Saturday, 21 July 2012

Stitched Collage Workshop with Anne Brooke

A couple of weeks ago I began to follow Anne Brooke's Facebook page after being introduced to her work via a friend. Anne is a local teacher and textile artist and I saw that she'd been asking for volunteers to attend her first ever workshop. The day was free of charge, the only condition being we gave her a little feedback afterwards.  Obviously there was a stampede and it was full but I contacted her to express an interest in future workshops. My timing was good as there had just been a cancellation and she invited me to come and sent me the list of items to bring.

When I turned up on a wet Saturday morning, I was rather unorganised having just returned from a couple of days in London.  Rather than bringing the suggested few images for inspiration, and a selection of papers and threads, I pretty much brought my entire collection.  Fortunately I was given a hand lugging them and my sewing machine up to the studio.  The studio was a visual feast - a wonderful bright organised space full of pieces of Anne's beautiful work, her materials and inspiration.  As we had introductions and a cuppa, I was beginning to feel a little envious.  It is becoming my dream to have a dedicated workspace that I don't have to clear away before every meal, like I have to with my current kitchen table work area.

Anne explained how to begin, which was choosing an image, selecting papers, cutting the main shapes, playing with arrangements then sticking them down when happy.  Her own work can be seen on her new website and is inspired by nature, often featuring birds and seed heads in pale blues and ivories. She uses pages from damaged maps or books along with left-over pieces of wallpaper. Many of these have wonderful textures and the blown vinyl stitches beautifully. Florists wrappings are often used. Tear-proof papers give a stable backing and help the work to slide smoothly over the machine bed.  A fine net-like materials (that I think was Deco-web) felt like a cross between paper and fabric, and this or organza used as an overlay blurs the images behind and give cohesion to the design. 

Despite having a vast choice of images with me, I found it more difficult than I expected to select something suitable that could be broken down into simple shapes.  In the end I chose an image of my iron gate with my house wall behind.  Some time ago I'd been playing with the image and produced a stitched sample.  I'd quite liked the interpretation of the simplified iron gate shapes but the textured background of the wall was not right at all.

Once the papers were stuck down, I could start the stitching.  The beauty of machine embroidery on paper is not having to use a hoop.  It's not necessary to bring both threads to the top either.  Long thin designs work particularly well as it's tricky to fit wide designs in the machine without a lot of manipulation.  Anne gave us a demonstration and made it look a lot easier than I know it is!  One thing that is more difficult on paper is unpicking anything, although the holes left can be a nice feature.

I used brown paper for my background which would also end up as the grouting colour.  In my envelope collection I found one from an old phone bill that had an orange criss-cross pattern on the inside and I randomly stuck pieces of crumpled baking parchment over parts of it before selecting areas I liked to cut brick shapes from. The parchment was left over from some previous experiment I'd done with purple and orange dye plus wax. Next I stuck down my shapes and played around with different overlays and finally chose a copper organza. I put some of the the florists paper on the back, sandwiching the bricks as I pinned it in place.

I chose a thread and began to stitch around the outline of the bricks.  By brick three, I was getting a bit bored of fastening off all the threads.  Anne suggested that it wouldn't be noticeable to go from one brick to the next without breaking the thread and this sped things up.  I tried going round the outline a couple more times.  This gave a little more definition to the shape and I liked the effect.  Each layer of stitching wasn't exactly on top of the last and it made the brick edges look rougher and more authentic.  Although my wall is more of a golden stone colour with greyer areas, I was pleased with my choices as the tones and texture really seemed to describe a wall. 

When I'd stitched around all the bricks, I liked it as it was and was a bit afraid of spoiling it by adding the gate and I was unsure what thread to use.  I asked Anne for advice and she suggested some reverse applique.  I'd never tried this before but she explained the technique and I thought I'd give it a go.  I found some black semi-opaque fabric that frayed less and was less transparent than organza but still see through enough for me to roughly trace my design on with an erasable fabric marker. I decided to make the straight lines thicker with a parallel line of stitching to create a contrast with the curves.  I chose a metallic graphite thread to give a hint of the glossy black surface.  My machine had some objections and every now and again the tension went haywire, the thread snapped and the stitching looked messy.  I had a go at wrapping the stitches with the same thread in the hope of disguising the untidy stitching.  This failed but it did slightly raise the stitching and I liked the enhanced effect so continued wrapping all the curved areas.

Reverse applique - starting to snip away the excess fabric to reveal the design

Next was the exciting part as I used a small pair of sharp scissors to snip away the excess fabric and reveal the design.  I really had to concentrate as it would be so easy to cut away the wrong area!  The workshop was coming to an end by now and we got together to have a look at what everyone had been up to.  It had been a lovely relaxing day and I'd really enjoyed listening to the chatter, seeing how differently everyone's samples had turned out and finding out about everyone's interests.  Anne and a few others were members of the local Embroiderer's Guild and they were telling me about the meetings and speakers they've had.  I've looked up their blog and I hope to go in future as I think I would enjoy this.

Workshop students' samples at the end of the day. Anne has put photos of the finished items, along with more of her own collages on her blog

Back at home I soon finished snipping and previously, I'd have left the sample as it was.  But recently I've been thinking more about presentation.  I liked the height of the wall but the realised that the gate was floating on it so I cut off the bricks underneath.  I trimmed the excess fabric and folded it behind the bricks and blanket stitched around the edges. I was happy with this technique but in hindsight, I should have thought more carefully about where to position the gate on the bricks and if I was doing it again, I'd work out the brick pattern first so that the vertical edges looked better, perhaps trying alternating bricks with half bricks at the edge, or finishing with a full bricks so the sides undulate.  Whatever I tried, I didn't have enough bricks left either side of the gate to make the design look quite right. I'd also spend more time playing with the patterns and proportions of the gate itself.

