Beginner’s Bargello

multi color modern bargello

I’m really excited about my newest finished needlepoint piece.

When I started this canvas in September, I was planning to make another geometric needlepoint purse, but none of my plans or patterns worked out. One seemed too heavy and dark, the other seemed too small and boring. So I scratched my plans and tried something completely different – bargello.

I’d been eyeing bargello needlepoint for years. There is something appealing and mathematical about it, like an M.C. Escher drawing, it draws you in and along, moving your eye through it.

I’d also been eyeing these modern-looking bargello pillows at Jonathan Adler. But of course, its one thing to admire something, but its another thing to try and re-create it. After a few false starts and repeated picking out of those erroneous stitches, I settled on an asymmetrical design I charted on a piece of graph paper. Next, I went to my bins of stashed yarn, pulled out heaps of colors.

jumble of needlepoint yarn

My final pattern consists of 5 and 3 block high bands, which move only in one direction – diagonally down, from right to left. It was only later that I read that the traditional Bargello unit is 4 stitches high. I stitched bands of 2-3 shades of the same color mixed together in a random order. I tried to put complimentary colors (e.g., purple and yellow, red and green) beside one another to highlight the transition between bands of color.

close up modern bargello

 

Of course, all this randomness requires careful organization and the bulk of my mental energy went into planning a sequence of colors that was consistently inconsistent. In the end, I was not so free and haphazard with color as I might have liked. While not being a repeating pattern, my piece comes very close – it is not quite consistent, i.e., consistently inconsistent.

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I’m thrilled with my first attempt at bargello and I’m starting to understand the deep appeal it seems to have for many needlework ladies. Maybe next time, I’ll try something multi-directional, closer to this waves pattern pillow. But for now, all that’s left is to decide what to make of it: another purse? a lumbar pillow? any other ideas?

multi color bargello

The godmother of botanical needlework

Gerda Bentgesson from Danish stitchery book
Wall hanging by Gerda Bengtsson, from Gerda Bengtsson’s Book of Danish Stitchery

As some of you know, I studied botany as a graduate student. I spent hours pouring over plant specimens, flipping through dichotomous keys, and learning terms like “stipules.” There were nights when my dreams were filled with swirling leaf shapes, fragile rootlets, and constellations of flowers.

Now, I dream of others things, but I have retained a love of plant forms. These shapes sometimes inspire my creative projects, but for true, breathtaking, botanically inspired work, I consult the books of Gerda Bengtsson. Published in the 1970’s and 1980’s her books are mostly out of print, but still, easy to find.

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Rosa Moyesii by Gerda Bengtsson. From Roses and Flowering Plants in counted cross-stitch.

Like 18th and 19th century botanical prints, Bengtsson’s designs show specific knowledge of plants and convey appreciation for the varieties of plant form. Yet, they are pretty and decorative.

GB.couluteaarborescens
Senna by Gerda Bengtsson. From Roses and Flowering branches in counted cross-stitch

Flowers and plants are often generic and stylized in needlework, however beautiful. In contrast, Bengtsson’s designs are botanically correct, but also balanced and artistic.

Mountain Ash by Gerda Bentgsson. From Dye PLants nad Fruits in Cross -stitch
Mountain Ash by Gerda Bengtsson. From Dye Plants and Fruits in Cross -stitch

Bengtsson worked mostly in cross-stitch, but much of her published work consists of charted designs that could also be used for needlepoint, and other mediums.

In my mind, Gerda Bengtsson is the godmother of all botanical needlework. When I tried to do a little online research, I didn’t find much. From her books I know she trained as a painter and later switched to textiles. She was also part of the Danish Handcraft guild.  My research did turn up a great pinterest board and many of her designs are available in cross stitch kits here.

Since I’m not much for cross-stitch, I mostly just pour over her books and swoon, but I did recently complete a Bentgesson-inspired embroidery piece. I’ll tell you about that in my next post.

Williamsburg Embroidery

my favorite patriot

If we’re connected on social media, you’ll know that I recenty visited Colonial Williamsburg with my favorite eight-year-old patriot and one of his older brothers, who prefers to remain more anonymous.

George Wythe House
George Wythe House

In case you’ve never heard of Colonial Williamsburg, its a non-profit organization and outdoor living history museum consisting of 18th century shops, homes, gardens, out buildings, taverns, government buildings. As capitol of the Virginia colonies in the 1700’s, Williamsburg was a hot bed of political activity before, during and after the American Revolution. Yes, George Washington undoubtedly slept there. Thomas Jefferson too.

Capitol building, Williamsburg
Capitol building, Williamsburg

Today, Colonial Williamsburg is populated with a staff of historically attired re-enactors who work, play, and intrigue in the 18th century style – discussing politics, cooking meals, forming militias, selling 18th century goods in shops, and crafting all manner of 18th century essentials, like wigs, tin cups, and wooden barrels. Every day, at 10am, they storm the Governor’s Palace, and there’s Revolution in the Streets at noon.

