Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Sake Boxes - Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossom was among the first motifs that I stitched when I began learning Japanese embroidery nearly fourteen years ago. It is possibly the motif that I have stitched more than any other, in more guised than any other.

From the very first, it embodies the fundamental rules that apply to the order of stitching in Japanese embroidery; with few exceptions foreground elements are stitched first.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

On each Cherry Blossom there is one petal that is in the foreground of all others. This is the head or the face and this petal is stitched first. The petals either side of the head are the hands and they are stitched next, usually with a one point open space between themselves and the head. The remaining two petals are the feet. One foot is always atop of the other, this is stitched next and the underlying foot stitched last.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

Even the teeny tiny blossoms on this design by Midori follow those basic rules.

© Midori Matsushima/Carol-Anne Conway

I enjoyed experimenting with different techniques on the oversized cherry blossoms on Kusano-san’s Flower Circle; it allowed me to try out some techniques I had seen in books and at an exhibition in Japan.

© Shizuka Kusano/Carol-Anne Conway

The Cherry Blossoms on the black sake box are done in gold work – one of my favourite techniques. As with the very first cherry flower I stitched, the head is worked first but, before that, the entire flower is outlined with a pair of couched threads.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

Then, each individual petal is completed in the prescribed order; head, hands, and feet.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

The blossoms are about the size of a ten pence piece so each petal is on the small side and rather fiddly but not too time consuming to stitch.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

Happy Stitching

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Sake Boxes - String

Many Japanese designs include cords and/or strings. Himotaba, the design I stitched at Phase V, has five different cord techniques and some of the other pieces I have stitched have cords on them but none of them have included strings! A popular Phase I design, Bouquet from the Heart of Japan, has two heavily padded, candy striped strings. I have always thought they are a considerable challenge for a Phase I student. Konbuin-no-Fukusa has a monotone, padded string tied around the sake box; I found that challenge enough!

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

Each section of string is padded with twisted padding cotton which is couched with closely spaced stitches. The padding is then covered with short diagonal stitches (arg!) in flat silk. On this short, gently curved section of string, I did not find it too difficult to maintain the angle of the stitches.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

On this longer section, which turns nearly 360°, I found it far more difficult. At my first attempt, I turned too much and lost the angle completely.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

My second attempt was much better; at least the angle of the stitches is better, the edges could be a little more controlled!

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

Happy Stitching!

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Sake Boxes - Stitch Transfer

It is quite staggering to realise how long Sake Boxes has been in my life! I won the fabric and design in a JEC silent auction in 2011 but was not ready to begin Phase IX at that time so it went into storage for a couple of years.

I started stitching in 2014 at my spring class with Margaret Lewis. I had visited sensei a few weeks earlier to choose my silks and discuss preparation. As well as any stitched outlines, I hoped to have all the foundations stitched prior to class but did not get that far so the first day was spent twisting threads and stitching the foundation of the two vessels. At first these two blocks of solid colour look very stark but I knew that I needed to ignore that and just remember that they will look very different in the end.

When I last wrote about Sake Boxes, in January 2015, the foundations had been pushed to the back of my mind while I focused on the many chrysanthemums and I wrote “Until I get to the gold work on the vessels there will be nothing new to say about this piece, except for an occasional progress report.” While progress has been slow and intermittent, I have failed completely in filing progress reports!

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

By the time I attended class at Symondsbury Manor House in March 2015, I had made reasonable progress with the round and pointed petal chrysanthemums. Whenever possible, I like to spend class time working on something new so that I can obtain instruction and iron out any difficulties whilst my tutors are on hand. During this class I wanted to begin the superimposed work on the two vessels. As always, there is preparation to be done before you can start on the fun bits! Ahead of the class I traced the design for the sake box and the ladle on to tissue paper and began the laborious process of stitch transfer onto my foundations.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

I had been advised to use a different colour couching thread for each of the various superimposed elements. This proved to be good advice even though my colour choices did not always work to my advantage.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

Once the entire design has been stitched through the tracing paper comes the even more laborious process of removing the tissue paper. It must be done with care so not to disturb the stitch transfer or the foundation stitches.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

With the tissue paper removed, the two vessels were already transformed and began to get an impression of how they would look with the superimposed work complete.

© JEC/Carol-Anne Conway

Happy Stitching

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Happy New Year, 2019

I wrote only two posts in 2018 and neither mentioned embroidery!

The past couple of years have thrown up a few challenges and have not been all together conducive to embroidery but, gradually, if somewhat patchily, my mojo has returned. In recent weeks, I find the desire to stitch has returned strongly and, while life still sometimes denies me the time to do so, I am more inclined to make time for stitching than I have been for two or three years.

During the past year or two, I have attended some wonderful courses and workshops; have learned some interesting things and begun some projects that, for now, have been put into hibernation. I hope to write about those on here so that I have a record of them for future reference. For now, I want to take a little look forward with what I hope to do in the coming months.

I have several projects in progress and many more that I would like to begin. I am trying to focus my attention on Sake Boxes as my main project. After stalling for a while, I find that I am enjoying it again and have made steady progress over the past few weeks. I attribute this, in part, to taking a break from it and, perhaps more so, to the support and encouragement I received from my friends in the Japanese Embroidery community.

I am a little less settled on my evening project and flit between two or three without advancing any of them by much. I brought one of those with me to Amsterdam.

Ring o' Roses
© Jacqui Carey/Carol-Anne Conway

For the past 18 years we have spent the New Year in A’dam with my sister- and brother-in-law. As we normally only see them once or twice a year, we have much to catch up on, but it is also a time for relaxing and I usually bring some stitching with me. We have been rather busy since arriving doing some of the things that have become traditional for us, and something unexpected (until a couple of weeks ago) but very pleasurable. Last night we saw in the New Year twice, as has become our custom. First, we toast the new year in Holland and watch the extraordinary firework spectacle across the Amsterdam sky line. Then at one o’clock, local time, we toast the new year arriving in England. New Year’s Day, we spend quietly. We take a little walk to blow away the cobwebs, we chat and rest, Susan knits and I stitch.

I did not do much, only one more round, but I am pleased to have done some stitching on the first day of the year and hope that I will do some, if only a little, on more days than not in 2019.

Happy New Year and Happy Stitching

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!