It is autumn in this part of the world and some plants are blooming profusely, as if in defiance of the bleak winter months to come. While relishing this autumnal display in the garden I have also been trying my hand at creating three dimensional flowers.
First a quick peek at the perfection of natural flowers.
I think they are all indigenous plants (I am not sure about the two salvias) and grow and bloom without any watering or special care. I am particularly fond of the Plectranthus, which comes in many forms — from ground covers to large shrubs. They bloom in happy profusion during Autumn and have a distinctive smell that makes me think of home (i.e. the Eastern Cape).
During the drought the small stand of white Plectranthus in a shady corner of the garden took strain. But I am delighted that the plants have recovered and are blooming again. (see left)
The above is by way of introduction to the flowers I made this week from threads, following a stimulating and inspiring workshop given by Meredith Woolnough on the TextileArtist.org Stitch Club portal.
The on-line course ran over two weeks and in the first we learnt how to make bowls with threads, stitching, and water soluable sheets. Now I know why I kept all those nests of interesting threads! I made two bowls — a large one with white threads and a small one with coppery threads and a scrap of fabric. They seemed to want to nestle together and I ended up with what looked like a fried egg!
All was, however, not lost because in the second tutorial we were shown how to transform our bowls into flowers.
I then went on to make two more flowers to keep the fried egg flower company.
It was hard to photograph them. Hopefully this gives you some idea of their ethereal quality. I used a packet of gold birds nest threads for the round flower and some scrim sprinkled with the offcuts of the gold threads for the tubular bloom.
Today’s the day, and to celebrate I did two things.
I festooned our house with some of my quilts. That was the second thing I did.
The first thing took a bit longer. It involved stitching something new. The South African Quilters’ Guild released a special flower block this week and urged us to make one and post it on social media on International Quilting Day.
Designed by Diana Vandeyar, the block is a modern adaptation of the South African flag. She ingeniously made it look like a flower. You can find the pattern here, on the SA Quilters’ Guild website.
I set out to make one block, but then couldn’t stop and made a row of flowers. (Squint at the pink and you will see the blooms!)
To see the beautiful variations made by members of the SAQA committee, go to this instagram post and scroll past the notification. You won’t be disappointed.
Trying to find new headlines about my repeated stitching activities is becoming increasingly difficult. Last week this time I was preparing for a Saturday workshop on kantha-style stitching. It was a lovely day and a grand finale to this particular class, which I have offered a number of times in the small town where I live.
Here are some photographs of the day, taken by one of the participants, artist Dylan McGarry.
After we had gone through the three basic kantha stitches (bricking, blocking and stepping) and done a bit of needle weaving, they all had a go at stitching circles, using the stepping stitch. Their enthusiam inspired me, and this week I have been stitching whorls onto the fabric covers for Moleskin notebooks.
After stitching the whorls on the covers for the medium sized notebooks I tried my hand at filling in the often used paisley shape.
I am plumping up my stock of textile items for the market table at Hogsback. Easter is just around the corner and this is a beautiful time to visit the Hogsback.
Meanwhile I have continued to experiment with wet media. A few weeks ago I wrote about taking part in #the100dayproject. I have managed to keep it up for three weeks and am, hopefully, in the swing of things. It is said that it takes 21 days to create a habit.
The printed drawings are not mine. They are by Tori Stowe and are from her 2018 black and white doodle pad, or calendar.
This is what a fly would look like if it was six inches in length. Well, more or less. I tried to be as anatomically correct as possible with my needle and thread when I stitched it. If you are wondering why I embroidered a fly, it’s a longish story. First I stitched a Stapelia that was blooming in the garden in January. The carnivorous plant had trapped a fly, which I did not include in the stitchery. One of my readers suggested that it might be fun to stitch the fly. The thought buzzed in the back of my brain.
Then (the story continues) textile and embroidery artist Yvette Phillips gave a Stitch Club tutorial where she demonstrated how to stitch a nature collection. I was entranced by her fine work. In the video tutorial she made it look quite easy to do this intricate stitching, so I thought I would give it a bash. Here’s an example of one of her works.
Realising it would take a very long time to stitch a collection of nature objects, I decided to focus on just one item. I found a clear image of an enlarged fly, threaded my needle and set to work. First, though, I traced the outline and appliquéd the body and eyes onto the backing cloth using fusible web. I used black flannel for the body and a scrap of coppery evening dress fabric for the eyes. The wings are from fused chiffon and were appliquéd over the body after most of the stitching had been completed.
