Friday, 22 August 2014

Empresse of Flowers - Part 1

I was very pleased to learn that Lynn Hulse and Nicola Jarvis (Ornamental Embroidery) would be conducting a workshop at the Ashmolean in conjunction with the Eye of the Needle. The class this year “Empresse of Flowers: Elizabethan Embroidery” was inspired by the botanical motifs that dominated English domestic embroidery throughout the Elizabethan period. Nicola designed a panel, consisting of four motifs within a trailing vine, based on a cushion she had previously designed and stitched, which in turn was based on a panel in the Embroiderer’s Guild’s Collection. Our panel included two strawberries with a flower, two pea pods, a honeysuckle and a cornflower. Given that such motifs were stitched in a wide variety of different techniques, Lynn and Nicola did not prescribe a stitching scheme for the panel, instead, during the course of the 2 days they helped each of us devise our own stitching plan.

During the first morning we split into two groups: while one group went to view the Eye of the Needle Exhibition, the other set about choosing a colour scheme and selecting threads for their panel. After lunch, inspired by the magnificent embroideries we had seen and full of enthusiasm, we started stitching. As well as a piece of linen with the design drawn on, we were each given a piece of muslin to practice on. While a few brave souls pitched straight in on their linen, most of us choose to practice on the muslin first. In fact, I only stitched on the muslin during the course, choosing to try out some ideas for each motif.

I began with the pea pods. Pea pods are often stitched in needle lace; Nicola suggested that we do them in corded Brussels (buttonhole stitch with return). I have done this, or variations of this stitch, a few times already. Most recently I worked alternating up and down buttonhole with return of the Tudor Rose. When I wrote about the Tudor Rose, I commented that my stitching was more open and lacy than the original and thought that may have been because the back stitches of my outline may have been too large. I decided to practice the corded Brussels on the muslin to see if I could get the stitches smaller and denser. I started by outlining the pea pod with backstitch, this time concentrating on making them small and even. I think that I over compensated and made the stitches so small that I struggled to get my needle under them for the first row of buttonhole stitches. When I had completed the first row, subsequent rows went in more quickly and easily and I liked the small, dense stitching. Before I start on the linen, I will experiment some more to see if a slightly larger back stitch outline gives me the same result.

© Ornamental Embroidery/Carol-Anne Conway

The second motif I practised on day one was the strawberry. I thought that this also would look good stitched in needle lace. Nicola suggested that it might be nice to raise the motif slightly with some padding so I first stitched three layers of padding; first two layers of Colonial satin stitch (laid stitch) then a layer of satin stitch. I alternated the orientation of the stitches between vertical and horizontal, finishing with a vertical layer completely filling the area inside the backstitch outline. I wanted a more open, lacy stitch for the strawberry so Nicola suggested I use triple Brussels. The first row is formed by making three buttonhole stitches then leaving a gap before making the next three stitches, and so on across the row. On the second and subsequent rows, you make three buttonhole stitches into the bar that bridges the gap, and leave a gap above the three stitches in the previous row. The trick is to make the three stitches and the gaps of equal width. I really like the effect.

© Ornamental Embroidery/Carol-Anne Conway

© Ornamental Embroidery/Carol-Anne Conway

As I was only practising on the muslin, I only worked enough of each motif to ensure I knew what I was doing and to evaluate whether I liked the effect.

Happy Stitching.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Eye of the Needle Exhibition

Last August I took part in a two day workshop with Lynn Hulse, Nicola Jarvis and Jacqui Carey. The class was based on a swete bag from the Micheál and Elizabeth Feller collect that was due to be exhibited at the Ashmolean last year. The original exhibition was postponed which was disappointing at the time but the good news is that “The Eye of the Needle” has now opened and runs until 12 October 2014. There is a full program of lectures, study days and workshops centred on the exhibition: I have signed up for everything except one of the workshops and will be practically living at the Ashmolean museum for the next 3 months! I have already attended one workshop, more on that later, but today I want to talk about the exhibition itself.

Together with a selection of the 17th century English Embroideries from Feller Collection, which are on public display for the first time, are a few outstanding examples from the Ashmolean’s own collection. The exhibition includes beautiful samplers and pictorial panels; dress accessories including caps, coifs and gloves; swete bags; a chatelaine; the Ashmolean’s famous frog purse; and two embroidered boxes. Every item is exquisite and the workmanship is to be marvelled at. They are made with colourful silks, metallic threads, pearls and semi-precious stones; one small needle lace picture, worked entirely in white thread, includes over 400 tiny fresh water pearls. As well as demonstrating an extraordinary range of techniques the embroideries also reflect the religious, political and social concerns of the time. The exhibition is made all the richer by the information cards displayed with each piece. The curator, Dr Mary Brooks, supplied information not only on the techniques and materials used but also what is depicted and the context in which they were made.

The two day workshop I attended on August 1 and 2 included entry to the exhibition on its opening day. I spent about an hour in the exhibition before I reached saturation point but the Ashmolean were very generous in allowing us to view the exhibition again on the second day: I still could not take everything in!

No pictures are allowed in the exhibition and unfortunately there is not a catalogue but there are two excellent books on the Feller Collection: The Micheál & Elizabeth Feller Needlework Collection Volume I and The Micheál & Elizabeth Feller Needlework Collection Volume II.

Happy Stitching