Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

mixed media, beads, applique, and surface work
from the collection of Kathleen Weston

Mixed media, surface work, beads, organic matter, netting,
and acrylic paint on velvet and canvas.
From a private collection.

Christmas Eve, the fourth day of the Winter Solstice, Yuletide. Today is the last day the sun stands still on the horizon at its southern most point. Tomorrow it begins its journey north!

Life can never have too many Christmas Eves--a day of delightful anticipation. The journey is greater than the destination.

Today is a good day to write out an Embroiderers’ Christmas List. What is nearest to my heart, art, and craft that I want Santa to bring me? First of all, I want a book called A Pictorial History of Embroidery by Marie Schuette. A very rare book, but I would love to get my hands on it. It is a book I ran across in my time in England and which I have wanted a copy of ever since. Also, if there is a copy of Medieval Embroidery kicking around the North Pole with no one much interested in it--it would find a permanent home here in Albuquerque.
I would like a complete color wheel of Splendor silks. Splendor is the silk thread that comes in twelve strands and has the most marvelous colors. Carole and I (well, mostly Carole) have come up with the twelve numbers of the colors that best match the twelve-part color wheel in our Individual Correspondence course called Rainbows Bend. The complete set is so sumptuous and stunning that I get a real kick every time I see it.

Rita Curry-Pittman has made one of the best needle books I have ever seen. It contains two or three needles of every kind that a hand-embroiderer might need. She has decorated it with cunning machine stitches and it has pages of labeled needles from the largest to the smallest, both sharp and tapestry. It is a handy tool that every stitcher should have.

I want the old plastic and metal spring hoops back. These were the first generation hoops from the late 70s and early 80s that had plastic rims with springy metal inner hoops to hold the fabric drum tight. I can’t remember what they are called, but I have one left that is repaired with thread and glue. It is the best. I have second-generation hoops that are similar, but are pale imitations of the real thing.

My wool threads are in a series of plastic bags stuffed into a larger plastic bag which in turn is stuffed into a specially made (yes, I can use a sewing machine) tote bag for them. What I want is a system for keeping these wool yarns pristine without plastic, and yet in see-through, protectors so that I can see them as I work. Wool moths are bad here in NM--my forty-five-year-old turquoise rebozo is quite holy now (I do love Christmas puns; well, any kind of pun actually) from the little angel-like moths that visit it every summer.

What would I like to give for Christmas? There are certain women of my acquaintance that I would love to give a full set of DMC six-stranded cotton--Mary Analla, Alice Lucero, Marlo Lucero, Ethel Lucero, Barrett Lucero, and Jerry Stremsterfer to name a few.

I want Ann to have copies of all my blackwork papers so that she can continue her journey into the great realm of blackwork embroidery. (This is one wish I can probably bring about sometime soon.)

To everyone who does cross-stitch exclusively to any other stitching technique. Get a life! Let me show you the beauties of whitework, blackwork, crewel, Hardanger, and most anything else besides the lowly cross-stitch.

To the women of Mrs. Finley’s classes at the Grants Women’s Prison. May embroidery give you inner peace and serenity to continue life’s hard, hard journey.

Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, and may your New Year be bright and bountiful.


1. Ayrshire
1. Bullion
3. Crewel
4. Deerfield
5. Embellish
6. Farthingale
7. Guilloche
8. Hedebo, Hardanger, Honiton
9. Kelim
10. Jane Bostocke, 1596
11. Hungarian point, Bargello, Florentine
12. A palace, a prison, and then a museum
13. A metal spangle used in blackwork.
14. 1910 or 1920, either year is correct
15. Queen Elizabeth I (Tudor), Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick, Cavendish) and Queen Mary of Scots (Stewart).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Clear as Mud

Papaver Rubens
Counted work done on perforated paper that was printed with a digitally altered photograph by the artist. The threads are a silk-wool blend of a single plied yarn.

St. Columba's Wreath (detail)
Surface work done on kimono silk ground that was painted with acrylic paint and oil pastels. The threads are single and double strands of 12-stranded silk.

How are you doing with the quiz in the previous post? Answers next week!

I was talking with Carole Rinard, as I mentioned before, after the Sandia Mountain Christmas party. We almost always settle at my kitchen table for a cup of coffee and an hour of talk before she heads back up to Los Alamos after the meetings. This time we talked about the frustrations of a crumbling of preciseness of words within embroidery. In my purview, it started with the naming of canvas embroidery as needlepoint. Needlepoint is a type of lace. But someone a hundred years ago or so started calling canvas embroidery needlepoint. Now the lace is eclipsed and has faded into the huge world of canvas.

The words that Carole is principally worried about are floss, thread, fiber, strand, and ply. Floss originally meant fly-away filament silk that is very hard to handle, but which has a wonderful satin sheen when stitched and laid correctly. An example is the old Ping-Ling silk. Flossie is a name farmers gave to milk cows in reference to their silken tails. But in modern parlance floss is used as all-encompassing word for stranded cotton, or stranded silk, or even stranded linen threads. Well, this is just wrong and also can be very confusing.

A strand is one/sixth part of six-stranded cotton. Or one/twelfth part of twelve-stranded silk. A strand is made up of plies (ply in the singular) of the particular fiber it is made of, whether wool, silk, cotton, linen, or polyester. When we speak of four-ply wool, we are talking about one strand of wool made up of four plies of (weak) spun wool that are not made to be pulled apart and used singly. A thread of strands is made to be pulled apart and used singly or in bunches that are fractions of the stranded thread. A thread is what goes into the needle to be stitched.

So my needle is threaded with a thread that is one strand of twelve-stranded silk made of several plies of filament silk twisted together. The fiber is silk.

Or my needle is threaded with two strands of six-stranded cotton, each of which is made up of several plies of cotton. Cotton is the fiber.

