Sunday, 14 February 2016

Celebrating Capability Brown

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown changed the face of 18th Century England, designing country estates and mansions, moving hills and making flowing lakes and serpentine rivers, a magical world of green.

One of the splendid specimen trees.

2016 is the 300th anniversary of 'Capability' Brown's birth and to commemorate the occassion the Embroiderers' Guild will be joining a nationwide celebration.

The Grand Bridge, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh but dramatically altered by the lake created by Capability Brown.

Blenheim Palace is one of the finest examples of Brown's work. As part of a range of activies to clebrate the life and works of 'Capability' Brown the Palace is hosting an exhibition in partnership with the Embroiderers' Guild and a local art group.

I condsidered representing Blenheim's might oaks with acorns done in raised embroidery (stumpwork).

Members of Newbury, Oxford, Windsor and Maidonhead, and Wokingham branches together with the Young Embroiderers of Oxford Branch have contributed nearly 100 unique and specially created art works for this exhibition.

The gnarled trunks of the aged oaks offer lots of inspiration for textural embroidery.

After several trips to the Park and taking hundreds of photographs of the views and its beautiful trees, I decided to do a view of the island and its reflection in white work (more on that in future posts).

These two old oaks look as if they have fallen out but I suspect that they are venerable friends.

The exhibition is in The Gallery from 13 February to 2 May 2016.

A sneak preview of the exhibition.

Happy Stitching

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Symondsbury Manor Retreat

I mentioned in this post that Michiko and I were at a residential Japanese Embroidery course in March 2015. This is the course that I have been attending annually since 2005 but this time we did things slightly differently. Instead of staying in a hotel we rented a manor house – Symondsbury Manor House in Dorset.

The house was originally a medieval farmhouse and only became the ‘Manor’ house in the 20th Century. It was heavily remodelled in the late 19th century and I suspect that the area we used as a class room was an even later addition.

Part of the historic house containing the banquet hall (ground floor), bedrooms and bathrooms, and (on the left) the extension we used as a class room.

The bedrooms and bathrooms are located in part of the historic house that retains many period features. The d├ęcor is a quirky, eclectic mix of traditional pieces, contemporary furniture and artworks collected or painted by the owner. Every room has its own, distinct personality.

The living room, before we rearranged the furniture to turn it into a class room.

We originally intended to use the wood panelled banquet hall as our classroom but it was west facing and not adequately lit for our purposes. Instead we re-arranged the furniture in a large space that is usually used as a lounge/TV area. There were plenty of windows in this more recent extension and much better lighting.

The banquet hall

The biggest difference was that we self-catered on this occasion. We had a small team of 'caterers' assigned for each day who provided morning coffee (with cake), a buffet lunch, afternoon tea (with cake), and the evening meal. The day’s team prepared all of the food and did the clearing up (except breakfast which was self-service) while everyone else spent the day stitching. There were enough of us that we were only designated to do one day each. We had some splendid meals and did I mention that we had cake? Several people brought cakes with them and we had three birthday cakes! We had so much cake that there was some left over at the end of the week despite our best efforts to eat it all!

Birthday cake ...

... and more birthday cake.

We did get to use the banquet hall later in the week when we actually held a 'banquet' to celebrate some special birthdays.

The banquet hall used as it was intended!

It was a departure from our normal arrangement but I think it worked extremely well and I hope that we will do something similar in the future.

Happy Stitching

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

English Work: Embroidery Short Course – Part 3

Classes, courses and workshops are what have kept me stitching while my mojo has been in hiding and I have done several over the past year or so.

Towards the end of November 2014, I did the last of a three part short course in English embroidery at the Ashmolean Museum with Tanja Bentham. The subject of this lesson was the main reason I enrolled for this course – reverse couching. I have read about this technique and am quite fascinated by it. On paper, it does not seem difficult but I had a strong suspicion that it would be more difficult that it sounds.

