Friday, September 29, 2017

Tough Choices when Designing Your Stitching

Harmony with Nature Casket - Left Side for the casket bottom and the frieze top
Often a teacher just shows the final project and it looks so well thought out and I get lots of comments about the ripping and the 'I can'ts' from my students.  This is common when working the Cabinet of Curiosities as the pieces are mainly original and thus so difficult to visualize and make choices.

So I thought I would pull the curtain back and show some of the hand wringing that went on when getting this latest Harmony with Nature Casket panel done.

I had a reasonably clear vision of the center of the cartouche, the stag was to be raised and everything else inside the oval should be low relief.  It is somewhat easier when dealing with motifs that are 'something'.  A cloud isn't likely to be stitched in red, so choices get a bit smaller.  But the outside of the piece, that could be ANYTHING.  I had studied many worked pieces of this designer (John Nelham, a long story on that conclusion) and noted that often the cartouche motif was outlined in a thick silk rococo in either cream, yellow or light blue.  It does a nice job of unifing areas that are filled with highly textural threads and defining the shape.  So off to getting it manufactured (a 2.5 year job with a few yards rushed to me just in time to work this piece!)

Putting the border around the cartouche
Silk purls in pastel colors around the edge
I studied many pictures and found several different ways to treat the ovals.  There are the silk covered parchment that is folded and stitched down in overlapping layers.  Then there are silk covered purls layered around the oval.  And one I really love off a piece at the V&A, silk covered plate that is crenelated and stitched down offset so the pattern of the hills and valleys are in a brick pattern.

Since this is a really small oval, the parchment idea is out of scale.  So I thought I would try the silk purls in the tiny size that I now have.  I had seen a version that used pastel colors instead of all greens and I loved it.  So off to work padding it and cutting little silk purls.
Well it wasn't until I got about 1/3 around the piece that standing back from it - I HATED it.  I couldn't quite put my finger on why and knowing how much work was in it, I didn't want to immediately rip it out.  And I was on a tight deadline staying up to 1am most nights trying to get it and instructions done as I had been out of the country most of the month.

I reverted to working on other areas more as sometimes the choices there will help make something really not work or lessen its impact. Finally it hit me what was wrong.  I had decided to work the order of blue-pink-green-purple-yellow and then repeat.  It was the purple.  Purple on its own is great, but it was the addition of purple right next to the yellow that was the problem.  The color mixing of the adjacent colors was making the purple/yellow look muddy and not the clear pastel look I was going for.  Crud.  If I was to take out the purple or yellow, I would have to rip it all out and I was running out of time.
Trying ideas on the side

So how about the other idea?  Using the crenelated silk covered plate to fill the oval?  I could use the new green one in the Frostings box as well as some of the nice striped cordon we have.  It would be super fast to couch it down around the oval and would compliment what I have planned for the top (its a secret...).  If I was going to have to waste all that careful placement of the silk purls by ripping them out - at least I could recover time with the fast filling of those group.  So I tacked some of it in place and did what I normally do - prop the frame on a table against a lamp across the room and walk around cleaning - getting glances at it from different distances.

Disappointment.  While I really loved the look of the treatment, it was too skimpy in this size of oval.  The cream silk rococo border took up visual space and the dark interior was just too thin to compliment the heavy motifs of the rest of the cartouche.  If it was just an 1/8" or so wider it would be fine.  That is why the silk purls looked so good - the 'weight' of them made it like you were looking into the oval the way I had envisioned it.  But I hated the brown tinge.

But I knew well enough from years of experience that I should continue the rest of the piece and not take it out until I was super-duper sure that it wasn't going to work.  What if the colors I chose for the rest of the piece dominated and 'brightened' the oval.  Maybe I would decide that I needed to abandon the pastels all together at the end and do it in greens/yellows like we often see.  So I pushed on, disgusted by my stupid choices (you really beat yourself at midnight when working on a deadline!).  And honestly if I wasn't on a deadline it would still be sitting there by my work table half done like I hear from so many of you when you run into a problem.

Trying to do something new in the side motif
So to fill the side motif, I wanted to do something I had seen on a lovely mirror at the MET that has similar shapes.  The silk purls are laid down and couched over the side to fill areas and the veins were worked in loops.  So I got to work.  The idea was to fill the bottom with dark green and shade each segment towards the moss green.  Quickly I didn't like it and I also thought it was difficult and fussy.  Would the students have success if I was having a challenge myself in estimating each cut?

