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….

 

Drawing Drawing Drawing

I use drawing to express myself to myself. I feel that Drawing is the language closest to my heart; my second and most used language after English, followed by the most difficult to have mastered, Stitching. It is the foundation of my chosen discipline of hand-made stitched textiles and almost all my work starts with a drawing, sometimes just a scribble or as a written note, but it will be expressed as a drawing with enough information for me to proceed.

Scribbled thoughts are put down as lists for skies I see when waking up, and on whatever is to hand. The imagery is enough to lead me to another drawing…..

Very occasionally when I work from photographs, I will start an embroidery without a drawing – and it always leads to difficulties as I am torn between the ‘real’ thing as recorded by the camera and my initial vision of it. Basically the drawing is the first edit of the image, it concentrates me on what was important when I first took the photograph, but the camera sees everything and I get seduced too easily by captured colour, and sometimes the colour isn’t the same as my memory.

Below are various single pages from individual sketchbooks – the top 2 are observational drawings taken directly from life, the red in pen and ink is a detail from of my garden, the iris was from a friends garden. The the others are all working /design/ research drawings, (with added photographs of finished brooches)

I keep all my working drawings in a series of books that go back some 40 years! The types of drawings collected in them range from a scribble on the nearest available paper, as above, through to straightforward observational drawings that then get re-arranged or even collaged together

then eventually the detailed working drawings are assembled and kept together, and accompanied by any other research materials.

The images above are open pages of my own research books from different long term projects, they really show the way my mind works, both visually and mechanically.

The 2 pages below are anemone flower drawings made from photographs in a garden magazine many years ago for my Flora embroideries, they have inspired many many different pieces of work in a variety of materials; good drawings have their own energy and life.

a few of the many different works that have been generated directly by the drawings above.

The images above are of vitreous enamel dishes and a silk applique with a machine stitched drawing that plays with the idea of anemones, another name is windflower.

Occasionally I do make finished drawings ready for exhibition.

Three Noh Masks: crayon drawing on paper.

but somehow the stitching seems always to get in on the act.

Sanderlings flight postcard: paper, crayon, silk.

and here are I suppose my most personal drawings ( sad isn’t it) that just arrive onto any page near me, usually when I am talking on the phone to friends and colleagues, and sometimes prospective clients but always when i am fully engaged, they do not arise out of boredom. What is very strange is they have never changed over all the years I have been making them…

jngnhfv

My Comfort Blanket

Affirmative sayings seem to be the philosophy of our times, the be-in-the-here-and-now mindfulness movement. But I have been collecting and pasting all sorts of sayings and mottoes in my work books and on my studio walls for years. Quotations, overheard remarks or messages and even poems from friends sometimes develop into pieces of work, but most often they just serve to enable me to grin and bear with it – see above!

A current favourite was heard when I was mid-way through making the ‘Butterfly Dream Pillow’ – “I am proud of it and I am ashamed of it” immediately struck me as the perfect expression for how I feel about the work I do. I wrote it down on my work-top with the first thing that came to hand – an indelible pink marker! I have read it out to other artists and makers, and they smile and nod in recognition.

A quote from an interview heard on Radio 4 by a musician having just heard his own work played, my heart goes out to him.

It almost made it onto my own Comfort Blanket, which is part of my ongoing work project, Make it Through the Night..and I did write it out along with the ones that have stood the test of time. I wrote all of them onto large scale graph paper so that my own handwriting could be resized, with the idea of stitching them easily. I have had this ‘affirmative sayings’ idea for several years, and for several different media, even as a vitreous enamel patchwork, but never had the time or energy to face making it. In between some commercial projects, late last year I started to make it – piece-meal.

the first attempt at designing the blanket as a strippy quilt with inspiration from an American quilt

Above show the first attempts to design the ‘blanket’ idea as a quilt; the inspirational Strippy Quilt above right is an American design, I love the wobbly lively stripes, like a flying flag. Initially I had considered stitching a vintage wooden blanket, then I realised that heaving around such a large piece of fabric would not be easy for a lot of hand embroidery. I remembered a Strippy Quilt in Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar” by Roderick Kiracoffe, it inspired me to change tack, this way I could stitch the sayings piece-meal and patch them all together at the end; it also meant I didn’t have to decide the order of the quotations immediately.