In most couching techniques the couched thread lies on top of the fabric and the couching stitches go over the couched thread; they are visible on the surface. In reverse couching the couched thread still lies on top of the fabric and the couching stitches go over the couched thread but it is then used to pull the couched thread through the fabric. Only the couched thread is visible on the surface. So if you are reverse couching a gold thread the visible area is pure gold! The effect of pulling the couched thread through the fabric is also visible so the couching stitches can be arranged to form patterns on the surface.

© Carol-Anne Conway
Couching with the couching thread showing on the right side

I first did a practice area using imitation gold on the edge of my fabric.

© Carol-Anne Conway
Practicing with imitation gold

As I suspected, pulling the couching thread through the fabric is not as easy as it seems. Firstly, the couching stitch has to come out of and go down into exactly the same place in the fabric forming a small loop around the couched thread. Then, as with many techniques, the tension is important. When stitching with a sewing machine, the aim is to have balanced tension between the bobbin thread and the upper thread so each thread is looped around the other. When surface couching, the effect is as if the bobbin tension is too loose and the bobbin thread loops over the upper thread which lies flat on the surface of the fabric. In reverse couching, the effect is as if the upper tension is too loose and the upper thread loops around the bobbin thread which lies flat on the underside of the fabric.

© Carol-Anne Conway
The reverse side showing the gold thread pulled through and looped around the couching thread

I found it fairly easy to achieve regular couching on my straight practice area but I found it far more difficult to do so on the curved halo. Much more practice needed!

© Carol-Anne Conway
The front with no couching thread showing

I really enjoyed this mini course. Tanja is a lot of fun and her classes are fairly relaxed while being very informative and professional. Tanja’s own work is very impressive and, as usual, even better in real life than any photographs suggest. It has given me a taster of opus anglicanum and an appreciation of why, when done well, it was the most celebrated embroidery of its time.

© Carol-Anne Conway

Happy Stitching

Tuesday, 5 January 2016


I’m not one for making New Year resolutions but, at this time of year, I like to take a look back at the previous twelve months and forward to the coming year.

A quick glance at my blog for 2015 (a merge 14 posts) might suggest that little happened and that I spent most of my time mourning my absent mojo but this is not totally accurate. It is true that I ran out of steam where Japanese embroidery is concerned – or probably more accurately where Sake Boxes is concerned. There has been some stitching in my life. I have attended some classes and workshops,.I have even taught An Introduction to Japanese Bead Embroidery – twice. I also enrolled in a few online classes, one I participated in but the others I have added to my stash.

Looking back on the year, I would say it has been a good one, even if I have spent less time stitching than I would have liked. About three years ago I joined the then newly formed book club at work and this has rekindled my love of reading, an occupation not conducive to embroidery. Before joining the book club, I read mostly Historical Novels and these remain a favourite genre. Book club has introduced me to books I would never have considered but find I enjoy and, for most of the books we have read, there has been a sequel or an other title by the same other that I have wanted to read. My reading list just keeps growing!

© Carol-Anne Conway
Dragonfly Scissor Case - An Introduction to Japanese Bead Embroidery

But the biggest drain on my stitching time has been the Harley. While we have not had the hottest or sunniest summer on record, we have had a lot of fine weekends and, when weather permits, all J wants to do is go out on the Harley. We have had some lovely days out and a glorious weekend in the Lake District when the sun did shine, contrary to the weather forecast. J is hoping for more trips out on his beloved Harley this year and even a short biking holiday.

J playing pee-po at Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick

So, looking ahead to 2016, I have a dilemma; there are so many things I want to be doing! I have a real yen to resume my Japanese embroidery. I’ve been thinking about Sake Boxes a lot lately; why I have stalled with it and how to overcome the obstacle. I have two projects for the Embroiderers’ Guild to work on; one required soon (argh!) and one for mid-April. I really want to do some more bead embroidery and I have a particular project nagging at me. And I have a whole list of other embroidery projects I would like to do. All I have to do is figure out how I can do my stitching on the back of a motor bike while listen to a talking book!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

the many people I spoke to

I finished "Signs for Lost Children" today. In the acknowledgements, Sarah Moss wrote
"Most of what I know about late nineteenth-century Japan began with the study day at the Ashmolean Museum held in November 2012 to mark the opening of the "Threads of Silk and Gold" exhibition of Meiji-era textiles. Dr Clare Pollard, the curator of Japanese art at the Ashmolean, spent hours sharing her expertise and did me the great favour of commenting on a full draft. …"
Not only did I attend that study day, I demonstrated Japanese embroidery while my dear friend Jane delivered a lecture about the stitches and techniques of Japanese embroidery. It is entirely possible that Ms Moss was one of the many people I spoke to that day, perhaps I even answered some of her questions about Japanese embroidery.

