Friday, June 21, 2013

Favorite Shops: Frosted Pumpkin Stitchery

If you grew up with parents, relatives, or family friends that embroidered or did counted cross-stitch, you can probably still picture a lot of the projects in your mind.  Some of them might still be in your house, tucked away in an attic or closet.

Day-of-the-week kitchen towels decorated with teapots.  A sampler with a baby's name and birthday surrounded by cross-stitched bunnies and teddy bears.  A Hummel figurine-esque child praying "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep" at his bed, with a big smiling crescent moon in the window.

In a word:  cutesy.  In hyphenated two words:  old-fashioned.

Needlecrafts have come a long way since then.  Men and women are using embroidery and cross-stitch as an artistic medium and a political forum.  They are creating pieces that are satirical, shocking, and even NSFW.

I'm excited by the possibilities of using a traditionally feminine craft to create something beautiful and subversive, but sometimes I still crave CUTE.  Where can I find patterns that fulfill this desire for cuteness, but with a contemporary style?

This is when I turn to Frosted Pumpkin Stitchery, an independent cross-stitch pattern company owned by friends Amanda Jennings and Ashleigh Gilberson (and their smiling pumpkin mascot, Sugarloaf.)  Their patterns take after the Japanese style of kawaii--a type of cuteness that includes characteristics like large heads on animals, putting smiley faces on inanimate objects, and a simplicity of design.  These elements make their patterns cute in a way that avoids the "country kitsch" style that used to reign supreme in counted cross-stitch.

In the past, they had patterns that mostly focused on a single image with wordplay, like a piñata with the caption, "You are smashing!"  They also have a series of "Around the World" patterns that focus on  images from individual countries.  Many of these patterns have been temporarily pulled as they are moving their business to a new online site and redesigning the pattern documents.

The new patterns are available to download instantly after purchase.  Once you download a pattern in a PDF file, you get a 1-page introduction to cross-stitch, a list of all the thread colors you need (with their color numbers for both DMC stranded cotton floss and Cosmo), a computerized image of the final product in color, a pattern that is in black-and-white symbols, and a color key showing which colors are represented by each symbol.*  It's a clean setup that is easy to follow even for a beginner, which I was when I purchased my first pattern.  They look great when printed out, but they are also useful on the computer screen.  They are formatted so that you can enlarge the pattern on a computer or tablet, which makes it easier to see the symbols.

*Instead of transferring a pattern directly on plainweave fabric, like cotton, counted cross-stitch involves using even weave fabric that contains holes, like aida cloth or linen.  The holes turn the fabric into a type of grid, which is then used to figure out the pattern (literally counting how many squares of the grid need to be stitched).  I create the cross stitches by pushing the threaded needle in and out of these pre-existing holes.

Cute, user-friendly patterns are only part of the reason why I am a fan of this company.  The other reason is that Amanda and Ashleigh have taken cross-stitching, which is normally a solitary hobby, and turned it into a collective experience.  They have become best known for samplers that they release to customers (or "subscribers") in stages, with the subscriber not knowing how the final project is going to look until the final stage.  They take "pre-orders" for the pattern several weeks in advance.  The pre-order comes with a file containing all of the aforementioned elements, but instead of a pattern for the entire project, it only has patterns for frames that will eventually contain pictures.  Starting on the "official" release date, Amanda and Ashleigh e-mail parts of the patterns at regular intervals.  Subscribers stitch each stage of the pattern as it is released, filling in the frames as they go.  Once the final stage of the pattern is released, subscribers can then finish and frame the project.  If someone buys the pattern after the first week, they will receive every stage of the pattern until that point and are added to the number of subscribers receiving future stages of the pattern.  If someone buys the pattern after all stages have been released, then they will receive the complete pattern.

Frosted Pumpkin has done several yearly samplers, in which they release one part of the sampler for each month.  Each sampler has a theme--2011 was fruits, 2012 was desserts, and 2013 is woodland creatures.  The 2013 Woodland Sampler was the first pattern I purchased, and I can't believe I am already halfway done!
January--Kissing dear couple
February--Raccoon . . . in eternal darkness
March--Mushroom in a terrarium
April--Jackalope in the rain
May--Mr. Gnomey and the Sprout Gang
June--Firefly in a mason jar
The whole shebang
They have also released seasonal samplers for winter, and spring.  Today is the official release date of the summer sampler, and they are planning an autumn one as well.  Each seasonal sampler has 25 square frames that contain food, animals, and other objects that best represent that season. The summer sampler will be the first one that I will try to complete as it is released--and with 5 squares getting released every week for five weeks, I will be quite busy.