Wait until we start talking about evenweave in fabric.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Party and Quiz

Yesterday was the Christmas party for Sandia Mountains Chapter. We had a wonderful time. It was at Bert Kroening’s home which is ideally suited for this sort of thing. Her walls are covered with needlepoint that she has done over the years. There are over a hundred pieces on display. And at this time of year, she has her holiday decorations out plus, a tree done completely with hand-made ornaments. It was a delight to be there.

At the Christmas party we conduct a minimum of business, have a silent auction whose proceeds benefit our scholarship fund, and we eat. The party is also an excuse for a killer pot luck? Once again, I was not able to taste everything--there was just too much. And it was all so good. We could have stayed all afternoon and then eaten supper.

We had some guests with us too. Bev Goetz’s daughter Reenie came. She is always most welcome. Jenny Wilson’s neighbor, Kay, was there. She is a delight. And a special guest, Wilcke Smith, came. Wilcke is a nationally known fiber artist and teacher. She has work hanging in the Albuquerque Museum; she has been in 27 books; and she is friends with nearly everyone in the fiber art world. We are lucky to have Wilcke living in Albuquerque.

The whole party was a blast for a bunch of dames who are handy with a needle and a cooking pot.

I don’t know yet how much money we made for scholarships, but we did see currency exchange hands. Anyone who is a member in good standing and who has been a member for a year or two is eligible for a scholarship. These scholarships are to be used in furthering your needlework education. I received one two years ago this month that enabled me to attend the 2008 national seminar in Louisville, KY.

One of the highlights of the party this year was a trivia quiz of fifteen questions that I gave out to teams of two or three. In the end no one answered all of the questions, but Carole Rinard missed only one. We had some other winners too. One team answered nine questions and another answered eight. As you can tell, this is not some panty-waist quiz. Here it is below in its entirety. I will post the answers in a week or so. Any one can send me the answers, say by Christmas, to test your knowledge of history and current use in embroidery. Good luck!

Education Matters

1. What embroidery technique starts with an "A", is named after a Scottish city, and is a type of lacy pulled work?

2. What word starts with a "B" and is the name of both a stitch and a metallic thread?

3. What embroidery technique starts with "C" and is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning wool?

4. Which American town, starting with "D", has a "blue and white" embroidery named after it?

5. What word, starting with "E", is used in embroidery as enrichment of fabric, and can also mean the enrichment of truth?

6. What piece of Elizabethan underclothing was used to hold skirts away from the body? This piece of fashion, which starts with "F", was invented first in Spain.

7. What stitch is normally done in three colors thread that is also the name of an architectural motif?

8. Name three types of embroidery that start with an H that are lace or have lace insertions.

9. Starting with K, this is a stitch named after a Turkish tapestry technique in which the front and the back are identical.

10. What is the name and year of the earliest, dated European sampler?

11. What are three alternate names for flame stitch?

12. Bargello before it was the name of a technique was the name of something else. Do you know what it is?

13. What is a paillette?

14. In which century and decade was the Embroiderers’ Guild in London founded?

15. Name the three most well-known embroideresses in England from 1550 to 1600.

Bonus Question. What were the last names of the three embroideresses above?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Stella Grace
Detail of a work that has the darkest values (a series of black French knots),
a lot of middle but differing values (the patterns),
and the lightest value (the background white linen).
This work is owned by Rocky Mountain Region fo the EGA,
designed and stitched by SK Wolfersperger

Blackwork Run 1

It starts on the left with a simple square and in one-step increments it becomes more complex and darker. At its darkest, it begins to lose elements and soon it ends in another simple shape.

Blackwork Run 2

This one is unfortunately pictured upside down. It too started with a simple square, but this is a one-step pattern with double rows. You can see it gets darker towards the middle and then starts losing dark value in a different way than it gained value. And it ends in straight lines.

Blackwork is all about value. In this case value doesn't refer to how much a piece of blackwork costs, but to its shading. Value means the darks and lights of a piece of artwork. One way of accomplishing the darks and lights is to modify a single simple pattern, gradually adding elements to it so that it grows darker and darker. You can see this in the two blackwork runs illustrated. A blackwork artist can create a run and then work a piece of blackwork with the resulting pattern. The work is unified because it consists of one pattern and yet the pattern varies greatly in value.
The patterns in Stella Grace are all related to one another by structure, making a very unified design. Patterns are easy to make up and easy to stitch in blackwork. Beginning blackworks may have a little trouble until their eyes are trained to see the small differences in value between the patterns. Patterns are infinite, or if they are not, then they are too numerous for this mind to graph and stitch them all in a life time.
By the way, the instructions for Stella Grace are available to buy from Rocky Mountain Region.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Fellowship of the Needle

Cross-stitched Cloth by Mary Analla

More Cross-Stitch by Grandmother Mary

Today was Cloth and Canvas, a monthly stitch-in of Sandia Mountains Chapter. We meet at member’s homes, and spend the morning stitching and talking. We eat brown bag lunches, talk some more, and then scatter. Today there were seven of us: Jane, Ellie, Cindy, Patricia, Bert, and me meeting at Rita’s home.

The fellowship and the sense of belonging among this group are very strong. Our topics of conversation range from grandchildren to Hollywood stars, to word origins, to EGA business, and then onto vacations, and Christmas preparations. It is a lively group with teasing and laughter. We do an informal show-and-tell right after everyone arrives. We pass around our current stitching and then pass around anything else we bring to show the group. Today Ellie and Bert were working on Christmas stitcheries. Jane was working on a class that was just sponsored by the chapter. Cindy was doing a needlepoint. I was working on my cross-stitch tartan. We have a couple of members who sometimes come just to talk and don’t bother with the stitching. But frankly, my cross-stitch is so boring that I need the stimulus of conversation just to get any of it done.

