Around Christmas I had just gotten Marc Bolan finished and as usual had been hatching plans for a new series of ten embroideries for a few months.
In my usual style it’s now July and I’m half way through the series, which, if you follow me on Instagram you’ll know! But I decided as I’m halfway through I better start blogging again and share my progress on these.
The concept for the series explores the way we as humans share an ancient history of honouring animals in life and death, and invites the viewer to consider how the sacred place those animals once held, has now changed. In the transient nature of life and death, there are clues all around us of the importance and significance certain animals have – in the names of plants, in the folklore and mythology of global cultures. This series specifically looks at ten animals, all native to the British Isles at some point and all with special cultural or religious significance to pagan communities. Inspired by ancient Celtic burial rites, the composition of each piece suggests a burial ground where the spirit of each animal is ritually honoured.
The first of this series is the Hare.
Using anatomical reference I began by transferring the simple skeletal design onto my fabric and used a combination of split stitch, back stitch and french knots to embroider it. Finally the outline of the animal’s body is laid down in glow-in-the-dark thread; I like the idea that the ‘ghost’ of the animal has a second life at night.
Once this was done I used my favourite air-erasable pen to freehand sketch in the other elements.
Using simple paper patterns I created detached slips of the Harebell flowers and leaves then laid them out on my fabric.
I then embroidered the plant’s stem in stem stitch.
The opposing element in this piece was the Hare’s Foot Inkcap, which I created with simple felt applique oversewn with embroidered detail.
I wish I’d cut the mushroom cap instead of overlaying it and causing that lump.
Next I created the sun and moon by first padding the circles with felt then attaching rough silver purl and smooth gold purl.
Finally I added two Norse runes in iridescent filament:
// H A R E//
The Arctic Hare was the original Hare of Britain. For the druids the Hare represents rebirth, initiation and balance. This ritual burial shows the Arctic Hare surrounded by Harebells representing Spring, Hare’s Foot Inkcap representing Autumn, and the full sun and moon representing the two equinoxes. The rune Berkana further signifies balance and Jera for abundance and fertility.
This is the final piece of the 5 Ugly Gods series. I was using a few techniques in this one I hadn’t really used before. It was difficult and annoying. Here’s how I did it.
So when I was on holiday in September, sunning myself on the beach, I read some books, which I don’t normally do. I mean, I do read, but it’s pretty much always books about embroidery or folklore or witches or whatever. On holiday, I read stuff I don’t usually give myself the time for. Like The Mammoth Book of Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll.
In this book, which is a collection of stories and accounts of various musicians and their exploits, there was a story about Marc Bolan. I’m afraid I can’t remember the author and I’m really sorry about that. Anyway, in it this journalist talks about meeting Marc Bolan and describes him as being like ‘a little jewelled snake’.
I just loved this. And it provided me with the inspiration I was waiting for for my next piece. I was still working on the Raven at the time, and actually this little excerpt inspired me so much I kind of lost interest in the raven a bit.
So! A snake it shall be. A two-headed snake of such fabulousness Marc himself would probably wear it as a hat. Obviously snakes are pretty high on a lot of people’s lists of animals they hate and/or are frightened of, so it fit right in with my little pantheon of ugly gods.
As you can see I made my drawing and made my plan. This was a very tricky thing to draw because I really wanted the 3-dimensional quality of the snake to be correct, the loops and turns being in perspective etc. He also needed to be jewelled of course, and following my course at the Royal School of Needlework, I really wanted to incorporate a lot of metal thread work. So first I padded with felt to give different heights depending on the body position.
I have never embroidered with sequins before, and after doing my little scales experiment (above) I bought some special sequins in an oily, iridescent black, ‘hologram’ red, and glow in the dark!
It was quite tricky keeping the scales curving and the stripes helped to suggest the form and size and curve of the body as I went.
His head/s were actually the only bit of traditional embroidery in this piece. I used glow in the dark thread and cotton and filled the shape with split stitch, over sewing with rainbow madeira thread for the scale shapes and tongue, and then attaching smaller sequins over the top.
I like his face. He looks a bit naughty.
After all the sequins were done I had a few experiments with the silver metal thread I wanted to make up his belly. Realising I needed to couch down Pearl Purl for a smooth line, I unpicked what I’d done and did this first. Then I just repeated alternating lines of 3 in rough purl and smooth purl with a middle line of wire check all the way down.
