Monday, 31 May 2021

Sunshine Stitching at Spring Farm

There was a time not so long along that I was convinced that using computers in earnest was confined to my archives.  Little did I know that during this last year that I would seriously update my rusty IT skills and that technology would become vital to everyday living.  

And so in early 2020 I took first tentative steps to teach stitching project online.  While it was brilliant to engage with my students again, I could see immediately that the inability to see my students hands working was going to take a bit of adjusting to!  However, needs must in tough times and on I and a group and patient and fun loving ladies proceeded.  Commaradery and humour prevailed through three UK lockdowns and receiving photos of completed projects gave me hope that I had achieved something.  These photos, however, were no substitute for wonderful day this Spring when I was finally able to see their fabulous work first hand.

For all of its challenges, I will be forever grateful for the ability to teach online.  What it gave to me and so many others, was the possibility for making creative safe havens that were absolute lifelines.  I was so very fortunate to be able to continue working at my Somerset Levels studio, filled with memories of happy creative hours with like minded others.  As we emerged into spring, early sunny days gave me hope of stitching chatter and laughter returning once again and I set to organsing a space that I hoped students would be able to return to.

And when that day of visitors finally arrived, sunshine came in many forms.  To meet my students again was an utter delight and my joy was further added to when I received this wonderul wall hanging that these kindly and thoughtful ladies had made for me.  It will ever take pride of place in my studio and will remind me that creativity can thrive in even the darkest times.

For all of my joys in these Spring weeks, I am still very mindful that the human and financial costs of a world pandemic continue.  I am hugely grateful for all the support I have received and I think often of those who have been and continue to be less fortunate.  As I step into summer with hope in my heart, I will continue as always, putting creativity at the centre of my life with others who share my path.  I have tentatively resumed my Open Stitch Workshops at my Spring Farm studio with a range of small projects and pray that I may long continue making sunshine stitching sunshine on the Somerset Levels.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Levels Spirit - Art For Life Exhibition

In early 2020 I was delighted to accept an invitation to take part in the 2021 'Levels Spirit' exhibition at Musgrove Park Hospital, Somerset, without any concept of the year that lay ahead.  A time where all aspects of life came under close scrutiny and creativity frequently felt indulgent and misplaced, I held firm to my belief that creativity is always life supporting.  I worked with textiles in anyway that remotely appealed and encouraged others to do likewise, most particularly as the dark winter months approached.  It was with a great sense of relief that I completed my 4 exhibition pieces as a calendar year passed over into a brighter and more hopeful Spring.  I feel very privilaged to be included in this evocative exhibition of 15 Somerset Levels artists, skillfully curated by Geoffrey Bertram.  It is open to the public in Musgrove's Art for Life Galleries from Thursday 22nd April to Monday 19th July 2021.

The subjects for each of my 4 exhibition pieces reflect aspects of the levels landscape that I and I imagine many others strongly resonate with.  All are free machine stitched rayon thread on felted merino wool using a technique that I am continuing to develop.  'Banks at Butleigh' depicts an aspect that has been vital and also troublesome to levels living for centuries; wetlands waterways.  Developed in earnest from the 12th century onwards by Glastonbury Abbey, the River Brue was one of key waterways that supported medieval levels life.  The deep muddy banks at Butleigh flanked with willow trees leading back to Glastonbury Tor is a one of many watery views that will have changed little over the centuries, something that I find most reassuring and soothing.

Teasel plants instantly conjour up a Somerset Levels landscape, yet their presence is rather more complicated than is often known.  Teasels were grown commercially particularly in South Somerset and growers extensively supplied UK textile mills who used in machines to 'full' cloth.  'Dipsacus Sativus' were harvested when still green and it is estimated that an adult cutter would have harvested 10,000 per day.  This industry has long since ended and this variety of teasel which was tricky to cultivate has sadly now all but disappeared.   My free stitched creation 'Teasels at Bere' is of young Dipsacus Fullonum, a much hardier variety with a taller and wilder seed head which has now become a dominant levels feature.

Long straight levels road have a strong sense of ancient trackways that have travelled throughout the centuries and Nythe Road that joins Pedwell to High Ham is typical of this.  With flatlands on view for miles around, native plants such as Hawthorn can be seen in abundance.  One of humans oldest tree companions, it is particularly noticeable in May when it erupts into clouds of creamy white blossom; this stunning show can seem like nothing short of a miracle when it has spent a great deal of the winter standing in flood water.  While 'Cragaegus Monogya', translated from Greek as 'strength sharp' is also known as the May tree, the seasonal highlight for me is the appearance of red 'haws' in the autumn and winter months.  In a period where the daylight hours are reducing at speed, the brilliant red fruits bring a hugely welcome flash of colour to be enjoyed before they are feasted upon by resident birds.

