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