This was a horrible idea and I hated doing it.
You don’t often see goldwork/metal thread work being used in large areas or with long lengths, and I now know why. It is very hard to manipulate, cracks easily, is very expensive and shows up every mistake. These shorter lengths on his tail and underbelly were a bit easier to do.
The finished little shit.
I felt like he needed to be ‘somewhere’ so, a cliché I know, but here he is in the grass.
Some very long detached woven picots and french knots.
Glow in the dark!
Well I gotta say, this is my least fave one of the series. Not really sure why. He certainly is a little jewelled snake though.
This was my fourth and penultimate ‘Ugly God’ in this series. Not so ‘ugly’ to some, not compared to poor unpopular Crab, Toad and Snail but I was stretching the theme with this one to include ideas of bad omens or unluckiness.
Heads up – you’re gonna have to tolerate some pretty terrible photos in this. Part of the reason is as I am working I’m just using my camera phone to take in progress snaps. Also partly because this piece is dark threads on a dark background which the camera sees as flat, and then pale threads worked in a very smooth way which reflects the light and the camera sees as shiny. So, tricksy.
Ravens and crows are largely associated with death, showing up as carrion birds etc., and there is plenty of folklore and superstitions about what their appearance may herald. However, older legend blurs the lines between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ as it usually does, and the raven shows up as ‘Thought ‘ and ‘Memory’ and fly all over the world to bring Odin great knowledge in the Norse Prose Edda.
The three-legged raven (actually a crow) appears in various mythologies of east Asia, and although largely represents the sun, in Japan the Yatagarasu’s appearance is construed as the will of heaven or divine intervention in human affairs.
It is mentioned a number of times in Shinto, and the crow is a mark of guidance, rebirth and rejuvenation.
The combination of these legends North and East inspired this piece. I wanted to depict the mystical bird-God on his crystal perch of power. Engraved on the crystal is the Norse rune Mannaz, which depicts the Bifrost bridge connecting the realms of man and the Gods.
After the fairly monochromatic palette of the Snail Queen I was very happy to choose such a rainbow this time. Also about working on a dark blue cotton ground rather than white. Although this is a pain because every single bit of hair and fluff shows up.
This was also a slightly different piece for me in that it was virtually all flat work. That is to say, almost no stumpwork or applique or anything. I was really keen that this was to be a black bird that had almost no black in him, his feathers highlighting the magical rainbow crystal colours and also the natural oily sheen ravens and crows have to their feathers.
His head and claws were all done in split stitch, and I used a black split pin for his eyes, surrounded in tiny french knots. To achieve the subtle blending of almost black/coloured feathers I threaded my needle with one strand of black and one blue in various shades. there’s also a bit of Kreinik purple blending filament.
The rest of his body carried on in the same way. I had a bit of trouble trying to make sure his leg didn’t look too stripey. A dressmaker’s chalk pencil helped here with marking the feathers detail directly onto the fabric.
To create his larger feathers I used a combination of split stitch and satin stitch in true black and filament to start with, then pure satin stitch.
Two things happened at this point. I got bored with doing the feathers and straining my eyes with using dark thread on dark fabric (which as it turns out is a horrible chore and the opposite pale on white is a total breeze in comparison), and I went on holiday to Majorca, where I created the Raven’s wing:
Standard simple detached slip which I wired and buttonholed down before I left, and filled with stylised feathers in variegated cotton while I was away:
Combo of satin stitch and split stitch, as throughout. It was actually very disconcerting to work on this without the main embroidery which I of course left at home. Not being able to refer to the main piece for things like colour reference (as I hadn’t used any of these threads thus far in the main piece) and whether I had in fact strayed too far from the path with the stylisation of the feathers.
Turns out it was fine. This is the completed wing laid over the main work. The colours in the variegated purple really tones with the purple filament in his leg feathers.
Still not wanting to go back to stitching dark on dark, I started on the rainbow crystal. To be honest I feel like this whole bit was the first time I’ve properly tried to do anything approximating silk shading. Although technically this isn’t that either because I just used single strand split stitch, my old faithful, knowing that I do from pieces like the Swans than filling flat areas like this creates such a shiny surface you’d never know it wasn’t silk.