I love the element of surprise inherent in this setup.  I have no idea what images will appear in the frames, but I know they will be beginner-friendly.  I like the style of their other patterns, so there is little chance that I am going to be displeased.  It also gives me something to look forward to each week and month, a little present I give myself that lasts all year.  Releasing each sampler in stages has the added effect of turning patterns into stitch-alongs--a crafting experience in which the participants work on the same project at the same time.  Beginners feel more confident because they know that they can turn to other people for questions.  Experienced stitchers engage in friendly competitions to see who can stitch each stage of the pattern first.  Early completed patterns, unusual patterns, and unique touches might be featured on the Frosted Pumpkin Facebook page.  While counted cross-stitch projects tend to be uniform by nature, that doesn't stop people from going in different directions, like having the jackalope stand underneath a rainbow or providing a girl mushroom companion to the boy mushroom.

Amanda and Ashleigh have been taking intensive business classes from their local extension of the Small Business Administration.  These classes have helped them form strategies for building a loyal customer base.  One of these strategies appears to be providing incentives for subscribers to become invested in the sampler beyond the satisfaction of completing the project.  Several days before the release of each month's pattern for the 2013 Woodland Sampler, they post a Facebook status asking for guesses on that month's pattern.  The first person to make a correct guess receives a free pattern of her choice.

The Summer Sampler provides even more opportunities to get involved.  If 400 people buy the pattern by the day the last part is released (July 19), all 400 people will receive a free pattern that won't be for sale on the website or to people who buy the pattern after that date.  As of June 9, they had already reached 200 people and celebrated by pledging money to a Kickstarter campaign benefitting a farm in their community.  They are also holding a "speedy stitcher" contest.  People enter by e-mailing them a picture of that week's completed stage of the pattern by midnight on the Thursday after the release of that stage.  Out of the pool of people who are able to accomplish this for each stage of the pattern, three people will get a free copy of the upcoming autumn sampler.  The contest began with the frames, which I was unable to complete in time, but it gives me a goal to work towards on future samplers.

As a result of a combination of cuteness, surprise, community, and competition, Frosted Pumpkin Stitchery isn't just a pattern company--for me, it is a full-on addiction.  I am looking forward to what the future holds, both for Frosted Pumpkin patterns and to see how Amanda and Ashleigh grow as entrepreneurs.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Stitching Shakespeare (Part 1)

Several weeks ago, I finally acted in my first Shakespeare play--Cymbeline.  If you reacted to that sentence by thinking, "That's a Shakespeare play?" you are not alone.  Cymbeline is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare's least-performed works.  It straddles the line between tragedy, comedy, romance, and fantasy.  It has a complex plot with a fair number of holes.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw hated the last scene so much that he wrote his own version.

The play was produced by Fourth Room Theatre, a local theatre group that was founded in the last few years.  We were able to perform it free for the public by getting funds through an Indiegogo campaign, which will hopefully become an annual tradition of free summer theatre in our town.  Our setting was on the outdoor property of a local homeowner, who lives on an old 4-acre farm that is just across the street from the university football stadium.  We built a raked wooden stage and hung Christmas lights from the trees, using the natural features in the space for inspiration.

As a way of emphasizing our natural setting and metaphors in the text, the director's production concept involved every character representing a different type of bird.  Birds were used as the inspiration for costume and acting choices, as well as a visual motif for advertisements.

The young male lead was a bald eagle, the female lead that fakes her death was a phoenix, the evil queen was a raven, the king was a blue heron, and so on.  I was part of a group of supernatural characters ushering the action along, wearing black leggings and white dresses to represent swans.  We would put on other costume pieces when we filled in for smaller roles.  

During one of these scenes, I was a parrot and my scene partner was a peacock.  When she put on her feathered headpiece, I thought about this cloth I had leftover from a beginning sewing class.

I thought about the cloth, and gradually formed the idea for my first original project.  I used fusible webbing to create an appliqué of one of the peacocks.  They had a small amount that I could buy at Home Ec Workshop.  The way that it works is that you iron the fabric onto one side of the webbing so that it almost melts together.  Then I cut out the patch I wanted, peeled paper off of the other side of the webbing, and ironed the patch onto the turquoise fabric.  I put the fabric into the embroidery hoop, then used an ordinary #2 pencil to write out a quote from the show.