I started by using some scraps of vintage striped deckchair fabrics, but they were too hard to hand stitch into. I turned to my stash of scrap fabrics, Kaffe Fassett Studio’s lovely subtle shot cottons and woven stripes left over from various quilts that my team have made for his Patchwork and Quilting books were perfect. Very colourful and here very RED, and “the purest and most noble minds are those that love colour”. But not having enough of any one fabric for the background I cut my stripes into strips and joined the clashing shot cotton colours together as a background.

I have a saying that lives with me – a mantra that I recite during my sleepless hours of most nights; it has subtly changed over the years I have used it to still my thoughts, and I can chart my state of mind by what I have decided.

My subtly changed mantra is stitched onto the same set of fabrics, ready to be cut up and placed in the telling positions….
slowly the ‘blanket’ collects more words and becomes unnervingly personal for me; The Reverend Sydney Smith’s sublime epithet for not judging a book by its cover is really barbed, and oooh how many times have I wanted to say this out loud!!!!!
The finalised order pinned together on the quilt wall, tells a story about my working life over the last decade and more……hard to display – but here I am.

Eventually I got them all into order, some sayings were dropped or the blanket would be enormously long I would need to re-design, others were added as they described more succinctly what I wanted to express about how I feel about the work I do. The quotations are all by individuals who have used their life to express themselves, teachers and critics, a bon vivant, a dancer – and me. They are in order from the top, The Rev. Sydney Smith, John Ruskin, Richard Sennett and the last 2 (heavily edited) are by the American dancer Martha Graham. The succinct “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. sums up my husband’s philosophy for living…

Now to the ‘quilting’ or just a system of large straight stitches ‘in the ditch’ of the seams, to hold the the layers together. The finished piece is a tad wobbly, due to my inexpert ‘quilting’. Hey Ho, you can’t do it all!
Each quotation has its owner’s name and dates stitched onto the back of the quilt to be in line with the quotation
The finished piece pinned to my studio wall, waiting to be blocked and pressed;

And ” I am proud of it and I am ashamed of it” – go figure!

My Spooky Wooky Butterfly Dream

Peacock butterfly

It is almost 20 years since I had this disturbingly beautiful dream but I have NEVER forgotten it. Re-visiting my sketch books archive, I found the original drawing that was hastily scribbled down when I thankfully I woke up.

Now, I have decided to complete my long standing/stitching on-going work project “Make it Through the Night“, after not working on it for more than 5 years. I have determined to complete the project to a degree where I can hopefully resolve it but so as not have it in my brain as frustrating “unfinished business”. I just can’t ignore it any more…. too much of me resides in it; and as the composer Gustav Holtz puts it ” Compose nothing unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance”

The initial drawing , above left, is dated 28th July 03; the second drawing is another later version when I was trying to make a composition for a stand-alone embroidery….. now I have decided to add it to the ‘dream pillows‘ and I need a different composition. Recently looking very carefully at the 2 drawings I realised I had completely forgotten that the butterfly had a face – YIKES!

In the actual dream it was a giant butterfly several yards/metres wide, dying and lying on some grass underneath a tree, the remnants of wings scattered round it. People were picking up the large technicoloured pieces of shattered wing and I really wanted some as well – but I thought I would get it something to drink first, then decided to pick it up and take it to a nearby puddle, the result was my butterfly covered hands…I abruptly woke up.

I started to research the ways on which I could have held the massive butterfly. I looked at many different British butterflies and chose the Peacock mainly because it was so colourful but it has eyes as well – one of the major symbols I use in my work. Every year we get smaller butterflies over-wintering in the house but these beauties are rare here.

moving around with the photocopied cut out hand shapes to find interesting enlarged wing patterns to embroider.