Stitching is my way of overcoming stress and tension in life. If I can get a needle in my hand and sit quietly with my work, my troubles seem to dissolve like salt on meat. This pleasure coupled with the conversation of old friends is my stillness and center. There are few finer things in life.

The two pictures I am including in this post are work done by Mary Analla who is my new son-in-law’s great-grandmother. Mary also belongs to a stitch group in the tiny village of Paraje on the Laguna Pueblo. Mary stitches for her church, doing altar cloths, clothing for the saints’ statues, and other ecclesiastical work. I am putting these two pieces in the post to show you that not everyone finds cross-stitch dull and boring, and not everyone hates it quite as much as I do.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Unity, Harmony, and Contrast in Blackwork

Figure 1
line drawings of a woman, a pomegrante, and a fish.

In design theory the concept of unity is the almighty peg on which the rest of the principles turn. Unity in design is the resting place of art. It is where all good art stands and is revealed. Almost all artists have an innate knowledge of unity and how it is created within a work of art. Indeed, that may be one of the mainstays of an artist. But sometimes unity is a hard thing to understand and to visualize. Unity is the coming together of all the various parts to create a coherent whole. In figure 1 there are three objects, a fish, a woman, and a pomegranate. Though there is some similarity between them (they are all line drawings in black and white; they are all depictions of living things), there is no real unity among them. But look at figure 2. It is also a line drawing in black and white. This drawing has unity: unity in the series of circles and ovals that make up the majority of the lines; the unity of similar objects, the apples, being featured in the depiction, and the leaves; and last, the black line drawn all the way around it bringing borders to the work.

Figure 2
line drawing of a plate of apples

Contrast and harmony play a big role in the development of unity in a piece of art. Contrast is the differences among the elements in the piece. And harmony is the similarities between them. A piece of all contrast and very few, if any, harmonies is not a good piece of art. That we see in figure 1. In both figures we have the contrast of the black ink and the white page. In figure 1 we have many contrasts and few harmonies.

Harmony within a work helps the feeling of unity. In the case of figure 2, the harmonies are the circles, the harmony of the idea of a plate of fruit with no other distractions, the harmony of the simplicity of it. But in Figure 1 there are fewer harmonies. No one shape takes precedence over other shapes. The objects are as far apart on the page as they can be leading more to disharmony. There is really nothing similar among them.

But beware! A piece with too many harmonies seems dull and lifeless--nothing catches the eye and the brain of the beholder. Contrast must work with harmony to achieve harmony. Contrast is the spice in the pie.

Blackwork comes with built-in harmonies and contrasts. Blackwork is stitching of a particular type using very few variants of stitches. This is an automatic harmony. But just this alone will not give overall unity to the piece. Take a look at Earl Grey, a blackwork that has unity, harmony, and contrast. See if you can pick out instances of each of these within its borders.

Earl Grey
Blackwork with a pulled work background in white.
10" X 10" black silk on white linen

Clouds on the Platte
or Nebraska
by Ann Erdmann
blackwork in colors

Ann Erdmann has finally sent me a picture of her finished work, Clouds over the Platte. It is hard for me to believe that this is only her third piece of blackwork she has done, but I know it is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Leaf with leaf filling from Intense Pattern II sampler;
Post-classic style--a simple shape filled completely with a counted pattern;
this pattern could be done reversibly.
(Ignore the arrow, the word OVERLAYS, and the little two-color pattern--
this is a modern blackwork technique.)

Blackwork was originally done mostly in black silk on white linen, though there is some blue, red and green blackwork also from the Tudor and classic periods. There was also some brown, but I assume that the brown was either originally red or black oxidized over the centuries. Incidentally, the classic period was during the reign of Elizabeth I. Her colors were black and white and so she wore a lot of blackwork. Browsing though Arnold’s Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, the 1600 inventory of the queen’s closet and an exegesis of it, we can see how much blackwork/Spanish work she wore.

The evolution of blackwork I have divided into seven periods: early (before 1494) for which I know of no extant clothing, but there is a reference for in Chaucer; Spanish work, 1494 (circa) through the demise of Queen Katherine of Aragon, around 1530; Tudor, the end of Henry VIII’s reign through the reigns of Mary I and Edward 6; classic or Elizabethan, during the reign of that queen; Stewart, through the reign of James I when the technique dies out. It was revived at the founding of the Embroiderers’ Guild in England from 1910 to 1920 and is called post-classic at that point. In the 1960s, the English started the modern period of blackwork. Modern and post-classic continue together up to this day done around the globe.

Post-classic work is what most people now learn as blackwork. It is certainly the easiest of the various ways to do blackwork. A simple shape is filled completely with one pattern. See the leaf illustration.

Blackwork: Compleat andUnabridged
Sunbonnet Sue in the lower right is post-classic;
this sampler has motifs six of the seven periods of blackwork worked on it.

There is a misapprehension about blackwork and its reversibility. Some national and international teachers are teaching that it has to be done entirely reversibly. This is not true according to classic Elizabethan technique. The various blackwork portraits by Holbein and others are cited as evidence that it was always done reversibly. In point of fact, not every blackwork pattern and especially ones from the Tudor periods and ones seen in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe cannot be reversed and make any sense. Just because there is an embroidered sleeve fall in a portrait that could have been the same front and back, does not mean that it was a single piece of cloth embroidered reversibly. A sleeve could easily be two pieces sewn together with the same embroidery on each side of it. The Mermaid Napkin in the V & A that I believe in late classic is not reversible. It cannot be. Most classic blackwork patterns were done in short, straight stitches, backstitch, or even tiny chain stitch.

My sampler called Blackwork: Compleat and Unabridged has examples of six of the seven periods of blackwork on it. My sampler Intense Pattern is mostly all modern blackwork with some examples of post-classic.

Intense Pattern I
This sampler is about modern blackwork.

Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd. W.S. Maney: Leeds, England, 1988.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Swirling Patterns

From the sampler for Intense Pattern:
two borders and corners
(plus pieces of vine and leaf);
part of patterning theory we will be learning.

Flowers and elephants in translation;
also from the sampler,

Borders and an overlay from the sampler;
from the top: a Celtic-style border; a line of rabbits in three configurations;
teapots and tea cups;
a non-repeating border called Excission from the title of a book by that name;
and to the left an overlay in two colors.

From a blackwork called Bittersweet, a void study

From the sampler Japanese Ribbons, "reeds reflected in water"
from an old kimono pattern.

From Japanese Ribbons, a pattern of bats done in half drop.

From The Crazed Sampler, a study in reverse images.

From The Crazed Sampler, study in scope/size.

From The Crazed Sampler, an overlay in black and gray with a diamond border to the left.

The Crazed Sampler, a tesselation--Escher's birds.

I think the reason that blackwork is so popular is that it is like a puzzle. How do those patterns fit together? How can I get the patterns to seem to revolve and evolve? The brain is immediately engaged in its exploration of the wendings and windings of a complex pattern and the puzzle it represents.
How can we achieve that complex blackwork look? By the study of patterning theory as it has to do with blackwork. That is what the class, Intense Pattern, is all about. Patterning theory is a little known and little studied part of design theory. Design theory is a huge category of study that encompasses everything from how to make films for cinema, to how to make Windsor chairs, how to design repeating wallpaper to how to make baskets, etc., etc., etc. It also includes how to compose pictures for art, color theory, and how to make blackwork patterns that whirl and convolute. A person could study design theory for a life's work and still have more to do.
But like everything else, design theory and patterning theory can be learned one step at a time. As we will do it in Intense Pattern. There are "rules" to patterning that are fairly easy to learn and then to manipulate. This where the fun is--to study those rules and then make them work for us. Design theory, color theory, and patterning theory are just another language to learn--a lot easier than English or Mandarin or even French and Spanish, and a lot more accessible than FORTRAN or PL1. With even learning just a small part of the language of design, we can begin to use it and create with it.
The pilot class for Intense Pattern is full, but the real class to be held in Louisville, KY in July of 2010 is not full. If these words and these illustrations fascinate you, please consider coming with me to Louisville and entering this world of black and white, pattern and repeats.
Next time, some more on patterning theory.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Easy Peasy

Deerfield Crewel
(done in violets instead of blue)
with typical New England stitches
from a class I took while I lived in NJ.

"Pillowcase" embroidery
My word for the easy embroidery that a lot of kids during my era learned from.
I did this under my grandmother's tutelage one hot summer when I was about eight.

American non-traditional Hardanger
I did this for my Mastercraftsman in Color.

Blackwork Collage
This is the cover for my class, Intense Pattern
Blackwork only looks hard

Happy Moon and Bright Stars
My first attempt at blackwork. It must have been all right, because it
passed muster for my Counted Thread EGA Teacher Certification.
Note that I didn't put the whole alphabet on. Well, I actually did.
I didn't re-embroider those letters that were in the title.

from the top left clockwise: Silk and Goldwork, Silk Work, & Goldwork
from a class I took in NJ all those years ago

Silkwork from Pages of History, a GCC.
Satin stitch, stem/outline, and French knots.

I was asked the other day what I consider the easiest technique in embroidery. This is really a hard question for me. In the first place I am not a typical woman who picks up embroidery to pass the time. I am dyslexic and it is getting worse as get older--or at least I notice it more. So the easiest technique that most people would consider would be counted cross-stitch. One cross-stitch is fine. I can do one cross-stitch. I can even do a short row of cross-stitches. Two rows? Forget it. I can’t stitch and read a pattern of cross-stitching--even if I make the pattern myself. It drives me crazy. I just finished a tartan done all in cross-stitch. I am SO glad it is done. No, I do not consider cross-stitch, as a technique, easy at all.

Basic blackwork is easy--as easy as anything. It consists mostly of backstitches. I like blackwork. I don’t need a pattern. I can just sit down and do it. A lot of people are afraid of blackwork and consider it hard to do. I think it looks hard but is in essence easy.

Basic Hardanger is easy too. It has an easy count--five satin stitches over four threads. Easy peasy. Even its graphs are easy to read because of the klosters--clusters of stitches peculiar to the technique. It gets a little harder with the fillings. The first Hardanger I ever did was a simple window curtain. I had no graph, I just made klosters, and then I cut the required fabric threads away. That was it. No fillings. It was great. The curtain was lacy and quite peek-a-boo. I guess that was my first foray into American non-traditional Hardanger back in the very early 80s. Now when I stitch Hardanger all I do is American non-traditional. No graphs. No guides to look at. I just start. That’s easy.

What is hard to do? I think advanced pulled work is very hard. With dyslexia it is very hard for me to follow diagonals correctly. I can do pulled work very well horizontally or vertically, but diagonally can be a nightmare. I have a dirty little secret about pulled work--just keep this quiet, please. I had to drop out of Mastercraftsman Counted Work (and counted work in all its forms is supposed to be my specialty) because I could not do a decent pulled work sampler meeting the requirements of that Step. I still have three of the started pulled work samplers (on second thought--I do not have them anymore--I pitched them some time ago). I can do the basic pulled stitches and even some of the diagonal ones with effort. But I cannot do the compound stitches with pulling going both horizontally and diagonally. I am not sure it is even possible for anyone in their right minds--no matter how many people have passed that Step. So I had to settle for Mastercraftsman in Color.

What is also easy? Pillowcase embroidery. The easy stuff on printed pillowcases. It is technically called surface work. You can do it with a vocabulary of about five stitches--stem/outline, French knots, chain, satin, and long stitch.

