LIVE a LITTLE: embroidering a book cover.

I make no apologies that for this long and detailed post of my most recently published commission, the nature of the commissioning aspect of my work makes for total secrecy until the publishing dates, in this case July 4th 2019. As I am now working on several more commissioned projects of different types of work it is a relief to actually show the work behind ‘Her Work’. I started this particular commission in June 2018, here is the story so far…

A phone call for my brother-in law, Howard Jacobson, in the spring of 2018: Was I interested in stitching an illustration or possibly (who knows) a book cover for his next novel? This sounded an unlikely combination, an embroidered cover for one of his irreverent and caustic novels?

He quickly explained that the book was about a very old woman, Beryl, with a very selective memory, much married, cantankerous and given to expressing herself in expletives; an obsessive stitcher of morbid samplers and scenes from her life. But this story was about her late flowering love affair with a just slightly younger bachelor, Shimi, who forgets nothing; they are both in their 90’s. I was immediately intrigued, not least by the choice of embroideries within the novel, they sounded familiar – I said yes.

I read the novel on my computer and immediately started to research hearts, skulls, playing cards and typefaces for name and title.
The lettering used for the author’s name came very quickly, I took the negative/positive block idea straight from a 1960’s American needlepoint alphabet book.

Next Howard and I met with the publishers at Jonathan Cape Vintage, who having accessed images from this blog, were ready to discuss their ideas for a cover. Basically they wanted a traditional sampler with the author’s name at the top of the page, the title beneath and some of my broken & mended heart imagery and the regular sampler border. They gave me the dimensions of the actual book wrapper and a month to come up with samples and ideas.

Later that day Howard and I discussed what he might want me to focus on, death, blood, destruction, worms, spiders, cobwebs, skulls and decay….

samples following conversation with author

I started to experiment with different letter forms; cursive italics for the title set against the simple strong text for the author’s name. I particularly liked an alphabet that used positive and negative forms for the name. The use of different alphabets is a major a feature of traditional samplers. For the “LIVE” I wanted cursive, italics written in capitals, these ideas that were important to me as I saw this forward bold energetic word as a symbol for whole message of the book. Then ‘a little” obviously needed be lower case and static. Finding and fitting the larger letter forms into the small space available was tricky, so I decided to stagger them – I liked the ‘dance’ they made.

My first cover designs below, featured skulls and broken hearts for Beryl. My second used playing cards and suits, for Shimi.

Both designs had to work to scale for my chosen gauge of counted thread linen, and both had to be incorporated into the 2 wrapper design ideas that I eventually sent to the publishers. Regardless of which design the publishers eventually chose, I had fastened on my colour scheme, red and black, stitched on neutral linen. I set to work on the back cover…using the boneless Buddhist hand used in many of my earlier embroidered mending mottoes.

At the publisher’s meeting everyone had liked my idea of the thread wrapping around the entire cover to incorporate the ‘blurb’ on front and back covers. Here with original boneless stitching hand is the ‘skulls’ cover.

and the ‘cards’ cover

Above are the 2 working ideas drawn to scale and up for discussion, that I sent in July to the publishers. I also sent these images to Howard to keep him in the loop, and for his comments…he replied with “Where are all her rings? She wore lots of rings, they were important to her”

Back to the drawing board and if he wanted such characterful detail then I needed to age the hands as well and introduce and ‘old gold’ thread.

my drawings showing the original Buddhist hands and eventually the jewellery placed onto a drawing of my own hand, with fabulous false nails!
drawing I used to trace for the embroidery

Meanwhile the publishing team had their own comments – and while really liking the entire concept, choosing the skulls (yippee) and approving the writing for the author’s name (which meant I could make a start on the actual piece of work) they and the marketing team thought the title was illegible and did not like the title block…not at all.

I was able to start work on the cover with the approved alphabet

They countered with their own version of my design…

I really liked the way they had translated the meandering thread around the whole cover but was disheartened and disappointed with their new design of the same blocked alphabet for the title and the ‘dancing skulls’. BUT the stitching goddess was at hand – it just could not be stitched in this technique at this scale.