For all that I love colour in nature, it is the dark form of Salix Alba that most quickly evokes a sense of levels homecoming.  Also known as 'white willow', it is amusing as the most common winter view of the much loved stumpy willow tree is the complete opposite.  They are commonly found in lines along the river and rhyne banks of that criss cross the levels landscape and perform a vital role of holding them firm.  Their dark form next to water on a blue sky winters day makes for stunning viewing and this particular bank of 9 trees at Greylake inspired the creation of my last exhibition piece.  In a dark winter like no other I have known, their resilience was a most welcome reminder that even the most extreme circumstances can be endured and lived through.

I am immensely grateful that the Levels Spirit exhibition gave me the opportunity and prompt to create new creative textile work at a time where I could have easily faultered.  I feel sure that this may be equally true for the other 14 exhibition artists who have offered up a stunning collection of Somerset Levels exhibits.  It feels most poignant that the exhibition is taking place at this time in the Art For Life galleries at Musgrove Hospital - art and creativity have been a life saver for me this past year.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Quick Stitch - Decorative Egg

 A universal symbol of new life, decorative eggs can be traced back thousands of years.  An egg shape feels most pleasing and in a Spring where signs of new beginnings feel really important, I have really enjoyed stitching these decorative eggs in Vintage Kimono silk fabric and embroidering with beautiful silk threads and glass beads.

For anyone who would like to make this Easter, the start is to cut 4 pattern pieces in your chosen fabrics.  I recommend using a lightweight fabric and backing with lightweight vilene to keep thin fabric stable and to assist stitching small seams - I have for sale in my haberdashery shop studio.

Then to pin two of the pieces together, having regard to any direction pattern on the pieces.  The fiddly bit is to then machine stitch as small a seam as possible along one side - I promise that this gets easier with practice!

It's best to clip the stitched seam along the curve - this helps to make a smooth rounded egg.  Repeat these stages with the other pair of pattern pieces.

Then to seam the 2 pairs of pattern pieces right sides together.  Do so completely along one long edge and before stitching the final seam, create a hanging cord and place upside down into the top of the egg construction - I plaited a few perle embrodery threads for mine.  Then machine stitch the top and bottom parts of the seam, leaving a gap for turning and stuffing.

Turn the construction through the gap and push out all the seam - you may need to add additional clips to make the seams smooth.  I stuffed my egg with wool stuffing, which I found made a very pleasing shape.  Polyester stuffing can also be used, however, you will likely need to work at evening out a few lumps and bumps.

After neatingly stitching the stuffing gap closed, then for the fun part of egg decoration.  I used a perle thread to add decorative embroidery stitches along the seams, avoiding pulling too tight to keep the seams smooth.  Here is are a few instructions for basic embroidery stitches.

Finally to add a few beautiful beads - I chose glass seed beads and hand stitched with nymo thread - this thread is important to ensure that the beads stay in place in the longer term.

It gave me great pleasure to share this project online this Easteer with my Facebook Group and having done so a week before, there was time to make lovely Easter displays like this one made by Clare.  Making decorations is such a gentle and pleasurable way to mark this peaceful Spring celebration and I would be delighted to see any decorations that you go on to make.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Quick Stitch - Sunshine Slippers

The arrival of beautiful Spring days in the UK is calling loudly for stitch projects to sit outside with.  At the end of the winter and the 3rd UK lockdown, to feel the warm of sunshine is just fabulous.  Plus it's time to get a little fresh air to winter weary tootsies again, and these simple crochet slippers in 100% wool are perfect for this and still avoid feet getting too chilly.

After indulging in a pair of exquisitite and expensive wool pumps last year, I decided to have a go at making my own.  The success of this project is as ever down to the choice of materials and in truth I experimented with quite a few wools for the crochet before settling on for a striking Aran weight yarn by Colinette - Hullabaloo.  It comes in lots of vibrant colours and makes up with a lovely tweedy effect.

I also wanted to have a wool base to my shoe for .  I immediately knew the perfect product to try - a heavy duty wool felt made by Fernhill Fibre on the Mendip Hills in Somerset.  Then to cut a slipper sole which is the most important aspect for this project.  The trick is to find a slipper or lightweight shoe that you already have that is a perfect fit for your feet - I have a very narrow instep and long toes and getting the correct shaping was crucial.  I glued two layers of wool felt together and this made for a very sturdy sole.  This could be substitued with more layers and I would love to hear ideas about other materials to try.

Next to secure the layers fully together and to create an edge to crochet the slipper off.  I used some recycled carpet yarn to do this and blanket stitched around the edge, spacing the stitches around 0.5cm apart. I found that it's best to do this as tightly as you can, although this does make the first round of crochet a little fiddlier.  Working with several shorter lengths of wool rather than one long one avoids tangles and makes for easier overall stitching.