I enlarged the first peacock butterfly image and cut out my hand shapes…next I had to add the patterns to enable me to stitch the whole hands……the original working drawings below with a a technical sample that I would use for the very complicated patterned hands. I decided to paint dye onto the ground first to give me guidance for the colour blending and to assess the amount of work I would have to manage.

Next I had to imagine the shattered butterfly – I tried many variations; the shape had to show a degree of violence and some direct connection in the shapes left after my hands had devastated it, because it shows the terrible result for the insect…

I drew the hand outlines and running stitched them, then drew my palmistry lines on each hand and painted dye within the lines and fixed it securely – all of this before I could start stitching, which I was itching to do …..

2 images above show the first and last day’s stitching of the hands. I started this project in early August and now it was late September – I needed to move onto the butterfly now…

working from my research drawings, I drew and embroidered the main area of the butterfly and then placed paper shapes to act as the shattered wings to make some connection to my hands.

It was at this point that something strange started to happen….I found a trapped Peacock butterfly in the window of my studio, I was delighted, I had never seen one of these in the house; the weather was still warm, so I let him go….

But then more and more Peacocks came into the studio, and in different areas of the house… in all we had 11 different Peacocks visit us. SPOOKY WOOKY……

Sadly some of them died indoors and I keep them in m studio – they are all in different conditions; some very tattered wings and faded colour but others still beautiful.

my small collection of some of the autumn visitors I think there is another embroidery here……

so I eventually finished the pillow, completed the writing in running stitch and it is ready to join the Make it Through the Night project.

the finished Butterfly Dream Pillow.

Stitching on a Roof Tile!

The Curzon Cinema in Clevedon, North Somerset, https://www.curzon.org.uk is my favourite (actually our only) local cinema; it looks and feels like the picture houses of my childhood in the 1950’s. (photograph above courtesy of Go Bath Bristol) Saved by the community from total dereliction some years ago, it now has a major problem, the roof is leaking and needs major money for repairs. So there was a call – out for local artists to help – decorate an old roof-tile in any way whatsoever ………and they are being auctioned on line next month from 1st December 2019.

the headland of the Kilkenny Bay seen from our house and garden, on late sunny evenings…utterly magical.

The central curve reminded me of the the headland at the end of the bay where I live, Battery Point, on the Severn estuary, fanciful I know but I have many drawings of this view and have made many different types of work from the studies.

I tried many variations of colour scapes from my earlier drawings. I liked the glistening nylon shot fabric for the water, trouble is that the water of this estuary is never a deep true blue, air-force blue is as good as it gets. For some reason I started with the lump on the left…so the view was of the other end of the bay where the sun sets and all the colour emerges from…but it wasn’t working for me – then one morning I just changed it around so it looked like the Battery Point headland…I was suddenly on home ground..or should I say water?

I added the salt marsh fabric, a piece of green and orange shot cotton is the perfect colour of the marsh when the late afternoon sun lights it up in the autumn – the rest of the sky and sea seem purple in comparison.

The task now was to organise the layout of the fabrics so that they would lie in straight lines when they were eventually placed onto the undulating tile …this took some calculations as the tile is wedge shaped but the sea level and the salt- marsh horizons are straight….

I start to running stitch the sky …..but I have decided against the brilliant blue sea I hid it under a translucent layer of silk!

I used the simple running stitches of Kantha technique for this appliqué, I have to get the fabrics to stay together in a soft and malleable form so that I can easily manipulate the fabric over the lumpy tile.

I continue to stitch down the length of the tile – it takes several days but as always fascinating to handle the colour changes. The stitching is quite large and almost crude using a heavy gauge silk thread but very satisfying to do; usually when working this technique I use one single thread of silk and it takes ages and ages to cover the ground

As I continued to stitch the colours became muted and now the once brilliant orange sky was being challenged by the bright green of the salt- marsh; reluctantly I changed the fabric after several different variations of shot cottons had been tried, but there is enough going on in this small space as it is – hey ho!

eventually the finished piece is ready to be mounted onto the tile covered in wadding.