My little patriot got to try his hand at kitchen chores, military training, and 18th century children’s games. We all got to see shoes constructed by a cobbler, spoons hammered out by a silver smith, and watch an outdoor performance of Moliere’s Scapin that was so inventive and silly that it held my 8 year old’s attention.

work in progress at the milliner's shop
work in progress at the milliner’s shop

Above all, my favorite Williamsburg activity was our trip to the Milliner’s shop, where they were working on embroidery projects. I dragged my little patriot there early one morning, while his elder brother slept in.

Thankfully, even 18th century stores are prepared to keep children entertained while their mothers browse. A kind seamstress (milliner’s apprentice?!) pulled out a basket of historically correct children’s activities. They embarked on a reproduction puzzle of the monarchs of England, from William I (1066 -ish) to George III (1770 -ish).

I was so busy asking questions and gawking at the embroidery projects, that I didn’t take nearly enough photos, and neglected to document the good ladies’ names.  Yet here are some of the hand made needlework projects I saw there.

A wool pocket book, suitable for 18th century men and women, edged with wool tape, and lined with linen, with rag paper in between to add structure and stiffness. I love the scalloped edge of the top flap and the way it closes with ties.

Case for spectacles, line with wool and leather and hand-stitched with a awl.
Case for spectacles, lined with wool and leather and hand-stitched with an awl.

Likewise, this spectacle case is edged in wool tape and closes with ties, but it was made with a leather inside to help hold the shape and prtect those precious spectacles.

I also learned about bone thread winders, knotting shuttles, and a lucet. I negleted to take photos of the beautiful crewel works in progress, the embroidered silk handbag on display, or how to use the lucet to make squared silk cord. But I did emerge with an book recommendation: 18th Century Embroidery Techniques by Gail Marsh

18th century embroidery techniques

I’ve just borrowed a copy from my local library and I’m enthralled. Who knew that “pattern-drawer” was an occupation in the 18th century? Doubtless the ladies of the milliner’s shop did, but now I do too. I don’t plan on stitching any spangled waistcoats, but if I do, I’ll have the Colonial Williamsburg staff to thank, and you’ll be the first to hear about it.

Inspiring embroidery on an antique petticoat

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Hello there! I’ve missed you!

I haven’t been doing much in the way of making things, but I’ve been travelling. Specifically, I’ve been visiting an old family home in Maryland.

An 1830’s structure with green shutters and a mottled stucco exterior, the house has been handed down for several generations, becoming a repository for forsaken objects. Dusty books molder in shelves and boxes; odd candlesticks share shelf space with 1970’s antiques magazines, and creaky cabinets harbor old porcelain pitchers, webbed with thin spidery cracks.

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And old photo of the house, taken in wintertime

When I was a child I liked to linger over traces and fragments left by the ladies of long ago. There was a dresser overstuffed with feminine artifacts: tiny crystal perfume bottles with silver tops, hand-edged handkerchiefs, kid gloves, and a tiny envelope of golden brown curls, labeled “Adeline” in a looping and faded script. I don’t know what happened to these items, but on my most recent visit, I came across an embroidered petticoat, shown here.

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Though the fabric is rumpled and yellowed with age, the embroidery is very much intact, with French knots, satin stitch and other elegant stitches I can’t name. The finely wrought flowers work their way up from a delicate scalloped hemline. White embroidery on the white linen, it is lovely and timeless work.

 

And it inspires me. Time to dust off my own embroidery supplies and try my hand at a new project. I’m thrilled to be back on this blog and look forward to connecting with you soon, dear readers.

How to organize your bed sheets, the crafty way

harry potter glasses embroidery

I’m not even close to being a super organized mother, as in, the kind of mother who maintains a color-coded family calendar, impeccably organized pantry, and foolproof system for managing the constant stream of children’s artwork coming home from school. But I do have my moments.

One thing I can’t stand is a jumble of bed sheets, mixed up sizes (twin? full?) in unmatched sets. (A pillow case from 2008 with a brand new top sheet?! the horror!) When my children where younger, I solved this problem by buying printed sheets: sheets with trucks, robots, airplanes. I would buy whatever it took to get them to love their beds, with the added bonus of easily organized sets.

white sheets, laundry basket

Now that they are older, my sons are ready for unadorned sheets. Even my 7 year old requested plain white sheets after having slept on hand-me down robots, trucks, airplanes for his entire life. With a sigh of resignation, I imagined lots and lots of undistinguishable white sheets heaped in a laundry basket and waiting to be folded and organized into sets for each bed.

Then, it dawned on me: this is a crafty opportunity! This is a chance to put my newfound craft of embroidery to practical use.

all.sheets 2

To distinguish among identical sets of sheets, I embroidered a symbol in the corner of each sheet/pillowcase, one symbol per set. Since this was more funcational than decorative, I stuck with a single color motif in a tucked away location – just inside the pillowcase, at the upper hemmed edge of the topsheet and at a single corner of the flat sheet.

I started with a set of sheets for my 7 year old who is currently obsessed with Harry Potter. We dithered about how to reduce the whole Harry Potter saga to a single essential motif – a lightning bolt scar? wand? Hogwarts crest? In the end, we settled on the pair of spectacles you see here.

