Once upon a time there was a woman who was fascinated by trees. She went out almost every day taking photos of them, and when she wasn’t snapping pictures, she’d be gazing at trees, and occasionally talking to them…
It just happens that the same woman is an obsessive stitcher (yes, it’s me – you guessed).
So she decided – not for the first time – to grow one in stitches.
She didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like, but she had an idea – a touch of awen– which she sketched onto the canvas.
A riot of colours were swooshing around in her mind, and eventually she chose the ones she was going to use.
It was autumn and lots of things were happening in her life, but gradually, stitch by tiny stitch, the tree began to appear.
She took the initial lines and gradually elaborated on them with the threads, letting her imagination decide where to take them.
Sometimes, when there were dark days, the repetitive, meditative process of stitching took her mind away from problems and sadness, and gave her peaceful, mindful moments. And all the time the tree continued to grow – watered just a few times with her tears.
But there was a lot of happiness too. She thoroughly revelled in cosying up on the sofa when it was cold outside, thick woolly socks on her feet, listening to the radio or TV while on she stitched.
Time passed, Christmas came and a new year began.
The tree took shape.
And all the unknown spaces, all the blank areas on the initial design, were filled with silk, wool and metallic threads.
Until at last, one day, there were no more spaces to fill…
Nearly the end of January and I hope everyone is now getting back into some sort of ‘normal’ routine. (Oh yes, I can hear the cackles from here…).
Around here, things have been going quite well. I’ve somehow managed to get back into a semblance of a domestic rhythm – which is not something the feminist in me would ever have expected to write – but still, there’s no escaping the fact that for me at least I function better and get more creative work done when the boring bits are under control.
But I eased myself in gently. A visit to the V & A at the beginning of the month to see the Fabric of India exhibition, was a great way to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve decided that 2016 will have more Artist Dates* – it’s too easy to get caught up on the hamster wheel of daily life and we need to step off and recharge from time to time.
Fired up by the trip to London I’ve managed to get back to stitching properly this month. Unusually for me, I started the month with two pieces in progress. The first is an experiment with a different style of stitching, inspired by a summer’s day on a Scottish beach.
I remember sitting on the beach (at Sango Bay to be precise), looking out at the sea and sky and realising that there were distinct bands of colour running horizontally and suddenly thinking that it might make a good subject for a stitchy piece. I didn’t have the phone with me, so instead, I scribbled notes about the different colour bands in a little book I was carrying, and hoped it would be enough description to enable me to interpret it when I came home.
When things were a bit rough before Christmas, I started putting this idea together, and I think having a completely different, ‘see-how-it-goes’ approach made it easier to pick up when I felt able.
But although it’s definitely producing the look that I was after, I have to say that I don’t find I enjoy long periods of stitching this way. Dare I say it, it’s almost like weaving, in as much as I have to progress from line to line, working lineally. Which explains two things – first, why it remains only about half stitched, and second, why I am now totally concentrating on the other piece – yes, yet another tree…
I am much more ‘at home’ creating tree pictures, especially if they contain lots of spirals.
While I’ve been curled up, stitching away at this latest specimen, I’ve been thinking more deeply about this addiction to trees. I thought that if I could go back and collect up all the drawings, pictures and doodles I’ve ever done, I’d hazard a guess that well over half would have featured trees. I have no idea where this all started, but I know I was already doing it when I went to secondary school.
My Instagram feed is full of tree pictures – my own and those of the many other people out there who also share this fascination. Last week I met another lady, also an embroiderer, who does exactly the same thing and takes a daily picture of a favourite tree – it’s a small world.
You don’t have to be obsessed with trees for long before you become engaged in exploring the mythology surrounding them. I had originally thought I might write about that in particular, for instance the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, Druid oak groves, that sort of thing – but it’s such a huge topic, these are just Western mythologies, and trees feature in the mythos and cosmology of cultures all around the world – I wouldn’t know where to begin or end.
So if trees speak to you too, then I’m sure you’ll have your own thoughts on why you’re attracted to them and there’s a very good chance the enchantment goes right back into the mists of time. Something to ponder as the needle goes in and out…
And I shall carry on with this one and wish you all happy stitching!
* Artist Dates: Julia Cameron’s suggestion in The Artist’s Way that artists should have a weekly ‘Artist’s Date’ to charge their creative batteries.
I was delighted to read the latest post from artist Stephanie Redfern this week, where she explains her decision to work in needlepoint. Stephanie understands completely the slow nature of this process and rather wonderfully refers to it as ‘slow motion magic painting’ – I love that!