Like I said before, I had real troubles photographing this and getting all the colours in. Most of these facets are multiple colours blended to match my drawing which I was using as my reference the entire time. I was also trying to vary the direction of my stitches as much as possible so that the finished crystal would appear three dimensional.
This is the finished crystal. You can also make out the rune which I over-sewed with some iridescent filament too.
And that’s the completed piece, with my hand for scale. I attached the wing giving a slight curve for 3D effect.
This post has been long overdue as I finished the God of Intervention back in early October I think. Since then I have completed 2 more works and nearly finished a third. You will know this if you follow me on Instagram, which you should, because it’s great. I’ve also been updating my website, which you’ll also know if you’re reading this. I’d love to hear your feedback as always.
This is a post of me showing off because I WENT TO THE ROYAL SCHOOL OF NEEDLEWORK AT HAMPTON COURT PALACE WHERE KING HENRY XII LIVED AND DID A COURSE IN COLOURED METAL THREADWORK YO.
So I had a holiday recently and spent 2 nights in Hampton Court having my first ever formal instruction in any kind of embroidery – in Coloured Metal Threadwork.
So here’s lots of pics of what it was like to study there and what I did in class and my homework!
That little round window that’s open was our classroom!
It’s the magical private staircase to the BEST EMBROIDERY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.
The door! So unassuming! Behind which such skill is kept!
Ok so this was a class that people who had never done any kind of metal thread or goldwork or whatever could do, and this is what we were gonna be making:
This is the one the tutor Lizzy Lansberry had made. So on a wet Monday morning I was nervously huddled in a little room in the barracks of the palace waiting for my class mates and to be collected and taken to class. There were I think 7 or 8 other people in the class. Well, ladies, all ladies. There was a woman from Sweden, one from Hong Kong, one from the Phillipines plus the rest from all over the UK. The whole kit of materials is provided for you, and when we were shown in to the classroom it was all set out with our hoops in seat frames, with two layers of fabric and the pattern drawn on all ready to start. Also 2 pairs of scissors and a velvet board.
But first we (I) had to oo and ah about the views from the windows:
Ok, so first off we basted our two fabrics together with a techniques I’ve not done before (learning all the things!) where you just use tiny running stitches just inside the lines of your design where there’ll be covered with stitches, and then very neatly on the lines where they will only just be covered. This is a better way than basting like I did with the Snail in straight lines because you don’t have to pull them out at the end.
Then we started padding. We used three layers of felt padding and were taught how to stitch down properly for each layer. We used white felt as it was going to be covered with silver and blue metal threads – if it was goldwork it would have been yellow felt.
Then we couched down silver pearl purl:
I’m going to assume, maybe incorrectly, that most people reading this haven’t done goldwork before, so what pearl purl is is a tightly wound, round coil of wire. You can get it in different metals and finishes, and widths. We were taught how to handle the thread and how to manipulate and prepare it for stitching (you don’t just pull it out and go). We got some great little tips about placing the wire correctly and how to make sure we couched it correctly and preparing our stitching thread correctly. Always. The. Correct. Way.
Then we went on to learning chipping using wire check. Again, we all huddled around Lizzy as she demonstrated the technique on a student’s work then copied it on our own. This was the rhythm of the day.
Wire check is another coil of wire but coiled in a triangle shape with lots of edges and angles and you cut off a tiny piece and attach it like a bead, carefully placing each piece so it appears random. This is hard.
And that was what I got done in day one! About 5 hours work. We started just before 10am and finished at 4 pm, with an hour for lunch and a tea break which was roughly 20 minutes or so at 11. So the pace of the class I’d say was about right because I was KNACKERED when I finished. I guess it’s the unconscious energy you’re expending really concentrating all day and learning something new. Also the lighting in the room was amazing – a mix of daylight tubes and fluorescent tubes – but my eyes felt soooo tiiiired.
Added bonus to doing a course there – you are given a pass which grants you access to the whole palace, so I was at liberty to wonder round like a tourist both afternoons after class.
Did I mention the Royal School has a KICK ASS LIBRARY that I was DYING over. Literally any book you want on anything embroidery is there. Could’ve spent a day just browsing. Also the work they have on the walls there had me wringing my hands and wanting to just give up now. Just the most EXQUISITE work you’ve ever seen on every wall. But you’re not allowed to photograph anything unless it’s your own work. So, take my word for it.