Counted thread embroidery relies on mathematically calculated 1 square per stitch for any design. Anything at an odd angle is difficult, as are curves on such a small scale. There were only 2 sizes of stitch available on this linen for my design. I sent sample images to illustrate the point.

A long and detailed set of emails, more images of sample stitching and new lettering bounced back and forth for some time….

Above are the last 2 versions of the new one line of LIVE lettering, I was not happy to lose the italic version of leaning forward letters in order to show energy and I particularly mourned the loss of the energetic capital ‘A’ in the final cover, but by now it looked defunct – hey ho – a successful design is almost always a successful compromise

So I completed the embroidery, placed a real needle in the stitched hand leaving the red thread loose for the photographer’s placement, starched and stretched it and sent it off . Several weeks later it came back, they wanted the title stitched on the spine….remember the problem of the size of the linen count? Keep up!

the computer generated version of the spine form publisher – sadly not possible on this gauge linen

back to the calculations, I had only one option, one stitch per thread…….

re-spaced and counted spine text, 1 stitch per thread.

I must admit that the people I dealt with at the publishers, Suzanne Dean and Rosie Palmer were really helpful to work with but throwing this at me this was quite a challenge….after much more re-calculation and manoeuvring between Rosie and me, we finally achieved the finished design for the spine .

front and back cover of finished embroidery.

The finished back of the book cover has an extra border, making it very rich and even more ornate. I really like the effect of the shadows for the loose thread.

And in an early and very favourable review of the book in the Jewish Chronicle, says on the very last line:

The novel’s brilliant cover tells it all: hearts and skulls, love and death“.

and now an image for once of current work – new title for the Italian edition of the novel – I have yet to stitch the spine….

To see how the author tells this tale please go to 

And here is the Italian version of the book cover published by La nave di Teseo

Drawing Vintage Fabrics

first drawing of the day – the eye of the dragon

I have been invited to deliver 3 day drawing classes at the Bristol Drawing School based at the Royal West of England Academy. I was asked to work with my collections of vintage embroidered textiles which include Chinese embroidered robes, Japanese kimono and Indian/Pakistani children’s  clothing and tent hangings.. first I brought in the Chinese robes…

starting to draw the threadbare theatrical Chinese Dragon robe

the old tattered, ripped and worn fabrics never fail to inspire students; each class is different – although my teaching methods remain basically the same: – take care to tell the truth about what you are seeing, pay close attention to the making processes and most of all the colour.

the sensitive drawing slowly evolves

As we start to draw using only dry media – pastels, crayon and pencils –  getting the colour correct is always tricky, but I try to get students to develop a colour quality rather than to try to copy the real colours…this teaches awareness of atmospheric colour.


another study of the same fabric – aiming to describe how it is stitched; not painted printed or stencilled…

I gave these students an hour to develop their first studies… they seemed to be engaged immediately – always surprising who picks what to draw. Unfortunately I have a very bad grasp of names – I could describe each student’s appearance perfectly  by looking at their individual drawings but names evade me for this first week – my apologies to all.

starting out….


trying to get that elusive faded grey/ brown silk ground colour















The silk theatrical costume of a dragon is really in a sorry state now but the colours are subtle, faded and very beautiful. The wild cardboard eyes of the dragon still command attention and trying to capture the quality of the threadbare silk really tests the students. For a totally opposite colour experience, the  choice for those who like bold colour is the red and blue silk court skirt…

starting out with bold geometric colour blocks

working from more decorative sections of the skirt still produces a strong response.

starting to map out the decoration – in reality a tiny hand stitched red binding on a yellow silk applique

getting to grips with the colour of the yellow silk









using the coloured paper grounds with the pastels makes it possible to give an impression of the nuanced colours of the faded and friable silks – blending the colors to achieve the exact shade is difficult but rewarding – and you learn a lot about colour mixing and trying to keep everything clean…


1 hour into the drawing, it takes time to build up this quality of colour in pastels.

