Stitching a Sky

Pastel drawing of dramatic cloud hanging over the Welsh coast seen at dawn one Sunday in February 2020…Something wicked this way comes?

I want to show how my stitched work progresses; here is a very heavily edited set of images taken over the last 2 months – from July through to the end of August 2022. Not shown is the unpicking, pulling apart already stitched fabrics and rearranging that leads to frustration and doubt but mixed with delight, calm contemplation and my eventual recognition that, having captured my original vision of this ominous sky, I can stop working on it. The drawing above took less than 1 hour, the piece shown below, more than 8 weeks…..

Week 1

The first stages were quite tricky to lay out using strips of silk georgette onto a pale cotton ground, that had to be kept scrupulously clear of stray threads while building the applique ground.

Week 2

By the end of the second week I had managed to cut the clouds and baste them all into position, then I checked them against my original drawing. The tiny sample of energetic Kantha quilting inspired the way I attempted to stitch the cloud.

Week 3

I started the running stitches in rows of single silk threads to create an undulating rippled surface. After a few unhappy days I stopped stitching, undid as little as i could get away with and inserted more pieces of rust coloured silk organza to give the cloud ‘depth’. The chalk drawing, above right, shows the paths I need to stitch along; I think stitching rhythms into cloth by using the Kantha technique is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time – tricky!

Weeks 4 & 5

I was determined to use this piece of work to try to find a way of controlling the outer edges of the appliqued fabrics; usually when I make very large drifting Kantha Stitched Skies I leave them to be contained and wrapped out of sight when stretching the finished work. But here the view is much smaller as this black cloud did not extend the whole length of the estuary – it faded out just beyond my window frame. I looked at Georges Seurat (who is a great influence on the way I have developed the colour mixing within my stitched work) and adapted his painted canvas frames – his dots are my stitches ). And eventually the marsh starts to emerge, using large straight slanting stitches

Weeks 6 & 7

However as the stitching progresses the different tensions start to exert itself onto the fabric – where the stitches are close together the fabric width starts to shrink, which is to be encouraged as this gives the curious patterns that I feel are so like air currents…. So the side borders are unpicked and the the whole embroidery is squared up. When I had almost finished stitching I outlined the whole piece using a machine stitch to give me a better guide for the dozens of running stitched lines for the frame.

The finished work “The Dark Cloud” approx.18in ( 45cm) square

My Last Dream Pillow: Don’t Look Down

          don’t look down!

These rapid drawings below are early attempts to express one of my most vivid dreams lest I ever forget it…. But the dream was not ready to be forgotten, it has reoccured often in one form or another – evidently I have not learned its message; the loosening ladder rungs and the tiny impossible blue window never change

the earliest drawing above on the left has some written comments that I was interested in using for the embroidery also I seem to have both shoes on; the one on the right is scaled up for embroidering on a sheet! What was I thinking?

Here I am again some years later ( the shoes are getting looser) climbing out of the chaos of my scribbled darning designs for a book that eventually never got published!!!!! with a burning heart to the right and no way back down that ladder. Circa 1998.

So I recently decided to embroider it as a pillow for my ongoing project Make it Through the Night . It is a simple idea and my friends who saw the drawing were highly amused by me in my nightdress losing my shoes…but I started this piece just before the lockdown and now I see it in a very different light.

The most recent drawing I made using a photograph of me in my nightshirt climbing on a chair.
drawing now traced straight onto the pillowcase in water soluble pen – all the drawings alongside

The interpretations of dream referring to ladders are many and varied depending if you are climbing up or down, and a broken rung (just the one) means “you will never achieve your greatest ambitions” while “to lose a shoe is indicative that you have forgotten something important ” or “finding your direction in life difficult” – and as to the lack of underclothes whilst climbing a very high wall in your nightshirt……

I found stitching the ladder the most challenging piece of work, a vintage pillow has only a limited space for inserting embroidery hoops and working straight onto fine linen needs stretching. I preferred to use some natural linen yarns and whip them into position making a more fluid line – finding knots and drawing them became a fascination.

above are the various ways I managed to stitch the ladder into position, with and without a stretcher.

