Stitched Enamelled Skies

One week on and I have finally finished stitching the sky samplers. The work has made me reconsider my initial ideas and now I am thinking how to develop this new work. I have envisaged these pieces for several months and thought that I knew how they would look, but these samples are not working as well as I imagined. I am not sure if this is just a matter of scale, they are quite small – one is 15x60cms and the other 15x90cms, other enamel panels I have made using this stitched technique are much bigger and have more presence. So I probably need to leave them alone and view them in a few days/weeks time to gauge my reaction. But I did make several decisions that I am certain about.

I decided to keep the stripes in different widths, as opposed to the same size blocks as in commercial  colour charts, but I am not sure that I need so many stripes as more interesting effects may be gained by the gradation of the colours in one stripe – so the yellow sky stripe would be wider and go from rich coral pink through apricot to yellow to cream. but I will loose the lovely slinky movement of the strips, I will need to sample further…..

But these samples are successful in giving me the technical information I need:- an initial colour gamut to work from – I made the same size sample into a the colour reference with each recipe on the back. The glossy surface of the enamel has been chemically treated to make it matte, this also softens and distances the colours.

I decided that the actual stitching will be uniform throughout as in the sample on the left, and to use only copper coloured wires, from pale to dark, to unify the stitching; and I tested to find the best gauge of wire to use. So I ordered  more wire from the Scientific Wire Company web site and it came in time for me to complete the work within my self imposed deadline of a week.

When stitching the pieces with the wire, I did consider whether I was actually stitching or threading – but why do I want to stitch this particular work – is it because I just want to make enamel fabric to this format again? The original stitched strip enamel hangings can be seen in the Gallery section of the blog.

By chance I have just received a new paint chart, the idea that first made me see a way of using my original sky drawings, and  I realised that what is so alluring here are those perfect rectangles of pristine colour, whether in paint, silk or woolen threads they give us a sense of order and are in fact complete entities in themselves.

So how will my simple strips of colour give the impression of a whole sky and why do I want to do this? to contain it? to claim it? to make a version of it for myself, in a size I can manage? The sky is limitless, I am trying to convey the beauty of the colour in a tiny fragment -or does it need to be big – on the scale of a window? Maybe I should make a whole series of different striped skies and hang them side by side as in the chart layout?

So here it is – the dilemma of  making your own work from your own ideas – do you allow the work a life of its own and let it lead you where it will or do you stay faithful to your original idea and ignore all the possibilities that making affords you?  At present the sky samples fall between these 2 options, which is why I am not sure how to continue just yet. And significantly it is being developed just as an idea, not a product as yet. I have heard writers talk of the characters in their novels who suddenly take on their own life and guide the story, is this what I need to let happen?

Anyone got anything to say to me about this?

Enamelling Skies

enamel studio with colour chart and everything neat and clean ready to start firing in the small kiln

I took advantage of the first dull day in recent weeks to start enamelling the cut copper samples for the Sky project. My enamel studio is based in an old conservatory- simply because this was the only space suitable to house the larger kiln and the required water and electricity supplies on the ground floor – but it faces south and gets very hot and even hotter when the kilns are firing, so I tend to enamel in cooler weather

sample copper blanks laid out ready for firing

I had drawn up several colour studies for this work as I am not sure whether I want to have the stripes of the sky sized in relation to the drawings or seen simply as a colour chart – hence the 2 sets of samples opposite. Each sample had been cut, drilled and cleaned in preparation for firing, now I had to make up the colour recipes from one of my sky studies shown in the previous blog, Severn Seas Skies. What I find fascinating about enamel and what drew me to want to make this work is that using several transparent colours over different ground colours it is possible to achieve subtle and glowing tones, perfect for describing the coloured air of the sky. The sky I chose to work from is the first sky on the left of the picture below, plenty of scope to run through a gamut of contrasting colours.

sketches of dawn skies from 2009

The actual colour chart that I worked from can be seen below, it is as close as I can make using my pastel crayons which can be blended into many subtle shades. I will have to buy some more enamels later when I start the big pieces but meanwhile I work with what I have, this way I can discover some interesting outcomes and learn a lot. Making colour with enamel is not the same as using any paint I work with, I suspect it is like using glazes in tempera or certain types of oil paints, but I find it most like silk screen-printing which can be used for the over printing of transparent colours.

color chart hanging in studio window

One of the things to get used to with enamel is imagining the colours before you have fired them, some pale colours are just white in powder form, and sometimes different batches of the same colour  look totally different in the packages than the last batch you worked with – they always fire the well enough though. But it takes a long time to get used to all of this specially if you are a colour-control-freak.

colour difference between cold and hot enamel, the old flat iron is to keep the plates from bowing when cooling, I found this one after a long search round junk shops - like 'Wagon Wheels', it looked a lot smaller than I remembered.

I try to write the colour recipes down as I develop them, the scribbled notes can be seen below showing the half way stage of the sampling session.

midway through the enamelling with written recipes, colours, firing times and sieve meshes observed

By the end of enamelling I have the 2 sets of samples and the recipes are sorted, but one unexpected and useful thing is that the 2 colours I made for the muddy water of the estuary are similar to a paint sample I was given for a commission to make a set of door plates, the hellebore doorplate is shown next to the colours below…..and most poetically, the enamels that make up this particular mud shade are called Sandlewood, Blue Ruby and Rose.

finished sample colours and hellebore door plate in tones of "Portishead Mud"

Now my next task is to decide the colour and thickness of the  wires for  stitching the plates together to form a panel; the first idea of muted blues and greens isn’t working…..and I feel I may need to get rid of the shine – I will keep you posted on my progress.