The soft grey-blue padded jacket, embroidered with wisteria blossoms, brought out everyone best attention to stitch…and although the colour proved  illusive, many lovely studies were made from it.

drawing the meandering blossom on the padded and embroidered jacket

this simple tentative sketch captures the quality of the meandering blossom stalks


well the colour is way off – but what an interesting series of marks to try to capture the nuanced and subtle effect of the silk embroidery












We ended the morning with a short critical discussion about the work achieved  in the first hours of the morning. In the afternoon session everyone chose different pieces to work with. I had more or less dictated the scope of first drawings (detail, detail, detail) now the students could choose how they wished to interpret the fabrics. The grey silk jacket still held its appeal.

wriggly line drawing trying to capture the crepe silk and hand stitched appliqued braid.

detail of the fastenings and braiding of the silk jacket











detail of the the hem of a large embroidered court robe with resplendent dragon

it is always interesting to see different interpretations of the same subject…the drawings below probably say more about the artists than the robe.

careful but lively study of the embroidered sea.

flamboyant cloud interpretation from the robe above









careful gradation of colours to describe the embroidered flower

My own black modern Chinese embroidered jacket has resulted in these 2 different interpretations…however in the drawing below, the student told us that she had not drawn anything for more than 20 years – so as far as I am concerned this study is a major achievement – for bravery – but had it been on black it would have been even more striking…

strong drawing of a tiny frogged fastening – a very brave and successful start after 20 years of not drawing!

when studying textiles it is often difficult not to get engrossed by the garment they constitute – here are 2 images of drawing the same skirt – the first is about the skirt, the second about the textile and the fabric manipulation.

getting engrossed in the bands of stripes made by a shibori technique on a hand woven hemp, Chinese skirt.


more attention to the detail of the dying technique shown in the second study











the following drawing is totally different in its approach – the whole folded cloth has become a world of its own..

this large undulating drawing reminded me of a surreal landscape – fabrics as fold.

who would have guessed it is a study from a wrapped and folded silk skirt…but oh the colours!

how innovative to fold an old silk skirt and make a colour study .


and last of all this simple line drawing of a white hand embroidered black jacket – each line describing the direction of the stitch. How wonderful it would be to see this extended for a whole wall full!

simple linear drawing – a tiny detail from a Chinese embroidered landscaped jacket.

Taking a Line for a Dance

Simple sample of machine embroidery by Susi Bancroft

“Taking a line for a dance” is a good way to describe what happens with free machine embroidery…the freedom with which the needle can stitch patterns, images and even writing very fast – is really fascinating to watch. First disengage the feed dog – I just love that name for the row of teeth embedded in the metal  plate below the needle….

free machine embroidery using a hoop and the sprung needle

and either using a specially sprung embroidery needle, with or without the old school embroidery hoop to keep the fabric tight, it is possible to move the fabric enabling the still needle to make lines of stitches.

first drawing by moving the paper and not the pencil

moving page animal drawing – dog or cat?

Recently at Heart Space studios, Susi Bancroft taught a group of students how to achieve this technique in just one afternoon. First she got everyone to try to write their names or draw something by moving the paper while someone else held the pencil steady…with very unsteady results…but this is how machine embroidery works. She then got everyone stitching with reference to the drawings and suddenly things started to happen – fast

The first attempts at machining were definitely stronger than the pencil drawings. Susi always gets everyone to stitch in black cotton on white calico first, to gain a strong contrasting line..

first attempt to stitch drawing and writing

writing and dog drawing

It didn’t take long before everyone was feeling a lot more confident and  really getting to grips with larger scale drawings

freely machine stitched dog portrait

One of the exercises offered was to copy a black and white drawing a drawing – with remarkable results considering no guide lines had been drawn beforehand.

copying a line drawing of a fish – a free embroidery challenge.

Susi had also brought in a book of samples of her own work and showed the students these to demonstrate what else could be achieved now they had the basics…

vermicelli linear stitching sample – Susi Bancroft

sample machined writing – Susi Bancroft












Now the colour started to be sampled, this is where all textile people get excited – endless possibilities just by changing the thread ….

playing with coloured free machine with extra outlines

and appliqued fabrics started to appear – each person had brought some form of inspirational work, either an illustrated card or photographs and drawings

working small appliqued motifs from a commercial card design

Now I know that working with the sprung embroidery or darning needle means that the hoops aren’t necessary, but Susi feels that for the first attempts everyone should adopt a belt and braces attitude, the fabric needs to be as taut at possible to get the best results. When everyone feels confident of drawing then they can remove the hoop – however most people took advantage of this restriction – this work below is already framed – it actually reads ” I am Very Happy”

circular embroidery made by keeping to frame restrictions.

and here the nuisance of not being able to manouvre the stitching past the hoops intrusive clamps has made a new design from the original card – go with the flow…..

design due to the constricting clamps – this is what sampling is all about – work with what you have got.