Ok so Day Two. We all arrived bright eyed to start our lesson.
Today we basically did couching. Turns out I hate couching. Specifically I hate couching this stuff which is wire twist. More specifically I hate plunging which is where after you’ve couched which is actually easy you have to take the ends through to the back of the work with a large needle and then stitch them down on the back but only catching the underneath layer of calico.
It is a bitch.
My fingers were sore.
I was sweating.
My ego does not like things I can’t do perfectly with ease straight away because I am a childish person.
Anyway so this was the most beautiful iridescent kingfisher coloured twist. Twist is twisted cords. The cords are made up of three strands of metal that are twisted into a cord. Each strand of metal is made up of a thread core with a wire wrapped around the core so it does not show. And when you try to thread the end millimeter through a needle to plunge it to the back you are doing this with three threads and then one doesn’t want to stay threaded and falls out so you have to take all of them out and do it again and it hurts your fingers and then you get cross and want to cry but you swallow it all because you are here and you’re learning and you’re an adult.
Ok so did that.
Believe it or not ladies and gents, that took me 4 and a half hours. In fact I actually did less than this because I only plunged the pointy end threads down in class. There’s a hot mess going on on the back of the work I’m not showing you.
So I’m gonna finish showing you how I finished the piece and then I’ll tell you what I thought about the course overall.
There’s a colour change going on here so we had to blend 2 colours of wire check, turquoise to bright silver check. Then I couched down a thinner piece of pearl purl to the outer edge of the shape.
Oh yeah you can’t see that because I had to do MORE COUCHING.
Actually this bit was way easier. We used an even more beautiful iridescent purple fine 371 thread. This is basically a thread core wrapped very tightly with a coloured foil.
Again I couched this down in pairs using brick stitch pattern and then gritted my teeth to plunge again. It was so much easier with a thinner and more mobile thread and much quicker.
Then one final row of fine pearl purl to the inside of the shape.
You can see that slightly raised ‘seam’ through the middle of my 371 bit, this is where I’ve not plunged the threads tightly enough and it’s a bit overcrowded. I am assured this comes with practice.
Finally I had to attach little pieces of rough purl in little crosses to the middle. Rough purl is simply a fine coil of wire with a matte finish. That little gap in my chipping is where I ran out of bright check.
And here’s it done – my first ever piece of metal work:
How does it compare to the expert? >
So the most obvious flaw in my work is as I have already pointed out, the uneven couching where the two threads are alternating going through to the back – it should be much smoother.
But overall I’m OK with it.
So what else can I say about my experience. A couple of weeks since I came back and I really miss it. It was just a rare joy to even be in such a place. I’ve never been taught anything embroidery related formally and metal work was a technique I felt I wasn’t going to get by in by studying books and experimenting alone. Just being in the palace, in parts the public never see, and seeing all the amazing work on the walls, was so brilliant. The tutor was great, and all the staff I came across were lovely. You’re in a class of a handful of people from all over the world who have come here to learn something from the people who are best in the world at it. At any point you could ask a question and have an expert demonstrate the answer. What a privilege. I’m now going to save up for their intensive summer school in Goldwork – 2 weeks of perfecting it. It won’t be next year but there’s still so much to learn, so many techniques not even seen. But for now I will be able to include metal threads in my pieces, and I intend to with my next one (follow me on facebook or instagram if you want to see what’s in the pipeline).
Other learns: I reckon I must be really slow when I’m embroidering at home. I have the TV on usually and although on the one hand it’s good that I am looking up from the work (which I wasn’t doing that much in class and my eyes really suffered for it) but I realised when I was finishing it at home how distracted I am – getting cups of tea (no drinks allowed in class!), going to the loo, chatting to my husband, checking my phone, watching the telly…makes me think I need to try and focus on completing blocks of time with no visual distractions and see how much quicker I can be.
Next thing I realised was a bit inevitable. I could feel after the first morning there the seed had been planted that would grow into the plant of I’m A Bit Shit. Seeing work by the real masters of the art was for me disheartening. As I said earlier, I can be a childish person and my ego wants to be the best. But also wearing the hat of the artist has been a difficult fit for me too, so I’m trying to give myself room to develop as one, making the transition from when I would have defined my work as craft to now, art.