Needlepoint is harder than it looks. Crewel needs a lot of practice to get it just right. Goldwork? Did someone mention goldwork? Very hard to do. You need a lot of instruction and a lot of practice. Silkwork--the fraternal twin of goldwork--is also difficult to get just right. Working satin stitch in silk is the most sumptuous thing going, but it needs to be perfect to look good.

And is this all there is to needlework? Is this a full catalog of technique?--not at all. Needlework is vast, and as someone pointed out at the last stitch-in I went to, no one can know it all, let alone have the time to learn it all. The work I mention here is just that work that I do and that my friends do most of the time. I have left out most of whitework, ethnic embroidery, the needle laces, and work that is neither weaving nor embroidery, but both, just to name a few.

Rita intimated that I need to illustrate my words as much as I can. So I will do that. Thanks, Rita, for the comment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Old Teachers and Crewel

My first teacher in embroidery was an anonymous instructor at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, CO. Well, she probably was not anonymous to her self, but I cannot remember anything about her except that she was a she. I was put into the class as a substitute for another class I had enrolled in that didn’t make the numbers. The class was a revelation to me and opened up to me the rest of my life. It was a needlepoint class that lasted six or eight weeks. We were to make a tote bag out of the embroidered canvas after we were done. Mine never got that far. As I remember it, we stitched on a rectangle of canvas--it must have been 13 count--that was about 20” X 12”. It had ten panels on it for the various stitches. Mine was in reds and blues. I was thrilled with it. And I was very good at it. Unfortunately that piece was used by a cat as a scratching post. The cat was Genghis Poosey, intrepid hunter, bon vivant, and seasoned traveler. That was in 1976.

The next year we moved to New Jersey. But in the meantime I started designing my own work and had done a couple of small canvases and a rug, plus I had taken my first step into blackwork. In New Jersey I had the great good luck to find the Embroiderers’ Guild in the Creative Needlework Chapter. We met evenings once a month in a church basement in Collingswood. In NJ right there, all the towns are contiguous with only the name change of the main roads to tell you which one you were in. I doubt that Collingswood was twenty minutes on a bad traffic day from my house in Cherry Hill. It was a newer chapter--they all were back then--with young women as eager as I to learn everything we could. The chapter members taught me a lot, were very encouraging, and made me want to stretch to gain their respect.

One of the first teachers I had whose name I remember was Betsy Lieper. She was an itinerant crewel teacher from New Hampshire. Every month she got in her VW Microbus and made a two week teaching circuit with Merchantville, NJ as her most southern stop. I had never done crewel and in fact had only dabbled at surface work; as I said, needlepoint, a counted work, was my forte. She had us all work on a large piece of twill with what I now know was a Jacobean-inspired design. We worked in Elsa Williams wool yarn. I was surprised at how good I was at it. So was everyone else, surprised, I mean. I was especially good at French knots and satin stitch. She taught us about a dozen different stitches, including long and short and shading. I knew crewel wasn’t for me, but I was glad to learn to do it. The way I learned it and the design I learned it on were way too staid and old-fashioned for me. I love crewel and its fascinating stitches, but to this day it is not something I do in its classic form.

Why am I remembering this and telling it now? Tomorrow is a stitch-in for Sandia Mountains Chapter and I have been asked by a member to show her how to do crewel. I am more than happy to do that and to pass on what Betsy so lovingly gave to me those thirty-odd years ago--a passion for the stitch.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Practice: Moons and Pomegranates

a drawing I did four years ago, practicing drawing and composition simultaneously
5" X 7" colored pencil on paper

Still life w/ half eaten pomegranate
One of my earliest sketchbook drawings, a good practice piece

So say you want to be more creative in your endeavors. And say that your endeavors include design and composition. And say that people who should know tell you to practice, practice, practice. Well, how do you get all that practice? After all, embroidery is an almighty slow medium to work in. A large piece could certainly take months of constant work.

Yesterday I spent several hours in my studio making Christmas cards. In about an hour and a half’s work, I designed and made six unique cards. For an embroiderer that is incredibly fast results. It occurred to me that it was a very good exercise for design and composition. I make all of my greeting cards anymore. It kills me to make any two just exactly the same (the artist in me shining through). I have made some to sell too, but the work and materials I put into them just won’t justify selling them for $3 a card. So I don’t do that anymore.

What other ways are good practice for design and composition? Sketching and drawing is also a pathway. Since good drawing skills are essential for a top-notch designer it is practice, practice, practice for me in drawing. Each of those drawings that I can finish in an hour or two of work is another way to practice the two skills together--drawing and composition. You could do that too.

What about scrapbooking? I personally do not do scrapbooking, but I have seen some very creative pages. If the pages are not merely bought and then assembled following the directions slavishly, then composition enters the picture.

Something close to scrapbooking techniques that I do is making books from cover to cover. Look into some of my previous posts for glimpses of the books I have made. The twin books that Ann Erdmann and I made together remain the epitome of my book-making skills.

So practicing creativity and composition is not something that you have to put off because you are not designing a magnum opus (or magna opera, in the plural), it is something that you can do on a daily basis--easy and fun, with a product at the end of it. Try it and you might really love it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Great Divide

Several ways of achieving value in blackwork
from Blackwork: Compleat and Unabridged.

It seems to be as I get older that the divide between the artists in needlework and the purely craftsmen in needlework is becoming greater. And yet as I say this I can think of many instances of people I know making the great leap between the two. Peggy M. of Sandia Mountains Chapter helped Karen Schueler with two books written for the chapter, Santos for Embroidery and the New Mexico Wildflower Book in the mid-90s. Karen is one of the great mixed media artists of our time and I have no doubt that she was an artist before she was an embroiderer. Peggy really did a tremendous job along with Karen. And to my knowledge, Peggy is not an artist, not even, as I am, a self-proclaimed one.