When done, the quote will say, "How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature."  This quote was highlighted in the advertising for the show, and it highlight's the director emphasis on the role of fate in the show.  I will also embellish the peacock with decorative stitches.  Once it is finished, I will cut away the excess turquoise fabric and leave about 2 inches of it around.  I can then glue this border of fabric to the embroidery hoop and hang it as is.

At first, I felt weird about preserving my cursive handwriting in backstitch.  In my beginning embroidery class, Codi said that she finds embroidery fascinating because everybody has a different style, "Like handwriting."  I replied, "That worries me.  My handwriting looks like a five-year-old's."  Hopefully, those insecurities will go away when I see the finished product, my imperfect handwriting elevated to a work of art.

I have so many ideas for original pieces I'd like to do.  This seemed like a great first project to try techniques like appliqué, transferring designs, and framing.  It's also a wonderful way to commemorate my return to acting after a long hiatus, and all the lessons I learned.  Well, this wasn't actually the first show I acted in after my hiatus, but I am still trying to figure out what kind of project to do for The Vagina Monologues . . .

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tools of the Trade

When starting a hobby, the idea of having to spend money on new and unfamiliar equipment can be daunting--enough to scare people into delaying the start of an activity they really want to try.  While all embroidery books have a chapter describing the supplies you need, I recommend taking lessons.  They can be at your local craft store (though ones offering embroidery lessons are few and far between).  They can be from a family member or a friend.  I think crafting hobbies, in particular, need some hands-on instruction in the beginning.  You not only can see how to complete steps in a way that can be confusing on the printed page, but your instructor can provide valuable advice on what to buy after years of experience.  There are some things that just have to be gleaned from personal experience (example:  transferring designs with water- and air-soluble pens vs. plain #2 pencils).  Why not get a head start with someone else's personal experiences?

Top:  Plastic container with cotton embroidery floss
Middle (L to R):  Metal hoop, crewel needles, wood hoop, chenille needles
Bottom:  Embroidery scissors
My embroidery supplies are really the result of several lifetimes of experiences.  I have a plastic storage container filled with cotton embroidery floss from elementary and middle school, when I used to make friendship bracelets.  I would wrap the floss around cardboard bobbins and group them by color.  I used to take the container with me to sleepaway camp and make bracelets in exchange for candy bars and other small items from the camp store.  When I started taking embroidery, I found the container at home and was so happy to find a veritable treasure box of floss, enough for countless future projects.  Back then, I didn't care about keeping track of the specific floss colors, so I use this for projects that don't call for specific floss colors.

For embroidery scissors, I use the ones that belong to my Auntie.  I also have a metal hoop of hers, which is not exactly like the ones currently sold in stores.  It does not have a screw to tighten the hoop, like the wood hoop has.  I don't know if it came off somehow, or if it never had one.  The wood hoop can be bought at any big-box craft store.  I got mine from someone who came to Home Ec one Saturday for breakfast.  When she saw me embroider the first week she came in, she started bringing her embroidery in subsequent weeks.  One of these weeks, I realized I had forgotten my metal hoop, so she lent me her inexpensive wood one.  I haven't seen her at Home Ec in several months, but I always bring my wood hoop with me in case she returns.

Friends and relatives can be great resources for inexpensive or free supplies.  Once word gets out that you are taking up embroidery, people might even seek you out to give you supplies.  When a woman who does embroidery dies or becomes too ill to continue her craft, her relatives might be left with her entire lifetime floss, patterns, etc.  They don't like the idea of throwing out things that meant so much to that relative, but nobody else in the family does embroidery. It puts their minds at ease if they can find someone who shares that hobby, because they know that their dear relative's supplies won't go to waste.

That's how I received a large bag of cross-stitch supplies.  I met Carolyn through an embroidery embellishment class at Home Ec.  We've kept in touch through Facebook, and several weeks ago she asked if I would like some supplies that belonged to her late sister.  I told her what I liked from the list she gave me, and she left them in a bag for me at the store.  A LARGE blue bag that I could barely carry on the bus!  I am astounded by Carolyn's generosity, and I hope that she will be happy with the ways I use this wonderful gift.

For example, I found a large number of small plastic bags and metal rings.  When I started working on cross-stitch projects, I had to buy new floss and keep track of the number of each color.  I had no clue as to how to do this, but the bags gave me the idea to store the floss in number order, with about four or five bobbins in each bag, and the bags attached to the metal rings.  When I need a floss of a specific number, I can find it easily through my "floss rolodex."

I have not yet found an elegant solution to keeping my projects organized.  For now, I am keeping them in sealed plastic bags with the fabric and floss together.