Transferring the motif was as satisfying as ever and stitching was a breeze. (I used back stitch this time.) In the end, this was a speedy and satisfying project, though I’m not sure if it qualifies as a craft project, or merely clever housekeeping.

P.S. I’m no Martha Stewart, but I do love this sheet organization idea from her website.  Even more clever housekeeping!

Amos and Boris and an Embroidery Project

happy whale and book

For me, one of the biggest pleasures of being a mother is reading bedtime stories. As I snuggle in each night with my youngest child, I often find myself re-reading old favorites – The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Gruffalo, Frog and Toad. And I often find myself inspired, transported, bewitched, not just by good stories, but by captivating illustrations.

amos and boris book

One such inspiring book is Amos and Boris by William Steig. It tells the story of a friendship between a whale and a mouse and the illustrations are loose and alive, emotive and humorous, absorbing and appealing. I know this story so well now, that I read the words aloud without comprehension, while my mind dwells on the images, roaming over the rooftops of a castle on the horizon, basking in light shining from a boat’s cabin, floating in the swells of the ocean.

waves

Inspired by the quirky and cheerful seascapes in this book,  I recently sketched a whale in the ocean, a design I decided to use in an embroidery project. I chose three shades of murky blue-green for the sea, an earthy whale grey, and a white cotton drawstring bag.  I stitched the lines of ocean swells, darkest blues toward the bottom, lightest towards the top for an ombré effect. (DMC #s 924, 926, 927, if you care for specifics.)

happy.whale.front

My whale, outlined in a split stitch, seems a bit washed out compared to William Steig’s beautiful illustrations. When I am a more experienced and more confident embroiderer, I’ll have to revisit this project and try filling and shading the whale with stitches.

At the edges, I extended the ocean waves (stem stitch) around the side seams of the bag and across the back too. This reverse side might just be my favorite part of the project. The open blue ocean, embroidered version.

happy.whale.back

Small moment: Sorting embroidery floss

sorting floss

I’m tidying up this morning, sorting embroidery floss before I finish up my second embroidery project. Handling the threads, enjoying the textures and colors can be intensely satisfying-  a small moment but a pleasureable one.

Since I’m new to embroidery, I’m trying out a system of wrapping the threads on little cards and keeping the cards on a ring. If any of you more experienced stitchers have any tips on how to store floss, I’m all ears!

I’m also participating in “A Picture… a Moment” a link up over at Weekend Doings. Martha takes beautiful photos on her blog and on instagram. I’m thrilled to be part of this party. If you’re a blogger, you should link up too!

Weekend Doings

Needlepoint and the creative process.

np.iphone.case

One of the more challenging of my late 2013 projects was a second ombre needlepoint iphone case. I posted about my first ombré phone case last August, and that post still receives traffic. I took this as a sign of interest, and so, in making a second one, I planned to take photos of the process and try a proper tutorial. (Insert a foreboding snicker here.) As it turns out, I was filled with hubris.

yarn.for.needlepoint

I started with this photo of beautiful new yarns, and planned to follow the same pattern as in my first phone case. I took notes on how to prepare the canvas and how I counted out the stitches for the bands of color.

taking.notes

Quickly, my plan and the project fell apart. These colors looked too cold and hard in the wide bands of color I’d used on my last ombré case. So I ripped them out and tried again. My next attempt was not much better. So I ripped it out again. In fact, I lost track of how many times I started over and thankfully I stopped trying to take photos of the progress too. I probably threw up my hands once or twice, but in the end I found a way to finish it.

np.iphone.case.2

I’m happy with the way it turned out, but also chastened and reminded of the tenacity, flexibility, and, of course, creativity, required to make something satisfying. There’s are reason its called the creative process.

Three little birds embroidery

birds3

My sister just had a baby, her third baby. I have been a bit giddy about it, possibly because my youngest child just turned 5, and I am feeling that the baby years are truly, solidly (finally?!) behind me. With no one at home in diapers, I really enjoy holding, rocking, cuddling my littlest niece.

I also have an excuse to make a few baby presents. I decided to start with embroidering something. Since this baby has two older siblings, I knew my sister to be well stocked in towels, burp cloths, onsies and more. So I settled on a generic white cotton zipper bag. Hopefully it will be useful for storing changes of clothing, extra diapers, who knows what else babies need these days.

birds2

I drew a little sketch – three little birds in a nest, and traced it on vellum with heat transfer marker, as instructed on Sublime Stitching. Ironing the design onto the fabric could not have been more satisfying. I almost wanted to stop there and I am now hankering to buy myself some colored transfer markers.

birds4

Then came the stitching. I used stem stitch for the nest, chain stitch and lazy daisy stitch for the foliage, and then struggled with stitching the birds. I tried a couple of different stitches but none seemed right. In the end, I just left it with a long and short stitch also from Aimee Ray’s book, Doodle stitching.

There seems to be something a little off about yellow baby chicks in a nest in a tree, but those were the colors I wanted and sometimes you just have to throw in the towel. After all, it’s just a baby present and we all know how quickly they grow up.