Sample stitching with coloured wires.

Fabric Enamel/Enamel Fabric

fabric enamel heart

I am slowly including all my recent stitched work into the blog. Sorting through the Embroidered Enamels for the Gallery Pages I thought I should show the research underpinning what has become a main preoccupation for me, enamel fabric or fabric enamel  – whichever way round – they are difficult, expensive and time consuming to make but I will never tire of developing them.

first page of enamel research work book

The first pages of my enamel research book show how I referenced fabrics to pattern and construct the strips of enamelled copper to look and behave like fabric. This now looks very focused and organised, but I only remember being absolutely lost amidst the wealth of ideas and accompanying technical information I was having to assimilate. The temperatures of the kiln were mind numbing; I cook on an AGA so have no idea of any cooking temperatures, what exactly does 800 degrees feel like – pretty damned hot – more to the point, an open kiln at that temperature looks scary as well.

workbook page of stitched copper plate and mesh samples

At the research department at UWE. Bristol I was surrounded by researchers into enamel who were were making such exciting and unusual things and I didn’t realize at the time that I was working with enamellers at the forefront of innovation into this craft,  and I was being given the chance to develop textile techniques within their research area. I was both excited and daunted but decided to stick with what I knew, stencilling and stitching. I used lace, Broidery Anglaise, crochet, any fabric that was patterned with hole and I drilled holes in the metal plates, prior to enamelling, in order to stitch. I hated this drilling; to stitch even moderately neatly you have to drill very neatly and you have to sort out all the placements first…my work books are full of stitch diagrams ….so how else can I get these plates onto the fabric without the drilling?

enamelled copper shapes appliqued as shisha mirrors onto drawn - thread worked heavy linen ground

metallic leather applique and cut work sample

It ocurred to me that the small metal shapes were like shisha mirrors, found on Indian fabrics so I started to applique them into position using this technique. Fabric grounds were really too lightweight to carry the metal shapes and when they are heavy enough they become very coarse so I tried other materials; the metallic leathers were the most successful and I have several large hides waiting for an opportunity to be decorated. Meanwhile I decided  look at metal fabrics which, being woven, are more amenable to being worked like traditional textiles.

work book with drawn thread and insertion stitched samples

I bought some amazing woven metal fabrics from The Cloth Clinic, the owner – and at the time a fellow researcher at UWE Bristol, Janet Stoyel – let me buy some of her specially woven fabrics –  sadly no more were made available to me after this. But I used these particular fabrics to make a series or samples based on traditional white work sewing. The  embroidered scrap of copper below is from this collection of metals as are most of the metal fabric samples in the work books; although some of these metals are available elsewhere the Cloth Clinic’s fabrics are really special and worth looking our for. But cost and unavailability of these metal fabrics made me rethink how I could develop these ideas, I even thought of taking up weaving some for myself from copper and steel wire on a small frame…still a possibility…….

scrap of copper fabric with drawn thread work and printed foil.

Eventually, after about 18 months I felt confident to design and make a stainless steel, white enamel sampler .It is based on white-work traditional embroidery designs  and vintage fabrics have been used as stencils. The different colours are made by heat reacting with the copper at different temperatures of the individual kiln firings and only white enamels were used for this. The applique and shisha techniques were again used and the ground has  had drawn – thread – work worked into it – very hard on both the eyes and the fingers – the stitching is in steel and copper wire.

larger enamelled copper and stainless steel white work sampler

upside down detail of steel sampler.

detail of enamelled copper mesh heart - well what other emblem did you expect to find?

Another idea which I had also been developing is patchwork enamel, I had quickly worked out that this was the easiest way to produce enamel fabric, but the thought of drilling all those holes to stitch the plates together, put me off – but now I was used to working with the metals so I returned to a small sample I had made in the first year of my enamelling experiments.

patchwork enamel sampler stitched and embroidered in wire.

I made a larger and simpler version of the sample above and the piece of fabric is about 90cms square, a yard of fabric.The separate plates are stencilled and then stitched together with white coated copper wire, suddenly I had a piece of  fabric that draped when held in my hands. Below is the page from my research book with one of the stretched crocheted fabrics used to stencil patterns onto the copper plates.

workbook record of first large patchwork enamel fabric panel

I looked again at other types of samplers which could be developed into drape- able fabrics…this small design below was for embellishing espadrilles in a book I had written called White on White by Coats Crafts UK now sadly out of print. I developed a strip sampler as with this type of construction the stitched strips of enamel can be rolled and it behaves much more like fabric, this led me to many more developments, one of which will be used for the Severn Seas Skies hangings featured in the last posting on the blog.

small sample for espadrille decoration

workbook page of stitched strip samples for white work patchwork.

The size of the copper strips has recently become much larger as I have experimented with the amount of weight that the rows of stitched wire can carry. I can eventually make very large sheets of fabric using this method, at present they are about 2 metres long but only 34 cms. wide, this is all my small kiln will accomadate, but I could get up to half a metre wide in my large kin – it would weigh an awful lot though.

trying out stencil designs for the Black Work Patchwork hanging

detail of top of Black Work Patchwork, with stitched and stencilled enamel.