Stitched at Romsey Abbey

Just back from hanging a new piece of work in the beautiful setting of Romsey Abbey, Hampshire.  I was delighted to be invited by Susan Chapman to take part in a collaboration with Rum’s Eg gallery to fill this wonderful example of Norman architecture with stitch.

My piece, “Piggy in the Middle” was inspired by the weird and quirky corbels which adorn the outside of the abbey, combined with my allocated space of St Nicholas chapel.

"double sided hand knitted wall hanging"

“Piggy in the Middle” hand knitted double sided wall hanging in 100% wool by Nicky Barfoot

When I left this morning many wonderful examples of stitched art were still being hung. I can’t wait to see it when they are all up.

“Stitched” will be open from 30 September until 1 November and more information on exhibitors and their work can be found on the Rum’s Eg website. Hope you can make it.

Stitch Doodling, (hints, tips, toys and tricks)

I have been furiously drawing and stitching over the past couple of weeks, working towards a couple of November exhibitions.  I’ll tell you more about these in later posts but it occurred to me as I was beavering away last night that some of you might find it entertaining and even helpful if I shared with you some of the processes, hints, tips and tricks that I have developed and picked up over the years from various workshops, books, by making mistakes, and generally having a go. While I have been taught by some fabulous Embroiderists over the years (RSN tutors so they probably know what they are doing) be warned folks! This is the world of stitch doodling you are about to enter (drawing with a needle and thread) and my advice will not get you through an Embroidery City and Guilds inspection. OK, disclaimer over, let’s get on with it.

"hand stitched doggy doodle by Nicky Barfoot"

“You sir” by Nicky Barfoot. Hand stitched doodle on calico.

My process starts with a drawing or doodle, usually in pencil on paper in a sketchbook. Hang on, that’s not strictly true.  The process usually starts with an observation of an interaction or event, often combined with a book I am reading, or audio book or music I am currently listening to. These things then get mashed together in the washing machine of my brain, usually while I am out running in the woods with the dog, and I come home with an idea, a phrase and or a narrative that I need to exorcise. Then I draw it.

The next step (if another step is required) is to recreate it with stitch in mind. After blasting the calico (or linen) with a steam iron to de-wrinkle it (usually the long suffering husband comes to my rescue at this point as he has spent many years creating a smooth finish on his pure cotton shirts and therefore is sooo much better at it than me), I get to use one of my favourite toys. This little beauty is one of those things that you didn’t know you needed until one Christmas some kind family member buys one for you and you wonder how you ever survived without it.

"LED light pad"

LED light pad

This is not a TV screen folks, but a super duper light pad with adjustable illumination. No more tracing paper! Yay!

I used to use special fabric pens at this stage of the process but these days I mostly use a pencil or a Uni Pin fine line pen (probably because I can never find the right tool for the job so I end up making do with what is in my immediate vicinity and pencil case).

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Sketchbook and drawing materials.

So, you have your design on the fabric, now what? For this type of stitching I use an embroidery hoop and this contraption:

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embroidery hoop with seat frame

This genius contraption looks mighty weird but sitting on the base gives you both hands to work with (as does a table clamp but that obviously needs a table, not so good when sitting in the armchair in front of the TV) and tensioning the thread and placement of the needle becomes so much easier. I was given a tip by the lovely Shelley Cox a couple of years ago when I attended one of her West Dean College courses to cover the hoop with bias binding (or something similar). Can’t for the life of me remember why! Preventing marks on the fabric maybe? Something to do with the tension from the hoop?  Anyway, it seemed like a good idea at the time and she knows what she is talking about. It was also Shelley who suggested a use for those plastic shower caps that one often finds in hotel bathrooms as an embroidery cover to keep work clean when not in use. I have been collecting them ever since.

When it comes to stitching, needles do actually matter! Again, I used to use whatever came to hand i.e. what was sticking out of the pin cushion by my chair at the time, but apparently there are different needles with different heads and eyes and a number system and everything. A whole new world of needles was presented to me when I attended the RSN on a day workshop a few years back.  Who’d have thought? (fans of Terry Pratchett will understand if I refer to Stanley and his pin obsession at this stage). Anyway, I can’t remember what they are all called so things to think about according to Nicky when choosing your needle:

can you get the thread through the hole? (this one is quite important)

will the needle leave big holes in the fabric? (also quite important but rectifiable                   by disguising the hole as a design feature)

is it sharp enough to go through the layers you are working with?

To help with number three, in recent years I have also rediscovered the thimble. Not just a cup for fairies, it can provide valuable protection for finger tips as I have found that blood spots on the work can’t always be integrated into the design.

