Is the creative life fundamentally selfish?

I have a new favourite blog – The Textile Blog by John Hopper. I only had to read one post and I knew that I would find the kind of material that I love to read. The reason I like it is because it does more than leave me with a “That’s nice” or “Huh, interesting” kind of feeling. Instead it leaves me thinking – really thinking – about this creative life I have chosen to pursue.

And the question I found myself pondering today was, “Is the creative life fundamentally selfish?”. Now there’s a question for you. Does my choice to live a creative life mean that I am selfish or self-absorbed?

The obvious answer to that is,”I hope not!”. “So why pose the question?”, I hear you ask.

Well, it was triggered by this article entitled “Creative Art as the Sharing of Personal Insight”. It opens with the idea that being involved in the creative arts is sometimes judged as being a form of selfishness, or hedonism, or self-absorption. This really struck a chord with me because I sometimes find it hard to explain to people why I chose this fork in the road. Why am I not the career scientist everyone thought I would be when I was younger? Why have I chosen instead to pick up fabric, needle and thread? And indeed isn’t this latter path somehow “a bit frivolous”, and perhaps even “worthless” when compared to a scientific career? And the natural outcome of all those questions is that sometimes I do feel a bit selfish as a gleefully follow my passion every day and have the joy of absolutely loving what I do.

Thankfully, John provided me with the perfect antidote to these doubts. He explains that “creative art…is about the cycle of absorption and exhalation”. This is the idea that all creatives absorb inspiration from a myriad of sources (both conciously and unconciously), pass it through the lens of their own unique experience, personality and skills, and then exhale something new. And why is this a good thing?

“You are making available to the human condition, the journey that you took from inspirational wonder, through the flow of absorption in work, to the resulting piece, which is to be experienced and enjoyed by others….Creative artists are the practitioners of endless possibilities, guides to the wonder of the world around us, and revealers of the complexity of the human condition”. John Hopper, The Textile Blog

In my humble little corner of the creative world I will gladly take on this philosophy.

But I think it goes a little further than that…. at least for me.

In my weekly patchwork group we have built a very strong community of women who came together originally because of a shared passion for quilting and patchwork. But the ties are now much more than that. We take care of each other when life throws up problems and obstacles; we share joy and excitement in new achievements or milestones; we share the fruits of our labours with family and friends; and we have developed a strong community culture of giving back. Our main community project is to make quilts for foster children. Twice a year we deliver upwards of 30 quilts for children in foster care. The idea is to make sure that each child has a special quilt which is just for them to keep. It is not going to solve the big underlying problems that have put them into foster care, but it hopefully brings a little bit of love and comfort to otherwise pretty tough times for them.

A simple quilt made for foster children from donated squares of fabric.

A simple quilt made for foster children from donated squares of fabric.

There are countless groups, just like ours, all around the world. They serve a very important purpose beyond the obvious one of providing a venue for a creative craft to be practiced and shared. These groups become communities where participants (generally speaking) take care of each other. It might just be a warm hug on a down day or the offer of real assistance when illness or family crisis strikes. And in many groups, that caring is soon extended to some sort of charitable endeavour. Just imagine how much poorer our world be without the contributions of this everyday creative work.

So do I really feel selfish as I pursue this creative life? No. Rather I feel lucky and privileged to be a small part of a worldwide movement that does a whole lot more than just “play” with craft. Sometimes, it is all about the pure wonder and inspiration that John Hopper describes in the creative process. At other times, it is just about sharing some love and compassion with a little generous creativity in an otherwise busy world.

Sharing a little piece of everyday creativity - an A5 journal cover embroidered for a friend.

Sharing a little piece of everyday creativity – an A5 journal cover embroidered for a friend.



The creative process – from a scientist’s point of view

Where does the time go? I have been busily travelling over the last few weeks and have so much to share with you all. First, at the end of September I headed to Adelaide for the Beating Around the Bush embroidery convention. I will write more about this in future posts, but for now it is sufficient to say that I had a wonderful time and learnt so much.

And then almost as soon as I was home from BATB, we were on the road to beautiful Denmark in the southwest of Western Australia for a wonderful week of relaxation with family and friends. I talked embroidery a lot with my Mum (as we always do) but barely put a stitch in anything for a week. Instead, I kayaked, hiked, biked and swam until my muscles ached. It was great to take a complete break from my sewing and creativity, and to give my brain a rest from thinking so much!

Beautiful beach near Denmark, Western Australia.

Beautiful beach near Denmark, Western Australia.

Now that I am well and truly back on deck I am working on tidying up my workspace (again – why does this job never seem to go away ๐Ÿ™‚ ). And I have come back from BATB with a new and exciting perspective on the best way forward for Beautiful Stitches. I’ll write more about that in a special post next week, but in the meantime it got me thinking about the creative process again and I wanted to share the following little bit of insight with you all…..

Recently, my meanderings through the internet led me to stumble across this gem…

If you haven’t seen this video, then do yourself a favour and make time to watch it. It is absolutely superb. As the TED blurb says, “It’s a message that will resonate, no matter what your field.”

Uri recounts that whilst studying for his PhD, his research became stuck – he simply couldn’t see a way forward, and in the scientific world this felt like failure. And the more he asked around, the more he realised that fellow students were experiencing the same thing. Scientists report their findings as a direct line from question to answer; a completely objective pursuit with no room for subjectivity and emotion. The absolutely key point is that they only report results – not process – and thus if your research is stuck and not producing results, then you feel like you are failing.

