The pros and cons of versatility

A friend just posted something on Facebook about Constance Howard, who set up a Department of Embroidery at the Goldsmiths College of Art. The video picked up on her opinion that “you don’t need to know hundreds of stitches. But you need to use the ones you do know well!”

There is a lot of sense in that. My mother-in-law, who does probably know hundreds of stitches, in recent years has said that she prefers to embroider using only about a handful of them – stem stitch, fly stitch, chain stitch, buttonhole, French knot – because with them she can make whatever she wants. As this pretty-much-exclusively-chain-stitched tea cosy demonstrates.

Tea cosy embroidered in chain stitch

On the other hand, I do think that my willingness to try all sorts of techniques has been helpful to my development as an embroiderer, if only because it showed me which things I liked and wanted to learn more about (hello goldwork!) and which things were just not for me (I’m looking at you, stumpwork). If I’d never ventured beyond my first steps in stitching I would be doing only cross stitch. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m glad I did try other things! So I’m not sure I agree with her belief that “a desire to try everything can actually have a detrimental effect on your work as a textile artist”.

When I mentioned this to a friend who knew Constance Howard (through his grandmother, an accomplished needle artist), he said “‘Know (about) and have decided not to use’ is a perfectly valid state for any stitch – if you don’t learn/try them you don’t know whether you want to use them.” And I would agree with that. I get what CH says about versatility being a possible enemy of artistic development, because you can get bogged down in adding lots of variety for the sake of it, or feel unable to decide which of the umpteen techniques and stitches in your repertoire to use (although I have found that often a design suggests its own technique); and there is always the danger of being a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, and master (or mistress) of none. Still, on the whole I feel you need to know things in order to make an informed decision as to whether they are appropriate for the design you’re working on.

Of course the easiest way of avoiding that decision is to get a kit and follow the instructions, and sometimes it’s really enjoyable to do just that. Did I mention that stumpwork was just not my thing? I wonder how that little stumpwork butterfly made its way into my Sarah Homfray shopping basket a while ago… I’ve even made a start on it! It’s challenging because I’m trying things I haven’t done before, reassuring because it also includes stitches and techniques I’m already familiar with, and relaxing because someone else has made all the decisions for me smiley.

Sarah Homfray stumpwork butterfly kit The butterfly attached and wire couched

PS With regards to the Jack-of-all-trades thing – is it really such a bad thing to be moderately good at lots of things? I will never be as good at goldwork or crewel embroidery as some of the frighteningly talented stitchers out there; but I enjoy my projects, I produce quite decorative results, and I am creating something that is as good as I am capable of creating. You don’t have to achieve Grade 8 in order to enjoy playing the piano, after all!

The show is over

The Knitting & Stitching Show, that is. There was a lot to see, but in between workshops I managed to get round most of it (and quite a bit of London as well – I can recommend Golders Hill Park and the London Wetland Centre!)

There was a wide variety of exhibitions this year, and it was interesting to see the different things people create; some of it I really liked, some of it was not my cup of tea, and some of it I liked in spite of not expecting to, but all of it served to show that there is no “typical embroiderer/knitter/crocheter/quilter”. The pictures below show Toft Alpacas’ crochet display, a beautiful pictorial quilt, a box with a goldwork lid and pompom sushi made by a RSN (Royal School of Needlework) Future Tutor, one from a series of embroideries recording the artist’s mother’s life, including her last years with dementia, and a circular piece of knitting.

Toft's crochet display A pictorial quilt An embroidered sushi box Circular knitting

This year I taught three workshops: Hardanger, Shisha and freestyle. I got some good and helpful feedback, and pictures of finished projects from several participants. Two ladies actually completed their Shisha flower duing the class, including mounting it into a card, and a Dutch lady doing the RSN certificate (or diploma, I’m not sure which) and taking in the K&S Show as an extra stitch-related activity soon posted pictures of her Hardanger needle book.

A Shisha card finished at the workshop A Shisha card finished at the workshop Marlous C's Hardanger needle book

Another lady who came to the Shisha workshop bought the companion kit (the Shisha Tile), finished both at home and then used the techniques she’d learnt to embellish a Christmas quilt, creating a diamond-shaped variation of the stitch used in the Tile kit.