I recommend having a stitch encyclopedia on hand.  They contain information on the history of embroidery, supplies, methods for transferring patterns, and directions on performing a large variety of stitches, organized by stitch family.  There really is no definitive guide--each book contains stitches that might not be found in other books.  For the great diagrams and overall comprehensiveness, I recommend anything published by Reader's Digest.  The above copy, given to me by Carolyn, was printed in 2000 (and is now out of print), but you can find the equally-useful 1970's edition at used book stores, garage sales, or even on Amazon for as little as $3.20.

A stitcher "on the go" wants to keep her supplies neat and safe while traveling.  A fancy bag is certainly not necessary.  I just had the great opportunity to get one when I won a silent auction to benefit the family planning clinic where I am on the board of directors.  This messenger bag comes from a local stationary store, RSVP.  Once I emptied it of pens, notecards, and other goodies, I saw that it would make the perfect bag for transporting my embroidery.  It isn't too large and it has multiple pockets of varying sizes, including one that is perfect for my scissors.  It also looks very snazzy.  I get a little sheepish when people ask me if I sewed it, and I have to admit that I didn't.  My sewing skills aren't there yet.

How do you keep your crafting supplies organized?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Favorite Shops: Drop Cloth Samplers

After my first embroidery class, we got a list of recommended websites from teacher and Home Ec co-owner Codi.  One of the websites is Drop Cloth by Rebecca Ringquist, who happens to be a long-time friend of Codi.  Rebecca learned how to embroider while taking a feminist art history class in college, and since then she has been both designing samplers she sells and using embroidery in her artistic works.

I checked out her blog (the one that focuses on samplers.  She has a separate one for her art.)  This led me to her Etsy shop, where I bought her famed Original Sampler.

This is still a work in progress (WIP).  That is one of the troubles with embroidery--it is incredibly easy to work on several projects at once, because you can always change the projects in your hoop and unthread your needles, moving on to the next thing.

And Rebecca came out with a really awesome next thing.  In December, she introduced a Stitch Sampler of the Month Club.  Every month on the 15th, she mails out a small sampler that focuses on a different stitch family.  Here are the ones I have completed so far.




I love the anticipation of waiting for the sampler, wondering what stitches I am going to work on this month.  I take it with me to my Saturday morning crafting at Home Ec, and everybody is curious about what I'm working on.  It has also given me a lot of practice and I've developed ways to refine my techniques.  For example, I realized that I was wrapping my thread around the needle one too many times for French knots, and they look much neater now.

I highly recommend the Stitch Sampler of the Month Club for people who have mastered the basic stitches (Chain, Blanket, Feather, Running, Cross Stitch, Backstitch, Satin, French Knot).  By the end of the year, you will have worked your way through any good stitch encyclopedia and Rebecca will give out instructions on how to make a wall-hanging or stitch-book from all the samplers.  Each sampler is small enough to complete in one month.  It gives the opportunity to try lots of stitches that look wonderful, but might have been too intimidating before.  If a year sounds like a long commitment, she also offers 6-month and 3-month subscriptions.  They also allow complete freedom for deciding what colors to use, or even adding your own unique touches.  The Flickr group shows the different ways that people have stitched Drop Cloth samplers, from the dense detail of the Paisley Sampler to a version of the Original Sampler done entirely in gray monochrome colors.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I treated my mother and mother-in-law to a private embroidery lesson at Home Ec, using Rebecca's Penmanship Sampler.  When they asked where they could go to buy more patterns, printed on the fabric, I realized that all of my answers were based on the Internet.  The embroidery sections of Michaels and Jo-Ann Fabrics are small to the point of being neglected.  When they do have patterns (mostly cross-stitch patterns), they are extremely old fashioned and occasionally creepy.  (I don't know what the embroidery section is like at Hobby Lobby because I refuse to shop there.)

The future of embroidery is on the internet, where independent business owners can sell patterns in a variety of styles, either printed on fabric or for PDF downloads.  Through their blogs, they can offer tutorials for people who are getting started or want to learn a new technique.  For example, Rebecca offers lessons on Creativebug, a website that offers video craft lessons for individual purchase or a monthly subscription.  (I just bought one for stitching heirloom napkins, and another on techniques for making patterns based on photographs.)