OK, we have the needle sorted but what about the thread? For my stitch doodles I usually use stranded cotton. This gives the versatility of changing the thickness of the line, blending and mixing colours and just look at the wonderful colour palette available at your local Hobbycraft store (other stores are available but sadly no longer our local John Lewis who have stopped stocking DMC and Anchor and now only sell generic packets of thread imported from China (?). Shame on you JL!). Two tips when using stranded thread I learnt from actual Embroiderists that changed my stitching enjoyment immensely for the better were: 1) cut a thread length approximately the length of your forearm and don’t be fooled into using longer as it will only get knotted up as you work and you’ll end up having to cut it anyway, and 2) separate each individual strand from stranded cotton first and then put back together the number you are planning to use. This also helps prevent the frustration of knotted and twisted threads at the back of the work.

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Part of the thread display at my local Hobbycraft (it is three times this long!).

DMC and Anchor provide a great range of colours and are easily accessible and reproducible.  However, as with yarn, there are some wonderful small businesses out there providing gorgeous threads in mouth watering colours. Be warned!

"embroidery thread"

A small sample of my thread stash picked up from various shows and workshops in recent years (can’t show you anymore in case the husband reads this post)

Another toy which I can’t survive without when stitching is my daylight bulb standing light which sits over my chair. As we move into darker and shorter days, this is invaluable both for seeing where you are sticking the pointy end and also distinguishing thread colours. I can’t imagine what it would have been like stitching by candle light.

Other bits of kit which might come in handy are sharp snips for cutting thread (much better than teeth and less likely to leave coffee or chocolate stains on the fabric), a book of embroidery stitches (I like the Embroidery Stitch Bible by Betty Barnden as it is ring bound therefore stays open on the page you are looking at) and a camera for progress shots (it is really helpful to step back from close work from time to time to get an idea of how it is going and a photo really helps with this).

As far as the actual stitching is concerned, don’t worry that what you are doing isn’t accurate embroidery, just imagine you are drawing with the needle and thread. Enjoy creating marks (dipping into embroidery stitch reference books for inspiration from time time) and as long as it doesn’t show through, forget about how neat the back should be and concentrate on the important side (not least as a messy back is often rather exciting in itself).

"the back of the work"

A messy back can be quite exciting in its own right

I hope I’ve given you a few hints and tips and perhaps a couple of Christmas list ideas to get you started on a bit of hand stitchery. I’ll leave you with one I have just finished as I’m now off for a cuppa before I get on with the next doodle. Until next time.

"hand stitched doggy doodle on calico"

“Byron” by Nicky Barfoot. Hand stitch on calico.

Flying Solo: Diary of an Open Studios Virgin

Saturday 22 August (day1): 

5am: OK, five hours sleep is probably enough and I still have so much to do. Where did I put that list of last minute labels I need to make and stuff I need to bring? I hope our do it yourself exhibition panels are still standing and I don’t arrive to a floor covered in expensive art glass. At least the weather looks good.

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It’s all still up!

10am: Thank goodness, the only things on the floor are the Please do not Touch notices. So much for removable sticky dots. Shouldn’t the removable bit come into its own after use, not during.  Good job I have a huge wad of Blue Tack as back up. “I’ll be fine darling, thank you. See you later”.

12pm: Right, I’ve been around the room a few times straightening, polishing, rearranging. The door is open, the signs are up, the newsletter has been sent, the leaflets and booklets distributed. So come on people, where are you? At least my sister and nephew are coming today. Oh, missed that E mail: “The weather is too nice and I am too lazy”. Guess they’re not coming after all.

2pm: Yay, a car! Oh, it’s just the wonderful husband bearing coffee. “It’s dead out there” he says. “The motorway is a car park, guess everyone is off to the coast to make the most of this last day of summer weather.  It’s going to pee down for the rest of the week”.

Oh great!

2.30pm: Yay, another car.  It’s Tim and Em. You lovely people come on in. Have a wander. Tim, stop chatting to Marc about sport, this is supposed to be all about ME! Look again, don’t stop at once around the room. Ask ME questions, not him. You can talk bicycles anytime.

4.45pm: Can’t imagine anyone is coming now. Perhaps I’ll call it a day and go home. Oh, hang on, that’s the landlord crossing the road. Yikes, hope he’s OK with what I’ve done to his office. “Looks great in here!” “Your life drawing has come on a bit hasn’t it?”.

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“Little Lost Pup” illustrations, off to a new home.

45 minutes later, my first sale is done and I’m ready for a G&T.

Sunday 23 August (day 2): 

Can’t imagine anyone venturing out in this weather. They’ll all be tucked up at home having a PJ day. Oh well, gives me a bit of time to work out this 1940s fairisle pattern (I wonder when charts came in?). It really doesn’t look right. It doesn’t help that there are bits missing and, b*ll*cks (!) I think I know what is going on here. The pattern repeat in each row isn’t over the same stitches as the repeat above and below. Let’s start again. Where did I put those felt tip pens?

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Reinventing a 1940s fairisle pattern. We got there in the end!

