Thursday, 8 October 2020


Who or what is a Kaitlyn?

It's 2017, and she's a who. Kaitlyn is the grand-daughter of the lovely woman who cleans my Dad's house. So how did I get involved in making something for her? It's a bit of a convoluted story.
'Gran', as I'll call her, is only supposed to do the heavy cleaning, but we all know that she spends longer with Dad and does more for him than she gets paid for. Elder Brother, otherwise referred to as The Major Domo was trying to find some indirect reward that she might accept as a recognition of this. Had we any ideas? Well I did.

Occasionally, when across to visit him in my capacity as Head Gardener (for those who remember The Herbs, they call me Bayleaf) 'Gran' would be there and we would chat about all sorts of things. She was fascinated that I embroidered and knew stuff about Japanese things as Kaitlyn was 'into' Japanese things and was decorating her room in a Japanese sort of style, loved Kimono and so on. It was coming up to a Birthday (or maybe it was Christmas) and 'Gran' was trying to find something in a Japanese style for Kaitlyn who wanted 'a Japanese Scroll' to decorate her wall. I suggested to The Major Domo that I could stitch a scroll using Japanese embroidery techniques, which 'Gran' could give Kaitlyn as a unique gift.
Offer made, offer accepted.

First, of course, I had to come up with a design. I decided that a simple scroll with her name in a Japanese script would be just the thing. I looked up her name on a few translation sites and found Kaitlyn in Kanji and Katakana. It looked very 'heavy' in Kanji, but the Katakana had a lighter feel to it, more suited for a young girl (she was just approaching her teens). 
Translated, Kaitlyn means 'purity' so my design had to have a clean and unencumbered look. I looked at name 'chops', which led me to the idea of a simple border in red with the Katakana in black, edged with couched silver, on a white background.
I drew out my design and offered it to TMD.

"Go for it," he said
I did. I decided that the best fabric to use would be Shioze as it is quite heavy, but easy to stitch on (the prominent weave helps with maintaining the angles of the stitches). Then I had to frame up. As I had intended from the start, this was to be stitched in the manner of Traditional Japanese Embroidery, so the cotton end pieces had to be stitched to the silk Shioze and then wound drum tight and stretched on the frame. Once the silk was mounted, I made a stencil of the design on tracing paper and attached it using magnets while I copied a running stitch outline of the design.

If you've never seen one before, the frame may look a little different to what you're used to. The point is to keep the silk as tight as possible during the stitching process, so the rollers at the end are split to give added grip and the fabric is stitched along the sides to ensure that it is well stretched. Incidentally, Traditional Japanese Embroidery is worked from the side.
Having transferred the pattern, 

I was ready to start stitching.
Following the rules, I began with the Katakana. These were stitched in black flat silk which was either worked as flat silk or twisted by hand by me where I wanted to use a twisted silk. Each symbol was worked in a different stitch.

Then the border was added. The tissue paper is there to protect the embroidery. It always ends up a bit tatty and torn as I only uncover that part of the piece I am working on in that stitching session.

Then the silver was couched round each of the Katakana, and gold on the inside and outside of the border.

And still it wasn't finished. 

When the stitching is done, the frame gets turned over for the first time. The manner of starting and ending threads in Traditional Japanese Embroidery means that there is no weaving through the back, and no big knots. Once it's on its back it needs to be starched, steamed and dried. This has to be done very carefully as the starch should only go on the back of the embroidery, otherwise it might stain the fabric.

The finishing touch, once it was off the frame, was to turn it into a scroll by attaching it to some heavy (furnishing) fabric and a hanger.

It took me 60 hours to design and stitch Kaitlyn, which measures approximately 14" x 24". I enjoyed working on it as much as I enjoyed the look of pleasure on "Gran's" face when I gave it to her.

Also, 'Gran' comes up trumps by providing an absolutely unique present.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Dynamic Sisters and Handbags

 Still in New Orleans, I took three classes. 