More recently I want to mention Lores K., also a member of Sandia Mountains. She is a great researcher and is interested all types of embroidery. She was not known as an artist, that is, an innovator who designed her own work. About four years ago she took a short class from me called The Button Sampler. She took the information I gave in the class and developed at least two samplers on her own. They are beautiful work. Then Lores became interested in darning patterns and pattern darning (ask Lores to tell you the difference) and she again created a lovely sampler from her studies. The colors and the design are meticulous. She has jumped the divide.

I have already mentioned in another post Ann E. in connection with art and embroidery. She continues to amaze me with her dedication to excellence, both in modern blackwork and in modern colcha.

Patricia T., also a member of our chapter is beginning to explore blackwork as an art. She has talked about using the Santos book as the basis for turning them into blackwork pieces. She has also expressed interest in taking my class Intense Pattern that explores pattern theory within blackwork--a class for people who want to do original work. By the way, Peggy M. and Ann E. also want to take that class.

So why do I say that the gap is widening between the artists and the technical people? Because I do very few classes taught at the regional and national levels that foster pure creativity and design. Doing a needlepoint in class with a choice between red roses and purple roses may be a “choice”, but it is a scanty, dull choice. Give us classes we can sink our teeth into--classes about design theory and color theory. Not classes on how to stitch a rainbow in all the colors of the, uh, rainbow. Give us classes that show us how to do original work within the great embroidery categories. For instance, tell people that klosters within Hardanger are based on 4 stitches + 1, so that the count stays even no matter what the artist elects to do with them. Tell people that blackwork can be shaded and given value in about eight ways--and then show them! Tell them to write down all the “rules” to classic needlepoint and then to discard two or three and show them how to start designing from there. Tell people colors don’t have to match, that designs have to be unified, that they can dye their own threads and fabrics to get exactly what they want. Tell them there are no limits.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blackwork Unadulterated

Stella Grace
detail of blackwork that does not have reversible patterns
black cotton on white cotton fabric
7" X 7"

The Wedding Sampler
desinged and stitched by Carole Rinard, Ann Erdmann, and SKW
from the collection of Jake and Barrett Lucero
15" X 10"
black silk on white linen
some of this could have been done reversibly, but it wasn't--too comlex and not needful.

I first learned blackwork when I was a new member of the Creative Needlework Chapter of the EGA out of Collingswood, NJ. That was the first chapter I was ever in. I joined the group shortly after we (PJ, Mike, and myself--Barrett was not even a sparkle at that point) moved to NJ for Mike's work in 1977.

CNC was a great chapter for me who was absorbing embroidery at a mad rate. We were close to the then-national headquarters in NYC and most of the great teachers lived within a couple hundred miles of us, including several within fifty miles. The programs were astonishing with new things every month. We learned Brazilian, Hardanger, Assisi, goldwork, dyeing threads, counted cross-stitch (this soon-to-be world-wide craze was just taking off), needlepoint, crewel, and many more things. We were a chapter of youngsters. I was in my early 30s; most people were under forty--not something we see now much.

My first two blackwork teachers were Jane Zimmerman and Ilsa Altherr, both still active within embroidery circles. Jane is my favorite embroidery teacher of all time. She taught us classic English blackwork. Ilsa taught us reversible blackwork. It was very hard for me that first time I tried Ilsa's way. I liked Jane's a lot better--it was more accessible.

Now there is sort of a schism between people who insist that proper blackwork be reversible and people who insist that it can be either and still be correct. I quickly learned how to do reversible blackwork and can now do it even ungraphed. It is usually done in running stitch "journeys" with up to four journeys needed to finish a complex line of blackwork. But I normally choose not to it, but to stick to the more plastic Elizabethan style of back stitches.

In England there is a tradition of blackwork that goes back to at least 1395 with Chaucer's description (and by inference back even further in time), and this description may indicate reversible blackwork. This is the quote from The Miller's Tale

"Young, comely, was this wife; a lovely girl;
Her body slim and supple as a weasel.
She wore a cross-striped sash, all made of silk;
An apron also, white a morning milk,
She wore about her loins, gored to flare.
White was her smock; its collar front and back,
Embroidered with black silk inside and out,
The ribbons of the white cap that she wore
Were also coal-black silk, to match the collar;
She'd a broad silken headband set back high,
And certainly she had a come-hither look in her eye."
There is a portrait of Queen Isabel of Spain done in 1494 by Bronzino that shows her in "undress" with a cap and smock both decorated in black stitches on white fabric. This most certainly is Spanish Work. In Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe inventory of 1600 there is reference to both Spanish work and blackwork--sometimes both techniques are listed on the same piece of clothing. Obviously there was a difference between the two in the minds of the Elizabethans and the Tudors. But what that difference is, we do not know today. To us it is all black stitches on white fabric.
My theory is that Spanish work was always reversible. We see in Spanish samplers of the 1600s and 1700s the type of running stitch that is familiar to us today as reversible blackwork. I think this is the remnant of the great Spanish Work tradition. I have been to the Victoria and Albert Museum and have seen the backs of English-style blackwork and none of it is reversible by any stretch of the imagination. In the great portraits of the Tudor and Elizabethan eras we see the court dress as having a lot of blackwork on the cuffs, sleeves, and bodice edgings. People point to these and say that obviously it was reversible blackwork because on a sleeve cuff we can see both the front and back which seem reversible. Well, maybe. From a portrait we cannot see how the garment was made. Maybe the cuffs were two pieces sewn with wrong sides to the inside and with two identical lines of stitching on them. Or maybe they were done in Spanish Work. But the items of clothing I saw at the V & A were NOT reversible.
Ilsa Altherr, as far as I know, introduced reversible blackwork to the USA. But this style of blackwork is not the be-all and end-all of blackwork. Not every blackwork pattern can even be stitched reversibly. Some patterns change from the front to back when they are put in reversibly. The Elizabethans and the Tudors were a practical people. There is no sense in taxing brains to do something reversible when there is no need to. As Jane Zimmerman says, the Tudors and Elzabethans did not have graph paper to plan out the journeys of reversibility. A huge stumbling block to most stitchers.
I do not teach reversible blackwork: I teach in the classic Elizabethan model--backstitch with some running and double running stitches for some outlines. Basic blackwork is easy to do--anyone who can cross-stitch can do blackwork at its easiest levels. I urge everyone to try it--it is very satisfying.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Velma and Mountmellick