Barbara E's Shisha flower card Barbara E's Shisha tile Barbara E's Shisha tile variation Barbara E's Shisha tile variation on a quilt

And finally, did I buy any new and interesting fabrics, threads, designs? With so many stands selling all manner of goodies, could I possibly resist? Well, not entirely. After enjoying a walk-in demonstration by Sarah from Golden Hinde I bought some of the translucent couching thread she recommended, at a grand total of £2.20 smiley

Translucent couching thread

Materials for a goldwork workshop (I)

When a new workshop or kit is developed, there inevitably comes a time when I need to buy any materials I haven’t yet got in my stash. Oh the hardship! Especially when it’s for goldwork…

Now you’ll be expecting pictures of lots of blingy threads, but actually there’s more to it than that, and it was the other supplies that I happened to buy first. Like needles, lots of needles, both for sewing and for plunging, and Gütermann sewing thread in golden yellow and light grey. I didn’t photograph those as they are fairly generic, but here is something generic that I did take pictures of – not so much for the item itself as for the very decorative box it came in. Rather a suprise to find useful but rather dull acid-free glassine envelopes (for putting the various goldwork threads in) inside what looks like a portable stamp collection!

A decorative box Glassine envelopes

And then there were cards. When I spoke to Craft Creations’ customer service about an order I’d just placed, the lady alerted me to their Value Range. I’d never seen it! It doesn’t come in such a wide range of colours as their more expensive range, but they are perfectly usable. And they give me a way of keeping the goldwork kit costs reasonable without having to compromise too much on the threads.

Craft Creations' value range

Oh all right, a bit of bling then smiley. These came from Sew & So rather than a specialised goldwork supplier: pearl sadi (the Indian embroidery alternative to pearl purl), and Jap (also known as Japan or Japanese thread).

Pearl sadi and Jap

And finally another non-thread necessity for goldwork: beeswax. Sarah Homfray very kindly agreed to sell me 50 of the little hearts she uses in her own workshops – much more affordable than the larger pieces which are generally available. When they arrived the first thing that struck me was that they looked remarkably like vanilla fudge! I resisted the temptation to try one, but I think I’d better not put out that little pot of goodies when there are guests around or something unfortunate might happen.

Beeswax hearts Beeswax hearts in a little pot

The completion of a craft room, part 3

At the end of the last FoF we left the new craft room filled with all its components parts – desk, bookcases, storage towers, boxes, fabrics, threads, tools – and, frankly, in a mess. Time to get organised! One thing that got added which wasn’t absolutely necessary was a new lampshade; the old one didn’t fit the light fitting very well and wobbled precariously, but I suppose strictly speaking it was still serviceable. Nevertheless, a shiny new craft room deserves a bright new lampshade (with a daylight bulb), and I couldn’t resist this cheerful red one with poppies on the inside which shine through to the outside when the light is on – magic! The desk has a craft light, my lightbox, felt boards and other odds and ends; the album was a Christmas gift which I was about to fill with some small projects that had so far been languishing in a box. The cat was allowed in one last time to see what all the fuss was about, before being banished forever.

A bright new lampshade The poppy lamp illuminates the newly organised room, with desk and cat

Behind the desk and chair are the two rainbow storage towers, holding most of my fabrics, some finishing materials, and my stock of scissors, squissors and coasters. The coffee table has the Millennium frame and lapstand plus my doodle cloths and anything in the process of being kitted up, as well as a useful lap tray. Underneath are more storage boxes (large pieces of fabric plus wadding), and next to it a CD tower holding my audiobooks. Not really craft-related, but they used to live underneath that coffee table and I needed the space there, and the CD tower tucks in nicely behind the door when it opens. The bookcases hold all my thread boxes, embroidery books, and kits, and on top sit various decorative thread boxes, one with a tapestry cover, the others with some of my embroidery.

Storage towers, coffee table with boxes underneath, and CD tower Filled bookcases with decorative storage boxes on top

The left-hand bookcase holds threads which ideally should be shielded from the light, as the boxes in which they are stored are transparent or at least translucent. The few boxes in the right-hand bookcase hold mostly beads, gems and shisha materials which are not light-sensitive, so a solution was needed for the one bookcase only. “Needed” might be putting it rather strongly – when I’m not in there the curtains are kept closed, and the bookcases are on a north-facing wall, so the amount of light getting to the boxes is probably negligible; still, I knew I’d feel more at ease with some sort of curtain or cloth in place. Now I can’t really work a sewing machine, so a ready-hemmed piece of material would be ideal. Did we perhaps have some old curtains somewhere in the attic? Well, yes, but they were rather heavy and unlikely to be the right size. Then I remembered a couple of sarongs I had been given a few years back by a friend from Kenya. Could one of those… yes it could. A bit of engineering wizardry by Mr Mabel and my threads were protected!

The sarong in place The thread boxes accessible but protected

And so here, finally, is the craft room – complete, organised, and in use.

The craft room in action

Now all it needs is a small conservatory smiley.