It was most enjoyable to do this fine embroidery. It was also a lovely surprise, because I did not think I had it in me to do such precise work in a stretched hoop. Yvette Phillips calmly and clearly showed how to do quite tricky maneouvres with a needle and thread and, by following her example of stitching slowly but surely, I found it was possible. But it did take a long time.
The fly is stitched onto the the same sized cloth (6 inches square) as the Stapelia. The fabric is the same, but of a different hue. Here they are, side by side:
In my first post of the year I wrote of my intention to stitch a small six inch block of something from my garden each month during 2023. The Stapelia is for January, The Fly is an added extra, and here is the block for February:
Road Trip (104 x 101 cm) contains the route I travelled to attend the National Quilt Festival in October last year. The route is superimposed on a hand quilted whole cloth, where I used neutral perle threads. The road markings represent about 1000 km in each direction and are more or less geographically corret. On the way I stopped to visit friends, family, and to attend a family wedding. The red dots represent the places where I stayed en route. I used a simple running stitch and wool thread to mark the route. The dots are embroidered using the spider web pattern (taught to me by Yvette Phillips).
The road trip is mapped onto a whole cloth that I started at a workshop with Diana Vandeyar during the NQF.
Writing of the National Quilt Festival, I also finished the workbook containing samples from the workshops I did during the festival. Here’s the link to one of the posts about this.
And here’s the finished book. I bound it by following a UTube book binding tutorial on kettle stitch.
Never say never. I keep reminding myself of this old adage and keep having to eat my words. After a stimulating Concertina Sketchbook Mess Around Workshop given by ceramic and mixed media artist, Lydia Holmes, I can’t stop playing about with paint and glue. In the past I have often said “I don’t do that” when it comes to dyeing fabric and other wet media activities.
Lydia generously shared her knowledge with members of the TAPE (Textile Artists of PE) group at the February meeting. Now I am hooked and my stitching projects are on hold.
In the photographs above Lydia Holmes demonstrates different wet techniques for filling our blank concertina books. The photographs were taken by Angie Weisswange, who kindly hosted the workshop in her studio.
Along with instructions on how to fold and construct the concertina book, Lydia promised that the workshop would be “about trying different ideas, scribbling, collaging, generally playing and not expecting a fantastic outcome”. It was all this, and more.
She showed us how to prepare or activitate the blank pages for painting and mark making. That bland statement does not capture the fun of playing with gesso and gel medium and using them to stick down ordinary paper, embossed paper, tissue paper, bandage, old tea bags, and creating patterns with diluted coffee and cling wrap. The fun really started after the prepared pages had dried in the sun and we covered them with acrylic ink (or paint) by painting, letting the blobs run, splattering, spritzing with water, dabbing the wet paint, removing some of the paint with a rag, overpainting with gesso, printing circles, etc. I discovered the possibilites are endless.
Lydia spoke about freeing oneself of the need to do things perfectly. She worked her magic on me and I found myself doodling and scribbling and getting ink and gesso under my fingernails. She advised against planning too carefully, especially if you are stuck, and to loosen up. She also suggested scribbling every day to create new pathways in the brain.
It was during this workshop that I finally understood the concept of mark making. It is a term that I had often come across — for both stitching and artwork — and wondered what it meant exactly. Angie put it in a nutshell when I asked if this is what we were doing. She said that mark making is an exercise done by first year art students in order to get rid of preconceived ideas of how to draw. Ah!
Of course I tried to research it when I got home and found only one reference to mark making in my small library of books on quilting and textiles. Under the section Developing a Design in the book How To Be Creative in Textile Art (Batsford, 2011) by Julia Triston and Rachel Lombard they say:
When interpreting your source material, try to capture the essence of your collection, rather than drawing precisely what you see. Thinking about making a mark on a background can be less intimidating than thinking about ‘drawing’. Aim to make marks that convey a personal interpretation of your source material, rather than detailed representational drawings. The strength and direction of a mark or line can convey a mood or feeling. For example, a heavy zigzag line can suggest turbulence and instability, whereas a smoother, softer horizontal line can express a sense of calm and peace.
— Tristan and Lombard , p. 52
The lesson I hope I have learnt is: don’t be intimidated.
So, armed with this new found mark making ‘freedom’ I have joined #the100dayproject with the intention of experimenting with wet media. There is a newsletter that gives encouragement. On Day 1, Lindsay Jean Thomas sent an email to say that the theme for the first week of the project is to create the container and build the habit. She advised us to set an intention, goal, or mantra for our creative projects.
