Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Alice’s Day

The fourth of July is an important day in children’s literature. On the that day in 1862, Charles Dodgson, a mathematics tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, took three sisters on a boating trip along the river Thames. To amuse the girls, he told them a story about a bored little girl who chased a white rabbit down a rabbit hole and found herself in a nonsensical world called Wonderland.

The story so delighted 10-year-old Alice Liddell that she begged him to write it down. The original, handwritten manuscript with illustrations by Dodgson and entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was given to Alice as an early Christmas present on 26 November 1864. A year later Dodgson made a few changes to remove family references, and added two new chapters. He appointed John Tenniel to create new illustrations some of which, including those of Alice, where based on Dodgson’s original drawings, while other characters, such as the Hatter and the March Hare, were of Tenniel’s own creation. In 1865 the story was published by Macmillan under the new title of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

Alice's Adventures Under Ground
© British Library

Alice Liddell kept her original manuscript until she was forced to sell it in 1928 to pay death duties following the death of her husband. The manuscript was sold by auction at Sotheby’s for £15,000 to an American dealer, Dr Rosenbach. Upon returning to America he sold it to Eldridge Johnson. Following Johnson’s death in 1946 the manuscript was sold, again by auction, to a wealthy group of benefactors who, in 1948, donated it to the British people in gratitude for their gallantry against Adolf Hitler during World War II. It is now in the British Library and is available to view on their website.

Happy Alice's Day

Friday, 27 April 2018

Colin Dexter Taught me to Read

35 years ago, I was pleased but somewhat bemused to be offered the post of typesetter at the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations. When I had applied for the position I had only just learnt to type. I later learned that they would have preferred someone with at least some experience but that I had one distinct advantage over all the other candidates – I could start immediately!

I also had a handicap of which they were unaware – I can’t spell!

While looking for a suitable occupation, I had avoided secretarial roles, knowing that I would have struggled as a shorthand typist. I felt relatively safe in this role as I was mainly copy typing and the copy was prepared by Subject Secretaries who had no difficulty spelling even the esoteric words related to their specialist subject. Unfortunately, some of them had appalling handwriting. I dare say that I made many a mistake but one howling error still makes me cringe when I think of it.

Every year, UODLE published a document called “Teacher’s comments, and replies” in which concerns or criticisms regarding examination papers were addressed. In my first year, the publication included a general comment on the examinations as a whole, which concluded with a statement about the declining standard of writing and, in particular, of spelling and grammar. I don’t recall the exact wording, but I do know that the last three words of this damning indictment ended with the three words (as typeset by yours truly) “… spelling and grammer.” Another error for which I was relentlessly teased but that, fortunately, did not make it to print, was in a Mathematics A level paper where I had consistently misspelt “angle” as “angel”. UODLE was very proud that few errors made their way into the printed examination papers. This was due to rigorous proof reading, first by the Subject Secretary and finally by a professional proof reader. Had that same procedure been applied to the afore mentioned publication, much embarrassment may have been avoided!

Colin Dexter, Subject Secretary for English Language and Literature, had his own procedure for proof reading all materials for which he was responsible. He and I undertook this task together; first one read aloud from the source material while the other checked the proof copy, then we would swap roles and repeat the process. At first, I found this daunting; I was no better at pronouncing some words than I was at spelling them. But Colin was a very gentle and kindly man; he never made me feel stupid or inadequate for the mistakes I made. Instead, he gently prompted, coached, and encouraged me. While I never enjoyed proof reading per se, I came to enjoy and even look forward to these proof reading sessions.

I recall the first time we proof read an English Literature O level paper together. It included two extracts from Emily Brontë's, Wuthering Heights. After reading the passages, Colin asked if I had read the book. I confessed that Wuthering Heights had been a set text when I had taken O level English Literature five years earlier. He asked if I had enjoyed the book; I hadn’t. He asked if I understood the passages we had read; I didn’t. Colin then began to explain what Emily Brontë was saying in these passages and how they related to the book as a whole. I don’t recall exactly what he told me, but I know that it inspired me reread Wuthering Heights and this time I did enjoy it.

I enjoyed these discussions to such an extent that once I knew which novels would feature in future papers, I would read them in advance. I’m sure I had nothing enlightening to say about them but none-the-less, Colin wanted to hear what I thought of the characters, plot, and themes of each and every book. My mother taught me how to read letters and words, but Colin Dexter taught me how to read books.

