TA Stitch Challenge #1

My friend pointed me over to TextileArtist.org who is running a free stitch challenge right now. For me, this is perfect timing! The article about Sue Stone, who lead this stitch challenge, really seemed to reflect me in parts. I have collected a lot of technical skills, but little by way of process. I’m still learning about “process” but I think it is the key I’ve been searching for. Time will tell. 

Anyway, I approached this challenge quite casually as I focused on process rather than result. My fabric is an old scrap that is marred by a stain caused by a marking pen (I ironed it before spraying it with water so it never disappeared). I chose to stitch free rather than in a hoop. You know, I use to think that for me, a hoop was like training wheels, and once I got good at stitching, I could easily begin stitching without it as I know many people do. But now I know that I prefer the hoop for so many reasons, not just for tension! And I didn’t worry about perfect stitches either. I was not stitching to make something to show; I was stitching to learn the process of creating. It was exactly a practice piece – though not a practice in technical skill (aka perfecting stitches).

Sue set the guidelines of making a quadrant and selecting a single type of embroidery stitch. I chose running, as it would be quick and easy. As with other “series” of works, I wanted to begin with a title, so to speak, so a big initial and the year fill one box.

A geometric plaid type of theme fills another.

Boy calls this one “space tunnel” and is based off of doodles I do a lot – I guess kind of like the eye of a peacock feather?

And this last one was using negative space to define a shape in each color block.

So there is nothing super amazing about this little sampler for the viewer. But I got to practice a very basic process concept in working it. I began with an idea (directed by Sue), pulled out a piece of paper to sketch, considered options for design, and selected the items I would need to bring it to life. I did change the plaid design to try to better compliment the overall piece, but other than that the idea in my head was brought to reality as a process from the ground up. See, normally, I wing it. How many times have you heard me say “I started this project without really knowing how I would finish it…” and troubles arose. Or, let us think about how I was able to fully execute Mabel the Raccoon – which started as an idea, moved through a doodle and photoshop, and then became my very first real piece of my own creativity! You’d think I would have figured all this out back then, ha!

It appears that the second stitch challenge, released today, is only available on Facebook (where I do not reside). So unless that changes, I will work on process in other ways. 

PBN Totoro 1

I’ve been quiet ’round these parts because I have been working furiously behind the scenes on a project that I hope you will see soon. Meanwhile, we are all enduring COVID-19 in various ways. I hope everyone is adjusting fine, is staying healthy, and is convincing their social circles the importance of social distancing. As for me, my life has changed little – I already self-identify as a hermit, boy already shops like its Doomsday, and on top of working alone, our job is defined as “essential business” so we keep on keeping on. There is a lot of tension in the air, regardless, so I haven’t felt the mindspace for much organic creativity. And that is when I turn to things with hard and fast rules.

Boy got me a paint-by-numbers (PBN) for winter solstice last year, and so I started it! You may remember my previous PBN: railbirds. I had no real experience in painting before (of course, my childhood included watching Bob Ross on tv and playing around here and there throughout the years). I struggled a lot in the beginning with many frustrations. But since some of you are bound at home and may want to try your first PBN (which can be found all over the internet shops), I thought I’d document a little about what I find to be useful, and show you how one can progress from pretty awful looking pictures to something you can actually be proud of. Just remember, I am not an expert! And also note that PBN won’t really teach you how to paint in general. It’s a different beast at the start.

Paint-by-numbers Tips:

A PBN usually includes the canvas, “prepped” for painting (as in, gesso has been applied to the fabric so it feels a little plastic-y); paint brush(s); and paint pots. My sample size is only two, but I can tell a difference between qualities of the railbirds kit and the totoro kit (which, by the way, if you need an introduction to totoros, go here). Specifics don’t matter here, unless you wanted a review of these two particular kits – which I am not focusing on – so instead I will just mention what to consider in quality. There are three problems I’ve discovered, and you are likely to run into at least one!

Let’s begin with gesso – the idea is that it seals the fabric to prevent the paint from spreading like a wet ink blot on paper. The paint should glide across the surface, too. If your paint isn’t gliding, it might be caused by the gesso. Maybe it is too tacky, or not thick enough so the paint is getting caught on the weaves of the fabric. A quick fix is to first paint the area that you are working on with water to give it a little moisture. You don’t want it wet – you just want to see it barely glisten in the right light.

A second issue that results in the paint not gliding is the quality of the paint itself (or a combination of paint and gesso). It’s always best practice to use a toothpick to stir the pot. But even so, quality can’t be cured by a stir! I’ve seen paint pots that are nearly water in texture, as well as paint pots that felt like someone left it open overnight, almost like wet puddy. Really thin paint will simply require many, many coats. But the other kind of paint, which sadly appears to be the norm, needs help. You can probably add a small dose of baby oil, but I just use water for easy clean up. One must be careful, though, so that it doesn’t become too thin! I would never suggest adding water directly to the pot. Instead, find an easy-to-clean dish or buy a little paint mixing tray (I have one and love it!). See, the thing is, the kits are sometimes really stingy on how much paint you get so do your best not to waste any. I simply take out a little dab and while its on my brush, I dip it in water, then squish it around in the mixing tray, adding more paint or water as needed to get the right glide + coverage combination – when possible. And always expect to have to paint the same area multiple times for coverage. Why they don’t use a color printer to stamp the design, I will never know.