Aunt Velma is actually no blood relation to me. She is the older sister of my uncle who is married to my aunt who is my mother’s older sister. All of us in the previous sentence were born in Holyoke, Colorado, a little town of about 2500 that is the county seat of Philips County. Aunt Velma is aunt to all my cousins on my mother’s side. So to me she was always just one more loving adult in the long days of my childhood.

Aunt Velma in August celebrated her 100th birthday in what was to be a big party, but what turned out to be a stay in a hospital--her first. Velma fell in her garden while she was making concrete stepping stones shaped like turtles. She assured me that she was being very careful, but the bag of cement had a mind of its own and tipped over the wheelbarrow. Down she went breaking her shoulder.

Velma has done needlework in her long life. She knows about needlepoint and “pillowcase” embroidery. But she also knows about Mountmellick work. Mountmellick is an embroidery technique done in Ireland around the town of the same name. It was introduced as a cottage industry in the 1800s during one of the famines--a way to give housewives some extra money. It is whitework done on heavy cotton ground with thick cotton threads. The work is done in plant themes such as blackberry fruit and leaves and, in this instance, grape vines, tendrils, and leaves. Sometimes the satin stitches of the fruits are padded to give them relief. Everything about it is curvilinear.

Velma has a piece of Mountmellick that was done by her mother around 1900; see the pictures of it below. I don’t know where or why Elsie Biddle, Velma’s mother (I thought Grandma Biddle was one of my grandmothers too), would have learned Mountmellick, perhaps from a friend or even from a magazine. But she did this piece and then passed it on at her death to her only daughter, Velma. Velma told me on her 100th birthday that she was passing it on to me because she knew that I knew the value of it to the family. Velma did ask me what I would do with it when it was time for me to pass it on. I will donate it to the collection of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, where it can reside for other people to see it and study it.

Mountmellick work done by Elsie Biddle c.1900

20" X 14"

Detail of the grape vine and leaves. Notice the laid work on the leaf.

The padded grapes with tendrils and the scalloped edge.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Fish Swallowed My Pencil

Morning Glories
colored pencil, 5" X 7"
for sale for $25
Creativity comes in many guises. Creativity in art is just one
of the ways, though it is a very public way

Creativity comes in many different guises. Just yesterday I was talking with a friend from the Sandia Mountains Chapter who said that she just wasn’t creative. This is untrue. It is one of the human conditions to be creative. But creativity can lurk in any corner. I have used my sister Albie as an example before. Albie is a wonderful stitcher--canvas embroidery is her forte. But she chooses not to be at her most creative within it. It is creative enough for her to choose her own stitches and yarns for a painted canvas. What she does is grease the wheels and surfaces of one of the largest corporations on the globe. She helps divisions of Boeing get along with one another. It is a huge job and she is very successful at it because she is very resourceful (read: creative). As it happens we have a first cousin named Sharon who works as a health counselor in eastern Colorado. She has recently been asked smooth out the tensions between several departments in a new hospital near the Kansas border. This is exactly the same thing that Albie does. Sharon denies being creative, but she just “knows” how to reconcile the people. This is a type of creativity that I will never choose to exercise.

What I have is a creative bent for art. And creativity in art is much more public than most other types.

My friend Ann in Cheyenne, one of the people I love most in the world, is exercising her creativity in art, something that she was only able to engage in sporadically throughout her life. But now she is splurging with it by taking blackwork into new realms. I am awed and amazed. This is a case of a woman determining to see how far she can stretch herself and her craft. And then doing it. I will see if Ann will allow me to put her newest blackwork on this blog. It would be fun to show it off a little to our friends.

When I teach creativity, as I am going to do in a pilot class in Cheyenne and then later at the 2010 EGA national seminar in San Francisco, I usually teach it as some kind of design theory. Design theory is the apex of creativity in art. In learning D.T., a person can really stretch her creativity to its furthest. The class is A Fish Swallowed My Pencil.

Design theory sounds like a dull subject, but it is not. It is really a large plan and puzzle for the creative part of the mind to learn and then solve for itself. It is nothing to be afraid of; in fact it is something that may change your perception of yourself and of your world. It can make dull things sparkle and dead ends lead on to new paths. Try it, you might just love it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Bobby Pilling

Rune Speaker

Yesterday, Saturday the 10th of October, Carole Rinard came past the house loaded down with my stuff from the education exhibit at national seminar in Pittsburgh. Carole is the new chairman of the national nominating committee. Our good friend, Wanda Anderson, now living in Gunnison, CO, is the new Director of Education, a post that Carole just vacated. I love the way the power within EGA is slowly coming west. If we are not careful, we will have another national president from Rocky Mountain Region.

Along with my two blackwork samplers, my two models for A Fish Swallowed My Pencil and Pirate's Gold, she brought back my piece that won the Bobby Pilling Award this year, Rune Speaker. Ah, the Bobby Pilling Award for stitching outside the lines. I think a lot of the award was for explaining how I had stitched outside the lines.
Below are the words I wrote to the committee who judged the pieces entered for the award. There was some very good embroidery entered in the competition. But I thought I had a good chance because one of my private goals is to shatter some of the traditional styles of embroidery and make them, twisting and turning in color, break into the 21st century.
Thanks, Carole.