I tried a few hook sizes with the yarn to achieve a reasonably dense stitch and went for a 5mm hook for the whole project.  To start, I double crocheted all the way around into the top edge of the blanket stitch - this is called single crochet in US terms.  I started in the inside instep to minimise the visibility of row changes.

The crochet stitch has a tendancy to stand up in one direction, which is important to remember when you get onto the 2nd slipper to ensure that you make a left and right slipper!  After completing a full circuit, slip stitch to the first double crochet and chain 1 ready for the next round.

On the 2nd round, continue with double crochet, picking up both strands of yarn from the first round of stitches.  I worked on keeping a tightish tension throughout to create a firm fabric.

I continued with rounds of double crochet until the level of crochet covered my toes - for me this was 6 rounds in total.

For the final round I changed to treble crochet (double US), starting with 2 chain before making the first treble crochet stitch.  This round of taller stitches allows for a ribbon or lace to be threaded through.

The crochet rounds in are completed before you know it and at this point you can assess how well it is going to fit.  If you find that it is too far down the foot, undo the last row of trebles and add in an extra row or two of doubles.  It's good to remember too that our left and right feet can be different sizes - I'm sure that my right foot is larger!

The slipper is simply 'fitted' by threading a ribbon or lace through the treble crochet row and gathering up and securing on the top of your foot.  The trick before you do this is to push your foot into the back of the slipper and to pull the slipper front as far forward as possible before tying th ribbon/lace - it's quite surprising how without any shaping this seems to work and feel surprisingly secure and comfortable.  A few final embellishments mad with my new clever Multipom frame and my sunshine slippers were complete.  I hope that you enjoy this little sunshine project too and that it also makes you smile and feel happy.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Learning to Loom Weave

With so many loved activities put on hold, this past year has felt an opportune time to try my hand at new textile experiences - particularly those I have diligently avoided!  One such activity is loom weaving - something I have long convinced myself that dyslexic tendencies would surely prevent me from doing.  And so I will start with the result of my first weaving efforts this winter.  I hope that this will encourage anyone who similarly has a mind that loom weaving is beyond their grasp.  This post walks through the steps I went through to achieve my first solo hand woven scarf - an absolute gain in my wierd and wonderful 2020 year.

While I say 'solo' attempt and I did indeed complete all the stages with my own hands, my achievement is very much down to guidance and support I received from Dorset based weaver Sally Parker.  It was so kind of Sally to guide me through my first loom weaving project during such a challenging year.  I took the super sunny day between UK lockdowns that I started my adventure at Sally's picturesque base at Mangerton Mill in Dorset to be a good omen!

Sally told me from the off that hand weaving requires time, patience and concentration and I can confirm that this is absolutely the case!  She said also, however, that weaving is a totally absorbing craft that is steeped in history and when I was faced with my first naked table loom, I thought of weavers over the centuries who had done likewise.  My eight shaft Ashford table loom was brand new and I had the joy of being the first person to ever weave on her.

There was much to do though before the loom itself was to get any attention, starting with choosing the yarn I was going to weave with.  The purist in me wanted to follow in the footsteps of my silk weaving ancestors, however, I allowed common sense to prevail and use a modern equivalent that Sally promised me would be much easier for a first weave.  Tencel is a environmentally responsible fibre produced from sustainably sourced wood. It has a beautiful sheen and is a kindly product for a first loom weaving attempt.  Sally recommended that I use the variagated thread in the warp and the plain in the weave - to do so the other way round can lead to blocky colour distribution.

The first stage of all weaving is to calculate the required warp length.  This calculation starts by working out the desired weaving width and length and most importantly, the thickness of the yarn.  A simple yarn gauge assists with the calculation by wrapping the warp yarn closely around for 1 inch.  For simple 'tabby' weaving the 'wraps per inch' of the yarn is divided by two to make make 'ends per inch' (epi).   So the warp length for a 10" wide scarf that is 60" long with a yarn of 20 wpi equals 10epi x 10" x 60" = 6000" = 500 feet of warp!  There were a few more additions for shrinkage and loom waste, which depends on the yarn being used.

Then to winding the warp for this heady figure with the help of a warping frame.  A scrap piece of yarn is used to work out a passage around the pegs that amounts to the calculated weaving length.  The warp yarn then follows this passage, with the addition of 2 crossover points.  The wrapping crossed at the 'threading cross' near the start of the warp on every wind forward and back - this is to keep the single warp threads in order when threading the heddles.  The warp also crossed over at the 'raddle cross' towards the end of the wrapping on every 10th pass - to space out the warp to first get onto the loom. back roller

Half hitch knot cord ties are made along the completed warp while it was still on the frame, particularly at the threading and raddle cross points - these are vital to keeping the warp intact while it is being transferred onto the loom.