Some more renditions of photographs and cards start to take on a life of their own – this is why I think that copying something inspirational is a good way to start off any new technique, the worry of design is taken away and suddenly invention takes over..

copying the design in fabrics brings so much more pattern and texture

and working from lovely photographs is often a good way to get started – the fabric soon asserts itself.

photographic inspiration works for a colour gamut to get things going.

Left Hand Drawing

first left hand drawing
this is the first drawing with my left hand, compare quality of drawing to writing!

Practice What You Preach, is a good motto to live by: so soon after I broke my right wrist, I decided to start drawing with my left hand – as left or  weaker hand drawing is one the basic exercises that I often employ when teaching drawing to a group of nervous beginners as it levels out the drawing ability of everyone.

As you can see I decided to make linear observational drawings of the very thing that was ruling my life, the cast, sling and inert fingers of my right hand, also it would stay in position until I was finished. The first drawing took more than an hour to complete – a really long time for an A4 page of black and white line work. I used a propelling pencil, the first thing to hand, so the range of marks was restricted – but this turned out to be a useful restriction.

This first drawing has all the hallmarks of a weak drawing having been revised – I decided to make a continual line drawing, ie not taking my hands off the page as I seemed to have lost the innate sense of proportion enjoyed with my right hand, I couldn’t trust my judgement of angles and distances between the elements of the hand and arm. When I had finished the first lower drawing it looked really weak and wobbly and lost on the page, so I filled in the background of the scarf – this took a lot of time, my left hand has no strength and the shading looked scribbled instead of nuanced to describe the density of the fabric and the contours of the folds. Then I drew a line drawing of the first drawing, I was surprised that these clumsy drawings do sill look like my work…drawing is like handwriting.

second left hand drawing
my second sling line drawing

The second drawing appears simpler because I had more confidence after drawing for an hour and I used an eraser as a drawing tool – a very blunt instrument in my left hand. Still keeping the continuous line as a discipline this study suffers from overdrawing – a thing I absolutely hate in anyone’s drawing . The second firmer line that covers the first attempt is invariably clumsy and the drawing looks stilted ( see fingers); better a light wispy drawing than a second deader line. But even the writing is a bit more controlled. I also began to change the way of describing the fabrics, the dotted lines are my version of the crepe bandage.

third left hand drawing
my third drawing – sleeping terriers.

Deciding on making descriptive pencil marks rather than the continuous line drawings, the next day I embarked on drawing my dogs. I was confined to the sitting room to keep my arm still and propped above my heart to try to alleviate the bruising, and they had taken to settling down in front of the fire where they snoozed all day, although they often just got up and walked away mid drawing.  The full length sleeping dog drawing above looks exactly like my dog Daisy, but not at all like my usual drawings.

I have written frustrated comments around the page – “line easier than shading” but I was finding that shading with a softer drawing pencil meant that I had very little control of the angle of the point – it was like drawing while looking in a mirror. The lines are fuzzy with the pencil lead wearing down quickly as I worked, I was unable to manipulate a sharpener – let alone a knife. The surface is getting rubbed with my left arm as I work and looks really lifeless.When using pencils I rely on the range of different tones available from even an HB pencil – but they rely on pressure to make them.

forth terrier drawing
Daisy lying down

Reverting to the propelling pencil I attempted to make a more linear study of the dog’s fur; the way it grows is one the most interesting things to draw. I tried to add shading to the line without resorting to smudging and rubbing to get darker marks, but my left hand does not have the strength of my right to press down for a blacker thicker line. Again this drawing seems clumsy because of how I chose to make my marks I simply can’t use many of the refined marks available with my right hand. I reverted to my line drawings – they made me feel better!

line drawing terrier head
my reversion to line drawing for Boysie’s head.