Also in speaking of paint – don’t expect the numbers to match the example photo. You need green #14, but “green” #14 is actually red? Happens. In the totoro kit, they marked the pots backward, so I had to remark them with a sharpie – and even then, some of the color choices are questionable. I might have to mix my own colors by the end. It happens. Expect it.

And the third issue? Quality of brushes. Sometimes a kit is well stocked with multiple sized and shaped brushes, packed well for shipping, and tight bristles all around. Sometimes a kit comes with a single brush, too big for fine details, bristles bent every-which-way from packaging, which fall out promptly upon use… just bad news all over the place. If your brush stinks, you’ll hate painting. Find a decent brush set before you pull out your hair and toss the project!

There are many ways to approach painting. For starters, however you choose, always begin adding paint to the canvas starting from the top working down, and from the left to right (if you are right-handed like me) so that you don’t accidentally smudge wet paint as you go. So with that in mind, some people will opt to add color based on paint pot sequence – coloring all the 1s, then the 2s, and so on. Some will opt to pick a quadrant and paint it all in before moving to the next. Some will start with the tiny and work to the large, or vice versa. Others will work the background and continue forward. That is the method I learned with the birds, though here I chose differently. I chose to begin with the biggest element to feel progress! (What is painting and art if not the need to meet the artist’s emotional requirements, eh?)

And painting isn’t like using a marker. It is more like using a calligraphy pen. You’ll have to make tiny scratch marks more than long lengths. The length depends on the size of the brush, but at this scale, probably never more than an inch. Get use to dipping your brush back in the paint often. The tinier the brush, the pointier the brush? The more dips, more often!

My Totoro Canvas:

So this is where I began, with a “blank” canvas ready to work. I have the paints, a small jar of water, a few brushes, a mixing tray, a paper towel, and a toothpick. I also have an easel, which had a learning curve, but I now prefer vertical painting – super unnecessary though. I have the Kingdom: Two Crowns soundtrack playing (the most recent game obsession of mine) and and I get to work!

This one comes with the black areas already filled, to help shade it in I guess. I realized that painting a cartoon is actually more troublesome than the realistic birds because I can’t really fudge lines as much. I am so not looking forward to adding the black outlines at the end!

After day 1:

You’ll see at first it looks like poop. The paint is splotchy and isn’t covering the marks. But you must have faith to continue on! You must endure coat, after coat, and know that it will be worth it in the end. I’m terribly disappointed in the white coverage, as I suspected, so I will keep adding coats every day before I begin other colors.

Day 2:

The greyish #13 gets a second coat, while I add a dark brown #23. I will make the totoro and bucket solid in paint color, but I will care less about the other areas until I get the surrounding colors in place. I am thinking of background and foreground. I add color now to the dark areas because I know they will take more than one coat, but I also know that they will cover lighter surrounding colors easier than lighter colors covering them. Mistakes will be made, so I find the balance of color choices. Everything will get a few coats, but their order to reach final coat will vary.

Day 3:

The grey got another coat around the totoro, and I found 13s and 23s in a few more places. The brown in the totoro got another coat – might still need a third. The orange color isn’t covering at all. I didn’t have to water down the red, but it also isn’t covering. And that yellow belly…. I wonder how many coats it will take? I wonder if the color will actually look like it is correct by the time all this is through. Regardless, I know I will achieve the results I want if I just keep on keeping on. Persevere, I say!

You’ll maybe notice I don’t do a whole lot in a single day. Well, I don’t “like” painting the way I like other crafts. I don’t get lost in it. So, a little here and there – and that’s all anything ever needs! “Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, life’s a cinch!” :D

I will post again with a little more progress as the days build. Stay safe out there!

Silk Gauze Rose Sampler

When I visited the EGA museum, Boy and I were very impressed with a particular piece worked on silk gauze. In fact, Boy deemed it his favorite thing he’s ever seen in embroidery, and possibly in the whole world of art. At my guild’s holiday party, I mentioned my visit and this piece to a friend who later gifted me with a silk gauze kit to try for myself!

silk gauze rose sampler designed by nancy sturgeon

I guess I didn’t take any photos at the museum. But I did snap this amazing shot of Louisville when we took my gramma out to Kingfish – we’d never seen the river so calm!

