Sunday, 25 November 2012

Bobbin Lace

I have had a minor hankering to learn how to do bobbin lace for many years.  Quite clearly a very minor hankering since until yesterday I didn't even try.    I was reading a book about using textile techniques in jewellery, and it had a section on making bobbin lace using silver wire to produce a flower for a ring.

I have used silver wire before.  I used a technique called, I think, Viking knitting, to make the bodies for dragonflies, and used vanishing fabric and thread to make the wings.  The silver wire is lovely stuff, supple and doesn't snap, but quite expensive with current metal prices.

I decided to start on a larger scale, and set out a fabric covered piece of Styrofoam - covered with some fluorescent tennis ball fabric I got at the Scrapstore.  I drew out the beginnings of the pattern, and set to, working with some yellow florists wire.  I thought this would be easy to handle as it stays where it is put.  I tried to follow the instructions, but they were very - move 3 over 2, cross 1 over 3....the type of instructions that don't give you any understanding of what you are trying to achieve and require a total attention to detail.   I found my attention slipping after about two moves....

After this it seemed sensible to try to understand the principles of bobbin lace, so I spent an amusing hour on the Internet watching videos.  Many bobbin lace videos are in Italian or Greek, but I found a few in English.  It was amusing to see how some people just sit down and chat to their camera, seemingly without any planning, but I found some competent bits of tutorial.

Bobbin lace is just weaving without a loom.  They always talk about two of the bobbins being the working bobbins.  What these are is the two that in effect shuttle back and forth across the piece, weaving in and out of the other threads.  You start with threads twice as long as the others.  There are two moves:  the cross, which is a thread on the left passed over the one on the right, and a twist, the thread on the right lifted over the one on the left.  I tried to think my way through this and felt that I was ending up with an unwoven bunch of thread, so tried it with four cords, a coloured and a plain cord folded in half.  In effect, done correctly, this gives you a braid.   I had a friend when I was a kid at school in India who braided her lustrous black hair with four strands rather than three - it always seemed mysterious and beautiful, and I should have got her to show me how she did it.  I don't think this is the same pattern, but if you think of bobbin lace as a form of braiding it feels less daunting.

So how does this braid get turned into lace?  Pins.  Pins are very important as they allow you to structure the material as you produce it, so that voids are made and retained.  In the simple repeated lace, which they call cloth stitch, the whole fabric is produced by repeating a cross, twist, cross pattern, with a pin holding the edge so the material doesn't just bunch up like a rope.   Everything else seems to be a variation of this, with changes in which threads you use, how many repeats before pinning etc.  I cannot claim that I have cracked the techniques of bobbin lace, but at least I feel I have got to the point where I could start. I went back to my yellow florists wire and rapidly wound my way to the bottom of the thread...not needing pins as the wire held its shape adequately for the practice session.

So what will I do with this new found expertise?  I have a plan to make a large piece using wire.  I bought a plank (how strange not to be able to just wander out to the barn and get a bit of wood!) and bleached it.  I washed it first in the bathtub, and then scrubbed it with bleach, leaving it to work for a few hours until I got the lightening effect I wanted.  I intend to make some simple lace down the centre of this plank, using eye screws rather than pins.  I wondered about using my stained glass leading nails as they have an amusing angular shape, but these little screw threaded, loop headed  devices will do better.  I can can then attach other things to the loops as I want to.

more later....

Monday, 6 August 2012

ripples and stained glass continued

I seem to have merged these two projects in my mind and my file structure.  Today I worked on another acrylic of a ripple photograph from the canal basin.  I chose a smaller brush than the one I was using yesterday - ripples and reflections need precision or they just look messy.  I painted on the balcony, wearing my long ancient french peasant smock.  I stand with my back to the view, tucked under the little bit of overhang.  I am reminded of a scene in one of my favourite books, Handling Sin, where a character spends all his days on his balcony on a southern plantation copying in shaky detail the small postcards of Paris he has clipped to his easel.  Interrupted by gusty rain, where the wind drove the droplets sideways onto the canvas.  Indoors is too much Olympic fever for concentrated painting.