Yesterday, I attend a Memorial and Civic Reception in Colin Dexter’s honour. Among those who share memories of Colin was the author Philip Pullman. He said that he had found it hard to believe that “last Bus to Woodstock” was Colin’s first novel because the characters of Morse and Lewis were so fully formed and well rounded. Colin had a genuine interest in people; when you spoke with him, he listened intently to what you were saying. After he retired from UODLE, I would sometimes see him walking along the Banbury Road and would offer him a lift. He always accepted and spent the short journey to Summertown asking after me and some of our colleagues at UODLE. Latterly, though his eyes twinkled as mischievously as ever, I no longer saw that spark of recognition in them, but he still smiled warmly and said “Hello, my dear. How are you?”.

Norman Colin Dexter OBE
29 September 1930 – 21 March 2017

It was an honour and privilege to have known Colin Dexter, not because he was the internationally acclaimed bestselling author that created Inspector Morse, but because he was, quite simply, a lovely man.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Solar Eclipse

In August 1999 I travelled to Devon in the hope of seeing a total solar eclipse. Although I did not exactly see it (I caught the briefest glimpse in a break in the clouds), I did experience it and even on a cloudy day it an experience I will never forget.

Today a total eclipse swept from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic giving millions the opportunity to witness the greatest show on earth. Here in the UK it would have been possible to witness a partial eclipse just before sunset but, as so often is the case, cloudy weather promised to spoil the view.

Resigned to missing out entirely, I began preparing dinner whilst watching live pictures on TV. To add insult to injury, the sun broke through a gap in the clouds and streamed through the kitchen window. On a mad impulse, I abandoned the cooking and made a mad dash up the nearest hill in the vane hope that I might catch the merest glimpse of the eclipse.

On my brisk walk I saw a stag bounding across the hill top (too fast and too far away for me to get a pic) and a heron (ditto) and could hear but not see the Red Kites but when I reached my destination it was clear that I would not see the eclipse because a) I was too late and b) the sun was obscured by a bank of cloud.


After pausing a few minutes to catch my breath and enjoy the view I started to make my way back home when the village below me and the trees lining the track lit up with a rosy glow.



Rarely, the sun and the moon come together to treat us to the dazzling display that is a total solar eclipse but every day, 24 hours a day, the sun puts on a pretty impressive display while setting, and simultaneously rising, somewhere in the world.


On the walk back I was further entertained by three hares frolicking in a freshly harvested field (I hope one day to witness them boxing) and listened to an owl calling. Then I went home and finished cooking dinner!

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Blackwork Butterflies - part 2

The course came with direction for two slightly different versions of the design. As this was a learning piece for me, and because there was sufficient linen supplied, I decided to do both versions. I transferred the design onto the linen using the stitched transfer method. I used red thread for the transfer so that is would show clearly on the white fabric and would be distinctive when I came to remove these stitches when the blackwork was complete.

© Tanja Berlin/Carol-Anne Conway

I first worked a grid of stitches on the outer edges of the wings.

© Tanja Berlin/Carol-Anne Conway

A small ‘+’ is then worked into each of the squares on the lower wings and a small square on the upper wings.

© Tanja Berlin/Carol-Anne Conway

The difference is subtle!

© Tanja Berlin/Carol-Anne Conway

The designs in the main part of each wing are a little more intricate but they are built up in the same manner; first creating the basic design, then embellishing it. In this case, only some of the design has been embellished to represent markings on the wings.

© Tanja Berlin/Carol-Anne Conway

I must have been enjoying the stitching because I have not taken many step-by-step pictures.

© Tanja Berlin/Carol-Anne Conway

Happy Stitching

Monday, 5 June 2017

Blackwork Butterflies - part 1

From whitework to blackwork and much safer ground for me – an online workshop. Tanja Berlin’s Butterfly is an introductory course aimed at beginners. That’s me. I have not done any blackwork before so I rank myself a beginner in this technique. Second to a workshop with a real live tutor, an online workshop is my favourite way to learn. It allows me to work through each stage at my own pace. I know from previous experience that Tanja’s online workshops are excellent; her supplies and instructions are first rate. For the duration of the course, Tanja is available electronically to answer any queries or critique your work if you would like her to. On a previous course I have found her advice to be not only helpful but very encouraging.

For this project, I decided to use a Siesta frame. These are fast becoming my favourite frame for smallish projects that require good tension but will not be on the frame for too long.

Siesta frames come in pairs of bars of various lengths, from 3 – 30 inches. Two pairs are required to make a frame. All sizes interlock with each other so it is possible to make a frame exactly the right size for your project. I particularly like these frames because they are light weight and easily accommodated by my Stitch Craft floor stand.

