Samples and samplers

A few months ago, I followed a short on-line course with Sue Stone, which outlined her way of experimenting with embroidery stitches. Since then I’ve made lots small samples, variations on some basic stitches (straight, running, couching and French knots). I’ve been mounting them on larger pieces of fabric, and fastening the larger pieces together to make books. I’ve enjoyed the process – I’ve always liked playing with ideas and techniques, much more than setting out to actually make a thing.

It dawned on me yesterday that what I was doing was making samplers – and that perhaps it was time to try a different approach. Looking in more detail at Sharon Boggon’s Love of Stitching sampler, I noticed that amongst the stitch samples, she includes notes on things that have happened in her life, or in the world generally, which I found quite an appealing idea. So is it time to move on from books of samples to a band sampler?

I’ve made a start. For someone who doesn’t do cross stitch, I have an awful lot of Aida fabric. And why have I got so much green thread, and so little red? You may detect a seasonal influence here.

I’ve also decided to work my way through at least one of Anne Brandon Jones’ books, starting with Simple Stitch for Embroidery, but not sticking rigidly to her examples.

This is despite being half way through embroidering a fabric book about amulets, and knitting a pair of socks and a hat I haven’t touched for a week because I kept making mistakes. So I really need something else to do. (Procrastinate? Me?)



The sampler, worked as an end in itself or as a show piece to hang upon the wall and showing no progress or development, has merely its decorative value, whatever that may be. The sampler worked as a means of steadily collecting a store of stitch technique, colour, and pattern notes for reference, has a lasting and increasing value to the worker, although it may be anything but a thing of beauty to other people.’

Anne Brandon Jones. Colour Pattern for Embroidery 1929

Brandon Jones recommends making a sampler of the latter type: short rows of each stitch, with variations and combinations. She suggests using a narrow strip of fabric, adding additional strips as necessary, ‘by means of decorative seams‘. A bit like Sharon Boggon’s For the Love of Stitching sampler.

When I was researching the history of UK embroidery for City & Guilds, I was struck by the way the function of samplers changed over the centuries. The early, 16thC practical samplers were made, just like those of Anne Brandon Jones and Sharon Boggon, by women who wanted to record new stitches and test out ideas. Gradually, over the next few centuries the purpose of most samplers changed from a record of ideas and techniques to something which measured and recorded a girl’s attainment. Some of the band samplers made for this purpose in the 17th and 18th centuries are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful pieces of needlework ever made. Even the utilitarian darning samples from this period are beautiful.

And then, somehow, samplers changed from including a wide variety of stitches, or patterns like 19th C woolwork samplers, to a few patterns, an alphabet, and some moralising words, all worked in cross stitch. It is said that alphabets were included so girls could both learn their letters, and how to mark linen for the laundry, but that was true in earlier centuries also.

Here I have to state that I am not a fan of cross stitch. I find it boring to work, and in many cases uninspiring to look at. So why did it become the stitch of choice to impose on young girls in the name of teaching them letters, and morality? And why is it still so popular? There are much more interesting stitches to try!

Simple Stitches

My copy of Ann Brandon Jones’ Simple Stitch Patterns for Embroidery arrived today. I’ve only had a chance for a quick look through – Mondays are hectic at Cheese Acres – but it interests me as much as her other two books.

It turns out to be published by Batsford, a well known name in needlework book publishing, although they seem now to be part of Pavilion. Simple Stitch Patterns is little more than a pamphlet, 40 pages stapled into a thin paper binding . My copy came with a few transfer patterns and a small piece of stamped fabric tucked inside the cover, ironic as one of the stated purposes of the book is ‘to help … workers to be independent of printed transfers and designs.’ However I love finding that sort of inclusion, it is part of the history of the book and adds to my pleasure in owning it.

The transfers are all from Stitchcraft magazine, and dated between 1938 and 1942. I did wonder if the book was a wartime reprint, but the pages are heavy paper, heavier than the cover, with lots of illustrations, so perhaps that is unlikely.

Clearly Brandon Jones’ ideas developed between this book and her second, published in 1929. There is no reference to gauges: she suggests using a saucer to draw circles, ‘marked off in sections – halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths etc.‘ but with no advice as to how to do this. No mention of a guide for straight lines either. ‘No drawing, transfer, thread, or guiding line whatever was used for any of the worked examples … nor will any be necessary to the average needlewoman who can sew a straight line of ordinary feather stitch regularly‘. Presumably between 1926 and 1929 she realised that there were far more of ‘those who have not a “straight eye” and who fail to cultivate one’ than she had at first thought!