I smiled as I read some of the comments on her post – mention needlepoint, and patience is always the word that people associate with it. And yes, like Stephanie, my own patience does not extend far beyond the stitching.
When I talk to people about the pieces I make, so often there’s amazement at anyone being prepared to take the time to create in this way, they generally ask why I choose to do it. And this is where I struggle to express myself adequately.
Because however clichéd it may sound, hand stitching is one of those things you have to do, to appreciate the why.
And then, with serendipitous timing, today I read the latest post from my stitching hero, Judy Martin. I’m sure Judy’s work is familiar to you, but if not, I urge you to see what she does, because I don’t know a better or purer expression of the power and beauty of hand stitching.
At the end of her post, Judy says…
Evidence of time.
Evidence of thought.
Evidence of connection.
And really, there, in a nutshell you have the whole story.
There’s a wonderful article here by Martha Sielman, about Judy and her work which sensitively expands this expression – I’m sure it will resonate with all hand stitchers.
Pictures are details from the stitching of my latest piece of needlepoint embroidery, completed this week.
Being a slow artist has its challenges – not the least of which, is how to blog about a ‘work in progress’. I quickly realised that a weekly update here on my stitched tapestries would end up more like a ‘spot the difference’ competition.
In recent months, I’ve gravitated towards Twitter and Instagram as the places to share occasional stitchy updates, where it feels more natural to post a simple picture as I settle down to stitch with the Delinquent Dog curled up alongside.
If you use these platforms, please do keep in touch that way – it’s always lovely to receive messages ‘in real time’.
But today is one of those special days – a day to share for the first time, a work no longer ‘in progress’, but finished!
Very often I find it difficult to know where the inspiration for a particular piece comes from, but at least with this new work I have a pretty shrewd idea.
It all begins with that ages-old fascination for watching water moving over stone. I wonder how many generations of people have felt transfixed by watching waves glide over a pebbly beach, or have felt the hypnotic power of staring into a pool of still water at the edge of a river flow, or indeed have been caught up in a fountain’s magical dance.
I for one, can easily lose myself, simply staring into the water.
Now, clearly only a lunatic would attempt to capture that watery, mercurial sensation in a medium as distinctly static as thread – ahh well…
But as ever, the process of stitching has itself been a meditation, a way to drift into a flow of sorts, an escape to another realm, if not a watery one…
Stitched between June and September 2015. Wools, linens and silks on linen scrim.
29 x 39 cm
If you’d like to see it ‘in the flesh’, I’ll be showing it at the Discover Original Art Fair on November 28th & 29th 2015, at the delightful Ivinghoe Old School Community Hub.
I’m sure by now, some jolly soul you know, will have cracked the ‘ooh the nights are really drawing in now’ line – which really helps lift your mood if you’re already feeling a touch of autumnal melancholy…
But of course they’re right (well for those of us up here in the Northern Hemisphere at any rate), this is the time of shortening days, we’ve passed the tipping point of the autumn equinox and it’s all wooly scarves, thermal undies and stew for dinner, until winter gives way to spring again.
For the last few days, I’ve been obsessing over the whole concept of balance. We’re told how important it is to achieve balance – in life, in work, in our diet…, balance is described as something to be attained and held on to, it’s an objective, a target, something to strive for. But in practice, surely balance is an extremely tricky customer – and the energy required to maintain balance is exhausting – try the Tree (Vrksasana) or my favourite Eagle (Garudasana) poses in yoga if you don’t believe me.
If you’d asked me a few months ago if I was happy with my own balance, I’d have said I was, but just lately I realised that I wasn’t so much balanced as teetering – wobbling about in roughly the same place, desperately trying to keep everything the same, but feeling that at any moment, I should really be heading off in some new direction.
Then today, right on cue, while I was walking with the Delinquent Dog, I realised that I’m not teetering any more – I’ve tipped.
Weird, because I’ve no idea what pushed me over the edge, all I know is, I suddenly feel as if I’m moving forward again. Perhaps I’m someone who enjoys the journey more than the destination, or perhaps we’re just not designed to spend too long in one place, – perhaps as someone who embraces a cyclical attitude to time, I just tried to stand still too long.
Whatever, I have to admit to feeling much happier again now.
Did anyone in the UK watch Midwinter of the Spirit last night? What did you think?