I am not the finished article, and it has always been a useful, albeit sometimes cringe making exercise to look at my archive page and see the development of my work, especially remembering that at the time of making all these pieces, I was very proud of myself. I did my first ever piece of freehand original work in 2010, the Fly Agaric and I still love it, it still makes me proud. However, being amongst these experts made me realise that part of being skilled is being quick and confident with your mark-making. All of my embroidered jewellery – virtually everything I have for sale now – was created as a completely one-off piece, and was the first time I had ever made each one. I mean that’s arguably true of all art, but technically it wasn’t made quickly with a practiced hand. I realise speed isn’t everything but with an art form as labour intensive as hand embroidery it does affect your pricing, something I’ve written about before. I do believe in the value of time and the need to acknowledge this but over the last 5 years of seriously pursuing high quality embroidery art I come to realise it is a sweatshop. The prices I will set for the large art pieces when I come to show them as a collection will likely price my time at something like £1 an hour or less. Because it’s hundreds of hours work. I now believe that part of my reward for producing my art is the very act of doing it. Of being lucky enough to be in a situation where I have a part time job to feed myself and pay my bills and get to devote the rest of my time to being creative.
What was really interesting about this though was illustrated in a comment from the tutor at one point where she basically said she is a traditionalist and really loves perfecting the techniques but is not creative. Virtually the whole class nodded in enthusiastic agreement! There are many embroidery and textile artists working today who are not schooled in the ‘correct’ techniques but their work is no less accomplished and beautiful or powerful or inspirational.
So, I took away a lot from this class and this is perhaps the most important lesson; I have always taken great pride and care in making my work to ‘heirloom’ quality – because it is the nature of being ‘handed down’ and precious in it’s longevity that inspires me to make something very carefully and taking my time with it. But to make ‘good art’, the skill involved is only equally important to the idea or feeling you’re expressing.
What do you think? Any artists, embroidery or otherwise, have any thoughts on this?
Hello, here’s a great big blog post for you all about how I made the Queen of Snails.
Unlike the God of Adversity this piece was pretty much fully realised from sketch through to completion. In actual fact, the snail has been one of the first things I drew in my sketchbook and wanted to create large scale. I was really influenced by an illustration by Alan Aldridge in possible the most loved and influential book I have, The Butterfly Ball (which I wrote about here). I had done a few sketches of a snail and developed from there.
It took me ages to get the shell spiral right.
In line with the ‘God’ series I’ve been working on, I love the snail because it’s unloved. It’s not high on most people’s love lists. But I love snails and find them to have so much character and beauty, and not just the big impressive ones, but the common little brown garden ones too.
In creating this piece I realised about my process that the inspiration behind them comes in stages; I know the subject initially and this is what pulls me in. Then actually figuring out the composition and how to execute it comes next, and this is the stage that causes me the most problems. Often I’ll have an idea rolling around in my head for a while but it’s far less of a concious decision and truly an unconcious inspired one that makes me go ‘yes! that’s how it is!’. Which is maybe why I drew the snail before the Crab and the Toad and everything and only just did her now.
I knew it would be crowned. I always knew that. She started as a he, too. I don’t know why. Snails seem male – why is that? And the sceptre, that was early as well. When I started researching snails and imagery of snails I was thinking along the lines of the crab, with very strong colours and spiral, stripey stitching. It was also JUST a snail too. None of this clicked. I was visualising the crown in gold, a king…But then I looked into Snail symbolism and suddenly it all arrived to me, fully formed.
From this incredibly interesting website I learned that Aboriginal cultures observed thesnails ability to hide itself within its shell, or reveal itself. This behaviour is likened to the waxing and waning of the moon (revealing, and concealing). Also that snails represent awareness, and an ability to effectively interpret dreams and unorthodox realities. This is because of the snails antennae which are hugely exploratory. Further, the entire body of the snail is a sensory tool.
The snail is a she. She’s LUNAR, she’s SILVER, she’s a queen Goddess from Mother Eagle land.
So, inspiration strikes but also a problem in that I don’t want her, or any of these pieces, to be cute. I don’t intend cute. Turns out this is quite hard to avoid in a snail of all things and I don’t know whether to the casual observer I have achieved this. But drawing as I do from folklore and symbolism and mythology the whole composition revealed itself as having to have another element – my beloved toadstool.