Yesterday's painting needs tightening up and doing the lower section, which is reflected brickwork.

I've been doing quick sketches - I like the blue ripples but realised two things - one, don't use water soluble felt pen if you are then going to do water colour washes one top, and two, if you want separated blocks of colour don't forget to make the lines continuous.  Like the general idea though, and will turn this into a proper piece.  I'm intending to do four of these square pictures to hang as a single block.

The teal coloured one will have a completely different feel to it - both in the colour scheme and the roundness of the shapes.

I've also been playing with simple shapes for the stained glass.  Trying to think of what might be possible to cut.  Straight lines would be easiest.  I figure if I generate lots of possibilities I should be able to make up my mind what to make quickly when I see the glass available and find out how hard it is to cut accurately.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Stained glass - getting ready

I am about to do something I always thought foolish in others.  I am going to go on a short course hoping to leave it with an object I want to keep.  Normally I arrive and try all the techniques rapidly, aiming to get an understanding of the principles of any craft.  Making stuff comes afterwards, when you understand the limitations and possibilities and have time to think about how desire and skill can interact to produce an outcome.

I have booked on a two day stained glass course in the Malvern SWORCS summer school.  I have wanted to try stained glass for ages, just being put off by the need for the wrists to work adequately to cut the glass.  I am hoping that, with the aid of a wrist brace, good tools, and some help, I will be able to do enough to enjoy the session.

I have a need for a stained glass piece.  Our living room is overlooked by a balcony, and it would be useful to keep something on the window sill that blocked this view without blocking our view or the light.  I have a pot of snapdragons I got from the farm shop yesterday in that position - it gives colour and shape but isn't too intrusive.

So, planning ahead.  Looking at the kind of stained glass pieces one can buy at craft markets I suspect my aspirations will be too high - I don't want a tile shaped piece made of three blobs of colour.  I'd like to have a piece at least 30cm high, and something I am happy to look at everyday.  I have been looking at the photos I took of reflections and ripples in the canal basin in the spring, and have been working on designs based on this.

There is a form of quilting called stained glass, where you lay fabric pieces on a background and stitch in place using black bias binding.  Each piece has to connect to the others.  I thought if I rustled up a quick one of these I would get some ideas for the glass piece.

I started with this photo:

I then drew a sketch and coloured it in with pencil crayons.  I liked the shapes but thought that the intricacy and number of shapes would make the project impossible.  I simplified it and coloured in with felt pens.  Some of the plain pieces I lightly stippled - imagining textured rather than coloured glass. Frank Lloyd Wright used stained glass pieces where a lot of the glass was clear so that the view wasn't obscured, and I am aiming at something like that.

I started cutting little bits of bright fabric out of the old hand-painted ties I have, but the silk was too slippery and hard to control.  I switched to some cotton sheeting I dyed a few years ago.  This seemed appropriate for the colours.  The rather livid colours I had available needed a foil, and I found a small piece of what looked like black hand dyed fabric at my local sewing store, and a mottled pale blue for the background.  I used some fine wrapping paper to take an outline and used this to cut out the shapes in the fabric.  I didn't pin or tack, so  a loss of precision occurred at this step.

I should have course have been more careful.   I should have ironed the fabric first.  I should have numbered the pieces, or at least laid them out one by one on the drawing so I knew where they went.  I piled them onto the drawing, but having to tidy things away in the middle meant that I ended up not being too sure where all the little bits belonged.  I used the drawing to position the larger pieces,and then placed the others where they seemed appropriate, and to fill large gaps.  At this point I lost sight of the fact that these colours were part of a real scene, and each piece should have been connected back to a real object.

I started stitching these bits together, just layering the slips of colour on the blue fabric.  After a while it started bunching so I cut out a piece of thick felt ( some fabric they use for making tennis balls, got from the artist scrap store during Wimbledon) and this made the fabric easier to manage. I stitched pieces on, I stitched between pieces, imagining they were pieces of glass that had to be held together.  I forgot about the image, and lost the vertical and horizontal nature of ripples and reflections.