The first was "Dynamics of Teaching", led by Val McAleenan. Unsurprisingly it was about teaching Needlepoint. I'm not sure that I will ever teach embroidery in a formal way, but I thought it would be interesting to hear a teacher talk about the inter-relationships that happen in an embroidery class. As someone who has in the past trained people in basic IT skills and IT Security (and who tries to be a good boy in class), I was aware of the different types of students found in the business environment, and was, in a way not surprised to find that all of the same types attend embroidery classes. The big difference is that in a business environment the attendee has generally been sent, while in a Needlepoint class, the attendee has chosen to be there and has paid good $$$ for the privilege, so the way you treat the difficult or disruptive has to be, if not different, perhaps a bit more patient. 
I've done a little ad-hoc teaching since then, and I always let my student or students work at their own pace. You can't do this is a class of more than four or five, so you, as the teacher, have to be prepared to sit after class with the slower stitcher to make sure they know what they're doing and how to do it. I don't think there can be anything worse for a student than to be sitting without an idea of what to do. 
At one point it brought back to my memory my first French lesson. As usual, having returned from holiday in Singapore, I ended up in the school hospital for a week. Long story, put briefly, I had an allergy to the school issue vests which made me come out in spots, which the school assumed was some evil foreign disease I had picked up in the mysterious East, so I was hauled off to the school hospital for two weeks. Having been released, one of my first classes was French, of which I had absolutely no knowledge. The teacher (an ex-Polish cavalryman of WWII vintage) immediately rounded on this new face and asked me a question - in French. I had no idea. I shrugged, said I didn't understand, he got angry, he shouted at me. It took me some moments to understand that he was actually speaking English - yes, his English accent was like something out of a bad comedy movie. I became, in his eyes, the class failure, and from then on I dreaded French.
Lesson? Take care how you speak to students. A few badly chosen words can destroy confidence in seconds.
I hated French from that moment, but I'd like to put it on record that I had great respect for 'The Wee Pole' as he was nicknamed, as a man. You may have heard the story of Polish Cavalry charging German tanks in 1939. He was one of those cavalrymen. You can't not respect that.

Well, that was a long story for a one day class. My second class was with Janet Zickler Casey, and was called "Let The Good Times Roll!" (Or "Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!" - which I still pronounce in a Polish-French accent.)

As you can see, it's a handbag. The Fleur-de-lis is beaded, as is the handle. The class included teaching us how to make the beaded handle as well as how to stitch the body of the handbag. What drew me to this class was the teacher, whom I had already met a number of times. Jane-Beth had taken a few classes with her and raved about how good she was and how much fun her classes were.
On the first day of class, yes, me in my kilt as usual, the lady next to me asked, in a friendly manner, why a man would take a class to make a beaded handbag. I couldn't resist it, "a boy just can't have enough handbags," I replied. That broke the ice as the rest of the class realised I was just as nuts about Needlepoint as they were.
It was indeed a fun class, with lots of discussion around colour choices and personalising the design. There was lots of laughter, lots of stitching, and lots of discussion about colour, stitches and much else. You'll meet the handbag again.

The third class I attended in New Orleans was "Sisters" by Nancy Cucci. Obviously NOLA was my 'beading' year.

I chose this class for a number of reasons. I loved the design, particularly the repetition of the same stitches, but not in the same order, in the large squares. To me it made the point that in a family the siblings may all have started with the same genetic material, but we all become distinct individuals. I liked the colour selection too, the dark balancing the light, the overlaps of the squares slipping into companionship rather than opposition and the background pulling them all together like the members of a single household.
I had been wary of beads for a long time, but I wanted to take a class with Nancy. She was a great teacher, very relaxed and and yet attentive to every student. Thanks to her I am no longer afraid of small shiny things. It was great fun and I really enjoyed every minute I spent working on "Sisters". I still haven't decided which Brother, I have three, deserves this.
Sisters measures 5½ x 10½ inches and is worked on 18 count canvas. It took me 75 hours to stitch.
If you like the look of "Sisters", you can find another version in Melita's blog, Melitastitches4fun. There's a link at the top of the page.