Having had time to look through Brandon Jones’ three books, I think the thing I find most exciting about them is the way she combines familiar stitches in interesting ways. In Simple Stitch Patterns she uses several variations of chain stitch, plus fly, Cretan, Roumanian, buttonhole, and what she calls cone stitch, (which I would call fishbone). From these she develops a wide variety of border and motif patterns. I enjoy crazy quilting, but find it difficult to think up variations of seam treatments – Brandon Jones’ books have given me more ideas than any of the more recent books I own.

Her examples sometimes look heavy – she says they are worked in knitting wool on ‘coarse cream woollen crash’, which appears from the photos in the book and from Google to be a fairly thick, rough looking even(ish) weave. I would use lighter weight fabrics and a wider range of threads.

Her ideas about colour probably reflect her period: the examples in the single colour plate use navy, orange, a light blue-green, and rust, a combination which definitely does not appeal to me. But ‘definite rules cannot be laid down, though it is usually safe to use strong, pure colours such as red, blue and green together.’ Er, I think not.

But overall, an interesting set of books, I’m glad I stumbled across Brandon Jones’ work and intend to explore her ideas further. And not having ‘a straight eye‘ and having ‘failed to cultivate one’ I shall be using her gauges, just as soon as I’ve made some better ones.

I have to confess

I have a bad habit. In the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep, I go shopping on line. My resistance is low, and I buy things I might not buy during daylight hours. ( I also tell myself that calories consumed after midnight don’t count.)

I do impose some restrictions on my purchases: it’s usually cheapish second hand books that I buy, mostly from ABE books. And mostly old needlework books (and paperback novels). But recently Oxfam sent out an email listing lots of books, some of them 40% off. It’s in a good cause! How could I resist? And that is how I came across Anne Brandon Jones.

It turns out she wrote a number of books about embroidery. Colour Pattern for Embroidery, which is the one I bought, was published in 1929, although I didn’t know that at the time. I love the embroidery styles of the 20s to the 60s, so this was right up my street. However, when it arrived, it wasn’t just her embroidery which interested me – to be honest, some of it seems a bit clumsy. It was the patterns she developed from a small range of stitches, and the way that she did this, that I found most interesting. She tells the reader how to make and use ‘gauges’ to plan the layout of their embroidery. She advocates the use of a strip of rug canvas to lay out grids, and a semicircle of paper, folded and cut as if making a not very interesting semi-snowflake, for circles. Needless to say, I had to make some, although instead of paper I used heavyweight Lutradur. I haven’t actually used them yet, but I have plans for the semicircle.

That led me on to a search for more Brandon-Jones books. I’ve found two, Stitch Patterns and Design for Embroidery, also 1929, and Simple Stitch Patterns for Embroidery, 1926, both of which I have managed to order for a reasonable price. Well, less than the £29.67 Colour Pattern is currently listed for on Amazon, anyway. Although it turns out I could have read Stitch Patterns for free, although it’s not the same as handling the real thing.

A bit more Googling reveals that Ms Brandon Jones was also a painter, and I think this may be by her as well. Clearly a talented woman. I wonder how many women there were like her, well enough known in their day to publish a number of books, but now almost completely forgotten?

Thinking about frames.

A while ago I read a comment in one of the blogs I follow, that the majority of the textiles, in an exhibition the writer had visited, were not framed, but just ‘pinned to the wall’. This resonated with me because I have always had reservations about framing textile pieces. Partly because it’s expensive and I’m a cheapskate, but more because I think framing rarely does textiles justice. Apart from the problem of reflections, so often the box and the glazing disguise and obscure the tactility and 3D-ness of the textiles. I quite like the technique of attaching them to a box frame, but then you are restricted by the sizes of box frames which are available.

This morning we visited one our favourite galleries with rather nice coffee shops attached. The exhibition included several felt pieces, most of which were framed. Although reflections weren’t a problem in this gallery, I still thought that the few which weren’t framed looked more interesting: the haptic appeal of the felt was more evident, and those pieces didn’t seem confined, as the framed ones did.

I also remembered a tutorial discussion, about framing textiles, with a (non textile) tutor at university. I didn’t take much notice of it at the time, because if you are making giant gloves, you don’t even consider framing them. But one of the questions he raised was whether people who work in textiles frame their work because, traditionally, pictures are framed – and pictures are, in some people’s minds, ‘real art’. So by framing a textile piece we may be trying to position it in the that context.

Thinking back, none of my colleagues in the textile group at university did frame their degree show work – and I don’t think any of the painters did either. And in the gallery this morning, I think the only work which was framed, apart from the textiles, were prints of water colours by Prince Charles, and drawings by Queen Victoria. Make of that what you will. 