I have one pet peeve about these frames – the fabric is attached to the frame using silk pins.

That in itself is not a problem but pushing the pins into the frame make my thumb sore. To overcome this minor irritation, I put a sticking plaster over the ball of my thumb to act as a protective pad.

© Carol-Anne Conway

© Carol-Anne Conway

Whenever possible, I wrap the fabric around and secure it to the bottom side of the frame but, if I don’t have enough fabric to do that, the pins can go on the side or even the top edge.

© Carol-Anne Conway

The pins can pop out if not fully pushed in so once I have all the pins in place, I go give them all a firm whack with a small hammer. Wherever the pins are, my thread will occasionally get caught on a pin while I am working. To prevent this I bind the edges of the frame with a creep bandage and secure that with a single pin on the side of the frame.

© Carol-Anne Conway

© Carol-Anne Conway

Preparation is probably my least favourite part of any project but I know that good preparation will make the rest of the project more enjoyable.

Happy Stitching

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Island - finished

I did not want to worry about individual plants for the smaller shrubs, grasses and wild flowers on the islands shoreline. Instead I used a variety of stitches to represent the different appearance and textures of the plants. I also used heavier threads than those used for the trees to make this area more prominent.

© Carol-Anne Conway

© Carol-Anne Conway

My original plan for the reflection in the lake was to use an embroidered net insert. I abandoned this idea for two reasons; 1. I was concerned about meeting the deadline for completing this piece and 2. I had made an earlier error that made this idea less doable. I had realised early on that I had transferred the design onto the fabric the wrong way around. Unfortunately, I realised it too late to rectify the mistake or to start over.

In place of the lace insert I decided to stitch the reflection in a stitch that resembled ripples on water. I used differing weight threads, starting with a heavier one closest to the island where the reflection is strongest, and graduating to the finest thread further away from the island where the reflection is more faded.

© Carol-Anne Conway

Ultimately I was really disappointed with the finished piece and that is why I have not felt motivated to write about it. The biggest problem is the trees which are too indistinct. I think the reflections work reasonably well but I think the embroidered net would have been better. I think there are three main reasons it has not worked out as I originally envisaged.

1. Although I am an experienced and confident stitcher, I am not a designer and did not do any design work for this piece other that look at lots of photographs and picture it in my mind. I think I should have taken some time to sample various stitches to help with my choices (especially when taking point 2 into consideration).

2. This is my first attempt at white work so I had no previous knowledge of what works well and what pit falls to watch for (such as how much puckering can occur with pulled thread work).

3. I did not allow myself enough time so when I encountered problems I had to push on regardless. With more time I might have experimented with different stitches, laced the sides when I first noticed puckering, or started again when I realised I had transferred the design the wrong orientation. I certainly would have tried the net embroider and might have put trailing around some of the trees which may have been enough to elevate this piece from rubbish to alright.

© Carol-Anne Conway

That said, I did enjoy stitching the piece and have learnt a lot from it. As they say, you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes.

Happy Stitching

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Island - trees

For Maggie

Although I completed this piece several months ago, I have not been able to find the motivation to write about it. I will explain why in the final post in this series.

I studied many pieces of white work before designing and stitching The Island. A technique often employed to define the separate elements of the design is a technique called trailing whereby a padding thread is stitched down with closely placed couching stitches. The core can be as fine or thick as desired and can even tapper from one thickness to another. The trees on my island, although individual shapes, are not that distinctly separate from each other so I did not want a definitive edge to them. Rather than outlining each tree I planned to use different filling patterns to distinguish between them, using the same pattern for trees of the same type.

© Carol-Anne Conway

© Carol-Anne Conway

For the tall poplar trees at the back I choose a pattern that I thought would emphasise their vertical silhouette but one that was subtle enough to let them recede into the background. I began with the longest section of each tree and worked to the left and right of this guide line to keep the pattern consistent.

© Carol-Anne Conway

© Carol-Anne Conway

I have a couple of books on White work; the RSN Essential Stitch Guide: Whitework by Lizzy Lansberry and Pulled Thread Embroidery by Moyra McNeill. I used these to select patterns to reflect the shape of the other trees and shrubs. I tried to use more intricate or textured patterns in the foreground.

© Carol-Anne Conway

I like the way the trees can be identified as individual shapes yet still merge into one another as they do in the original photograph but I think I should have chosen techniques that where more obviously different to give them more definition. What I really don’t like is that the pencil line is clearly visible. Also, I do not like the way the linen is puckering as a result of not lacing the sides!

Happy Stitching