Monday, 14 September 2020

Things We Do On Our Holidays

We attend the ANG Seminar as often as we can manage. Apart from the classes and the shoppertunities, we like that it moves around, which means that we get to see a different place each year. The days at Seminar are filled with classes, events and meetings, so we always try and arrive a few days early to do touristy stuff.

We walked where we could, and we found the Streetcars. That was fun, even if we did get on the wrong one and end up at the terminus. Still, we saw dozens of fine looking houses and beautiful gardens. Walking, I had the chance to admire the wrought-iron work on the balconies of houses. I particularly liked this one.

We also found our way (a fairly short walk from our hotel) to the World War II museum. It is big, it is impressive, and it is educational. It's not all 'Blood and Glory', with sections on The Home Front, war industry and a massive archive, as well as many items of the machinery of war. There were tanks, Jeeps, aeroplanes and trucks, and right in the main entrance, a Higgins Boat. And next to the main entrance was a really good Forties themed cafe.
I had heard of Andrew Higgins. Eisenhower is said to have referred to him as 'the man who won the war'. Higgins designed and built the thousands of landing craft required for the Pacific campaign and the Allied landings in North Africa and Europe.
Obviously the people of New Orleans think highly of him as one of their 'Sons' because the street that leads to the Museum is called:

We also visited the Confederate Museum. It was much smaller, perhaps more personal because of that, but equally interesting. Such places may be frowned upon by many, but I think it's important that they exist in some form or other to remind us that history has two (or more) sides, and that to forget it is to repeat it.

Then there's the food. We went with a group of needle pointers to a well known, I might say famous, restaurant that has been there since forever. The food was incredible, a total melt in the mouth experience, and they had good Scotch Whisky. I think I did cause a bit of a stir. The MD, a very nice chap, seemed to find this man-in-the-kilt quite attractive (maybe he just wanted to find out if the rumours about what Scotsmen wear under their kilts are true). Then there was the young lady with her partner who kept looking, and whose expression indicated that she wasn't sure, ours being a group of ladies of a certain age, whether I was a man in a skirt or a hirsute woman (I have a moustache.)
And there was a traditional Jazz band playing in the street outside. As the saying goes, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

But what about the classes? Of course I took classes and I'll write about them next time.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Man The Builder

 In 2015 we visited Myrtle Beach, in 2016 we ventured further into The South. The American Needlepoint Guild Seminar 2016 was to be held in New Orleans. How could we not go? New Orleans! The name alone conjures up a vision of the exotic, yet at the same time, pictures of the aftermath of Katrina. So off we went, Jane-Beth and me, and a bottle of Auchentoshan, and of course my exhibition piece. 

My entry for the 2016 Exhibit was "Man The Builder", a design I had started on in July 2015. If you were at Myrtle Beach, you might have seen a mad-man sitting on the floor in the shop with a big design sheet, picking out threads. Yep, that was me. 

Original work must be submitted to the Exhibit accompanied by an Artist's Statement. That read:

The inspiration for "Man The Builder" came from a variety of sources; pre-Reformation stained glass, the warm gold of the stone of the Scottish Border Abbeys, our need for places of contemplation and ritual whatever our beliefs and 'Cathedral Window' quilting (which I could never get the hang of). "Man The Builder" shows the growth of places of ritual from the first standing stones, through the Henge, to the great cathedrals and monasteries of the Middle Ages.
We know from Archaeology that men built temporary shelters close to their sacred places at times of festival and, later, small permanent houses, probably for their Shaman, priests or rite leaders. 
As beliefs and needs changed, these buildings replaced the Henge and were slowly enlarged, or new buildings erected, growing in size and importance, the culmination being the great cathedrals.
My object was to show this process as it might have been illustrated in an old stained glass window, with pictures of the evolving edifices engraved into small panes of glass.
I chose to use silk and metals to emulate the warmth of the sandstone and the glow and reflections of light through the glass and onto the stone. I chose to stitch the mullions in Soie d'Alger as I felt it gave the warm effect I wanted. The central part of each mullion was padded to show the curve of the stone and I used wave stitch on the outer border to reflect the long chisel marks left on the stone by the builder as he shaped it with his rudimentary hand tools.
Old glass is uneven in both texture and colour so I chose to show this using a substantial layer of Neon Rays couched with silver or gold to emulate the speckles often seen in early church glass. I tried various methods of adding the "etched" buildings, none of which I found satisfactory until I found a collection of coloured lighting gels in my mother's stash. I found that I could obtain the desired effect of etching over glass by drawing the building on the gel, cutting out the outline and attaching it to the "glass".