It's a small world!

Happy Stitching

a memory stirs within

We have a book club at work and through that I have read some very enjoyable novels, the latest of which was "Bodies of Light" by Sarah Moss.

"Bodies of light" tells the tale of Ally and her battle to gain her mother’s affection and approval while striving to become one of the first female doctors in England. I enjoyed this book so much that I immediately started to read the sequel "Signs for Lost Children". This book continues the story of Ally and her new husband Tom Cavendish. It would have been enough for me to follow the progress of Ally, Doctor Moberley-Cavendish, but, as she plunges into the institutional politics of mental health, Tom travels to Japan to build lighthouses. I found the chapters that explore Tom’s experiences in late 19th century Japan totally captivating. I was easily able to imagine him in Kyoto as the descriptions of the streets and building so clearly matched my own memories of when I was there.

Tom is appointed to procure Japanese antiquities and artefacts during his stay in Japan and this quest takes him to the textile producers of Kyoto. The passages about his visits to the weavers, dyers, and embroiderers are all too brief and tantalizing but still ridiculously thrilling for someone interested in Japanese textiles. But this book had one more, exquisite surprise for me.

In the chapter entitled "hortus conclusus" Tom is taken to an exhibition in one of Kyoto’s Palaces. At first Tom thinks there is nothing different from the dozen such things he has acquired for his patron.
"And then he sees the cranes, first as five white shapes glowing like moons in the dim and filtered daylight. He approaches and finds himself before some kind of painting or drawing of five long-legged birds wading under overhanging wisterias. …"
A memory stirs within me of standing before a screen, a scene depicting five long legged birds wading under overhanging wisterias …
"He has seen flowers like that, dripping the full height of the trees in a mountain forest, and he has seen cranes bowing and dipping, their white wings raised like the arms of the dancer about to begin. …"
I have seen flowers like that, cranes like that, not real flowers nor real cranes but their image …
"The five cranes are sociable, like a Japanese family preening and teasing in the bath. One is drawn up to its full height to peer down at the others busy at their toilette, and another leans in, neck outstretched so that the black markings on its silver plumage draw Tom’s gaze across the darkness at the picture’s centre and towards the arched breasts and glossy wings of its companions. Behind them, the wisteria blossoms fall like streams of water and it’s not paint, he realises, but silk, the filament of each feather drawn in stitches smaller than a mouse’s hair."
By now (1.12 am in the morning) I was so convinced that I had seen this very panel at the "Threads of Silk and Gold" exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum that I had to fetch my copy of the book of the same name and flick through its pages until on page 116 I found the image I was looking for, "Cranes, wisteria and cycads".

"Cranes, wisteria and cycads"
© The Ashmolean Museum

"Cranes, wisteria and cycads", detail
© The Ashmolean Museum

As this exhibition was in a museum in my home town, I was privileged to visit it many times and to explore the embroideries through my own eyes and those of my knowledgeable friends. It was a delight to me to see it again through the eyes or Tom Cavendish or, perhaps more realistically, through the eyes of Sarah Moss. From her biography, I discovered that Sarah Moss studied in Oxford. It is not beyond the realms of my imagination that on a return visit to Oxford she visited the "Threads of Silk and Gold" exhibition. Perhaps we stood side by side, mesmerised by the beauty of the silk and the skill of the stitchers. Certainly her writing has transported me back to that exhibition and to my trip to Japan in the following spring – memories I am happy to revisit any day and a journey I would gladly make again.