The warp was gentled eased off the frame and loosely 'chained' - ready for the serious fun of 'dressing' the loom - such a delightful phrase.  My loom dressing was from the back too the front.

Learning the language of weaving takes a little time and there are numerous terms to absorb.  A 'raddle' is the first accessory needed to start to get the warp onto a loom's back roller.  A raddle is a piece of wood the width of the loom with nails at regularly spaced intervals.  The groups of 10 warp raddle crossover threads were carefully placed in turn into each of the raddle sections and thus spaced out the warp threads to the width of the weaving.  A 'cross stick'' was also placed at the end of the warp and secured with a single tie.

The raddle was then tied onto the back beam of the loom and the roller was then wound so that cross stick at the end of the warp butted up snuggly to the roller.

Once the raddle is securely tied, the majority of the warp threads can be woound onto the back roller.  It certainly helped to have another pair of hands for this step to keep all the warp threads straight and tensioned and I was very glad for Sally's experienced fingers. 

Cardboard warp sticks were added to at least each layer as the warp was wound on to the back roller and to help to keep the warp threads smooth.

The warp winding continued until the threading cross was just past the heddles, ready for threading the warp threads through.

A pair of cross sticks was then inserted and secured into the threading cross and the securing ties were removed.  This cross of every warp thread enables the warp threads to be identified and threaded through the heddles in order.

The start of the warp could then be cut and tied on the front beam with stretchy ties.  Sally recommended splitting the warp in half at this point to help with threading the heddles.  I would also add that it helps to push any heddles you will not be using to either side - to avoid threading them by mistake!  The raddle can be removed from the back beam and then this Ashford loom uses something called 'helping hands' which are stretchy bands that are tied from the front to the back beams and crossed over on the ends of the threading cross sticks.

The helping hands were a real bonus for keeping the threading cross in position when threading the heddles.  Each warp thread is pulled out of the bunch in turn and threaded through the heddle on the correct shaft using a long hook.  I was threading for a twill pattern and therefore threading heddles on shafts 1 to 4 in turn.

The 'reed' was then pulled into place and the warp threads were 'sleyed' though the gaps in the metal to corrulate with the finished width of the weaving.  With just over 200 warp threads, I pulled through 2 threads through each gap which on my reed of 10 slots per inch help the warp threads at 10".

The warps were tied to the front beam with surgeons knots - Sally assured me this was the safest way.

Two warp threads on either side had not been threaded through heddles to create a 'floating selvedge' and were weighted at the back of the loom.

At last to some weaving - initially with some stretchy fabric through the two shaft combinations I would be using.

And so finally after quite a few hours of effort and concentration that moment of actually weaving arrived - yes there was another gadget for filling the spools that fitted into my Ashford 'boat' shuttle.

The weft thread was woven through the warp threads by lifting the heddle bars through levers on top of the loom.  Lifting only some  of the threaded heddles creates a gap with those that are not lifted called a 'shed'.  The weaving shuttle and warp thread passes through this gap and the levers are put down and the woven warp thread is gently beaten down.  The lifting of the threaded heddles in a particular order throughout the weaving process creates the fabric design - I have lots and lots more to learn about this!

A simple plain weave is called 'tabby' - derived from a simple woven fabric originally produced in the 12th century in an area of Bagdad called Attabiya.  I achieved this by weaving first with shafts 1&2 lifted and then 3&4.  Then I began the twill pattern I would use for the rest of my weaving - lifting sheds 1& 3 and 2 & 4 alternating.  After a few inches I got into a gentle rhythm and found a method of tugging gently on the weft thread to keep the sides reasonably neat - always weaving over the floating selvedge on the sides on every line.

My new loom is portable so at this point I moved her back to my Spring Farm studio and settled myself down for the pleasurable task of weaving.  I was very happy to take my time - all my weaving took place in the 2nd UK lockdown and it became my relaxation time each day.  Weaving is meditative a rhythm of working is quickly found and each pass of the shuttle is most pleasurable. 

I finished weaving my scarf a few weeks before Christmas and thought that I would save the joy of cutting off for a special day.  It finally became my New Years Day activity and that moment of taking the scissors to the warp was very exciting and tension filled - particularly as I was trying to take a photograph on my camera with my other hand!

And here is the result of my efforts moments after it came off the loom - Sally was so right to convince me to use the variagated Tencel thread in the warp and the subtle colours shimmered down the length.  I must admit that I did sit and look at what I had created in amazement - after so many years of being 'sure' that I could never have achieved such a result.  

There was then just the small matter of dealing with the fringe - as this post is already a marathon length this is an explantion for another day!

What a marvellous experience my loom weaving was and how easily I could have missed this through thinking that was way off the mark.  What I learnt beyond a doubt in 2020 is that anything that calls out to me is absolutely worth giving a go - great wonders can absolutely be achieved and I hope that others will be inspired by my post and find likewise.