Now this really started me thinking about how I relate to my drawings, they aren’t just a useful tool to free the ideas in my head – although this is their most useful service to me; they actually explain the world I see to me and to everyone else who cares to look – they are the most direct and personal extension of me. I have spent a long time (way over the 10,000 hours required to make a craft skill second nature to the maker)  developing a fluent style of drawing, almost shorthand, that enables me to both understand what I see and/or imagine. Look at my drawings and you will see who else I am – beyond the person in front of you – and they are how I want to be seen. Heck!

head of sleeping terrier
more recent left hand drawing of Boysie’s sleeping head

2 weeks on and I have started drawing the dogs again. My right hand, still in the cast, has some movement but it is too painful to use often. The drawing of the sleeping terrier above is a fair portrait of Boysie and also my line has become more descriptive. I am learning to make smaller studies, not expect too much – must remember to deal with details when teaching beginners.

Sleeping terrier
Daisy asleep on Sofa next to me. using both left and right hands

Although these drawings are still very clumsy to my mind and painfully slow to make  – they are of my scraggy terriers and friends can recognise them individually. The sleeping dogs above were both started with my right hand, I mapped out the whole area to be drawn first using my right hand, you can just see the outline. Now whether my belief in the outline made me feel more secure to use my left hand to work the details or whether using my left hand for the last month has given me more control I do not know – but these are drawings that do not look like they are made with the weaker hand.

But just so that you can see  the model that I worked from, enabling you to judge if I am back to my fluent line – here is Daisy still asleep long after I had finished the study above.

sleeping dog daisy
my dog daisy – still asleep

There are all sorts of things written about drawing with your weaker hand – you are more in touch with your inner being, using the opposite side of the brain unearths alternative visions etc. All I have to say is that it is very slow, very demoralising to begin with and completely exhausting – just like learning to draw with your strong hand!

Embroidering a Child’s Drawing

Rainbow painting by Lola aged 4 years

Everyone loves children’s art – either drawings or paintings; the pictures always have such energy and capture the spirit of the thing depicted – real or imagined. So when a visitor, Nadia Lanman, came to Heart Space Studios,  to view my exhibition of  ‘Mending Mottoes’ and asked if I would be interested in a commission to stitch one of her daughter’s drawings, I accepted at once – thinking “this is a challenge”

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAI asked to see several paintings and drawings so that we could make a decision which to depict, and really to see howGEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA difficult a challenge it would be. The price was also considered at this initial point as this was a thank-you and leaving present for the nursery school that 4-year-old Lola was leaving to go onto her primary school. Nadia brought in several, some simple line drawings and some full-on paintings. It became clear that Nadia really liked the rainbow painting (at the top of the post), water-colour paint on sugar paper…so typical of all children’s art – this was going to be a real challenge! It is one thing to stitch drawings but poster paint loaded on with energy ?

When we discussed pricing the piece I advised Nadia to go and buy a frame to keep the costs down; framing is really important but can be extremely costly, so I suggested choosing an A4 size as this was roughly the scale of the drawing papers that she had shown me – and an A size frame is easy to access; I promised her I would customise the frame if necessary.

Meanwhile I set about sampling the way to achieve the full-on colour.

first colour samples on shot pink silk

The first thing to research was the background colour, I found a  yellow and pink shot silk fabric, that was about the same colour but slightly brighter than the sugar paper, this would save me having to dye the fabric – but how to get some background colour onto it first before I stitched it? i tried fabric paints but when dry it was like stitching hard leather. I needed the rainbow coloured in so I would not have to completely cover the ground with hand stitches – too time consuming, too expensive.

iron-on fabric dyes in pastel form

selecting thread colours to match paint

The next thing was to choose the threads. I had decided to stitch the whole piece in running stitches, this is the first stitch everyone ever learns to sew and it always looks both simple and innocent, so is a fitting choice for embroidering  children’s art. Also I have used it a lot in my recent work, particularly when embroidering writing. I did think at this stage that machine embroidery would have been quicker to achieve the impression of saturated colour, but I am not a happy machine stitcher and  felt that the mechanical aspect wasn’t in keeping with the subject; simple hand stitching was really the perfect technique to choose

I tried several yarns, silk and cotton and cottons and eventually chose a mixture of both, whatever would suit the paint colours.

directional stitching sample for rainbow and writing

I had photocopied the drawing and reduced the scale, to fit the frame, and to keep my fee as low as possible. I then drew onto this the direction of the paint brush, actually showing how Lola had swept the paint onto the paper, the lines would become running stitches, but first I had to sort out the message that Nadia wanted to send to the teachers on Lola’s behalf.  “thankyou for my wings love Lola xx”

cut out photocopy and writing placement for the working drawing.

