and picking things up from the floor.  When Holy Week comes around, the Revd Dr is kept on his toes with liturgical commitments and pastoral visiting, and the Frithlet and I do our bit by trying not to get in the way, and being self sufficient.  It doesn’t sound like much, but for me, it’s a lot more standing, walking, climbing stairs, bending and lifting, which pretty much guarantees me a big flare up.  It’s a twice yearly (it happens at Christmas too) wake up call – my seemingly serene ability to achieve all sorts of things despite my disability is actually highly dependent on the support I get every day from my family.  So it was pretty much a given that poor old birdy was going to have to take a back seat while I struggled with more mundane things, like getting out of bed.  My arms became like lead weights, and my fingers like sausages, and neuropathic fizzing, zinging and nagging meant that even if I had had time to embroider, I would have been on a hiding to nothing.  But fear not – time was not wasted! whatever time I had, including late night lying on my back in bed not sleeping, I devoted to figuring out the Pomegranate Problem.

Strange Fruit - the pomegranate crossed with a corset.
Strange Fruit – the pomegranate crossed with a corset.

Remember the pomegranate? It took long enough to design, and when it finally landed, it was a strange thing. The pomegranate is often a symbol of the sensual, even the carnal in art. I wanted something that reflected that, and this is what I came up with. A friend described it as “practically indecent”, and I know what she means! It is part fruit, part corset. The question is, how to render it in threads and stitches? I wanted the outer parts, the “skin” of the fruit to be raised or padded and maybe textured to give some depth to the “slashes” that reveal the flesh, which I wanted to be a close lattice of some sort. My tutors helped my bat some ideas around, but the slightly irregular shape was a bit limiting. I tried some padded satin stitch but I didn’t like it; in my opinion the solid block of bright orange was too overpowering, and as a solid filling there was no way to indicate contours. The corset-like ‘cinching’ as the fruit morphs into delicate flower was totally lost. I pulled it all out. That was the stage I had got to when holy week hit, so I couldn’t fiddle and experiment with different fillings. But I went to bed every night with my embroidery books and lay there in the dark, distracting myself from the pain in my body by worrying and puzzling at the pomegranate problem. I ended up getting myself into a bit of a lather over it, it got out of proportion in my head and I decided that the whole thing was never going to look like I wanted it to.

At some point, an Idea started.  It grew.  It developed.  And then the worrying and puzzling gave way to itchy fingers – not (for once) neuropathic tingling, but a desire to try out the Idea to see if it would work.  But there was no time, and I couldn’t use my hands.  Even when Easter day came, and Easter Monday, we were all in a heap.  But I had the Tuesday off as well, and finally, finally, got some time to try it out.  And this was the outcome:

The Idea takes shape!
The Idea takes shape!

The Idea was to use Cretan stitch (essentially a series of offset fly stitches) to give the texture and contour, but outline and pad the centre section with split stitch in the darkest red.  This variation on cretan is not a technique that I have found in any of my books, but I hoped it would gove me the dimension and the contours that I wanted.  I think it worked – what do you reckon?  I like the way I could increase and decrease the size of the stitches to give contour, and it kind of looks like boning like you might find in a bodice.  I do wonder what my tutors will make of me going off piste though! the lattice in the middle isn’t finished, and the rest of the flower needs to be worked, but it feels like we’re on the move again 🙂

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!