Now to the window: in some dreams it is impossibly teeny tiny, in others I get to go through it – only to find a steep and shaky descent on the other side into more blueness, the one thing always in common is that it is always a brilliant and shining deep blue

the background of the sky is painted with cotton dye, then embroidered in silk threads, it is high up in the farthest corner of the pillow case

and here it is finished – washed, starched and pressed as a proper piece of Household Linen

I feel now that it makes its own statement without the added words; and why should it balance? I mean, what am I describing?

AND it is only after finishing this that I see this is a perfect portrait of how I feel right now – just coming out of the strictest lockdown period….uncanny!

However, we were well into the current lockdown before I had found the impetus to finish this work. And while stitching I realised that I just wanted to stop this whole project that excavates very personal ideas, dreams, mottoes, and observations….I did have more ideas that I planned to stitch, but now I no longer want to make them. It has taken me over 10 years, off and on, to get here.

Now I aim to celebrate….

 

Designing Stitched Cushions

the very elegant cover of the new Ehrman Tapestry catalogue,

Another commission has just been published, yippee! I have something new to write about. I first started the designs for this catalogue last year when Hugh Ehrman asked me to make some new designs using affirmative sayings. The mottoes and sayings come directly from the handkerchiefs in my ongoing if intermittent work ‘Make it Though the Night’ https://janethaighherwork.com/gallery/gallery/heart-mending-mottoes/. I have a great stock of them in my research folders. I offered several different mottoes, Hugh wanted 4 cushion designs, but asked me to make 2 to start with, he chose ” Always be Kinder than is Necessary “ and I chose my old favourite ” Choose Your Attitude”.

I looked at a copy of one of my go-to magazines for current graphic ideas, FLOW, it is clean, colourful, fresh and very of the moment. I really liked this hot pastel colour mix on the cover and the sense of energy in the design. I started with Hugh’s choice and started to chart several alphabets from various sources. I already had a layout in mind inspired by the strips of words with the abstract shapes as background…

The first scribbled designs were dependant on the different types of lettering I could find to stitch to the right scale (I have tried to find the wonderful curly alphabet, above, that I downloaded, but sadly now can’t locate , and I snipped out the necessary contact information along with the letters I cut out for charting. As it is used in both the designs – a big thank you if anyone out there recognises it and can give me a source).

Slowly through sample stitching various letter forms and different gauges of canvas, the design emerged and the colour developed into something softer and kinder. When designing for this company I am directed to use particular range of wools Appletons they come in 2 versions, Crewels ( 2 ply yarns) and Tapestry( 4 ply yarns). I keep a separate section of my studio cupboards just for them.

the studio drawers full of colour co-ordinated Appletons’ Yarns.

When I have sorted the basic graphic layout I develop the designs using colour, co-ordinating the yarns to my drawings. This is always tricky getting the colour balance and many designers sensibly just stitch the entire design – but I don’t work like this as I am more used to envisioning the designs by painting them full scale so that the original art work can be printed on the canvas for the cushion to be stitched. the art work has to be the same scale as the eventual embroidery.

I make many drawn and coloured versions of the idea and finally choose one to work up as the final piece but even so things can change at this point as well. Having chosen the design I then put it aside, partly to leave a few days to see it afresh, but usually to start on any other designs before committing myself to the task of painting them both – together.

choice of letters echoes the choice of attitude – the beginning of the next cushion

The next cushion was an easier design to construct and I had already sorted out lots of different alphabets to use, I wanted to express different ‘attitudes ‘ by using various typefaces – now all I had to do was choose and re-size them to fit together…ha ha! here you see cut and paste in it’s literal sense.

above are several versions of different letters words and colours and the stitching sampler for the 2 cushions with the start of the third one ……I always love the energy contained in the stitching samplers…so much enquiry, curiosity and abandoned ideas – all ready for future use if my ideas run dry.

looking at a beautiful source of overall colour, what better than these spring flowers – I brought them up to my studio and selected the yarns to match them.

so far so good – but now having decided the brilliant colours of the letters I wanted to make a very strong overall design, I liked the striped ground ..but it was difficult for the dancing letters of ATTITUDE to be read against it – I tried many many stripes – here are just a few.

Whatever I did, the stripes just dominated and were inspiring migraine in me. Whilst there was no major deadline for this work, as the Ehrman website is the major source for publishing now and things can be uploaded at any given time, I needed to get on and finish the first half of this commission.

the 2 final designs (more or less) on my studio wall ready to be painted for the art work that I eventually send to the company

I decided to just start to paint. Painting art work is a slow and precise process, mixing the Gouache to the colour of each yarn is fascinating work, and takes time and I have to make enough paint for a whole design, it takes a lot of paint to cover the ground evenly – I do not want to run out of a colour before I finish .

when I eventually start painting , I have pans of each colour mixed for each yarn used and I keep them fresh for a few days by wrapping them up in polythene to keep the gouache from drying out.

