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.
“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
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).
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:
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.
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!
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).
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.
“Byron” by Nicky Barfoot. Hand stitch on calico.