Can we canvas? Yes we can!

Until recently I didn’t really “feel” Canvaswork, so I approached my first proper class (which initially had been planned for last July, but got postponed several times for various reasons) with some trepidation. I came armed with two outlines which I knew to be far too detailed, a framed-up canvas which I knew wasn’t tight enough (but which by this time did at least have the required rectangular running stitch outline in sewing thread), a few samplings in the wrong sort of thread, and about one idea. I did not feel confident.

Two detailed tracings Framed up, but not quite tightly enough (and as yet minus outline) Possible stitches Some sampling

The tutor assigned to this class was Angela, and I’d been looking forward to seeing her and perhaps having a little Bruce chat with her, but unfortunately she had gone down with Covid (apparently feeling rather rough with it, poor her) and so the class was taken by Helen Jones. With only four students we each had plenty of time to discuss things with her, and for me the first thing was indeed to get that canvas tightened. I unlaced part of it, turned the bottom roller once and re-laced. It is now most definitely taut as a drum, but as that is difficult to photograph you’ll have to take my word for it!

The next thing was to simplify the outline. I was surprised at how far you take this process in canvaswork, and I fear mine probably still has too much detail (especially in the windmill) but this was as simple as I felt comfortable with, and Helen OK-ed it. To make it easier to transfer she suggested tracing the pencil lines in marker pen; this was also a good opportunity to get the horizon level. In the photograph the furthest edge of the paved area which forms the strongest horizontal line in the piece is actually slightly curved, but making it perfectly level would help to “anchor” the design when transferring it – if the horizon didn’t follow a straight line of holes on the canvas, I’d know I had to reposition it.

Simplifying the outline Tracing the outline and levelling the horizon

Having got used to prick & pounce and paint for transferring the design at RSN classes, canvaswork is a bit of a wayward module. There is no way the canvas would take the pounce in any meaningful way, and as you have to transfer the design when the canvas is on the frame you can’t just bung it onto a light box either. Instead, you build a squat tower of books with the design on top of it, place the frame over it so that the canvas rests on the design, and then trace what you can see of it through the holes with a permanent marker. It then becomes abundantly clear why the outline has to be simplified so much: the canvas simply will not take any great level of detail. It is also surprisingly difficult to manipulate the traced design if its position is slightly off, sandwiched as it is between the books and the frame. But eventually I got that nice straight horizon to line up with a row of holes, and drew it on.

Propping up the frame The horizon is in!

I can’t guarantee that what eventually ended up on the canvas is exactly like the design outline – some of the squigglier lines were difficult to trace precisely – but again it got the OK so perhaps I was being a bit too fussy. What definitely did need addressing was the fact that I managed to leave off an entire hedge, which I didn’t notice until I got home and showed the canvas to Mr Figworthy! It has since been added in.

Outline minus hedge Outline with hedge

Because it felt silly to do absolutely no stitching at all in class, I did do a tiny bit of sampling: it’s a herringbone variation which takes shading rather well, and which I hope to use to bring texture to the green bits that aren’t worked individually. It is rather fiddly, as you have to bring the needle up underneath previous stitches half the time, but I think it will be worth the effort.

Herringbone variations sampled

My next class is in January; until then I’ll be colouring in a print of the outline (officially “making a colour and shading plan”), choosing stitches and doing a lot of sampling. I’ve got some ideas for the two large tulips in the foreground and various other bits and have sketched and scribbled a few ideas (yes, my handwriting is atrocious) to be translated into sampling at some point.

A few sketches

Due to canvaswork being the Mary Mary Quite Contrary of embroidery, those two big tulips will be worked first. In all other techniques you work the background first, and then the things that are a bit nearer to the viewer, and so on, until you reach the things in the foreground. If parts of the design overlap you stitch the overlapping bit last, which looks more natural and convincing. But in canvaswork you stitch the foreground first, and end with what is furthest away in the picture. As far as I understand, this is because the further back in the design you go, the smaller the stitches get – and it is much easier to work small stitches around large ones than fit large ones into a background made up of small stitches!