When I had finished painting the letters I now had to decide on the stripes to use…but it looked so fresh and spring like that I decided, much against my designer instinct, as I love pattern on pattern, to keep it neutral. Part of this decision was the thought of the customer who may eventually buy this design – they will surely buy it for the message – so keeping the letters clear was the most important aspect.

the 2 finished art works with accompanying colour notations and threads. And below the finished pieces ( which I never get to see!) taken from the latest paper based catalogue.

the next 2 designs will hopefully appear in time for the new on- line website that Ehrman have been developing and I will post them as a celebration of its birth next month – or whenever they are published – so watch this space……

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 https://youtu.be/hHJwjynPY9U 

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

Embroidering a Pansy in 3 dimensions

stitched pansy in silk thread- Libby Butler

Stitching  3 dimensional flowers is a strange mix of observational drawing, refined stitching and alchemy; the transition of the flat stitched petals freed from their background and applied to form a flower is slightly surreal. I developed this particular skill while making the Flora Embroideries, using the pansy to metamorphose into different forms to develop faces.

winter flowering pansies

I had been asked by a regular Heart Space Studio student and volunteer, Libby Butler, to teach her to stitch a 3 dimensional pansy – her favourite flower, and knowing that she was a skilled embroiderer I agreed. What I did not know was if she could draw the flowers from life; this is the first essential stage as learning to select the colours and study the growth lines of the petals is most important to develop natural petal patterns – and looking really carefully to draw each petal really concentrates the mind for the stitching that follows.

selected pansy and the drawing equipment

Libby looked a little nervous when I handed her the jars of crayons after selecting her pansy – however after a nervous start she achieved a simple working drawing from which we could establish petal shapes and colourings, now to move to the fabrics….

simple drawing of the Pansy face

Now to the fabrics – first a thin silk fabric was selected and the individual petals from the drawing were traced onto it in pencil,  a light dye was then applied with a paintbrush to give a background colour.

dyeing the background fabric for the petals

When the dye was dry, a heat transfer fabric adhesive was ironed onto the back of the fabric and each petal was cut out and ironed onto a very fine silk gauze and placed in a small embroidery hoops ready for embroidery – the edge of the silk petal means that the stitches have very strong definition which will be needed later for cuttung out. The silks were matched to the drawing colours and using one strand only, the embroidery was started…

embroidering the individual painted silk petals

Libby worked one  whole petal (see above) by the end of the first day of the 2 day workshop, she then had 1 week to complete the rest of the petals…..she took the drawing home to work from – the drawing is what she is following not the real flower – this is why the drawing needs to be really carefully observed

stitched work brought in to the second session

On her return I found that she needed to work a fine blending thread over the transition between the dark purple and light yellow of the pansy to make it look natural but this was quickly achieved – attention needs to be given for the direction of  all the stitches so that they follow the lines of growth of the petal – but it is easy to see in bi-coloured pansies.

the embroidered petals are cut out

Once the embroidery was complete, the back of the fabrics was once again bonded with heat transfer adhesive and each petal cut out leaving a small area of surrounding silk. Each  petal was then pressed from the back while being stretched around the its edge, this sets the stitches and gives a very life – like undulation to the petal edge – but the stitching needs to be very dense to allow this to happen…..then taking courage in both hands the extra fabric is VERY carefully cut away – the bonding keeps the threads in place.

holding the back petal snipped and waiting to be pressed.

Now the flower formation can begin. On a fresh and final background fabric the original drawing was traced using a water-soluble pen, then each petal is embroidered into position starting from the back, only the middle area needs to be attached – the petals must be left free from the ground

attaching the petals to form the flower

The actual assembly does not take very long but it must be carefully structured so that each petal overlaps the one below it, the original drawing is again of vital importance to this process.

work in progress with an old embroidered sample we used as a stitching guide

Eventually each petal is placed and the inside edges of the of the petals are  is built up and over-sewn and a single central stitch finishes it – Da Da!

the final flower seen against the original drawing