I don't think much of this piece.  It is rough, flawed, and doesn't look very interesting.  It has lost the ripple effect because I thought of the black lines purely as holding lines and not as image.

This little project has made me think a lot about how the line, colour and space need to be managed in stained glass. Rather than thinking of colour first I need to think of line and then infill with colour as needed.  From that respect it was a very useful thing to do.

Friday, 20 July 2012


I made a lot of wire legs for the little birds we started making at our summer retreat (aka play session) at Blue Ginger.   I made them with the spare wire curled up at the top - useful if you want to make a beak or tail or just to add stability to the stuffed bird.  After a day spent trying to learn how to make a badge like Kathleen's my fingers wanted to do what they wanted to a small creature evolved on the legs.  I like to build these little beasts from the inside out and let the materials decide what they want to become.

badge for Joy, my heroic little sister
I unfurled the little loops at the top and stitched wings on.  I used small scraps of an odd slightly translucent crepe fabric which arrives in my scrapbox backed onto heavy satin - part of my treasures supplied by Sue Elliot.  These little scraps had lovely swoopy edges so I used a piece for each wing and didn't cut them to shape at all.  It means the wings are very different in shape but the same texture.

I stitched a little wadding to the body and then tugged a piece of vari-coloured velvet in place.  Eyes were added - brown buttons I got from a treasure trove of materials donated by a fellow embroider to the group when we were at Blue Ginger.

The legs are made from a wire that is moderately easy to work with but it is too springy and won't move into new shapes as easily as I would like.  Getting all the toes to hit the ground is very hard, so I think a different kind of wire will need to be found once this lot is used up.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Learning to paint

Some of you my remember I was intending to build up a sketchbook of ideas for a large wall hanging for my very tall staircase area.  Those of you that know me will not be surprised that it never materialised.  I have taken lots of photos, done lots of thinking...but without the pressure of a 'show and tell' at college nothing happens.

I decided the best thing to do was simply start painting again and see what happened.  I haven't painted for at least half a decade because of the joint problems caused by my gluten intolerance.  I still had some acrylic paints, some of which hadn't gone hard, and I bought some canvasses at the local artists exchange/scrapstore.  With a selection of photos from our trip to Venice I set to.  I started trying to paint somewhat realistically so that I could tell whether I had achieved what I set out to do.

The first image was having lunch in Murano, though I used two pictures of the foreground people and one for the background.  The figure that is intended to be me is taken from a photo on the Costa Brava, and of course the sun was bright and shining whereas it was gloomy in Murano, and the view point was different. The shot of Rod (sorry, rather terrible end result) was from lunch on the other side of the canal, so again the light was different.  Nonetheless, it was an interesting exercise in trying to get that really strange silky water you get in the Venetian lagoon.

I started with a quick sketch and then colour washed the main areas. I then kept adding detail until I felt like stopping.  Not the best painting in the world, but a very useful exercise in not giving up immediately. In the past I tended to do paintings in one sitting, and if they hadn't worked I just gave up.

The second painting was based on another photo of Murano, but this time I decided to create a scene where the two giant glass sculptures were visible.  This meant putting the red sculpture in the foreground, and in the end it just got too difficult and I gave up.  I also did a colour wash over the left hand area and hated the result. This picture was my first attempt to paint using a palette knife.  An artist friend said that clearly the palette knife was not my natural medium.

I like the right hand side of the image.  I have taken the canvas off the stretcher bars and will find some way to make a tall thin frame for this half of the picture.

When we were in Murano we had lunch and the water glasses were beautiful handblown coloured glass.  We bought a set to take home with us.  I wanted a picture of this lunch.  I had to eat fish everywhere I went as it was the only thing people felt confident about feeding me.  I didn't get ill in Italy and found the restaurant staff knowledgeable and helpful.  Very unlike the UK.

The third painting is a small closeup of lunch - fish and salad.  I am particularly pleased with the left hand glass, where the yellow light produces a reflection on the water in the glass.

Painting four ( I was finding it hard to do anything else by this time) was an attempt to abstract some of the images I had been working with on the other paintings.  Water, bridges, glass...not quite as free as I had hoped but not a bad start on the process.