The completion of a craft room, part 2

As I was cleaning the old bookcase ready to be propped up against the other wall and filled according to my “shelf document” my husband, who had kindly offered to repair various bits that had fallen off or got damaged, remarked that even with quite a lot of work it wasn’t going to be a very satisfactory bookcase. For one this, lacking a back it wasn’t particularly stable. “Why don’t we do this properly and look for a suitable bookcase at Ikea or something?” he said. So we did.

The old bookcase ready for some surgery Calculations

Now some time before I had drawn a floor plan for the craft room, and on it, as some of you may remember, there was a small Ikea filing cabinet. Desk height, six drawers, and just the thing for large bits of fabric or anything fairly bulky. Available, unfortunately, in black, white and bright green only. As we got ready to pick up the bookcases (two together would provide about the same amount of storage space as the old double one) I had another good look at the filing cabinet online and decided that really I didn’t need it. With the slightly larger bookcases, the three under-the-bed-boxes and the rainbow storage tower I had oodles of room already. So Helmer stayed at Ikea, and two Billies came home.

The Craft Room floor plan A possible filing cabinet

A scrub and a hoover (or rather a Henry) to clean the room while it was as empty as it was going to be, and then the next step was to build the bookcases. Not a problem, I’ve assembled flat packs in the past and none of them has collapsed yet, so armed with two screwdrivers, a hammer, a mug of tea and a speculaas sandwich (made with two slices of bread and some Dutch biscuits – and let no-one who comes from the nation that invented the chip butty cast any aspersions!) I set to. Oh, there was a helpful feline assistant as well.

Cleaning the room Assembling Billy the Bookcase A little help from Lexi

Ta-dah!

The two finished bookcases

Time to get the desk in (originally kept in the storage room, where it just got cluttered), put some pictures on the wall, place the rainbow tower in its permanent position and fill the bookcases.

A desk to work at The bookcases are filled

This was beginning to look very promising! Until the dining table was cleared…

The dining table is visible and usable again But the craft room floor isn't...

Back to square one? No, not quite. But there was clearly a lot more to do, and one important step was to realise that there was no way I was going to get all that into the available storage. Not even the originally-planned filing cabinet would do. A second rainbow storage tower was needed! And a sarong. Of course.

A second rainbow storage tower A sarong for the craft room

The completion of a craft room, part 1

Some time in February last year I FoFfed about the Craft Room To Be. Just to remind you, this is what it looked like shortly before that post – and that was after getting rid of the giant CRT telly!

The telly room, window side The telly room, door side

That post closed with the line “If everything goes to plan, I should have a fully furnished craft room some time this year!”

Ha. ha. ha.

Some progress had been made by the time I wrote that, in the sense that I had gained a rainbow storage tower and three storage boxes, but with The Den still filled almost to capacity it was all I could do to squeeze them in, inaccessible except by some serious mountaineering. After our trade fair in September at least the trays of Austin Seven spare parts went one by one, so I could see some floor space, but there still wasn’t a lot of room to manoeuvre. As Christmas came ever nearer, I decided Something Must Be Done. Stuff scattered along the window sill and other surfaces – much of it made or collected or won by the boys in days long gone – was boxed up ready to be handed over to the proud owners to display in their own homes (or not, as the case might be). I went through the boxes of documents and photos and keepsakes from Mum’s house, and (with my husband, as it was a combined collection) through the stacks of videos, CDs and DVDs in and on top of the bookcase. What we wanted to keep went in boxes to the storage room for the time being. There was a distinct sense of not-quite-so-cluttered-ness about the ex-telly room!

No more trays or videos

Except, of course, for that sofa bed. The biggest obstacle (in every sense) in the Craft Room project, it was inherited decades ago from my husband’s grandmother. No-one in the family wanted it, no-one else was willing to come and take it away for free (not even after we discovered that it was a Vono sofa and could be described as vintage/retro), and the charity shops wouldn’t touch it because it didn’t have the required fire safety labels. I suspect people weren’t that fussed about furniture fire safety when this was made. Finally, in desperation I asked Eldest and fiancée whether they really wouldn’t like a sofa bed for their spare bedroom. They came over to have a look at it, and decided that yes, they would like it after all. Victory! “When can you come and pick it up?” Not until 2018, as it happened, but on the first Saturday of the new year this was the state of play:

No more sofa bed

All it needed was some cleaning and a bit of work on the bookcase, which was already in the room when we bought the house nearly twelve years ago, and which was definitely showing signs of age. Don’t we all. A bit of TLC and I’d be able to start populating the shelves!

The old bookcase ready for some surgery

Or perhaps not…