I had asked Nadia to get Lola to write it on a separate sheet of paper and then I traced it into position onto the photocopy – previously I had cut out the photocopy to gauge where to put the writing – a copy of this became my working drawing…..I have my own arcane ways of getting there!

dye stick coloured ground running stitched to copy brush stroke directions

I found this stitching really interesting, it had to be kept simple but needed to show the rhythm of the painted bands. Sadly the pastel once that it had been ironed to fix it was a bit too dull – but hey ho – it helped things go smoothly and quickly. What also helped was to draw the directional lines straight onto the dyed areas with a water-soluble pen to keep a track of the flow, they can be seen on the yellow band above. The last thing to do was to stitch the message again in running stitches, then wash and stretch the work and mount it in the frame.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAfinished and stretched embroidery

I so enjoyed this relatively simple stitched commission ( in comparison to the recent Thangka) that I thought it would be a good idea to run a class and now that I have sorted out how to express the rhythms and colours of paintings I think that I can show other people how to embroider their own children’s drawings – they would make great presents for anyone in the family. And when I told Nadia how her commission had inspired me to develop a new class, she immediately signed up for it!

Beading a Face

Heart Space Studios has been host to a fascinating set of artists this week, Native Americans who are exhibiting their work at an exhibition called Messengers 2012 at Rainmaker, a Bristol gallery specialising in native art from south west America, mainly jewellry, but also prints, sculpture, paintings and textiles. Rain maker hired the studios for 2 events, a master class in bead-work “Making a Face” by Marcus Amerman, and also for a day of lectures given by several other artists in the exhibition, all of whom are renowned makers and scholars.

Marcus lecturing with an image of one of his beaded pieces, Indian Country

Marcus Amerman is an innovator in Photo-Realism in bead-work; he demonstrated how to develop a portrait in beads from a photograph, a technique that updates the bead-work tradition of Native Americans, where the beading is largely used for ceremonial costumes. He showed how the portraits can be used for personal adornment as brooches, pendants or bracelets.

selection of beaded pieces, including a bracelet and a money clip

He started the class by showing a selection of his work and several books to illustrate various aspects of the craft traditions he has used in his career as an artist. He was born in Phoenix Arizona to an Eastern European father and a Native American mother and is a member of the Choctaw nation. The bead-work tradition that he practices is, however,  a specialism of the Hopi nation and his brother- in- law is a Hopi man – so this is where and he feels he has been influenced to adopt this beading method.

American books showing contemporary arts and crafts

He talked at length about duality within his work, and how beading, for him,  embodies both masculine and feminine attributes; the beaded ceremonial pieces worn are by men to show strength and dominance, defying the world –  but are made by women who “embrace the world” by their skills.  He also spoke of when he teaches this class to women who stitch traditional bead-work on reservations, how they invariably make very personal portraits of their own children so they can wear them everyday.

Like all the Artists that Rainmaker exhibits Marcus mixes different cultures within his work; he uses imagery from  films, fashion, other crafts all bound together in a figurative manner that can make varied visions from popular culture to subtle political statements.

Salma Hayek in Dusk Till Dawn beaded onto a passport holder.

 He also makes clothes and costumes for his performance art and first started embroidering and beading his denim jackets when he was a young man – he still wears beads today, and practices several different crafts including enamel and kiln fired glass. I really admire the way that whatever Marcus makes, be it a passport holder, note clip or a subversive art work, he is at ease with himself and his chosen media and message.

Marcus’ beaded belt and trousers

What I did find surprising about his work, having only seen it in books before, was its small scale  –  it looks monumental when illustrated, but it is full of detail, pattern and colour – you can hold it in your hands and it is a glinting, brilliant, faceted  fabric…. truly remarkable.