So again, I abandoned this side and lucky there is another motif of this type mirrored on the other side!  Leave the work in and try another idea on the other side and compare the two from afar.  I did what we have seen done most often, ignore the vein lines and overlap the silk purls to splay them.  Now I was honestly a bit disappointed - not in the look, because it looks great - but in the 'creativity aspect'.  This box has the same cartouche on each side and there needs to be some amount of sameness in the treatment so they relate in a nice overall look to the box and it focuses the attention to the center of the oval.  So by choosing this treatment, I was going to end up doing eight just like it. Sniff.  Not so out of the box as I was hoping.  But right for the piece I would have to say.

More successful
So back to the other side and ripping out of the vein example and matching the left.  So that left me with the petalled motif at the 45 degree points and the oval to figure out.  I looked at the piece from afar and it was obvious to me that the one color in the palette that wasn't used much was blue.  So I tried it and admit that I bounced around a lot between the 0072 and the 0277 color.  Dark or Light, Dark or Light?

I settled on the lighter version of it and stitched them all.  All of a sudden the blue brightened up the piece.  But I was left with it feeling a bit flat in that area.  I might need to add to the petals.  I had originally been thinking of filling it with something textural and with the blue color limiting my choices of thread I defaulted to satin stitch - somewhat because of time pressure too.  Given more time I might have made the mistake of outlining it in the cream rococo as well to put in something more loopy like the silk soutache.  But that hooked rug look might not have been so crisp as it needed next to the loop look of the oval with the silk purls.

Hey - that blue makes everything look a bit better!
It was at this point that I had to go back to working the oval.  To rip or not to rip.  I think my husband was super tired of hearing me say that it looked muddy (before the blue).  And honestly he is not my go to guy for design advice.  (Please stop wearing navy with black!!).   But my oldest boy is.  He is the one who is torn between industrial design and mechanical engineering as a career.  He is the 'engineer' chosen by the art department to go to Art All State - something he was terribly embarrassed about because he isn't choosing to go to art school.

So I said, David - should I rip it out or not and get rid of the purple?  And what did he say?  "No. It looks from here like a wreath of tiny flowers laid around the oval.  It's ok mom"

Done.  The master has spoken.  We jointly decided to emphasize the blue a bit more by making it complex by adding needlelace petals in gilt sylke twist in the darker color that I had been torn between.  So both got on it, that made the blue more layered and the glint brought the eye out to the bright part from the muddy purple.

The piece almost done with the contrast between the satin stitched blue petaled sides and the ones with the needlelace petals added in the darker blue.  There is just something about the shadows that really add to the piece as well.  It makes the oval go from standing out to being part of a whole ring of dimensional parts.

I actually really like it all now.

So that is my background story to how some of these pieces get made.  You start with some loose ideas and feelings you are going for.  Pictures of pieces you like.  And you just plow through the hard decisions, sometimes trying more than one idea and often you just need to post a picture and say "is this ok??".

Now the antlers.  If anyone recalls in the Stumpwork instructions for COC 2.  You might recall TWO sets of antlers.  Yup.  I made two complete ones in different techniques.  They are sitting in a box waiting someday for the perfect need for them on another piece.  Ha ha.

It is funny, in engineering we celebrate these failures as a necessary part of getting to the right answer.  But women in handwork abuse themselves verbally about making a mistake.  About not being perfect.  About being stupid to not see the answer the first time.  We got to get out of that mindset as it is keeping us all back from creating.



  1. Fascinating insight into developing your own design.

    I love the way the dark blue petals define the oval, yet 'join' it comfortably to the outside elements.

    And those last 3 sentences - yes, yes and yes!

  2. Very interesting article. I think in my case I have a fear of making mistakes because I don't want to waste time. I have so little of it to stitch that any time spent that ends in something that needs to be ripped out is time wasted. But I need to get over that and just think of it as time spent learning how NOT to do something ;)

  3. I always love reading stories about how pieces come about! It makes me feel so much better about the amount of 'no that didn't work' that I do! It's a truly beautiful piece, and your choices have worked so well! Lucky you for having an eye in the family you can turn to.

  4. Thanks so much for the glimpse inside the mind of an incredible designer. What I learned from your thought processes gives me courage to rip-it-out when I'm not I find in the finished piece, my eye always travels critically to the design flaw and wishes I'd redone it no matter how much time I invested in the stitching. You have inspired me! Beautiful work!