I decided my container would be a book. But what kind of book? A 100-page concertina book would be too long (ha!), so I decided to make signatures which I will bind or put into a cover at the end of the project. Each page is A5 size (14.8 x 21 cm) and each signature has 8 pages. I decided to use the first page as a title page for the week, because 1 + 7 = 8.
The real breakthrough was realising this was an opportunity to repurpose my old A4 morning page journals. I glued three double page spreads on top of one another to create a firm base and then painted over the writing with gesso. When it was dry, I cut the prepared page in half horizontally and, hey presto, had the eight pages (two four-page double spreads) needed to make a signature for the week.
Here is a compilation of the seven inside pages, showing the different printing techniques I tried. The layout app changed the uniform size in order to get all the images onto one page.
My intention (or mantra) is “do it”, as stated on Day 3. Each of the pages is labelled with a number to represent the day. I did this mostly for fun but also to help me keep track of which page to use for which day.
On Day 8, Lindsay sent another encouraging email, headed “giving ourselves permission to create” and congratulated us on making it through the first week.
It’s been a busy week with the focus on the running stitch. On Saturday I hosted a workshop on how to make a kawandi-style cloth, using patches and running stitch, and on Thursday evening I gave a talk to a local group of women on (can you guess?!) — the running stitch.
First a photo-essay on the workshop and then I will post a shortened version of the talk.
We had a fine time stitching and chatting and drinking tea around the table. The three participants who came are all adept stitchers and they soon picked up the thread of kawandi-style stitching. I had made a sample and knew that it would take more than a day to finish stitching the cloth of 20 by 12 inches. I made optional kits of pre-cut patches and a backing cloth for those who wanted to start stitching immediately and not spend time selecting and cutting their own fabric scraps at the class.
A few days after the workshop two of the participants had finished their cloths. One chose to turn hers into the bag that I designed as an optional extra. They kindly sent me photographs of their finished works.
Talk on Running Stitchfor essay group, 16 February 2023
In this paper I wish to celebrate the simple and ancient practice of stitching by hand, in and out, in a straight line. It is called the running stitch. This easy straight stitch is, arguably, the basis for intricate embroidery as well as the more practical holding together of garments constructed with seams. Where would we be without the running stitch? I believe its invention is as important as the wheel. I hope that that bold statement has got your attention and that by the end of this talk you will be as convinced as I am of the merits and magic of the running stitch.
Textile historian Clare Hunter describes the joy of it:
You cut a length of thread, knot one end and pull the other end through the eye of a needle. You take a piece of fabric and push your needle into one side of the cloth, then pull it out on the other until it reaches the knot. You leave a space. You push your needle back through the fabric and pull it out on the other side. You continue until you have made a line, or a curve, or a wave of stitches. That is all there is: thread, needle, fabric and the patterns the thread makes.
Claire Hunter (preface)
Unlike the wheel, there are no ancient, archeological artifacts with which to date the first examples of the use of running stitch. (The wheel is said to have been invented in Lower Mesopotamia around 4000 BCE, and independently invented in China around 2800 BCE.) Textiles do not last. There are, however, traces of textiles, as well as the fibres and tools used for weaving and spinning from which archeologists have pieced together the story of ancient weaving and stitching. The earliest examples of stitched textiles are fragments from the Bronze Age (c. 2000-500 BCE) and from the Iron Age (c. 750-150 BCE). These fragments were found in peat bogs and burials and revealed that, even then, weaving skills and added stitchery were well-developed. (Messent, 13)
According to archaeologist Margarita Gleba of the University of Cambridge, the first threads were not spun with a spindle, but spliced together by hand. She claims that people have been using fibers for millennia, for string and rope as well as thread, and probably started spinning around the fourth millennium BCE.
Claire Hunter states: “It all began with string” (p. 205) and claims that its invention changed the history of humanity. Once the craft of turning plant fibres into thread and twisting them to make string was discovered, many things became possible:
animals could be tethered
objects tied together
fishing nets fashioned
babies carried on their mothers’ backs, etc.
She notes that from string came thread and from thread came cloth. I would add, also stitching.
To get back to the running stitch. To stitch together two pieces of cloth or hide, or to make decorative marks, one needs only a needle and thread. And guess what? The purportedly oldest needle was found in South Africa! It could be as old as 60 000 years.
This bone implement that resembles a needle was found at Sibudu Cave (Northern KwaZulu-Natal) in a Middle Stone Age (300 000-50 000 BCE) deposit. In a paper published in 2008, Lucinda Backwell et al., claim that one of the bone implements found was used to work animal hides as it had “a slender point … consistent with a pin or needle-like implement”.