I also like the personal touch of going to the owners directly.  When I first started ordering patterns from Rebecca, she wrapped them in envelopes made of old wrapping paper and, noticing that I'm from Iowa City, included notes asking whether I had met Codi.  Now she has more uniform bags and labels, but the personal touch is still there.  She always takes the time to comment on my Sampler of the Month pictures.  I like knowing that I'm helping her grow her business.  From the looks of her Instagram page, she is working on a sequel to the Original Sampler--and you can bet that I will be one of the first people to buy it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

How I Found A Most Agreeable Hobby

Welcome to my blog, EmbroiderElaine!  You might have noticed from looking at my profile on the side of the page that my name is not actually Elaine.  Where did the name come from?  It came from the same place that inspired me to take up embroidery.

Growing up, I was very close with my grandmother (Bubbe) and great-aunt (Auntie).  Each of them had "their" craft.  Bubbe learned how to knit as an adult from a friend who spent summers in the same resort town on Lake Michigan.  She taught me how to knit when I was in kindergarten, teaching me the basics and guiding me to knit my first pairs of garter-stitch booties.  I then lost interest until my senior year of high school, when I took it up again as stress relief.  I have been knitting ever since.

Auntie worked on embroidery.  Everyone described it with the term "cross-stitching," but she was really doing freehand embroidery that made use of cross-stitch motifs.  She worked exclusively on Jewish items--holiday tablecloths, challah covers (for the braided egg bread served by Eastern European Jews on Shabbat).  Her most impressive work was stitching large Hebrew alphabet tapestries for my mother and aunts as wedding presents.

Without children of her own, Auntie treated her siblings children and grandchildren as her own.  I was very close with her, to the point that when I would visit from college, she would always start the conversation by asking, "How am I doing?" I always hoped that I would grow up to be like her--have a successful career, travel the world, and always try new endeavors.  (She started learning to read Hebrew at 60.  She began teaching a Yiddish class in her apartment at age 90 and didn't stop until two months before she died at 100.)  Auntie never taught me embroidery, but I would sit with her and pick up her dropped needles.

In their later years, Bubbe and Auntie shared an apartment together.  Auntie died in 2010, and Bubbe followed her in 2011.  My mother and her sisters gathered to clean out their apartment.  In one corner, they found a bag containing Auntie's embroidery supplies--including an unfinished challah cover.  My mom asked me if I could try finishing it.  I agreed to try, but I didn't even know where to start.  I kept the bag for months trying to figure out what to do.

I had recently gotten married and moved to Iowa City.  While looking up local businesses to check out, I discovered that the locally-owned and independent craft store, Home Ec Workshop, was offering a beginning embroidery class.  I took it and learned the stitches I needed to finish the project.  I gave it to my mom as a Chanukah gift, and she nearly cried.
My first project

Challah Cover--Action Shot!
I realized that this was only the beginning.  I didn't just like embroidery.  I was infatuated with it, and I have been keeping with it since August 2012.  (I also started doing cross-stitch, which is a subset of embroidery.)  It had the same anxiety-reducing effects as knitting, but allowed me to play with color and design in a different way.  It made me feel close to Auntie, as well as all the women across time and distance who took up this same ancient art.  I met a lot of wonderful women who gave me advice and even free supplies, particularly once I became a regular at Home Ec Workshop's Knitting Breakfast Saturdays.  (Crochet and embroidery is also welcome.)  I also got a boost to my ego from people who were so impressed at the skills I learned in such a short time, and the neat appearance of my stitches.

As with the beginnings of all love affairs, I started developing grand expectations.  I became an "embroidery evangelist," encouraging people to learn and to buy patterns from my favorite designers.  I got so many ideas for future projects that I couldn't write them down fast enough.  I had ideas for even larger projects.  Etsy business!  Podcast!  State fair competitions!  I realized that once I started unintentionally mimicking Blair Warner from The Facts of Life, with many pronouncements that "I just had another one of my brilliant ideas," I had to slow down.

This blog is about slowing down, taking the time to document my progress and flesh out my ideas.  I want this to be a place where people can give me honest feedback.  I want to connect with more embroiderers out there, and inspire more people to take up a craft that can be equal parts vintage and new, traditional and subversive.  I also want to highlight designers, books, and folk traditions that can provide inspiration.

I knew that the name for my new blog had to include Auntie's name, Elaine.  "EmbroiderElaine" is pronounced "embroidery lane," which sounds like a district in a medieval town where embroiderers set up shop.  That is definitely a place I would love to stroll and window-shop.  I also like that the name recalls the joke among my cousins that once "Aunt Elaine" began to run together when said out loud, we thought that Auntie's name was Lane.  I wish that she was still around to ask how "she" was doing, but my blog will be here to continue providing the answer.

Question:  Did you have any relatives that embroidered?  Have you wanted to learn, but need help getting started?