Now to the workshop – Marcus started everyone beading by first introducing them to the tiny beads he had brought with him and the smallest needles I have ever seen. They were stored in an animal hide needle case outlined in beads, the needle were sized from 11 – 13 and were very fine and very short for a beading needle.

hide needle case adorned with beads.

tiny needles in a hand made case

He brought 7 shades of blue beads to use for the faces and a length of each colour was given to everyone. Next they had to learn how to map out the facial contours for each shade, staring with the darkest tone. He gave everyone the same photograph to work with, stating with the darkest tone of blue they had to draw in all 7 tones.

seven shades of blue beads for tones of face

The image that was given to the students was a photographic  portrait of another of Rainmaker’s artists, Shonto Beday, a Navaho painter and print-maker, who has work in the current exhibition as well. Each person had to draw around or shade in each isolated contour of the face – the results are so entirely different and you can see at once how everyone has their own way of seeing and perceiving.


picture of a student’s daughter with the coloured drawing contour guide

I really like these drawings, they make such an impact and clearly show that even when working from the same photograph everyone has a different perception and interpretation entirely of their own.

Now the students had to start stitching their own images, with only the contour map for a tonal guide – BUT not before they were shown the technique for stitching the beads straight onto the photographs in a spiral pattern. The photographs had been prepared for this by bonding them onto a specially reinforced paper backing made by brushing a thin card with several coats of a bonding solution.

Marcus draws the stitch diagram for the spiral beading.

The method of attaching the beads ensures an even and straight line of beads that can be manipulated around shallow and eventually tight bends – if you get the tension right.

Beading the photograph starts from outside the face

The maker than has to use their own judgement when to change the tones in the row of 6 beads – so that they cover the face exactly. Not so easy as it first appears. And now it becomes obvious why the beads have to be so tiny. And just one bead needs to be stitched to show the bright reflective point in the eye – this gives the face life…and Marcus says that every beader he has ever taught uses a different colour  or type of bead to represent this point.

I am hoping to show some of the finished pieces at a later date….meanwhile I am trying hard to stop myself from going into my studios and trying my own version of this technique – I will wait till I have an idea that suits the system as it has a lots of potential for enriching my fabric enamel work

Auricula Theatre

Flora Exhibition catalogue cover – Holburne Museum. Bath 2000

In an effort to be topical with the spring here at last, I am posting another of my Flora Embroideries, the Auricula Theatre. A strange idea to display flowers in such an artificial setting, I just had to embroider it – but needed quite a bit of help. In fact after the initial sampling I left the embroidery of all the dozens of tiny petals to my then assistant, Debbie Cripps, and a beautiful job she made of them. All I had to do was design and assemble the whole edifice.

Auricula Theatre illustration by John Farleigh

The theatres actually did exist and originally for a purpose other than display, the curious colours of some of the flowers is due to a farina or flour like substance that coats the leaves and petals giving  them a white or silvery appearance and it can be washed away by rain – so the earliest flowers were often placed under protective coverings. I became intrigued by the auriculas having seen them at spring flower shows – not in theatres but in simple plant pots; even in local church halls they really attract attention – they just don’t look real, they look like someone has painted them in strange colours with stripes and edgings of greens and white and yellows, they look like a child’s drawing of a flower.

black and white auricula at a local flower show

And when they are displayed in modern theatres their various markings can be truly appreciated

modern Auricula theatre

So I set about making one for myself, to become a permanent display. I arranged several of my photographs form the various shows I attended into a staged setting, then set about trying to embroider them.


show photographs arranged as theatre display

first I needed to draw them before I could start to stitch them.

first pastel drawings of flower heads

at first I tried to paint in the backgrounds, really to make things easier and quicker….

painted dye on linen ground with embroidered edgings

They looked OK but didn’t really have the intensity that the real things had, show auriculas look like imploded flowers so intense is their colouring  and perfectly symmetrical their form. I realised that I had to make similar intense embroideries. I started by embroidering individual petals..

my hand stitched samples of individual petals

I decided to try coloured grounds to make life a little easier.