Later, I was offered a different take on what I had stitched:
When we were simple folk, our God (I use this as shorthand for any form of deity or belief system) was with us and all around us. When we became settled, our God stayed with us and the holy person made his abode close to the place we considered most sacred to our God. Then the priests took over and built bigger and bigger houses and locked our God in them.
It was a lesson to me that people might see something in my work which I did not intentionally put there. It doesn't worry me. If someone finds something of meaning to them yet which I didn't deliberately put there, they are welcome to take it away with them. If nothing else, it shows that they took the time to consider what they were looking at.

"Man The Builder" was stitched on 18 count white mono canvas, using Soie d'Alger silk floss for the mullions and borders. The padded areas were stitched with three layers of padding cotton before the silk was laid over the top. The central motifs or 'glazed areas' are in Neon Rays. The highlights on the mullions and the 'lead' round the 'glass' are couched Japanese #8 gold and silver while the bosses at the points of the mullions are a Heavy Passing Gold we inherited from somewhere. The buildings were drawn onto yellow stage lighting gel using an indelible black pen and attached using small stitches of black thread.
The stitched area is 12" on each side and it took me 190 hours to design and stitch. I had a successful Exhibit. "Man The Builder" was awarded Third Place in Class, a Judges Choice Ribbon, and the "Creative Inspiration" Award.

I don't usually include lots of pictures of a piece, but it has been suggested to me that people like to see the progress of a piece of work. I don't take many pictures as I go, but here are a few I took when working on "Man The Builder".

My Doodle Cloth. The test of the padding is in the top right. If I was doing this again I would consider making the padding stitches longer and maybe deeper.

Padded Mullions (white) completed mullions in golden brown Soie d'Alger.

The full piece with padding.

The finished piece.

The ribbons.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Myrtle Beach and The Tree of Life

 I had to look it up in our atlas. I knew where South Carolina was, but I'll admit that until the American Needlepoint Guild said Seminar 2015 would be in Myrtle Beach, I'd never heard of it. Having got there, it reminded me very much of the west coast of Scotland. Of course, there's only the Atlantic between them. The main similarity was that it was wet. 
I think it rained pretty much every day we were there. There is a big difference though! The rain was warm! We got as far as the beach one day. "Did  you go for a swim?" asked one of our acquaintances. "Swim? If I'd known how warm the Atlantic could be I'd have brought a bar of soap and had a bath."
That was also the day we went hunting for a 'Starbucks'. It wasn't that we wanted coffee, but I have friends who collect Starbucks mugs and I always try and take them one from my travels. We also visited a surf-shop. What an explosion of colour! In the UK surfers wear wet suits, not colourful Lycra outfits.

We did other touristy things, including a visit to Hopeswee Plantation where I saw Spanish Moss for the first time. (I took this picture from Trip Advisor as it was much better than any of my attempts.)
It was an interesting tour, filled with detail about the history and the inhabitants, and about rice growing in The Carolinas.

I impressed by knowing who Mary Chestnut and Verena Davis were. I've even read parts of Mary Chestnut's diaries.

But we were there for the embroidery. I showed Endless Golden Knot and Polar Bear's Claw. I was awarded the Silk and Metal Ribbon for the former and an Honorable Mention for the latter, so a successful Exhibit for me. It pleased my teacher too. Endless Golden Knot was designed and taught by Michele Roberts (see my 10th July blog), and she was also the designer and teacher of Tree of Life.

