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.

2014-04-24 20.39.01

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.

A big needle book… does anyone else want one of these?

I enjoy feathering my nest with nifty gadgets and things that manage to be at once pretty and useful.  I especially like to make my own accessories like scissor keeps and velvet boards, and of course the bobbins I showed you yesterday.  Like many enthusiasts, I have an impressive stash of different kinds of scissors, thread organisers, work bags and boxes.  And lots and LOTS of pins and needles.  For a while now, I have been keeping my needles in their original packaging, bundled together in a little plastic bag, with a goodly number sloshing around loose in the bottom of my work box, waiting to stab unwary fingers.  I have been looking for a pretty needle book that is big enough to house my burgeoning collection, in a way that would allow me to have some kind of filing system to stop my sharps mingling with my crewels, and my betweens rubbing shoulders with my Japanese silk embroidery needles…  After extensive digging around the internet, I found nothing that fitted the bill.  All the needlebooks, even the supposedly “large” needlebooks, had only two or four pages and were little square things. very pretty, but not what I had in mind.  So I made my own, here it is:

Needle book front cover
Needle book front cover

It is about 10 cm x 13 cm, with six big pages all in brightly coloured felt.  It was a good excuse to get to grips with my second hand Husqvarna viking  embroidery machine, using some bargain space-dyed rayon threads picked up from the internet.  The sewing pattern for the book was very much made up as I went along, but it turned out quite well.

Needle book pages

I soon got started filling it up, needles on every page, with my flower-head pins inside the front cover, and safety pins inside the back cover…

Stocking up the needle book


My favourite feature on it is this dangly felt flower on the spine.

flower toggle
flower toggle

It holds the ribbon in a loop so it can hang on a hook or a clip, but it also has a secret additition.  Inside the felt flower is a very tiny neodymium rare earth magnet.  these magnets are small but immensely strong – don’t get them too close to your watch or credit card!  Inside the flower toggle, the magnet can be put to several uses.  It will find and pick up any dropped pins or needles.  It will easily support the weight of the needle book, so you can have it attached to a nearby lamp stand or other metallic object.  But mostly what the magnet does is hold on very nicely to my scissors!

keeping my scissors safe!

Since making the prototype, two people have asked me to make needle books for them, which I am more than happy to do – clearly I am not the only person who thinks needle books are just too small!

Please do contact me if you would like a needle book made – they are £15 with the neodymium magnet toggle, and £13.50 without, and any money made will go into funding the equipment and materials required for my RSN course (I am currently trying to raise £115 for the first module’s materials starter pack).   A choice of colours is available. I will try to get a page up and running in the near future with a gallery of items available for sale or commission.



Crewel wool bobbins – and toilet paper!

My first dabbling in crewel embroidery, the Nicola Jarvis Robin kit, has introduced me to the wonderful world of Appletons wool.  It is made in the UK from Yorkshire sheep – the company dates back 178 years, and still sells some of the same shades that were used by William Morris in his tapestries.  Crewel wool is a fine two-ply yarn, and because it is made from long fibres, it is hard wearing once it is stitched, and since it doesn’t have to be tightly twisted and plied, it is brilliant for seamless shading and blending.  The drawback to this fine wool is that you can get in a bit of a pickle if your centre-pull skein, despite your best efforts, gets itself in a tangle.  I am not the only one to struggle – even Mary Corbet occasionally has a run-in with a centre pull, as expertly blogged here on Needle n Thread.  This very thing happened to my darkest charcoal-y brown Appletons 966 skein.  When it comes to ordinary cotton or silk, I am pretty good at sitting there patiently and gently untangling until the job is done, but with the wool, every little tug was in danger of untwisting and opening up the plies, and generally bobbling and thinning the thread – in a word, destroying it.  in order to save the wool, I ended up having to cut it so that it didn’t get damaged by multiple passes through a knotted or bobbled bit.  This made me sad, and more than a little annoyed with myself.  My other skeins were working well, but I decided it would be safer (and easier on the wool) if i wound the skeins onto some kind of bobbin.  But where would I find such bobbins?  I have those cheap cardboard ones, but I really dislike them because they introduce a kink into the thread, and anyway, they wouldn’t be big enough for crewel wool.  I spent a couple of days pondering the issue and casting about for something to use as a bobbin, when inspiration came from the most unlikely place.  The toilet near my office at work.  One morning after availing myself of the facilities, the toilet paper roll in the dispenser ran out and the middle of the roll dropped out into my hand.  Instead of the normal cardboard tube, this dispenser takes paper rolled onto little blue plastic spindles, like this:

Toilet roll spindle
Toilet roll spindle

It just made me think “Bobbin”! It was about the right size and shape and it was freely available.  I sent an email to our caretakers asking them to look out for the spindles for me – ensuring they were clean of course!  About a week later, I came in to find this waiting for me on my desk:

Bag of bobbins!
Bag of bobbins!