This is what a Wikipedia entry on the prehistoric needle reports: “The first form of sewing was probably tying together animal skins using shards of bone as needles, with animal sinew or plant material as thread. The early limitation was the ability to produce a small enough hole in a needle matrix, such as a bone sliver, not to damage the material. Traces of this survive in the use of awls to make eyelet holes in fabric by separating rather than cutting the threads. A point that might be from a bone needle dates to 61,000 years ago and was discovered in Sibudu Cave, South Africa.”
From this archeological evidence it could be claimed that the running stitch is 60 0000 years old! I do not want to speculate on when the stitching was first done on cloth (instead of hides) and when it became decorative as well as functional. But I will discuss four ancient stitch forms that are based on the running stitch – Kantha and Kawadi from India; and Shashiko and Boro from Japan – as living evidence of the history of the running stitch. These have all caught the Western imagination in recent times and it has become fashionable to make quilts and embroideries fashioned on these styles, and also to collect antique cloths and fragments. This, of course, has opened up debate about cultural appropriation. But this is not the subject of this paper.
Spinning and weaving
In order to stitch one needs cloth. So here is a very short history of the making of cloth.
Stone Age weavers used long plant fibers — such as flax, hemp or nettle — that could be layered together or joined end to end. Only after 4000 BCE, when crafters started using wool with its shorter fibers, did spinning become necessary. Loom-based weaving, which evolved from basketry, happened as early as the seventh millennium BCE in Turkey. Back then, the threads were made by splicing.
Textile archeologist Eva Andersson Strand has researched the tools used for weaving and spinning in order to unpick the stories of the textiles that were made with them. The tools left lying around ancient workshops are helping archaeologists to figure out what fabrics could have been woven, even though not a thread remains. The heft of a loom weight reveals how many threads it could have held; the width of the loom weight indicates how closely spaced those strands would have been. Based on their analyses, Andersson Strand and colleagues developed methods to work from loom weight to fabric type (from an article by Amber Dance in Science News).
Because I spend a lot of time doing running stitch it gives me time to think about it and I had decided that it has a structure and form to it that can be compared to the alphabet or a kind of language or, even, numerical set. Like literacy and numeracy, one has to learn its basic principles (which are fairly easy – in and out!) and then it becomes tacit knowledge – like riding a bicycle.
This sounds a bit like a flight of fancy. Then, on Gladi Porsche’s blog, I read this corroborative quotation by American textile artist, Cecile Lewis : “The stitch is a human invention that binds us. It is an old, expressive, and universally understood language. The stitch is ubiquitous in its application. It mends tattered garments and surgical incisions. It holds together the precious elements of haute couture as well as the blocks of a quilt that welcomes a new baby. The stitch closes the winding sheet. Humans have employed stitches throughout history. The stitch is made with a thread that encircles the globe. It travels through continents, cultures, and eras. I am just another hand that touches this long, long thread.” (from This Long Thread; Women of Color on Craft, Community, and Connection by Jen Hewitt)
I did not manage to find any concrete information on the history of the running stitch during my research for this paper. But I did come across the following statements from other textile artists that confirm the idea that the running stitch is the basis for more intricate stitch forms:
Running stitch is perhaps the earliest documented stitch and evident in many cultures. There are many varieties of this simple stitch, which passes in and out of two or more layers of fabric, giving the appearance of a mark or a broken line.
— Sandra Meach
The history of the running stitch is really the history of the needle and thread. One can assume an eyed needle (not an awl) led to sewing, which meant the creation of the running stitch, used on clothing, shoes, hats, and other needed items such as storage bags, bedding, and shelter (and probably the whip stitch for sewing animal skins together).
There is a relatively new stitching trend called Slow Stitch, which draws on the methods and wisdom of kantha, kawandi, boro and shashiko. Slow stitching has become a familiar term and a popular practice. I use it unthinkingly to describe some of my own work. After starting to offer hand stitching classes, I paused to think about what the term really means and also to wonder at the benefits of taking the time to sit around a table with others and to practise stitching by hand.
The psychosocial benefits are, I believe, enormous. There is also the physical benefit of being able to measure the efforts of one’s day in rows of running stitch that form patterns on the cloth.
[I then spoke about the stitch forms of kantha, kawandi, boro and shashkio. Much of this information has appeared in previous blog posts so I will not repeat it here.]