I chose to do Tree of Life because I wanted to do a memory piece for my father, who suffered a stroke early in 2015 and was showing signs of dementia.

Tree of Life is worked on Congress Cloth and uses Kreinik Gold, beads, crystals and gold bullion metals. It measures 16" by 18" and it took me 75 hours to stitch.
The original had various religious symbols on the red circles (the fruits of the tree), but as this was meant to hang by my father's chair where he could touch it, I redesigned these to motifs that would mean something to him and might help him retain his memories.
Working clockwise from the bottom left, the symbols I chose are:
A trowel. My Dad always had an interest in Archaeology.
Burning Bush. He was brought up in the Church of Scotland, whose 'logo' is the burning bush from Exodus and whose motto is Nec Tamen Comsumebatur.
Five Pointed Star. Because he and Mum loved their annual visits to the USA.
Square and Compass. The symbol of Freemasonry.
Fouled Anchor. My dad spent many years in the Royal Navy.
A Cross. Dad was a Church of Scotland minister.
5 and Male. To remind him of his five sons. (When we lived in Singapore the local Chinese ladies were impressed - 5 children, all boys.
MP, Their initials intertwined, Peter and Margaret,
Boys Brigade Emblem. He was involved with that organisation for many years.
Davy Lamp. That was to remind him of his childhood in a small Fife mining village.

My Dad is 93 now, and has limited (and not very accurate) memory, but he is still in his own home and Tree of Life hangs next to his chair, close enough that he can touch it.
The constant touching may be bad for the embroidery, but if it helps him, I'm happy with that, and if I wanted I could always stitch another version.

Maybe I should start one for myself?

Friday, 7 August 2020

(Polar) Bears Claw

Those who have been following my blog will know that I occasionally make quilts. This isn't one.

Someone recently asked me where I got my inspiration from. The best answer I could give was "Anything and everything. I never know when it will hit and what will trigger an idea until it comes to me." That's the way it works for me. As Thomas Edison said of Genius, as the light bulb went on above his head, it's 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. 
I find that when the inspiration comes, the initial idea can be sketched out as a first draft in a few minutes. After that comes the blood, sweat and tears. I know where I am, and I know what I want to achieve, but once I get the image it can take hours to draw a final version which I think meets my idea.
Then I have a drawing. Keep going, there are still the threads and stitches to select. Usually I have already decided on colours, but then there's the colour balance to be considered. Once I have the drawing, the colours balanced in my mind, and the stitches applied to areas, I can then translate the drawing into a chart. What about size? Mostly, I find, I don't have to think too much about that as the design will tend to indicate what size the finished piece should be.

What about the Polar Bear?
I did promise one in the title, so here is my Polar Bear:


The inspiration came from a previous quilt, "6 Bears +1", which had a Bear's Claw pattern round the border. "You could do something with that in Needlepoint," I thought. 
The initial sketch was a single Bear's Claw, like the quilt. The next version extended it to four paws reducing in size, with a partial border, as though it was the corner of a quilt.
For this piece, the title came next. (Polar) Bear's Claw. Why Polar Bear? Who knows, I just decided Polar Bear, maybe because Polar Bears, like male embroiderers, are an endangered species.
It was the title which decided the colours I would use. Obviously, Polar Bears are white(ish) so there was a predominance of off-white, The live on ice floes and the floes are surrounded by the sea, so the sea had to be a dark blue, the ice a pale blue.
Jings! What next? The Stitches. The paws, being the obvious large areas, needed to be white and suggest a certain furriness so I used a woven stitch to give them bulk. When it came to charting them I decided that the size of the woven stitch should remain the same for each 'paw print' and only the area of the 'paw print' should reduce. I also decided that the claws should be couched Kreinik silver. Why? It just felt right. 
As this was based on a quilt pattern I looked for a stitch that had a woven-fabric quality to it for the background. If you don't know this one, it's called Darmstadt Stitch and it's dead easy. It also covers the area at quite a rate once you get in the swing of it.
Having in my mind already decided that the sea would be the border, or was it that the border would be the sea, I sought something smaller and tighter than the Darmstadt and went for a Scotch Stitch with a zig-zag in the same off white as the paws. I deliberately left the ends 'hanging' to imply that this was a corner of a quilt.
It took some time to balance the stitch sizes to the drawing and chart the final design, but by taking the time to count it all out on graph paper, it does mean that the chart is a close reflection of the finished article. I say close, because there is almost always that point where a stitch, as charted, really just doesn't look right and you have to wing it. All you've got to do next is stitch it.

