Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Stitcher-view with . . . Angela!

I've been lucky to find wonderful stitching friends.  In this feature, read about what inspires them when it comes to embroidery.

Today, we meet Angela, another Home Ec regular.  Angela's background is in photography, but she is also an avid knitter and, more recently, embroiderer.

Q:  How old were you when you learned to embroider?  Who taught you?
A:  My mother taught me to hand-sew when I was, oh, seven years old or so, I think--running stitches and back stitches and buttons and such.  I think about what I'm doing now as an extension of what I learned as a kid.  It feels the same to me as hand-sewing, but with fancier patterns, sort of like lace knitting is still a kind of knitting, but with specific arrangements of knits, purls, and yarn overs.  

Q:  Why are you drawn to embroidery as a craft? 
A:  Well, I'm obsessed with the Iowa State Fair.  I've gone at least once a year since I moved to Iowa in 2007.  Since I sew and knit, the fabric and threads division is one of my favorite places to check out (well, along with the butter cow and the smoked turkey legs).  I've always been impressed with the variety in the knitting, quilting, and crochet on display, but the embroidery seemed stuck in a very sweet, cherubs-and-inspirational-sayings, kind of style.  And I'm kind of a contrary person.  Every year I would think, "Someone should really shake this up!"  After a while I thought, well, maybe I should.  Now I have a set of tea towels to submit for next year, except instead of inspirational quotes they have excerpts from Sylvia Plath poetry.  And pillowcases that say "Ask me what I'm asking for."

Pillowcase embroidered by Angela

So I was first drawn to embroidery as a way to engage with both the literal space that it occupies at the fair, and the imaginative space it occupies in our culture.  I wanted to work with the context and the history and the assumptions that go along with it.       Once I got started on state fair projects, I also started to appreciate the qualities embroidery has to offer as a medium, and not just it's cultural associations.  I think embroidery lends itself really well to text, which is another interest of mine.  I've been thinking about approaching embroidery as a kind of calligraphy, a way of slowing down and focusing on the shape and space of letters and the craft of forming them just so.  (I still have a long way to go with that part!)     And, if I'm going to be perfectly honest, I often covet the awesome things people make around me, and I've been admiring Cassie's work for years.  So the idea has been kind of percolating for a long time.

Q:  What are your favorite and least favorite stitches?
 A:  The only stitch I use right now is chain stitch.  My absolute favorite stitches to look at are blackwork. 

Q:  What is your favorite thread and fabric? 
A:  The basics: plain cotton fabric and embroidery floss.  I suppose eventually I'll have an idea that would be better suited to other materials, but right now there are too many possibilities with just those things.

Q:  What types of projects do you like to work on?
 A:  Text, mostly.  I've been working with poetry or slogans that resonate with me.  I think written language is beautiful, not just in the imagery and emotion it can conjure, but the actual lines on a page, the shape and movement of letters.  I've recently started a year-long project--all 131 lines of T.S. Eliot's The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock--so it will be a while before I have a chance to think about what other projects I like.

Q:  Where do you find inspiration? 
A:  A lot of my ideas start out as "wouldn't it be great/impressive/funny/ridiculous if someone did ___?"  I make the things that I wish existed.  Either that, or I make the thing I wish were mine.  My current project started because I use a light table to trace my design onto fabric, and every time I do that I think about how beautiful the fabric looks when lit from behind, and what if that were the intended display?  What kinds of ways could someone manipulate the effect of the light through fabric? Someone should do that!  I'd already been thinking about the T.S. Eliot, and how ridiculous it would be to try to embroider the ENTIRE poem.  And now I'm embroidering the poem on fabric to make light boxes out of.

Embroidered by Angela
Q:  Are there any types of embroidery or skills that you would like to learn in the future?
A:  Some day I would like to make something with a lot of smocking because I think of hand-smocking as, like, the Olympic Gold Medal of hand-stitching.  People who do hand-smocking are the BAMFs of threadwork.  And some day I'd like to make the kind of Chinese embroidered "paintings" that I grew up with.  It's all long-and-short satin stitch, but the skill difference between my satin stitches and the ones in the tapestries is monumental.  So... I want to make a prairie bonnet and a Chinese tapestry.  :)  Some day.  Oh, and since I'm making light boxes, I need to learn woodwork.  I'm terrified of power cutting tools, so it's kind of daunting.  (My fingers are useful.  I would like to keep all of them attached.)  And I'd like to re-attempt the Master Knitter program and get further than three samples.  And weaving, and quilting, and getting back into calligraphy, and--

Check out Angela's other works in progress at her website!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Stitcher-view with . . . Cassie!