So I took them home and set to work.  In my stash I found some little plastic upholstery rings, and as luck would have it, they fitted perfectly into the little recess at one end, with a bit of help from my glue gun.  At the tapered end there was a little tail just the right size for a small label with the shade number on.

Tapered end
Tapered end

The only thing left to do was to wind them with my threads, and to find a way to keep them together.  I settled on a loop of beaded memory wire with a lobster claw clasp, and a bigger clip to attach the whole thing to a work bag or similar.  Et voila!

Finished bobbins
Finished bobbins
Clasp and beeded wire loop
Clasp and beaded wire loop (sorry about the glue on my hands, that was from another project involving making a house for my son’s hex bugs.  I don’t usually have glue on my fingers… or at least, not when handling embroidery threads!

I was quite pleased with my little foray into upcycling – no more tears over tangled wool!  Thank you, Oxford Brookes University toilets – and the wonderful caretaking team who took the trouble to collect all those little bits of plastic for me!

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)


Birds everywhere


Today has been my day off, so I got to play with the bird some more. As I feared, the bird has become a Friend.  He even looks a bit less angry/griffin-like now, and more bird-of-paradise-y and affable. I’m going to have to watch out, he might not be suitable, or might need significant editing to fit within the scope of the assignment.  I need to resist the urge to give him a name and fixate upon him…

But I have scanned him in, and made lots of copies in different sizes and “mirror imaged” him in case I need him to face the other way. I’m planning to colour in and play with textures and patterns. The re-sizing has highlighted a potential problem: birdy is quite big. The original birdy is on A4, and takes up most of it. I knew as I drew him he would be too big, because the entire project with all the other elements is supposed to be A4.  But I couldn’t resist adding detail, and now I have shrunk him to a suitable size, the detail looks too small to work in crewel wool. Hmm. He may have to be simplified. Poor birdy. I think I need to move away from him for a bit and do some leaves and fruit before I get any more attached to him!

Immersing myself in Jacobean crewel work

A sketch of  a bird of paradise
A sketch of a bird of paradise

I have made a start on my research for the first module of my RSN certificate.  The topic for this module is Jacobean crewel work – not something I have done a lot of, except for the little robin sampler that is my current “work in progress”

Crewel work robin from a Nicola Jarvis kit
Crewel work robin from a Nicola Jarvis kit

As you can see, that is not a vast amount of experience….

Crewel work is very Venerable.  It makes it clear in the course notes that the project should have a traditional flavour – we aren’t looking for anything too creatively contemporary.  And that’s quite good for a first assignment, because Jacobean work tends to draw heavily on some staple themes, an there is a huge amount of inspiration easily available via a quick “Google image” search.  The central  part of a traditional crewel work project is a stem with large and fanciful leaves, called a “tree of life”.  The idea is that these leaves are shaded and filled with lots of different intricate patterns and textures, worked in wool (the term “crewel” seems to derive from an old English word for wool)  The colours are very important too – you often see the same sorts of khaki greens, saffron yellow, duck-egg blues and rusty reds cropping up – I guess that reflects the sort of dyes commonly available for wool in days gone by.  You use a palette of very closely matched shades to achieve depth and shading.  All of this is really very new to me, so I am reading and surfing and gathering ideas.  Three things leap out at me from my quick skim.  Obviously, the tree of life and some foliage.  Then another common thing is fruit  – often a stylized split-open pomegranate, which gives a good opportunity for textured lattice type fillings.  But the one that really made me quite excited was the bird of paradise.  I am a real nature lover, and I love taking photos of birds, so it isn’t surprising I am drawn to the birds.  Tonight I have spent a very pleasant evening sketching my own bird of paradise.  It has a way to go yet – it think it might need to go a bit more “stylized” (read:”wacky”) yet, and I need to work it in to a complete design.  I think I might try to get birdy looking at a pomegranate on a tree.  But the other thing I must not do is get too carried away!  I need to hand over my ideas to my tutors, and they will have suggestions for how to make it into a “proper” jacobean design.  There is no point rocking up with a completed design – just something to work with.  So I need to work through some elements, think about colour balance etc.  That is my project for a little while, I thought you might like to see it from scratch.

The Royal School of Needlework – and me!

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

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

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

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

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

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