Having to end with lots of green and a big expanse of sky after doing all the interesting foreground bits may sound like starting with the fireworks and going downhill from there, but I rather like it – I think those tulips will entice me into a technique which is entirely new to me and feels unfamiliar and challenging. Let’s hear it for the Tempting Tulips!

Planning Canvaswork

After Bruce (yes, there will be an “after Bruce”, and not too far in the future with any luck) the next module for my RSN Certificate is Canvaswork. Surprisingly, even though I haven’t officially started, it’s already been through quite a few ups and downs. First of all I didn’t think I’d do it at all; I just wanted to do Jacobean and Goldwork (and even the Jacobean was mainly because they wouldn’t let me do Goldwork without it). Then I got the various RSN stitch guides and thought it might be rather fun to do Canvaswork after all, especially as some ancient seaside scribbles led to ideas for a possible design.

Early scribbles for a sea shore idea... ...and how it might look in a Canvaswork project

I liked it. I still do. It may one day make it to canvas. But unfortunately it doesn’t fit the Canvaswork brief, which specifies “depth and perspective”. A pity, because not only did I have some photographs from a visit to an aquarium in Brittany some years ago with weird and wonderful and usable creatures, but I’d also had a bit of a splurge on seaside-y textured threads. Fortunately some of these have since come in handy in other projects, for example in Septimus the Septopus.

Rainbow Gallery threads from eBay Rainbow Gallery threads plus one other from West End Embroidery Finished and lit from the side

Keeping the need for perspective in mind, I was tempted by a picture I took at Buckler’s Hard in the New Forest of some oystercatchers foraging. But in order to make them big enough to be both recognisable and stitchable I’d have to zoom in so much that most of the background, and with it any perspective, was lost. Exit the oystercatchers.

The oystercatchers at Buckler's Hard don't quite make the grade

Now from the first two modules you may have gathered that I like having some personal touches in my Certificate projects; beyond the fact that I’ve designed them, I mean. Our very own pussycat made it into the Jacobean project together with references to a favourite poem, Dutchness, and my mother. Bruce and Haasje carry memories of my favourite cuddly toy and a favourite aunt’s bedtime stories. What to put into Canvaswork? Well, there is a place which is very special to me and which, before moving to England, I would visit every year; where I got engaged; and which I remember going to with many special people like my mother, several aunts, and my in-laws: the Keukenhof, that famous Dutch bulb garden. And with its swathes of flowers, trees, ponds, fountains, sculptures and buildings surely there must be suitable scenes with plenty of depth and perspective. This one, for example, which I took myself some years ago:

Lots of perspective but a bit too much detail

Very pretty, I’m sure you’ll agree, and it’s got the different textures of flowers, path and trees, but there may just be a bit too much going on in it. Canvaswork is by its very nature rather more chunky than the other techniques, and it might be challenging to capture all the detail. Moreover, I decided that if I was going to celebrate my Dutch heritage in canvaswork, I was going to go all out. Not just tulip overload, but also a windmill. And the Keukenhof just happens to have a pretty good one smiley.

A floral sweep with a washed-out sky No clutter, but not a lot of perspective Good image, but it lacks sweep Sky, sweep of flowers, path, mill - but landscape orientation

Three of these pictures come from the Facebook page of a travel organisation that specialised in Keukenhof trips, so the first thing to do was ask for their permission to use one of them. They were extremely kind about it and said yes, take your pick, just send us a picture of the embroidery when it’s finished. I warned them that might be a while…

As for which to choose, well, all four have a lot going for them: perspective, different textures and lines, and some large areas in which to show off stitch transitions. They all have their drawbacks too – the first has lots of people and other “cluttery” things like bins and benches in it and the sky is overexposed; the middle two haven’t got the curvy sweep of flowers which draws you into the picture; and the last one again has rather a lot of clutter, and it’s in landscape orientation, which doesn’t fit my small frame quite so well. I may try cropping that one to portrait orientation, getting rid of some of the undesirable elements at the same time (although I’d still have to ask the tutor whether I’d be allowed to ignore that one rather prominent rubbish bin). And in spite of the lack of sweep, I like the third picture because it is nice and bold and hasn’t got too much fiddly detail. Anyway, I’m taking all these pics to class, so in between mounting Goldwork we’ll discuss which one is most likely to work. I’ll let you know!