Rune Speaker

American non-traditional Hardanger doily
Linen ground with cotton threads
Decorated with a broken hand-carved wooden stamp with two types of gold paint.

I have long been exploring the very edges of Hardanger. What rules can I break and still have a piece have the look and presence of Hardanger?
The rules of classic Hardanger are old and strict. In this work I have broken four of them so that I have a piece that speaks of its maker. The first of the rules is about symmetry. All classic Hardanger work is formally symmetric in the placement of the motifs and areas of klosters. There is nothing that is formally symmetrical about this piece. All the klosters areas are randomly ordered. The second is that the shape of the work is random also--something that would never happen in classic Hardanger. Third is the use of paint and stamping to make it a truly mixed media work. And last is the use of color in a way a little different from the classic Hardanger’s white-on-white or off-white; different from the modern Hardanger of soft color with matching threads. I have used light lilac and metallic gold as complementary colors with the stamping dwindling away. To me the piece is like a piece of faded parchment with hidden messages and meanings long obscured.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Star in the Firmament

In the last two weeks I have been honored to have met and broken tortillas with a wonderful artist. Wilcke Smith has always been a bright star in my fiber arts universe. Wilcke, like me, never went to school to study art. but she learned on the job as a journalist in advertising layout departments of a couple of eastern newspapers and then in an advertising firm. She worked for five years as a designer in a large interior design firm in Texas. In 1954 her husband's work took them to Albuquerque where she struck out on her own as an artist with already a reputation as a creative designer.

Wilcke didn't always embroider, but like a lot of us learned some stitches as a child. It wasn't until she moved to Albuquerque that she started putting embroidery into her fiber art. In Celebrating the Stitch: Contemporary Embroidery of North America by Barbara Lee Smith (one of my teachers and another star in my pantheon), you can see a short blurb and picture of one of Wilcke's works.

In July I was asked by a friend of an acquaintance (Cheryl Sharp and Carole Dam respectively) of mine to interview Wilcke Smith and take some photographs for an article in Needle Arts. In July I was nose deep in preparing emotionally for 100th birthday parties (not mine!), for weddings, family reunions, and wedding receptions for my only daughter. I was not prepared to do the leg work for someone else's writing. I had never met Wilcke and didn't want to disturb her (or me). But I got through the most emotional period of my life since 2003 and got on with life. I called Wilcke (she is listed in the phone book just as mere mortals are) and I asked to meet her.

I went over one Tuesday morning. I interviewed and photographed. She showed me her smallish studio in her smallish apartment. And we started really talking and laughing. We hit it off. It was great. We talked about her early life, her early career, and we talked about art philosophies. We talked about stitching. I went home, wrote up a short three paragraphs to add to the article and emailed them and the photograph to Needle Arts.

A week and a half later (last Sunday night) she came over for dinner. She met Mike whom she seemed quite taken with. Even Cosmo the cat fell in love with her. We talked about collecting other people's art. We talked about me! She was most generous in her appraisals of my work. She called my work rich and textured with hidden depths. We sent her home with two meals of Mike's white chicken chile and chocolate cake in a doggy bag.

Wilcke is 90 years old (or thereabouts) and looks and acts about 75. She lost her husband of over fifty years two years ago. She lives in a sumptuous apartment in a sumptuous assisted living complex, and she is eager to talk to another artist who understands what she says. Go Wilcke!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pilots, Fish, and Pirates

Collage for the cover of the instructions for
Intense Pattern

It has been most of a year since I last logged on and blogged. Three people have commented that they miss my blogs. With a huge, worldwide audience like that how can I be hard hearted? Thanks Barrett, Ann, and whoever that third person is.

With the bottom fallen out of the art market and only old dust motes in my change purse, I have changed my focus from doing art to teaching art. Consequently I have four new classes coming up. An EGA IS (Independent Study) called Rainbows Bend with Carole Rinard as co-author. An EGA ESP (don't you just love the acronyms? In this case, Extended Study Program) called Intense Pattern of four days length that I have talked about before in this blog series. An EGA 2010 San Francisco national seminar course called Pirate's Gold of four days. And a 2010 EGA national seminar class of two days called A Fish Swallowed My Pencil. I have been hard at work on these for almost a year now, researching, studying, and stitching for them. Am I a little OCD for this much trouble over them? Well, maybe. But I guarantee you they will be the best I can produce.

Pilot classes for the last three were troubling for me to set up. I was embarrassed and insulted by someone in a position to help me who basically said I was taking advantage of her position to even recommend chapters within Rocky Mountain Region to ask to pilot. I saw it as giving smaller chapters a chance to have a national teacher at a basic cost. At any rate, I did not ask any chapter to do so, even though I know there are several pilot classes going around for other teachers within the region.

[What is a pilot class? It is a pre-class taught by the teacher to "practice" for the real thing. All region and national classes should be piloted. A teacher waives her teaching fee for the privilege of having a gang of students helps out with any glitches that may develop. The teacher gets all transportation, room and board, and kit fees, but must teach the class for free.]

Rainbows Bend, a color class taught by mail, will be set up for piloting by the national committee that handles such things. Carole and I will have little to do with it. Intense Pattern, a master blackwork class, will be taught here in Albuquerque in February at Jane Moses' house. The students will have no fees but the kit. A very good deal indeed, considering that if they took the real class they would have to travel to Louisville, KY and pay for their own hotels and food, plus me. Pirate's Gold is being taught at Rita Pittman's house in March (not interfering with Mardi Gras or Easter.) And A Fish is being taught in Cheyenne, WY by my dearest friend, Ann Erdmann, who is setting up a private class among her friends. I am lucky to have such friends as Ann, Jane Moses, and Rita Curry-Pittman.

So I am all set up and now I must finish writing the classes, gather all the stuff in the kits, gather my wits, and I am off to the trembling edge. It would be good to fly after falling off and not land with a meaty splat!