different ground fabric samples

I used gauzes and fine silk grounds so that the made up flowers would not be too heavy but it was a bit of an awesome task even with help with the stitching.

after giving the fabrics and my working samples to my assistant I set to work to develop the theatre.

initial drawing for the embroidered theatre

I know that this drawing is really simple and childlike but it was enough to get me started – I soon realised I had to make a 3D embroidery, so the curtains were  lined and draped and the canopy was held above and projected out beyond the flowers, it was ribbon worked exactly as 17th century embroidered bed hangings.  The earliest auricuals were grown by Flemish silk weavers and eventually shown in special competitions were prizes were awarded, usually a silver cup or spoon. The Flemish silk weavers introduced them into England as early as the 17th century  – so I decided to have curtains made from woven silk brocade that features auriculas ( you can’t say I am not thorough in my research)!

pure silk brocade featuring auricula flowers

The finished embroidery is very 3 dimensional and is densely stitched and draped, it is the one piece of work that everyone wants to buy, probably because it featured on the poster for the exhibition at the Holburne museum in Bath where the whole set of Flora embroideries were first shown in this country. This was in 2000 so this is really old work now – but making this piece made me decide that I needed to start to develop new types of work using different media or techniques or both, this heavy stitched surface is too time-consuming and therefore too costly to sell except to a committed collector or dare I say it – museum? and I have decided not to separate the pieces because they tell a story of how, through trying to perfect nature we can go horribly wrong. I had stitched myself into a corner but I still had quite a few more pieces to complete The Flora set of work.

completed Auricula Theatre


Fingers and arms lasered for translucent vellum

I have become fascinated by skin as a material to work with. This has come about, no doubt, by my recent project to develop a piece of work for Pairings II for the Stroud International Textile exhibition. I used a huge skin that had been prepared as vellum – or parchment –  a hide, possibly reindeer in this case, treated in such a way as to make a smooth, hard, fine grained surface after removing the pelt, either  fur or  hair – don’t let’s forget that all animal leather and suede is simply skin with the fur or hair shaved off.

coloured drawing, dyed, stitched and lasered onto vellum

What is really exciting me about working with vellum is that I can draw onto it as well as stitch into it. There are other things to do with it as well but drawing and stitching really are the backbone of my textile practice, and here is a new material redolent with all sorts of symbolism that I can start to mine. So maybe this will lead to more drawn imagery with stitch to enhance the drawing – not sure yet – but hand stitching this material needs long and slow preparation.

drilling the vellum to stitch it together

Recently I have been working with all types of other skins, mostly calf skins, some with the hair still on…

shaded mottled calf skins

I have done quite a lot of work with fine leather and suede, most recently at a workshop in Finland at the University of Ostrobothnia, at the faculty of Applied Sciences, where I first experienced the large scale sheets of vellum as an option to work with. However I chose metallic leathers, cow hides and farmed fur to create an embroidered seascape, embellished with silver leaf. But I had remembered the large vellum skin and how beautiful it was and so used it for the Daphne Tree metamorphosis piece.

hand stitching fine metallic skins to hide

sample of stitched leather and calf skin

The company who farmed and manufactured the vellum, were generous in sending me a whole skin to work with; it has caused much interest in the exhibition, most people seem to think that vellum is just some esoteric writing-paper and keep asking me where is the animal?

But what is really exciting is that the leader of the Finnish workshop, Basil Kardasis, is conducting another workshop at Heart Space Studios, but  this time using one of the most unusual and beautiful of skins –  fish.

He is introducing this material for a master class for experienced makers, called Surf, Turf and Sky, using fish skins, leathers and feathers – all of which are by-products of the food industry, so think eel….

dyed and stitched eel skins

water snake (they eat these in Scandinavia)……

un-dyed stitched water snake skins

and smaller whole dyed fish skins….like salmon, trout, pike….

dyed salmon and trout skins
and also some specially hand – tanned skins from Sweden, perch, cat fish, and plaice.

a variety of tanned fish skins

the individual skins are small but call out to be combined with other materials to enable us to make fabrics out of them..

tanned catfish

tanned perch

but my favourite fish sample is a tiny single side of Knot, it already appears to be embroidered.

beautiful preserved Knot skin – about the size of a sardine