Now let me tell you what working on silk gauze is like for a newbie like me! This particular example, The Rose Sampler by Nancy Sturgeon (and still available here, it seems) is on 40-count, which means there are 40 stitches to make just along a single inch. They are so tiny – it felt an impossible task in the beginning! I don’t know when embroidering on this scale became a thing, but I can’t even dream of trying this in any condition less than stellar lighting (and not just any lighting, as I will mention!). And while I have been grateful for having excellent eyesight for sewing many times in the past, this work really requires sharp vision. Many times I wondered if my younger self would have been much more proficient and I am not that old! I included a ruler here for size – those are centimeters.

silk gauze rose sampler designed by nancy sturgeon

The whole thing is only 1 ½ by 1 ⅞ inches tall! Here is a different photo for scale:

silk gauze rose sampler designed by nancy sturgeon

For my first go, of course there are errors in it but I corrected when I could. These errors are thankfully few because I really tried very hard to do it right but occasionally my needle slipped into the wrong hole and I had moved too far along before noticing so that I just couldn’t fix it. Undoing work is generally a non-issue for me – if it needs it, it needs it, I say. But at this scale, undoing stitches was quite difficult.

I also learned the hard way about traveling threads. The directions called for short travel only – and I assumed short meant maybe upwards of a half-inch, no big deal. But I think instead it meant just a teeny square or three! When I first began filling in the background, the colors were totally noticeable on the front! I was forced to cut the traveling threads in their middle, resulting in some tiny lengths which I struggled to secure. In the past, I have used this neat trick I found over at Sarah Homfray‘s channel but the stitching was too tiny to slip a larger needle and thread through, so I pulled out my needle threader instead (it got damaged in the process, but mostly worked like a charm!). There are still some spots the colors show throw but, again, first try = great acceptance!

silk gauze rose sampler designed by nancy sturgeon

The original pattern called for a black background but that color scheme doesn’t do it for me. I asked my much more experienced friend what she thought about swapping it to a cream and she gave me the go-ahead. I do love how it turned out but I was pretty bummed when I saw that I had gotten some of it dirty. I know exactly what happened – let me tell you about it! Boy offered to lend me his fancy panavise so I took him up on it. Not only did it let both my hands be free, but it meant that the hoop remained stationary which was much easier on my eyes. Plus, I could also lay my phone on it to use its light source and I even turned on its magnifier to help when I got into a sticky situation. However, the panavise is a working tool at the office and had some grease on it :.( I told myself I would redo all those stitches, but in the end I decided that this was not an heirloom example anyway, and a good lesson to remember! (Or, I am too lazy after all? Maybe it will continue to bug me and I’ll wash it somehow or redo that section before I finish it in a frame or something.)

I never thought about different stitches with counted work because I don’t usually go for counted projects, but I learned new stitches with this mini project (properly called petit point, I believe). I already knew the half-cross stitch, which is specifically not used in this piece. The colored design is worked mostly with the continental stitch (which is the same, yet opposite, of the half-cross stitch; rather than working from left to right as the right-hander I am, you work it from right to left so that it adds a little bit of a back stitch for strength). The background cream color is worked mostly in basketweave stitch, which goes back and forth but at the diagonal. I found turning the hoop 45 degrees so that the gauze were little diamonds rather than rows of squares really sped up my progress and I created less errors. The basketweave stitch adds a lot of thread to the back of the piece which also strengthens the whole thing.

silk gauze rose sampler designed by nancy sturgeon

I also learned the difference between DMC and Anchor threads. Never thought much about this either, and my collection is nearly entirely DMC because of availability in my area. I know there are conversions to match colors, but other than that (the dyes) I always assumed they are basically the exact same. The kit used DMC for all the colors but specifically chose Anchor thread for the background. Nancy notes that at this scale on silk gauze, Anchor seemed to do a better job filling the background in basketweave than DMC. I found that super interesting and since I wanted to change the color from what was provided in the kit, I had to go seek out a specialty shop. What fascinated me more was that the moment I held Anchor in my hand I felt a difference! It was less silky than DMC, less smooth, less soft – I don’t know really but my hand instantly knew it was not DMC.

silk gauze rose sampler designed by nancy sturgeon

The best lighting wasn’t super bright. In that scenario, the silkiness of the threads reflected too much and blurred it all together in my vision. The best light happened to be next to my window when it was full daylight – but not the sunny kind! The winter grey and diffused light reflecting off the snow. As I mentioned, the magnifier on my iphone helped tremendously in a pinch, but I have the privilege of owning a microscope and will admit that it saved me more than once! I was able to undo some obstinate threads without harming other threads, once I adjusted to working through the lens – it really shined when I needed to pull out traveling threads that had been pierced.

I felt humored that when it was time to add the date, Nancy’s pattern numbers would not fit 2020, so I had to make a small adjustment to the 2s. My initials were also problematic and I popped a dot in there to make up for it, which now I wish I hadn’t because the R is unclear. But again – not an heirloom!

I want to finish it in a frame of sorts. I know I want the gauze to still be visible so I am thinking either in a matted frame, which will first lift the piece off the back a little, or onto a block of wood like the example Boy bought me from Denise Benczik at Interwoven Expressions one year.

ribbon embroidery by denise benczik

Will I ever work on silk gauze again? I’m not sure. It really strained my eyes, but they did adjust by the end and I found it much less frustrating than when I first began. However, counted work is still a bit too persnickety for me to really enjoy doing. But Boy is a huge proponent and I dreamt of many possibilities working at such a fine scale… so, you know as well as I do if more of this awaits in my future!