I've been lucky to find wonderful stitching friends.  In this feature, read about what inspires them when it comes to embroidery.

Today, we meet my friend Cassie.  She is one of the regulars at Home Ec's Saturday brunches, and she recently opened StitchinBliss, an Etsy shop to sell hand-embroidered wedding handkerchiefs.

Q: How old were you when you learned to embroider? Who taught you?
A: What counts as embroidery, and what counts as learning? Before I was seven years old--five, maybe, but I remember most things that happened around then as belonging to five--I had a needlepoint kit. The printed picture was of a rainbow and a cloud, and my mother showed me how to make the diagonal stitches. I remember the pink plastic needle much better than I do the picture itself. Sometime before or during seventh grade, I learned some amount of cross-stitch, though I can't remember if I learned it in an intramural club or not.  
Then, at . . . um, an age probably larger than twenty-six but not larger than twenty-eight? Numbers! Argh! Anyway, as an adult, I took an embroidery class at Home Ec Workshop. A friend of mine had taken an earlier session and made a sampler with the motto, "Dissertate This," to support her as she finished her PhD, and I liked the idea of doing something fussy and bright. Codi Josephson, the teacher, had screen-printed the sampler in white on a variety of colors; because I am me, I took white fabric. She led us through basic stitches as well as showing us resources to learn more and did a great job balancing the skill levels of the class. I had read about embroidery and needed practice, a mother and young daughter were learning together, and another student, JoAnne, showed us an embroidered portrait of her cats that looked ready to purr. Teal deer: I learned as an adult, but I had a soft background in sticking needles into things.

Q: Why are you drawn to embroidery as a craft?
A: Honestly, at first, because everyone praises me for my tiny, precise stitches, and no one else was doing it as well as I was! I will not hide my shallowness. I live with spinners, one of whom is learning to weave, I eat breakfast with a Master Knitter on Saturdays, other friends do incredible colorwork, lace, or amigurumi food, and I need as many sewing lessons as my sewing machine needs work to run properly. Surrounded by people with incredible crafting skills, where else can I be best? Of course, now there are quite a few embroiderers in my circle, but I wouldn't give them (and you) up to regain my throne as No Seriously How Did You Do That Queen. I like embroidery because I can mess with it easily. I mentioned the seventh-grade intramural class--we had small pictures with teddy bears in various outfits and I took the snorkeling bear. But the snorkeling bear was a boy! Wearing a Speedo! This could not happen. So I made him into a girl wearing a pink two-piece. Likewise, the original Home Ec sampler class: I changed the wing on the bird because I didn't like the printed one. I added eyeshadow and bright red cowboy boots. I used couching where the sampler had stem stitch. I threw in scalloped stitches on both sides of the banner. I layered chain stitches to make the flowers, I did twice as many feather stitches going up the sides because I liked the look, and I decided my bird was a damned fine peacock, thank you, and she was going to have a tail. Go look at that tail. Admire the tail.  
Embroidered by Cassie

I don't know how to do that with knitting, not really, nor sewing. Embroidery gives me a lot of room to play. I designed a piece for a friend and made it look exactly right-- no worry about having the right center but wrong border, no gauge to match, just drawing the picture and spending forever and a day stitching it. Embroidery's also faster when I work on it steadily. Doesn't happen often, but it's satisfying.

Q: What are your favorite and least favorite stitches?
A: I don't know that many stitches, to be honest. From the beginning, I loved stem stitch because it looks so even and ropey. I have never liked split stitch; it's difficult to do and looks ragged. I don't like that they teach it in high school home ec classes because no one can make it look good. Backstitch always surprises me when it looks like anything other than bricks, so I guess I dislike it on paper but like it once I'm done with the project. I really like chain stitch, though I do mine backward--I do a lot of stitches backward, actually, because it's easier for me to pass the needle under an existing stitch that to gauge where the needle will come out and catch a half-formed stitch that way. I should add that I like chain stitch when it's done as small as possible. Half the reason I added the layered flowers to my Home Ec sampler was that the original petals were too big and looked sloppy! I also like couching because it goes fast. For projects that need quick writing, I use couching.