Overall the day had been really useful for my current assignment as this week I've started the exercise looking for shapes within an image, which is just what we needed to do to start our collages.  Reverse applique and stitching on paper are new techniques I've learnt that I'd definitely try again.  I've decided my poor sewing machine should have it's first service for years and now is a good time as today my girls finished school for the summer today so I know there won't be much time for using it in the holidays.        

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Research Point - Looking at a Textile Piece at Home

When was the piece made and how long has it been in your possession?
This tablecloth was bought by my uncle around 1970.  As far as I know it was new when he bought it. He brought it to England as a present for my Grandma.  When she died in 1994, this, and a few items from her sewing box were passed onto me. 

Who made it and where was it made?
I am fairly sure it was bought in either Hong Kong or Singapore where my uncle was based with the Royal Navy at the time. I don't know, but imagine it was stitched by a local home-based worker then sold at a shop or market.

What is it made of?
Fine white linen cloth (I can count 48 threads per inch) with two strands of brightly coloured cotton for the cross stitch design.  There is some pulled thread work around the border that looks like it is worked in either beige cotton perle or a single strand of cotton.

Can you identify the techniques that have been used?
I wondered whether the design was printed on using a washable transfer then stitched, or whether a chart and counted cross stitch was used.  I've concluded that it's probably a washable transfer. I think using a chart is unlikely, as counting over so many fine threads would be extremely time consuming and tricky to get the positioning correct.  I've found a set of four vintage transfers with an oriental design for sale today. One transfer is used for each corner of a square tablecloth design and I could imagine something similar to this being used.

The crosses are worked over five threads.  Inspecting the direction of the stitch on the reverse, I can tell that a row of half crosses have been worked first, then the top stitches.  Surprisingly the top half of the stitch is not always worked in the same direction, which breaks the first rule of cross stitch.  Only small areas are worked at a time with the thread only being carried over a maximum of three stitches and consequently the back looks neat.  I think maybe only one thread has been used, doubled up and secured using the loop method as I can only see one end for each colour area. The ends have been secured by running under just one stitch and cut close therefore some stitching has come loose through wear over time. Perhaps all these techniques have been uses to be economical with thread?  Barely any back stitch has been used, except to highlight the flag on the junk in the corner where the crosses are worked diagonally. The pulled thread border appears to be a variation of a hemstitch. 

Look closely to see the direction of the top half of the cross varies

Looking closely at the blue flower border, I thought at first I saw errors, then I realised they were adjustments. For example, by increasing the number of crosses from four to six in the flower centres, this made sure that the corners met and altering the colour repetitions ensured no two flower centres of the same colour are adjacent.

Was it made by hand or machine? How are you able to determine this?
This is definitely a wholly hand-made piece.  On the reverse of the cloth you can just see the tiny slip stitches on the hem, the knots on the pulled thread work and how the ends have been secured by threading under other stitches.  These are not techniques that could be done by machine.

Evidence of hand stitching

What is it's purpose? Do you still use it? If not, how was it used and by whom?
It's a cloth 118cm square, so presuming a standard 20-25cm skirting at each end, then it would be suitable for a small table around 80cm square. I have never used it as I've never had the right size or shaped table.  I just like to get it out every now and again to look at.  I've seen vintage tablecloths recycled into aprons and other items and I've thought about it but I don't feel able to cut it up as it reminds me of my Grandma who taught me to sew.  I can't remember specifically seeing this tablecloth being used in her house but the linen reminds me of the tray cloths she had and I can remember she always used a tablecloth when visitors came for tea as the table underneath was pretty shabby!

What does it tell you about the maker or the user in terms of gender, role in society, wealth or environment?
There is not a huge amount of skill needed to produce one of these, just endless patience. I don't have any more details on the story my uncle's purchase unfortunately and I've searched for images of similar cloths to try to find out more about the maker, with little success. The handful of comparable cloths I have found, seem to have ended up in the UK and US and have been sold by vintage linen shops on auction sites. They are all square, with an almost identical colour palette, a drawn thread border and a version of the blue inner flower border. They also all have a set of matching napkins, so mine was quite possibly part of a set originally.  Most are slightly smaller than mine and described as being ideal for a tea or bridge table so perhaps this was the intended market? One of the most similar I found is described as 1930s. Perhaps mine wasn't bought new after all, or were these cloths being produced over many years?

Being stitched on fine linen, I feel that the cloths were made for a reasonably wealthy or overseas market, where I can imagine the vibrant images of pagodas, junks and willows looked wonderfully exotic. The tablecloth owners I have contacted, all seem to have come by theirs second hand, so unfortunately they couldn't tell me any more.  Why the top crosses go in different directions is bothering me.  Is mine perhaps a copy of a higher quality product? Zooming in on a photo of another cloth for sale, if I look closely and see this also has stitches going the wrong way. I wonder how much the cloths were bought for originally, as considering the hours of work involved, their value is very low today.  If anyone has any thoughts on my questions and theories, I'd love to hear them.

What do you particularly like about the piece?
Besides the memories of my Grandma's house it evokes, I like the feel of the white linen, which is quite soft and I love that the fabric holds the clean smell of washing detergent.  The design is friendly, the colours are still bright and fresh and I imagine being somewhere civilised enjoying drinking tea from china cups and eating cake on a table with this cloth.