I’ve really enjoyed stitching this piece – not much more to do now, then I’ll show you the whole tapestry. I’ve used a lot of un-dyed wool this time – Wensleydale and North Ronaldsay, both from http://www.blackbat.co.uk which has added quite a lovely variety of texture and tone, although it’s been moderately more challenging to work with.
In which even the persistent rain couldn’t spoil the pleasure of a visit to the home of my historic hero, Bess of Hardwick…
It won’t surprise anyone who comes here often, that Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire exerts a powerful allure for this particular history junkie, combining as it does the attractions of a seriously grand Elizabethan great house, with an unsurpassed collection of historic textiles.
And perhaps adding the real cherry on top, is the fact that both the building and the textiles exist here today, due to the efforts and vision of one truly remarkable Elizabethan lady – the redoubtable, Bess of Hardwick.
I don’t need much encouragement to go along to Hardwick, so when an opportunity came up at the weekend, off I went!
Hardwick Hall is in the care of the National Trust, which considering the nature of the building and its fragile and delicate contents, is probably a very good thing. But the downside of showing so many historic tapestries, embroideries and needleworks, is that they keep the light-levels very low to avoid light damage. So if you have the chance to visit on a day when it isn’t raining – grab it.
Sadly, I didn’t have the option, and so I apologise here and now for the poor quality of the photos. I’ve done what I could, but as you will see, it was wet and seriously dark on Saturday afternoon, so try to go with the sepia flow…
If Bess’s wasn’t exactly a ‘rags to riches’ story, it wasn’t far off. Honestly, I don’t understand why dramatists aren’t all over her story – married 4 times to wealthier and wealthier men, life at the court of Elizabeth I, sharing her home with Mary Queen of Scots, arranging marriages for a brood of children, building at least 3 magnificent houses, acrimonious divorce, deaths – her story has the lot!
And the best bit – Bess wasn’t some pawn in the game, she was a lead player. Time and again, Bess confronted difficult situations and worked at them to the advantage of herself and her family. She is for me, an incredible example of a strong woman, standing up for what she wanted and what she thought was right and at a time when this was certainly not the norm for women.
Luckily, much of her correspondence and her inventories remain, so it’s possible to read her own words, which make her feel extraordinarily real. She comes across as something of a cross between an extremely powerful business woman and your Grandmother – juggling the stresses and strains of a major business empire with the day-to-day upheavals of a complex and sometimes dysfunctional family life.
I’m not sure that she would have been all that easy to live with, or to work for, but of all the people in history I’d love the chance to go back and talk to, it would be Bess – she is my all-time historic hero.
But of course there’s another reason why I love her so much. Bess was into textiles. Her homes were adorned with every kind of rich tapestry, needlework and embroideries money could buy. And although much was produced by professional embroiderers, she also stitched some pieces herself – which gives me a kind of thrill when I look at the many textiles at Hardwick and imagine her running her hands over them, or even wielding her needle.
Details from the needlework table carpet – Story of Tobit (1579)
Details from a long cushion – Fancie of a Fowler – velvet with applied needlework motifs.
I stood for a long time, working out in my mind how some of these pieces were worked. And I suppose it’s seeing something made over 400 years ago, using techniques exactly the same as the ones I use today, that gives me a special thrill. Occasionally, you find yourself understanding precisely why they chose to work in a particular way, and in that moment, there’s a connection across those 400 years. You stand there and realise that if the embroiderer was standing next to you, you’d be talking the same language.
The building itself is superb, but in a way, it overwhelms me, which is why I usually find myself looking for the odd or the quirky aspects, such as the staggered windows and the worn stone stairs. It’s the sort of house that will speak in different ways to every visitor, I’m quite sure. Certainly on Saturday afternoon, it was proving awesome to many of the visitors – which is really quite some legacy, even after all these years.
For a wonderful and fascinating insider’s story, follow Ellen Scarlett’s delightful and informative blog – View From My Attic – Ellen works at Hardwick Hall and gives fabulous glimpses into the life of the Hall.
Oh, and the gardens…well, even in the rain, they’re wonderful…
Do visit Hardwick if you can, you’ll be very glad you did.
I’m delighted to say that the weather improved just in time for our Private Viewing over at the Mardleybury Gallery in Hertfordshire, and it was a huge pleasure to welcome so many people there to see our work – I’m sure the allure of the wine and nibbles was only minimally responsible…
I took a few pictures, to give you a feel for the show, but if you should find yourself in the Hertfordshire area during June, I urge you to go and see for yourself – I promise you won’t be disappointed, there’s a range of simply fabulous art on view.