I then covered the tile in a layer of very thin wadding, sticking it down with thins lines of fabric glue so that I could continue to embroider the silk piece to it. I have evolved this technique for covering 3D shaped objects over many years of trial and error but this was a real challenge.

Having aligned the top of the stitching to the top of the tile I tacked it into position, then pinned it all along the undulations…it’s really tricky work trying to keep the horizon lines straight…all those years of pattern cutting came into play! The top and bottom were secured by over stitching onto the back of the tile wadding, pulling and stretching as I proceeded eventually it was securely stitched and bedded into position.

I am really liking the feel of the tile now it is so softly padded and am thinking of possibly making some more stitched covers for other objects – one day. Meanwhile my husband Stephen Jacobson, has painted another view of the estuary using the imprint of the tile manufacturer as a flag with a view of the band stand at Clevedon. And artist Alfred Stockham has painted eyes to create a curious face and called it ” The Man in the IronMask “

All the 40 odd tiles are for auction on the curzon.org.uk/art-on-the-tiles.

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……

Appliqué Flowers Workshop

hand hem stitched sample of Broderie Perse as sewn on the original quilt

As part of the activities developed for the current Kaffe Fassett exhibition at  the American Museum in Britain I am giving 2 separate day workshops to make a small panel of hand appliqué flowers. I am supplying the same fabrics used for the large scale appliquéd quilt that I made for Kaffe to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Kaffe visits his present in the quilt room at the American Museum

I started the day by taking all the participants to the museum’s Quilt Room to see the original quilt and explained some of the techniques we would cover. I explained my technique of hand stitching over the raw edges of the bonded motifs, which is easier than the original way of turning a small hem and stitching onto the panel. They were asked to design their own version of the appliquéd flower and shell panels – but not the central Kaffe portrait.

Kaffe Fassett Collective fabrics bonded with heat transfer papers

I had prepared a whole sheaf of flowered fabric by pressing heat transfer paper onto the backs of them so they were ready to cut out. I also took the remaining motifs I had cut, but not used, from my quilt. Plus a selection of different coloured squares of Shot Cotton for the backgrounds, these I backed with a woven cotton interlining to strengthen them for appliqué to be sewn without a stretcher or hoop.

Everyone had to choose their own back ground fabric first, this makes finding colours for the individual flowers easier; I know how daunting it is to have so much choice. But they soon got going on the cutting and placing….

The first thing I noticed was that most people put far too many flowers onto the fabric squares with odd gaps between. I had to keep reminding them that this was to be a hand- stitched appliqué and to think about the work involved to finish the stitching later at home….. but even so most people favoured lots and lots of flowers, below shows some work in progress.

After the basic shapes were developed extra flowers could be found in the spare fabrics I had brought, and people could bond and press motifs individually to balance or fill up their basic design. Several people worked as I do and changed their designs a great deal during the design process until they were about satisfied.

Other people had very organised workspaces (very unlike me) and I enjoyed seeing their beautifully laid out tables with all necessary equipment to hand. They seemed to progress steadily and surely, with only a small tweak or suggestion of a different fabric from me

a work table set out with cut motifs and a camera ready to record a successful design

eventually all the designs were organised; some really interesting designs were arrived at by chopping and changing until the last minute…

but eventually everyone had to commit to trimming,

very very carefully trimmed stalks and petals ready to be bonded

then tracing around places with a water soluble pen, before pressing the whole design into position.

and then after a quick demonstration from me – start to stitch it.

a range of embroidery cottons chosen to tone in with the fabric colours are ready to appliqué

They all were very skilled at this very precise stitching, a relief as poor work at this point can ruin all the meticulous care taken after this really intense design stage.

At the end of the afternoon session there was a lovely and varied set of designs and some were already being stitched – with promises from the rest that they would definitely finish them.

the whole ten class participants with their own ready-to stitch appliqué designs.

And for anyone who is interested in joining the next workshop – it is on Saturday September 21st 2019.

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