General, Stitched Art

5 of the Best Embroidery Stitches to draw with

Cultivating a drawing habit

Hand stitching is one of my favourite ways to relax and those of you who know my work will have seen my stitch drawing and doodle designs. However, all of my work (knitting and stitching) starts life in my sketchbook. Most days, the first thing I do on waking after making a coffee and sorting out the dogs is to grab any sketchbook I have to hand and whatever drawing materials are easy to find on my Desk of Doom (usually my super chunky variegated pencils). Like Picasso (see previous post) I have learnt not to worry about what subject matter goes into which sketchbook as that is the route to procrastination and, ultimately, inactivity for me. And sometimes those strange juxtapositions can lead to all kinds of interesting developments!

This hour to myself at the start of my day is about play and experimentation with no pressure on further development. However, often an idea that has been gestating in my subconscious will start to take form on the page and some of those ideas will start begging to be stitched.

sketchbook and coloured pencils
Sketchbook Playtime

Quality of Line

While knitting is perhaps more of a painting tool as it is all about shape (a single stitch being a rectangle), embroidery is so good for drawing lines. There are five basic embroidery stitches that I go to for drawing purposes that I am going to share with you here.

Running Stitch

Running Stitch example
Running stitch

Probably the first stitch you learnt as a child is running stitch. Like many of the things we are introduced to as beginners, the temptation is often to move on and not look back. However, this simple stitch is oh so versatile. We were probably taught to do it on an even weave fabric with our teacher placing emphasis on even length and straightness of stitch. Personally I am always striving to create interest in quality of line and I love a bit of inconsistency in all of these stitches. I particularly like the broken effect of running stitch and the space it creates between the stitches. Not only is there the potential to play with stitch length but also with gap length. And what about weaving another thread in and out of the stitches. So much potential from such a simple stitch.

Back Stitch

back stitch example
Back stitch

The next stitch you probably learnt (for hand seaming purposes if nothing else) was back stitch. It creates a closed line and therefore comes across as more pronounced than running stitch. It has its own charm but I often find the back of work done in backstitch more interesting as it is less precise and even.

Stem Stitch

stem stitch example
Stem stitch

I use stem stitch quite a lot for outlining my stitched doodle designs. It creates a lovely textural, twisted effect and provides a bit of three dimensional interest and encloses an area containing other stitches very well. It can be a bit tricky going around corners but that can add a bit of loopy charm to the design.

Split Stitch

Split Stitch example
Split Stitch

This is another great stitch for outlining and drawing purposes. It is credited as the stitch that set English embroidery apart from other countries during the Middle Ages and helped to make it one of the most desired and costly art forms in Europe at that time. It has a variety of appearances depending on how many threads are in the needle. On a single thread it looks like a bit like couching (see next section) whereas on an even number of threads it looks like a flatter version of chain stitch. Unlike stem stitch, corners are a doddle with split stitch.

Couching

Couching stitch example
Couching

The final basic linear embroidery stitch that I wanted to talk about is couching. This is such a versatile way of creating lines. Anything string like can be couched and some wonderful textures and colour combinations can be achieved. It is especially useful when the thread that you want to use is not suitable for pulling through fabric e.g. due to thickness, texture or fragility, as the stitching is done using a different thread. Lots of fun can be had with placement of the stitches too. Do you keep them even, group them or apply them randomly?

My Latest Stitched Drawing

Nicky Barfoot Self Portrait stitch and paint
Self Portrait

These five basic stitches (or just one of them!) can be put to great effect in creating quite sophisticated line drawings. The picture above is a Self Portrait inspired by one of my favourite artists, Egon Schiele. It uses back stitch as the main drawing tool, with a few straight stitches and bit of satin stitch, used sparingly, for colouring in purposes. Simple but effective?

5 basic embroidery stitches for drawing

Exhibitions, General

Alice Kettle Exhibition “Threads”, an inspiring afternoon in Winchester

I was fortunate to have a whole Saturday to play with this weekend so after convincing Mr B that he would like to have brunch out, we made a cheeky little trip to Winchester. My main motivation was a visit to the Alice Kettle exhibition, “Threads”, so after a rather lovely breakfast, we parted company for an hour or so and I made my way to the Discovery Centre.