I’ve wanted to embroider a white-on-white Destroying Angel for so long. The most deadly of mushrooms, but so beautiful and delicate and pure looking. The perfect murderess. The perfect companion to my queen. In this way I feel I am accomplishing a degree of subversion with this piece; The Queen is undoubtedly beautiful, she shimmers, she is magical. But she is powerful, she commands, she controls death and other worlds.
Perhaps for the first time ever, I actually framed up properly and seemed to have mastered this most essential of skills. Thank you Royal School of Needlework tutors on YouTube. That shit is tight. And I got to christen my new light box by transferring my drawing on to the fabric which gave me no end of pleasure. Sigh the right tools.
I rummaged through my not inconsiderable palette of threads and then I plundered my mum’s stores and then I needed to buy more things:
Actually my first time using Kreinik threads and I can tell I’m going to have to buy them all before too long. Holographic! Iridescent!
So we begin. A weird thing happened with this one in that I think because I was using such a subtle pallet my camera(phone) took even worse photos than usual and so nothing looks that great and it’s all a bit dark or weird. Sorry about that.
Not a lot of stumpwork elements in this one, but quite a bit of couching and satin stitch. Started off by blending a lovely neutral toned iridescent Madeira thread with single DMC cotton strand for her underbelly, and then started couching down ordinary household cotton string for the staff.
Then I couched down 4 or 5 strands of variegated cotton perle with a similarly coloured variegated DMC strand. Her head is worked in split stitch in the same stuff.
One side down.
Turns out I’m really not that fond of couching.
I tried hard to come up with ways to show the wet, scaly texture of snail skin. On the head this was very tiny glass beads.
Body in split stitch using the same variegated DMC thread. Then I over-sewed it with silver metallic thread;
Body complete. Next I started on the toadstool;
Using all the shades of white cotton I simply satin stitched in one direction in one strand.
To create the bulb at the base I wanted to do some sort of appliqué but I’m also trying to represent the flaky, soft folds of the mushroom so I wanted this bit to have 3 dimensions.
I’m using a bit of cotton pillowcase and stitching and folding as I go.
Then I added 2 sizes of french knots over it in a DMC silver blue filament.
You can also see I’ve attached the orb to the sceptre here which is a drilled faceted carnelian.
Now to the shell:
I’m using a blue toned DMC variegated cotton with Kreinik blending filament as highlights
Nope. Hate it. Rip it out!
I basically got enthusiastic about all the pretty colours and actually the more I looked at it the more it all just jarred. So out it came and after a couple of experiments in a separate hoop I used the exact same shade I’d used for everything else.
Which just goes to show how different stitch techniques can give such different results.
I was alternating ‘stripes’ here by blending a green toned Madeira filament. Getting the angles of the stitches right was important to making sure the spiral didn’t look off.
Next on to finishing the mushroom;
Everyone that’s seen it goes crazy for the veil but it’s a total cheat. You can spot this weird fused ribbon thing that I got from my mum’s stash in the picture above of my pallet, and that’s all it is, appliqué.
With the gills I was basically just couching over single strand of perle cotton, the same one I used on the body. And I’m using just the same coloured off white single strand cotton to wrap them with, but in a very happy accident, the colour underneath is bleeding through, and gives it a lovely subtle variegation.
The cap of the mushroom was simply split stitch.
Finishing touches. The crown. I’ve never done goldwork before. All those threads and techniques, I’ve never attempted it*.
So, I borrowed some silver metal threads and just had a go really;
Couched down some pearl purl and attempted some passing in the middle.
Vintage swarovski crystals from a broken necklace on top.
Finally I added some grey details to the shell, and couldn’t leave it without a shimmery iridescent slime trail.
I really love how limited the pallet is in this piece. It’s very shell-like, mother of pearl. Subtle. Totally different to the other Gods. And she was quick! I was very surprised to have her completed within 6 weeks. Satin stitch. So speedy.
All cotton and man-made fibres.
Approx 70 hours work
Size is approx 25cm x 30cm ish
And she and the Toad are off to the framers today.
*I will blog again soon about what I’ve been up to other than stitching, included a 2 day course at the Royal School of Needlework in coloured metal thread work :)