Friday, 19 August 2016

The Island, A Study in White Work, part 1

I visited Blenheim Park several times to photograph potential subjects for my piece for the Celebrating Capability Brown exhibition. I had considered focusing on a tree or group of trees but my attention was constantly drawn to the Island and its reflection in the lake. I walked all around the lake taking photographs from every aspect but, of course, none of mine could match up to the professional photograph that Blenheim Palace had provided us for inspiration.

© Blenheim Palace
The Finest View in England

I printed out an enlarged and cropped version of the image then outlined the individual trees, the shape of the island and the reflections with a black marker.

© Carol-Anne Conway

Before I traced the design onto my fabric, I washed the linen to remove the dressing and pressed it while still damp to eliminate any wrinkles.

© Carol-Anne Conway

I planned to do some pulled thread embroidery on this piece so wanted the linen to be framed up with the grain as straight as possible. I decided to use a new frame that I had picked up at a sale. The packaging described it as a slate frame but the fabric is held in place with a dowel rather than stitching it to a twill tape. My first attempt was unsuccessful as a) the grain was not as straight as I wanted and b) the line slipped out of the dowels when I adjusted the stretcher bars.

© Carol-Anne Conway

To overcome this problem I decided to stitch a channel into each end of the fabric through which I could thread the dowels. I had read that it was not necessary to lace the sides of the fabric to frame with this system but later I was to regret skipping this vital step in framing up.

© Carol-Anne Conway

Happy Stitching

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Finest View in England

Woodstock House is an early 18th century manor house set in its own 3.5 acre walled garden, just outside Blenheim Park. With a a grand hall, four reception rooms, eight bedroom suites, a kitchen, and cellars it is the largest private residence on the Blenheim Estate. Although currently unoccupied and badly in need of refurbishment, Woodstock House retains many of its original features including 12-pane sash windows, a galleried staircase hall, original interior panelling and panelled doors, flagstone flooring and a Regency Doric style entrance porch.

Woodstock House

The three story house boasts impressive views over Blenhiem Palace and its grounds, particularly of Vanburgh's bridge and Capability Brown's lake. Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, declared the view to be "the finest in England".

© Blenheim Palace
The Finest View in England

In the 1920's, a young woman called Gladys May Cross worked 'in service' at Woodstock House and would have been very familiar with this view. During her years there a young man came a courting and they would 'walk out' in Blenheim Park. Rumour has it that Gladys would sneak her beau into the house through a window. Very risqué, even in the roaring twenties. The winter of 1928/29 was exceptionally cold and the lake at Blenheim Palace froze over. Gladys and her young man, Cecil Oakley, took the rare opportunity to walk across the lake to the island. In 1930 the young couple married and Gladys left service and Woodstock House to become mistress of her own home.

Gladys and Cecil looking very happy on their wedding day

Gladys May Cross and Cecil Gerald Oakley still looking happy c1950.

I had already decided to stitch the a view of the island for the Celebrating Capability Brown exhibition before one of my aunties told me about the day my grandfather, Cecil, walked my grandmother, Gladys, across the lake to the island.

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 décor 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!