So now I’m thinking about revisiting my ‘Year of Stitches’ pieces, and considering what I might need to do to them if they were to be displayed ‘pinned to the wall’ – assuming I found a gallery which would let me do that!

Adventures in Seeing #3: Welcome the Unexpected?

Unfortunately, sometimes the unexpected is very difficult to welcome. Shortly after I started taking photos for this topic, something very sad happened within the family.  We had, to some extent, seen it coming, but it still arrived very suddenly, with no warning. The dust has not settled yet, but for the foreseeable future we are likely to have significant changes to our lives, and we’ve had to put long term plans on hold. It’s not all bad news though – we will be seeing more of some of our dearest family members, and I think it may be for the best in the long run.

But it has meant that Adventures in Seeing got put on the back burner, and my creative spark is currently out to lunch. 

I have kept up with Creative Sprint, which has been a life saver – I can do as much or as little as I can manage, and it’s about playing  rather than making ‘art’. 

I’ve managed a little bit on the new Year of Stitches sampler, which I started before the news broke. The background is canvas and Bondaweb coloured with Inktense blocks, and then sheers added. Given that these are not at all my usual colours, I’m surprised I have so many threads that work. It needs concentration though, and I don’t have a lot – it took four goes to get the spacing of the bottom line correct. I’m also finding it difficult to make decisions about how to proceed, so it progresses slowly.

The knitting has been the biggest victim: I’ve shelved the sampling, which demands more brain space than I currently have available, but I have a relatively mindless scarf on the needles which I can just about manage, albeit with frequent mistakes. I suspect it will be a scarf I never wear, because of the memories associated with it, but it keeps my hands busy. 

So that’s why I’ve been MIA. Curiously, I’ve been sleeping really well since the bomb dropped, and managing to control any tendency to brood. But last night I had a really bad night – so maybe things are getting back to normal…

Samplers, samples and experiments.

I’m really enjoying this Year of Stitches sampler. I’m much more process than product driven, so I like this sort of piece, where I just get started and follow the ideas that come up as I’m working. It doesn’t always work – it didn’t for the first Year of Stitches sampler, but I’ve realised that it works better if I put down some guidelines when I start, though I am very likely to change my mind later. This one started with wave-like lines across the fabric, but as you can see, they morphed into leaves and petals.

Unfortunately, the Frixion pen I used to draw the lines has left marks on the fabric so it’s a good job I’m not so worried about the product. I’ve had it happen before on coloured paper, but not on fabric. This is hand-dyed with Procion, so maybe Frixion and Procion don’t get on – I know Procion is supposed to discharge with bleach.

The experiments didn’t work. I’ve had some alcohol inks for ages, and never done much with them, so I decided to have a play. They worked OK on various bits of plastic, spread with some felt in a bulldog clip, but I wasn’t wildly excited by the results. I read somewhere that you can drip them into water and marble them, so I gave it a go. 

The results were so awful I didn’t even take photos. I think the ink set as soon as it hit the water. The white just went into clumps,   and the other colours  were reluctant to marble. I did dip sheets of plastic into the mess and some ink was picked up, but as it dried it just flaked off. So I put the results down to experience and in the bin.

The knitted samples aren’t very exciting either. I’ve found when I make my SKO’s that I tend to use the same few base patterns and some of them don’t  lie flat.

So I’m working my way through Nicky Epstein’s ‘Knitting in Circles’. I shan’t try all 100, because:

a) some have seams and I refuse to sew up seams;

b) some of them, like the really lacy ones, are probably unsuitable – although it might be interesting to try one or two;

c) I shall get bored. 

The icord knitting hasn’t gone away. I currently have 4 on the go. The 7 metre blue one is in the process of being coiled into a bowl/basket, but the process is hard on my arthritic hands, so it proceeds slowly. The yellow one has been sewn into a loopy thing (in both senses of the word) and is awaiting the addition of beads and French knots. The shorter blue one will be wired, unless a better idea comes to me. And I have a brown one on the needles, which is progressing slowly for icord. In theory if I slip stitches at regular intervals it should become kinky – although there is no sign of it doing so yet. The problem is that, to ensure the slip stitches come in the right places, I have to chant ‘1 2 3 slip’ as I knit – there are 3 stitches so this means that the slip stitch moves one stitch over each row. Should be easy? It isn’t. It’s a bit like meditating in that my mind wanders, and I find myself just counting ‘1 2 3’. Which does not work.

The openness photographs have fallen by the wayside a bit, but I hope to find a few more before I move on the next topic in the middle of the week. There is this one, though. Guess which book this is?