To be honest, I’m still pinching myself – if anyone had told me this time last year, that I’d be exhibiting at a gallery, well, I’d have laughed.
A small selection of the work on show…
The header image for this post is a detail from a collograph print by Jenny Smith-McOnie, evoking the rock pool – truly exquisite.
I’m going to be stitching and talking about stitched-art at Mardleybury Gallery on Sunday 21st June from about 2pm. Come and chat if you’re around.
Some people regard May Day as the first day of summer – well, in some ways I agree, there’s definitely a lot happening in the hedgerow now, foliage is growing so fast, you feel as if you could practically watch it unfurling in front of you. But having spent the hour of our walk with my eyes streaming from the cold wind this morning, I can tell you, it doesn’t feel like summer just yet!
After the last post here and my admission that greens give me problems, I realised just how many greens I see every day on the trip along the lane and through the wood. I’ve been observing them with more attention than I’d normally give it, and what I’ve learned, is that there are more shades of green that I can imagine, and Mother Nature doesn’t seem to mind how she puts them all together – and yet, it works…
Well, that was a considerably longer blogging pause than I’d expected…
Something to do with a very busy Easter holiday, followed by a brutal three-day migraine – arrrgh!
Anyway, with a bit of luck, the flashing lights and sledgehammer in the brain, have now gone away and something akin to normal service is being restored.
So, since I was last here, I’ve worked on this…
Sometime around Easter I put the final stitches into this piece. I took this photo in the garden, and it’s made it look considerably brighter than it does in real life. I started this piece in the middle of winter and so it feels wrong to see it in strong light. It was born during the shortest days of the year, as I sat wrapped in blankets to keep warm. As I was making it, I kept thinking that actually it’s home should be a dining room, with flickering candle-light, because it truly glimmers and changes as light catches the metallic threads.
I deliberately avoided straight edges for a change. My intention is to play around a little with fraying the canvas before I mount it. I’m not at all sure how that will turn out, but we’ll see.
Once the purply tree (I’ll come up with a better title for it one of these days) was finished, I thought I’d have another go with my Nemesis – greens…
Am I the only person who has problems with getting greens right?
Anyway, this is where I’m at on that one…
Umm. Well, we’ll see.
In other news…
I have had a mad spree, picking up a wonderful selection of Shakespeare authorship books – I’ve found that Oxfam book-shops are excellent places to ferret around in for these more obscure titles. We had a trip to Oxford one day, which was very useful – I wonder if it’s where the dons donate their surplus-to-requirement texts…
Then there was the afternoon in Berkhamsted Oxfam – not only a delight to find more Shakespeare related books, but also something I’ve wanted for a long time – a collection of the works of Thomas Traherne.
And finally, a marvellous day out in Hay-on-Wye (my favourite town in the world, oh yes, I’m not exaggerating!) – where I found yet more Shakespeare stuff.
I’m working my way through, so expect another Shakespearean post before too long.
And at last, we made it out on a few of history trips; a very cold and wet afternoon at Packwood House(which included a lot of chocolate), a return to Goodrich Castle, a fabulous afternoon at Skenfrith Castle and church, and a visit to Grosmont Castle. I’ll put the pictures up on The Mists of Time as soon as I can.
Skenfrith church was an extra special experience for me, as I hadn’t known about their fabulous Skenfrith Cope – a simply breath-taking piece of medieval ecclesiastical embroidery. Walking into a small local church and discovering that treasure was something I’ll never forget.
Having said that, the amazing light in the church did test my photography skills way beyond their limits, so nil point there, but in case you’re interested this is what I took…
I just wish it was possible to know whose fingers made those stitches, and what their daily life was like…
Right, good to be back, lots of catching up to do.
Just about recovered now from the final episode of Wolf Hall – phew – even though you knew what was coming, it was still heart-ripping.
And so apparently it’s nearly the end of February – a busy month around here, family birthdays, car MOTs, half-term – I’m always surprised how very ‘full’ this shortest month can feel.
This month, despite remaining cold and grey for much of the time, spring has actually arrived on the lane. Buds on trees and a tiny clump of snowdrops give me visual confirmation, but the daily chorus of birdsong (plus the drilling of the woodpecker), leaves me in no doubt, the mornings are getting lighter and spring is here.