I have to admit that this is one of the few pieces I have designed where I haven't made some fairly major alterations to the stitch plan just because what looks good on paper doesn't work on canvas.

(Polar) Bear's Claw is 5" square and was mounted in a 12" square cold steel frame with a pale grey mount. I used Soie d'Ager silks and a Kreinik metallic silver throughout. It took me 50 hours to design and stitch. (Polar) Bear's Claw was exhibited at the American Needlepoint Guild Seminar 2015.

The last thing I stitched was a two row border that matched the mounting board. I like to add a tent stitch 'framer's friend' to all my needlepoint. My framer says that it gives a smoother transition between the embroidery and the canvas and makes for a better looking mount, I do it because if the mount is just slightly off, the framers friend can disguise it.

And breathe.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Phase IV

But not the movie.
Does anyone actually remember the movie? Seventies, Sci-fi, ants doing strange things and a mad ecologist.

No, this is Phase IV of my occasional forays into Traditional Japanese Embroidery or Nuido.

I took up Nuido for a number of reasons.
Partly it was because I understood that I needed something with strict rules and disciplines to counterbalance my tendency to let my own designs run too far ahead of my ability. I like to push my boundaries and try something new in each piece I design, but there are times when I try and pile in too much 'new'. One well executed new idea is better than three or four poorly executed.
Partly it was because I liked some of the designs and colours and I could see that if I learned to use them properly I would see how they could fit into my own work.
Partly it was because Jane-Beth needed a 'numpty' (know nothing/idiot) to practice her teaching technique on.

So, Phase IV. This Phase IV piece is called "Embroidery Sculpture" or, in Japanese, "Shishu Chokoku". It is a Japanese Embroidery Center design.
The flowers and leaves are worked in Japanese flat silk. In Japanese Embroidery only a flat silk is used, and where a twisted thread is required, the practitioner has to twist it themselves. That's fun (or not). To twist a thread, you have to split the required thickness in two, twist half of it in one direction and hold the end between your teeth while to twist the other half - of course the first half has twist tension on it and if you let it go it will spring away in some uncontrollable direction, curl up on itself and then you have to start again. Then you have to twist the two halves together in the opposite direction.

"Embroidery Sculpture" Copyright Japanese Embroidery Center, Atlanta

"Embroidery Sculpture" is less about the flowers and leaves and more about the metals and precision couching. The gold and silver threads are non-stitchable, They are too thick to go through the silk fabric on which they lie, so they have to be couched, and the couching is part of the design so it has to be accurate to give the angles the correct shapes.

I started "Embroidery Sculpture" in April 2010, and finished it in February 2015. Sometimes you just have to not hurry! In real time, it took 166 hours, or 21 days based on an 8 hour stitching day. It measures 14" by 18" not including the frame.

I exhibited this at the Royal Highland Show in 2015 and was awarded 1st in Class and The Agnes Bryson trophy for best piece of needlework in the exhibition. BIG YAY!

I don't often talk about value, but the lady presenting the awards asked me to explain it to her how it was done, then she asked how much it would cost if it were for sale. Without a blink I said £2000. But that was back in 2015. I think she was a little shocked.
I do that to people. If they don't stitch, they don't always understand how long these things take, or how long it takes to gain the experience in order to do them.  Yes, it only took 166 hours, but what about the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, that you spend learning how to do it?
Thought for the day, put a realistic value on your needlework. Not that I sell anything, but if asked, I generally consider that twice the minimum wage is a good start, then adjust upward for difficulty, originality or just for the sheer hell of it.