I have concentrated on the basic unit of hand sewing: the running stitch and have argued that it is both primary and universal. There is much more information on the genesis of embroidery and the remarkable early works that were created to mark historical events, such as the Bayeax Tapestry that tells of the 1066 Battle of Hastings; the rich embroideries of the European nobility and the ecclesiastical embroideries (opus anglicanum) from Mediaeval times. Despite the lack of documentation on early examples of the running stitch I hope I have convinced you of the crucial role it has played
Backwell, Lucinda et al. “Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa.” in Journal of Archeological Sciences. 35 (6) June 2008, Pages 1566-1580
This is the title of my latest work, inspired by an on-line workshop called “Imperfect Memories in Stitch”, given by Cas Holmes. It is an imperfect rendition of a perfect memory.
When I watched Cas Holmes’s workshop video on Stitch Club, run by TextileArtist.org, I knew immediately that I wanted to use photographs from Prince Charming’s first birthday celebration as my subject matter. The whole family was there. It was a perfect day. Sunshine after a week of rain, green grass, bright balloons, smiles and laughter, cake with a candle. What more could one ask?
Getting the idea was the easy part. Transfering the images onto cloth was not that easy. Fortunately Cas’s video and workbook were clear and easy to follow. She did also warn that one would not get crystal clear images in the transfer process — hence the title “Imperfect Memories in Stitch”.
It took two tries before I was happy with the way the photographs had transferred onto the fabric. Here they are drying in the sunshine after the second, more successful, transfer. For this attempt I converted the images to black and white on the computer and used a closer weave fabric on which to ‘print’ them.
We worked from a xerox copy of the photograph and used an acrylic gel medium to transfer the image. (There is a UTube tutorial by Cas Holmes on this, so I am not giving away Stitch Club secrets.) The next step was to make a composition using significant fabrics and stitch. I got a bit stuck in finding appropriate background materials as the only meaningful fabric I had was the green satin which I had earmarked for the tree. Then I was reminded of the woven piece of green ‘garden’ I had made some years ago as a test piece for a quilt called Nature’s Book.
From then on it was a matter of playing until the piece was completed. Part of the brief was to use paper in the collage and I contemplated this for the balloons. But there is more brightly coloured fabric than there is brightly coloured paper in this house, so I went with the fabric.
In progress photographs where I tried out different layouts of the collage
The background piece had been previously stitched, so that saved a lot of time. I did overstitch the single balloon and the bunch of balloons and was pleased with the subtle effect of meshing the balloons into one unit. I also hand appliquéd the tree into position and stitched down the photographs as subtly as I could manage.
The final touch was to get out the pencil crayons and do a bit of colouring in in places.
Below is another entry in my scroll journal of noteworthy happenings during 2023. I stitched down the first photographic transfer attempt. It served as a good practice exercise on the difficulty of stitching through the transfers.
Three weeks ago I wrote that I wanted to offer a wider variety of monthly hand-stitching workshops this year. So, with the help of a free online graphic design app, I compiled the following advertisements for the local newspaper.
The first advertised class will be held next Saturday at my home. To warm up I offered a class to those who did the introduction to kantha-style stitching last year. I billed it as ‘Stitch a Story’ and showed them how to transfer a design onto the cloth and to begin filling in the design with stitch during the one-day workshop.
It was a lovely day of stitching, laughing and chatting. I am proud of the varied and exciting designs that were produced duirng the class.
At the forthcoming workshop we will make a small Kawandi-style cloth — another version of running stitch over patches. To make these cloths one works from the edges towards the centre. This seems counter-intuitive, but it works! Afterall, it is an ancient African Indian tradition that is possibly tens of thousands of years old. My ultimate aim is to make a large kawandi quilt. So far I have made three examples after attending workshops on the method with Macky Cilliers and Elaine Barnard. A previous post tells of the joy of making that cloth and gives some background to the Sidi people who make the authentic Kawandis.
If you live in Grahamstown and are reading this, there are two places available. I certainly am looking forward to showing people how to construct the cloth and to play with bright patches of fabric and strong white thread in the process. If you would like to read about previous stitching workshops, please click here and here.
The Unfurling of the Bunting Banner
We strung up the Purple Hat banner at the Hogsback market last weekend. With Fiona Wallace’s permission, here is a photograph of her at her stall, called Purple Hat Shop, which has an alluring array of pre-loved costume jewellery.
This is the first of my month-by-month blocks. I have given myself the challenge of stitching something from my garden to represent each of the months of this year. The background fabrics, backing, and lining (instead of batting) have been pre-cut and I already have an idea for February.
Below is the photograph of the real Stapelia alongside the stitched versions.