I’ve had a sticky few weeks on the stitching front. Several pieces started, with enthusiasm, but somehow unwilling to go the distance. In an attempt to rid myself of whatever was blocking me, I had a good old thrash around with the metallic paints and then on Friday 13th, I went off for the day to Ely cathedral – an artist’s date – to top-up the creative juices. I’ve posted about the cathedral over at Mists of Time – do pop over there if you’d like to see pictures.
Ely has a superb stained glass museum – and of course the cathedral itself has a vast amount of stained glass windows – the whole jewel colour extravaganza always carries me off to some other place – and I think it shows in the stitching…
I’ve finally managed to settle into a piece that I’m confident now I’ll stay with until it’s finished – another tree would you believe.
Since writing the previous post, I’ve been carefully reading Shakespeare: An Unorthodox Biography by Diana Price – a good place to begin as it attempts to establish the knowns and unknowns, without getting hung up on possible alternatives. I’ll post more, once I feel I’ve digested it enough to make my initial thoughts clear, but I’m already hooked, it really is a fabulous mystery, and perfect for early night bedtime reading.
I hope February hasn’t been too harsh where you are – happy stitching!
Today’s the day when the girls return to school and life swings back into what I laughingly call our normal routine.
We’ve been enormously lucky to be able to have the whole family together at home over the Twelve Days of Christmas, which I really adore – a kind of hibernation with chocolates and jigsaws – but now it’s time to move forward into 2015.
Over the holidays, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the plans and ideas bloggers have for what they want to do this year. Lots of people seem to be using numbers as prompts – along the lines of ’15 things in 2015′. It sounds fun (well mostly), but long experience convinces me, I’m not a resolutions kind of girl. In fact, having read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking – Oliver Burkeman over the holidays, I’m quite content to carry on as I am.
Which, to be honest, has been a bit of a mixed bag over the last few weeks.
Regular readers will know that I generally move straight from one stitchy piece to another, and indeed, I have been stitching all over the Christmas period. But for the first time in ages, I haven’t been able to settle into one piece. In fact, in what is a first for me, I’ve managed to start, stitch and then abandon four new pieces in the last six weeks. I’m not sure why, but nothing has quite come together in my mind and I just haven’t connected to the work.
And I can tell you, there’s nothing like failing at something slowly to give you the full benefit of the experience.
So, just in case it isn’t fifth time lucky, I’ve decided to take positive action.
I have stopped sticking the needle into the canvas and instead, I’ve thrown every ball, skein and odd straggly end of yarn I possess (yep, we’re talking a small skip load) into a huge heap, and then had a thoroughly good time sorting them all into colour families. I then tidied out the boxes and found new ways to store them. Oh yes, this girl knows how to live!
Not content with that, I’ve also had a major move around of all my arty stuff – surprising isn’t it, what you find that you’d forgotten you had – and managed to carve out a slightly bigger area to call my studio(ok, we’re not in Virginia Woolf territory here – I have to share the space with the laundry and the downstairs shower), but woe betide anyone who infringes on my self-defined arty area!
And so I move into 2015 in a more organised, decluttered and refreshed state of mind. But for the moment, I’m not going to stitch. Instead, I intend to spend a few weeks playing.
And with a bit of luck, playing will eventually lead onto something that does get the juices flowing.
So that’s where I am. Mildly frustrated, accepting a few failures and faffing my way into 2015.
What I have learnt this month is – preparing for an exhibition is more time-consuming than I’d imagined – but also great fun.
November has been divided between normal daily life; walking the Delinquent Dog, taxiing teenagers, blah, blah, blah, stitching, stitching and a lot more stitching and the occasional out-of-this-world experience (oh yes!).
I’ve mentally planned so many posts this month and delivered none of them, so here instead, is my month in pictures…
A lot of wet walks…
Not quite, but nearly, daily strolls to see the last of the leaves on the oak…
And to watch the hedge finally turning.
Frost, at last…
Lots of fog.
Some incredible natural lighting effects…
But an inability to take decent photos indoors.
Love having staring matches with the sheep…
And meeting unexpected chaps like this – (at Tring Auctions – must go back, it was brilliant!).
Finally getting ‘Hidcote’ mounted and ready for the show…
Loving being able to see through the hedges again…
The graceful beech trees…
And yet more fog.
Visiting Hyper Japan – truly ‘otherworld-stuff’ and far more fun than I could have imagined.
And thinking to myself, ah well, it will soon be time to start preparations for Christmas.
Hope you’re having a good month. Hope to be back on slightly more regular basis very soon – but well, you know how it is!