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.

Trying out a gauge.

My second Anne Brandon Jones book, Stitch Patterns and Design for Embroidery, arrived on Saturday. The gauge she suggests in that is slightly different – it’s a full circle, with additional marking points. So of course, I had to make one.

Folding and cutting a full circle of heavier weight Lutradur proved to be harder work than making a semicircle. So, as you can see, it wasn’t very accurate. It would have been better to try something lighter in weight, or to draw the gauge on to the Lutradur and punch out the holes, which I may do tomorrow.

For the last few months I’ve been making experimenting with a variety of stitches, and I’ve now reached French knots. I have found lots of ways to vary the previous stitches (straight, running and couching) but French knots seem to offer less opportunity for experimentation. So I thought I’d try my new gauge. And apart from the wonky circle and the rubbish attempt at pistil stitch, As Brandon Jones says in Colour Patterns, some things can only be learned by making mistakes.

Making gauges.

Yesterday I described my discovery of Anne Brandon Jones, and mentioned that I had made, but not used, the gauges she suggests for planning embroidery. Thereby hangs a tale.

I knew I wanted to make the semicircular gauge out of something more robust than the paper Ms Brandon Jones suggests. My first thought was Vilene. (When I tried to type Vilene, autocorrect suggested ‘vileness’ which is pretty much what I think of craft Vilene, but I was thinking more of dressmaking weight, the heaviest I could find in my stash of stuff left over from things I no longer do.) However, in the box of stuff left over from things I no longer do, I found some stuff I probably bought because it seemed like a good idea at the time but I don’t remember doing so. (Anyone who did C&G Stitched Textiles who doesn’t have such a stash either has immense self control or is lying.)

In this case it was some heavier weight Lutradur. I don’t loathe Lutradur quite as much as I loathe craft Vilene, but I’m not especially fond of the stuff. However it seemed like a good idea to use it for the gauges. So skillfully translating Ms Brandon Jones’ inches into centimetres, I cut out the semicircles, folded them as suggested (with some difficulty, a bone folder helped), and made a selection of semicircular gauges.

Then it was time to find some rug canvas. I knew I had some – that’s in the category of I had a purpose for it when I bought it but the purpose – in this case latch hooking – turned out to be not as interesting as I thought it would be. I thought the rug canvas was in one of the rolls on the top shelf of the cupboard where I put things I’m pretending I never bought. But it wasn’t.

I remembered cutting off a chunk recently, some of which I used for a running stitch sample. I thought the rest was probably in the 7 stacked boxes in my workroom cupboard. (There are more than 7 boxes in there, but the others are on shelves. I knew the canvas was unlikely to be in those, because the stacked boxes are stacked in front of them so I only go into them when desperate.

Because the stacked boxes are, as their name suggests, stacked, I had to move most of them, because of course the boxes the canvas was most likely to be in were near the bottom.

While doing this I realised that the boxes were not stacked in a sensible order. The things I used most were, of course, at the bottom. So I decided to rearrange them. In the process I realised that one of the boxes, full of the fabric scraps I use frequently, was marginally bigger and wouldn’t stack on top of the others. So I had to swap its contents with those of the bottom box.

Some time ago, in a Pink Pig sale, I bought 3 kilos of sketchbooks. As you do. If 3 kilos sounds like a lot of sketchbooks, it is. And I have a lot of them left. They had to be at the bottom because of the weight. So I had to take them out of the box they were in, replace that box with the biggest one, and put the sketchbooks in that. And then put the former contents of the biggest box in the slightly smaller one. Did I mention I have an arthritic back?

After that, replacing the other boxes was straightforward. Except that after I’d put the last one in, I remembered that I’d been going to go through them to look for the rug canvas. Fortunately, the most likely boxes were now more easy to access. I looked through them, but no rug canvas. (I’ve since remembered I used it to make some woven 3D – er – things.

In desperation, I went back to the roll of stuff I’d first looked through. Where, of course, I found the canvas.

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?

Page 3 – not like the Sun page 3!

This is the third page of my sample book. I’m much happier with it than page 2. I thought I’d finished with straight stitches, but when I realised that pulled thread embroidery is essentially straight stitches, I added some experiments with those. Some were more successful than others – pulled stitches don’t really work with chunky wool – but that’s the point of sampling.

The other reason that I prefer these samples to page 2, is that I like the colours. I discovered recently that Mondrian didn’t like green. I don’t dislike it, but I’m not wild about the particular shade I used on page 2, especially with brown.

The final section, bottom right, is mainly for fun, but perhaps being more relaxed led to more interesting ideas?