Alice Kettle is well known in the area due to her links with the City and the Winchester School of Art. A large piece of her work has been hanging in the Discovery Centre for a number of years, although due to its massive size it is probably more visible from the bus as it drives past the building than when up close to it inside the building itself.

The first few pieces of work had me transfixed for quite some time. They were two of her 2011 “Heads”, “Agape” and “Coeus”, consisting of re-cycled offcuts from another huge piece, stitched (incompletely in places) onto folded and pleated fabric backgrounds to create an image that we can’t help but interpret as a face. They are described as being a “remembering” and a “representation of feelings and encounters”. I spent some time sketching “Agape”, an image that really stood out for me (not least because it has a three dimensional quality due to the fabric manipulation) in the exhibition despite it’s relatively small size.

Alice Kettle, my digital drawing after Agape
My drawing of Agape using line where Alice Kettle uses stitch and collaged fabric pieces

The write ups on the walls between the pieces were interesting to read and some of the comments given quite pertinent. Prof Simon Olding from the University of the Creative Arts refers to stitch as “a method of repetition, coverage and endlessness” while Sara Viersen-Corsa makes comment on how embroidery art imitates painting and how painters imitate embroidery in their work.

Alice Kettle is a leading protagonist in the field of collaborative works and a number of the pieces on display in this exhibition illustrate the dynamics of working with another Creative. In “The Dog Loukanikos and the Cat’s Cradle” a large scale, somewhat disturbing image is calmed by Kirsteen Aubrey’s line of “Glass Grasses” which sit in front and cast beautiful shadows, in places, on the wall behind.

Alice Kettle The Dog Louckanikos
Alice Kettle’s “The Dog Loukanikos and the Cat’s Cradle” with Kirsteen Aubrey’s “Glass Grasses”

Much of the work shown is the artist’s observation of current affairs. In “Golden Dawn” Kettle marries a Greek myth with current Greek politics in a 360cm long, stitched narrative.

Alice Kettle Golden Dawn
Alice Kettle’s “Golden Dawn”

More comment on the current political landscape is made with a huge piece (792x284cm) called “Sea”. This is Kettle’s attempt at making some sense of the migrant crisis, reflecting both how the UK media have been reporting the events and her own meetings with refugees in the south of England. The result is a piece exploring the differences between people being viewed as anonymous groups via a media complete with it’s own bias, and the impact of the crisis and resulting displacement on individuals. The work also represents the sense of helplessness of the viewer as a witness. I encourage you to go and sit in front of this huge piece of art for a while to get a true sense of its scale.

Other pieces on display include “Orphrey”, a 2006 work done on the Schiffli multi needle commercial embroidery machine. The Schiffli Series of works apparently marked a change in the artist’s approach to creating: “I have liberated the fabric as it was no longer covered in stitch”.

Alice Kettle Schiffli Series Orphrey
Alice Kettle’s “Orphrey”

Another piece that drew my eye, partly because it is predominantly blue and I have a weakness for this particular colour, and partly because it can be seen as a representation of the current turmoil in the UK regarding our exit from the EU and our drift away from the main European continent, was “Sea Figure – Island”.

Alice Kettle Sea Figure Island
Alice Kettle’s “Sea Figure – Island”

The last piece of work I want to show you is a ceramics collaboration with Alex McErlain, inspired by the late medieval “Tring Tiles” on display at the British Museum. For these works the artists have developed their own sgraffito technique in the production of a ceramics collection decorated with narrative imagery.

Alice Kettle ceramics with Alex McErlain
One of the ceramic tiles on display as part of the collaboration with Alex McErlain

My aim of this post is to give you a taster of what to expect and I strongly urge you if you are in the area to go and visit this exhibition yourself. Digital representations taken in low lighting can not do justice to the vibrancy and scale of the works on display. I came away throughly inspired by this talented artist’s work and I hope that you too get to enjoy this exhibition. There is also a rather lovely exhibition book to accompany it which I personally shall be using as a source of inspiration for quite some time.

Alice Kettle’s “Threads” is on until 14 January 2018 and more information can be found here.