Painting five was based on a photograph of gondolas near St Marks Square.  All the gondolas have a high metal prow, and I worked from a photo that showed these all in a row.  The closest one showed agitations in the surface that looked like it had been hand beaten.  You may have seen copper dishes which are shaped by hitting flat metal against a solid surface with a hammer, and it produces the same round impressions.  Because of this I decided to attempt a pointillist style painting, although I didn't start with a blank canvas and lots of little dots, but roughly blocked out the colours first.  I may try a true points of unmixed colour some other time.  It would be a very good exercise in making sure I understand how colours work with each other, as you are supposed to generate colours by managing the proportion and proximity of dots of their constituent colours.

At this point decide some housework was needed so stopped painting for the moment.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Fabric Hoopoe - build-as-you go fabric and wire bird

When I was a child I lived in Southern India, in a town called Ootacamund.  It was seven thousand feet above sea level, so we didn't get the vivid tropical birds you might think of when you hear the word India.  My favourite bird was the Hoopoe, which, along with the glow worms, iridescent green beetles and marble poochies, I still miss.

All this fun making birds just based on the fabric to hand took a new direction when I finally got around to shortening the sleeves of a jacket I bought ages ago.  It was of a very complex construction, with multiple seams around the elbows as well as a long snapped placket, so simply shortening at the cuff wouldn't really work.  I had taken off the sleeve at the elbow meaning to shorten the piece above...and got stuck, leaving the job for months.  Finally decided to just make a short sleeved jacket, and finished the hems, ironed the jacket, and hung it in the wardrobe.  I was left with two half sleeves of a lovely fabric, dark chocolate on one side and a tawny amber on the other.  Just the right colours for a hoopoe.   The last bird I made was a little one from the fabric they make tennis balls from - Wimblebird, very apt given that Wimbledon is on.  Time for something a bit more complex.
A bit of old cloth from a sail made the third colour.  I started with wiring the crest, as this is the most distinctive part of the bird.  Perhaps it would have been easier if I had built the body of the bird first, but I managed to work with this spiky bit getting in the way all the time.  It suits my thought processes to go with the most interesting / distinctive thing first and then add in all the rest.

crest - used seam turning to give change of colour at tip of feather

body - note spiky beak is part of continuous body wire

crest attached to body

stitch stuffing to wire

sail underbelly

wings and head - on piece of fabric making use of placket

I used the snapped cuff as the wings, so this bird can separate its wings...but not fly.  I found a wonderful photograph of a hoopoe in full flight with wings curling flamboyantly around the body, crest fully erect, but decided that would be too complex for me to manage.

sail cloth for white wing stripes

front of body and towards tail


added the eyes as the last action

don't know why these look different colours! 

This bird has a lot of attitude, so I don't mind the baggy undercarriage (I might tighten that up later) or the comment from a friend that the crest looked like it was made from an old gardening glove (but with too many fingers).  It has joined the rest of my strange menagerie on the windowsill.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Free-form fabric bird

I made several birds using a pattern.  I also enjoyed making two much larger birds working direct with the wire and stuffing and fabric, and building them up as I went.  This little bird follows the same process.

I started with a set of ordinary legs I had made from galvanised wire earlier.  Instructions for these are in the previous blog, though these were double the size of the ones described.  I unwound one of the curly bits in the middle and used this to form a beak.

I covered this with fabric and stitched it in place.

I then stitched some stuffing to the wire to form a head.

 I then sewed bits of fabric on.  I particularly liked this handmade silk and merino felt with the lime green strands,  I only had a piece about an inch on the largest dimension, so it just formed the front of the face.

I then added other head bits and began to build up the body, first with stuffing and then with pieces of fabric.

I added a tail and some wings. I liked this scrap of velvet with its fluffy edge, so the bird got a crest.

I used this rather livid yellow thread to pick up the threads on the front of the face.

Beads for eyes.  Are they big enough?  I could always change them later.

Named the bird Aubrey because of the autumnal auburn colours.

These beautiful scraps of silk and velvet were donated by Sue Elliot, who makes glorious items in her studio in Selkirk, Scotland.