Lunchtime: Young people are hovering around the Studentnofee sign outside.  They don’t look like Open Studios followers. They’re coming in. “Hi, are you here for Open Studios?” “Yes” (great, just goes to show one shouldn’t make snap judgements based on appearance then, although the accent suggests English isn’t their first language). They are looking somewhat confused at the stuff on the walls and realisation dawns. “Are you looking for accommodation?” “Yes!” they exclaim. “OK so it may say that this is a letting agent on the signs outside and etched into the glass on the door, and printed onto the blinds, but actually I’m an art exhibition”. More confused looks. “No houses” I say. “OK” they say. Off they go still looking confused.

Mid afternoon: Ooh, actual strangers who don’t look like students pulling up onto the forecourt. In they come.  “Hello, are you here for Open Studios?”. “Yes”. Result! A b line is made for the knitted dog heads. “These are great. I’m pleased we bothered coming. I’d give you more than a one star review”. Excuse me!?! What review? “On the Open Studios website you’ve had a one star review, so we nearly didn’t bother coming”. WHAT! I didn’t even know there was a review process and hang on a minute, I’ve only had friends and acquaintances in so far. Who would do such a nasty thing to me after they’ve seen all the hard work I’ve put into this? Ah, hang on a minute, maybe it was the Twirler I had in briefly at lunchtime. She seemed very pleasant but I did get the impression I wasn’t what she expected when she stood in the middle of the room and did a quick spin. “We’ll give you a good review” they say as they leave. “That’s if we can work out how to do it”.

An E mail comes in from my landlord. “Sorry, I tried to review you on the Open Studios website and only gave you 4 out of 5 by mistake. I thought you click on the stars and light them up until you get to your intended rating (like rating stuff on Amazon). However, it turns out that once you’ve clicked on a star, that star is the review done and you can’t change it”. That actually makes me feel better. Perhaps the one star review was a mistake. Let’s keep thinking that……….

The sun comes out. A couple walk by and come in. “What’s this?” they ask, looking interested. I explain the concept. “And is this all you?” she asks. “You’re brave!”. What does she mean, BRAVE? OK, let’s just suppress that angst. I’m sure she means it as a complement. They did write a very nice comment in the book after all!

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The “life” wall

Monday, Tuesday: A pattern has emerged. More students looking lost and desperate for somewhere to live. Starting to think the words “Open Studios” might be a bit confusing in context with the words “letting agent”.  Starting to think that instead of turning them away I should drag them in. Perhaps I could sell them a picture to hang on that wall that they don’t yet have, or a scarf to keep them warm while they trudge the streets looking.

Mid week: Where did all these people come from? I haven’t had a moment’s rest. I’ve got knitting to do you know! Look at all of those lovely comments in my book. I’m going to have to restock the greeting cards.  This is actually fun! One lovely lady brought me coffee and muffins, and then bought two pictures! I must be an artist! Go me!

Friday: More chats with worried parents looking for student accommodation. Right, you sir are going to have to walk around my exhibition before you are allowed to leave. It’s your fault for turning up in a car with a dog in the back. I am crazy dog lady and much of my work confirms this so you WILL look at it. There, that wasn’t so hard was it! Now you can go and find a home for your progeny.

The final straight: Weekends are definitely quieter than weeks. Who’d have figured? An arty friend pops in and chills out with me for a bit on the red sofa. “It’s probably because there is no one else around here exhibiting. People like to make use of their weekends with a densely populated area so travel time is limited, or visit group exhibitions where lots of different styles and subjects are accessible in one place”. Yep, that’s how I’d do it too!

Monday 31 August (day 10): Last day but no time to reflect. Much to my surprise I’m busy. A lovely morning spent with three lots of people I had invited and had assumed couldn’t make it. Lots of smiles while looking around and then time with me on the sofa fascinated by my workbooks and sketchbooks.  Then my neighbours turn up. How lovely!

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The view from the red sofa

3pm: Starting to wind down now. I should probably think about how I’m going to pack all this up. A bike turns up and another friend pops in. I am chuffed to think she has ridden her bike here to show her support and tell her so. “It helps that it stopped raining” she says.

5pm: It’s over except for the packing and the slight issue of where are we going to put all this stuff when we get it home. I enjoyed this. I got to meet some lovely people who left encouraging comments, I sold some stuff and I got to spend a week, knitting, surrounded by my art work. What’s not to like? I guess it was a brave thing to do after all, but worth it on a number of levels.

Back to the normal routine tomorrow and I know a certain Weimaraner who will be pleased that dog jogs are back on the agenda. I suppose I should also do a bit of the housework that has been put on hold for the past ten days. But then again I am halfway through an exhibition piece with a September deadline so perhaps it can wait a little longer……………

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I shall report you for Weimaraner cruelty if you don’t get those running shoes out!