Embroidered by Cassie
Q: What is your favorite thread and fabric?
A: Can I skip this question? I use DMC floss and flour-sack towels muslin from JoAnn Fabrics. I've also used lace-edged handkerchiefs and recently acquired Irish linen. I like fabric that's even and fine enough for me to put stitches exactly where I want them. A word of advice for all stitches: don't use foil floss lightly. It will break your needle-threaders and frustrate you to no end. It's a good material once you're done with it, but it will make you hate the world and all its textiles.

Q: What types of projects do you like to work on?
A: I like projects I can alter to suit myself--I'm working on printed towels for a friend now and am not sure how I'm going to change the pattern beyond 'subtly'. I like projects with some humor to them. I love bright colors and rainbows. I like striking images and contrast. Sometime I'm going to do an embellished fabric (Home Ec has a couple I must have because leaves and birds and mine), but I have a few projects in my queue first.

Q: Where do you find inspiration?
A: So far, with limits. "Make me something," doesn't work. "I like trilobites and here's a quote about them," leads straight to a year-long project. "The State Fair wants a pair of towels," means I have to find a pair of ideas I like. "I'd love an embroidered wedding handkerchief," and the art from the invitation work together. For my embroidered book cover, I used a cool background fabric because my collection of floss is about half blues--I've never had to use my reds and oranges and I wanted to force myself to look at them the same way I do my beloved blues. I think that many people don't realize the value in limits. By eliminating almost all of what is possible, the remaining infinity suddenly seems broader. I'm also likely to subvert whatever I'm doing, or at least to think I am. A good friend of mine once said, of writing, that your first idea is almost always crap because it's easy. The second or third ideas will be better. It's not that I think traditional embroidery is terrible--far from it!--but I'm much more likely to make and use a set of napkins that makes me giggle than to follow the iron-on pattern exactly.

Embroidered by Cassie

Q: Are there any types of embroidery or skills that you would like to learn in the future?
A: Discipline? Theme of my life. I'd like to expand my vision and ideas so I have more flexibility in what I can do. Look at Carolyn's pictures! I never would have thought to do the abstract diatomish circles. I'd love to learn blackwork and other very precise filling techniques; every year at the State Fair, I take a picture of *something* blackworky. And framing! And more designing! And there must be a project out there that would make knots make sense, so that. Oooh, embroidering clothes....!

See more pictures of Cassie's projects at her Flickr page!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Stitcher-view with . . . Carolyn!

I've been lucky to find wonderful stitching friends.  In this feature, read about what inspires them when it comes to embroidery.

Today, we meet my friend Carolyn.  We met in a Home Ec class on embroidered embellishments, and have stayed in touch ever since!

Q:  How old were you when you learned to embroider?  Who taught you?
A: I was around 14-15 when I learned to embroider. My mom taught me.

Q:  Why are you drawn to embroidery as a craft?
A: I am drawn to embroidery because, for me, it is very relaxing, portable, in-expensive, and the possibilities for design are endless.

Vegetarian Epicure image, "Cook with Spoon" drawn by Julie Maas
Embroidered by Carolyn

Q: What are your favorite and least favorite stitches?

A: Favorites: back stitch, seed stitch, split stitch. Least favorite: none.

Q: What is your favorite thread and fabric?
A: I primarily use DMC 6 stranded floss. I also love Kreinik metallic floss. 

Q: What types of projects do you like to work on?A: When choosing a project to work on, I am drawn to images that make my heart go, "Aaaaaah! I HAVE to stitch that." Follow your bliss! If the pattern/picture/image doesn't make my heart sing, I won't bother with it.

"The Twins" by Carolyn
Based on a photograph of her with her twin sister
Q: Where do you find inspiration?A: I use Google and Pinterest a lot. I just found two Winter (not Christmas) patterns (via Pinterest) that I am going to start on this weekend. 

Q: Are there any types of embroidery or skills that you would like to learn in the future?A: I am toying with re-learning crochet and using crochet with embroidery.
Embroidered by Carolyn
To see more of Carolyn's work, visit her website!