Happy Stitching

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

A Murder Mystery Weekend

Case History

Amy Mitten first came to my attention when she entered, and won, A Mirror to my Art in 2012. Her entry, The Mermaid Mirror, seemed innocent enough but my instinct told me that this was someone worth keeping an eye. Over the next couple of years Ms Mitten's name came up from time to time and it was becoming apparent that more and more women were falling under her influence. I began to collect together evidence of Ms Mitten’s activities which can, and will, be used later. These 'Keepsakes' seemed as innocent and harmless as the Mermaid Needlework Treasures but further investigation of Ms Mitten's business, Fibres to Dye For, revealed a shady side to her nature. To find out more, I had to find a way to meet the mysterious Ms Mitten.

© Carol-Anne Conway

For several years I have been closely monitoring a similar organisation, Thistle Threads. I have been posing as one of the cult's loyal followers who call themselves 'Casketeers'. Over time, I have earned the trust of other Casketeers and now have infiltrated their secret network on NING where I am able to monitor their communications. It was through this network that I discovered Ms Mitten was widening her net and ensnaring more unsuspecting victims with her 'Keepsakes'.

Although NING is an effective tool for gathering information, I still needed to get closer to Ms Mitten. I hooked up with a local chapter of Casketeers, called "The Sampler Guild". Although not a Sampler myself, my activities on NING have convinced them that my interests are sufficiently aligned with their own to give me an in to their circle. Originally, they agreed to 'casual' meet-ups to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for antique embroideries. Later they invited me to join them at an embroidery workshop and eventually I hit pay dirt when they asked if I would be interested in attending a training camp lead by none other than Amy Mitten, herself.

The event took several months to organise but eventually everything fell into place and last weekend I travelled to a secret location in deepest darkest Oxfordshire for my rendezvous with Ms Mitten. On my journey to the training camp I tried not to let the beautiful English countryside distract me from my mission but little did I know how dark the weekend would turn despite the bright autumn sunshine.

© Carol-Anne Conway

The project for this training camp was called 'Ten'. Was it purely coincidence that training began at 10 am on the tenth day of the tenth month? I noticed several of the ladies began taking notes; pretending to do the same, I made some notes on Ms Mitten.

As the class progressed it became apparent to me just how cleverly Ms Mitten's sting was constructed; the detailing was meticulous. I could tell that 'M' had researched her subject thoroughly and new exactly how to draw her victims in. Later that day I arranged to spend some time alone with 'M' by volunteering to chauffer her to the restaurant and back. By feigning interest in her 'story' I was able to interrogate her about her modus operandi. After I had returned 'M' to her lodgings I made some notes on what I had learned.

Despite the mysterious death, 'Ten' proved popular and Ms Mitten repeated it several times; each time there was another mysterious death. Now that I was aware of the dangers, I wondered if it was wise for me to return to the training camp the next day but I had a strong desire to get to the bottom of this case. My worst fears were realised later that day when I found myself staring at the body of a woman slumped across a sampler stained blood red! The curse of Amy Mitten had struck again!


Case unsolved!

A great deal more investigating is required and I shall, at a future date, look in depth at all of the clues gathered at the training camp. One thing is becoming evident; although apparently working alone, there are several more women operating similar schemes. The advent of the internet has afforded them the opportunity to ensnare their unsuspecting victims, indeed it seems that the victims themselves are unwittingly drawing in like-minded people. They all warrant serious investigation but my department is seriously under-resourced; I fear it may take more than one life-time to complete my mission. For now, I will continue to gather evidence of their activities and hope that one day I will have more time to dedicate to my investigations.


All people and events are entirely real; no names have been changed to protect the innocent. The facts have been seriously distorted. Any suggestion that Amy Mitten or her company, Threads to Dye For, are involved in nefarious activities is a blatant lie made up by the author; they are not the views of any one else. The defamation of Amy’s nature is scandalously libellous. I whole heartedly apologise to Amy for this feable attempt to parody her own, beautifully crafted 'Ten' and can only hope that she can forgive me!