And yet, of course science is not like this at all. In common with many other fields of endeavour it encounters false starts, road blocks, hiccups, and diversions. But if you are lucky, what started off as a journey from Question A to Answer B, may actually lead to a completely new and unknown Answer C.

Uri now counsels his students to expect the process of research to be messy (think Austin Kleon here too – “Process is messy!”) and he has two key tools to help them. First, when they get stuck he describes it as being in “the cloud”. This is not a scary or bad place to be, even if it is frustrating and sometimes depressing. Rather it is an opportunity to try something new, different, creative, playful, etc to find a way out of the cloud. Second, you need someone to keep you company in “the cloud” – one or more supportive collaborators. And these people have a very important job to do – they need to say “Yes… and” (a technique Uri learned from taking part in improvisational theatre classes) – never “No”.

“Yes… and” encourages people to keep exploring and being creative, whereas “No” simply makes you stop and feel defeated.

I love the fact that Uri’s video reminds me that I don’t need to be scared of the “messiness” of the creative process. As someone who comes from a very traditional scientific background in physics and maths, it can sometimes feel like I am jumping around in a very haphazard way as I flit from idea to idea, trying one thing and then moving on to something different. But you do sometimes need to do this – to go exploring in “the cloud” until you find that thing that goes “Aha! – this is where I wanted to be”.

And you really need to find those supportive friends to keep you company along the way. When I was in Adelaide I caught up with wonderful friends, some whom I hadn’t seen for over twenty years – since we were all at University together. It sounds scary but actually it was fantastic! Most only knew me as the science student I was in my late teens and at first glance my switch to a creative career in textiles might have seemed rather odd. But these friends were wonderful – there were “Yes…and” conversations going all week to the point where my head was so full of ideas I simply couldn’t hold any more (hence the need for all that kayaking and hiking).

So, I have learnt a really wonderful lesson in the last few weeks. Be open about what you do – share it with everyone and don’t be afraid to let people know when you are stuck in your “cloud” or going round and round in circles. And then listen out for the “Yes… and” conversations – you might be surprised by just how many there are and the odd sources that they come from.

Messy workroom

And now I really NEED to sort out my workroom – again ๐Ÿ™‚



More textiles from Myanmar

My friend Greg has been allowing me to delve into his textile collection once again. Like the Akha cross-stitch I showed you earlier this year, these pieces were purchased in Myanmar. One is a modern piece, and the other is about 100 years old. Greg asked me to have a look at them and see what I could find out about how they were made.

First the modern piece.

A portion of the modern textile from Myanmar. The full piece is approximately 90x190cm. This view shows just a small portion of it.

Part of the modern textile from Myanmar.

This brightly coloured cloth is woven from black cotton with a rainbow style geometric pattern in rayon thread. It has been woven as a single piece and measures approximately 105cm wide and 190cm long. The colour palette cycles through green, yellow, orange, purple, pink, dark yellow, and blue, and the design is composed of zig-zags and diamonds. The colours are just lovely and I can easily imagine this piece of cloth hanging up in Bogyoke Market in Yangon where Greg purchased it.

Detail view of the front of the fabric. The long axis of each diamond measures 6cm.

Detailed view of the front of the fabric. The long axis of each diamond measures 6cm.

Detailed view of the back of the fabric. Note that this is the reverse of the pattern on the front of the fabric.

Detailed view of the back of the fabric. Note that this is the reverse of the pattern on the front of the fabric.

A clue to its construction can be seen in these detailed photos of the front and back of the textile. The diamonds on the back are a reverse image of those on the front, showing how the colourful rayon thread has been carried across the front and back of the black cotton ground. You can also see on the front of the design where the rayon thread is turned to continue working each row of the design (the angled “stitches” as opposed to the horizontal “stitches”).

The antique fabric is quite different to the modern piece. It was made by the Chin people who live in western Myanmar, northeastern India and Eastern Bangladesh. In the book “Mantles of Merit” by David W. & Barbara G. Fraser there is a picture of a very similar textile on Pg. 125 which is attributed to the Haka area in Western Myanmar and dated 1923-1933.

Antique Chin weaving, estimated to be approximately 100 years old.

Antique Chin weaving, estimated to be approximately 100 years old.

The detail of the design is very fine – breathtakingly so in fact. The fabric is made of a cotton ground with the fine geometric detail worked in silk thread. Hours and hours of work would have been required to create such fine geometric detail.

Detailed view of the front of the weaving. Each diamond here measures 1.5cm along each side.

Detailed view of the front of the weaving. Each diamond here measures just 1.5cm along each side.

And almost as fascinating as the front, the back shows the forest of starting and ending threads for each of the little geometric motifs.


Detailed view of the back of the Chin weaving.

Detailed view of the back of the Chin weaving.

Finally, close inspection reveals that this piece was worked in two loom widths and then carefully joined. Until I knew from the Fraser’s book that I needed to search for a join, I didn’t even know that it was there!

Close-up view of the join in the Chin weaving.

Close-up view of the join in the Chin weaving.

So, how were these gorgeous textiles made? They are both examples of discontinuous supplementary weft weaving. Basically this means that the pattern is woven into the fabric by the use of extra threads (supplementary weft) which are not continuous across the width of the fabric (hence discontinuous). You can see a great picture of this type of work in progress on Kay Faulkner’s blog and also find out more about how to do this type of weaving at Backstrap Weaving.

I found myself really fascinated by these fabrics because my background as a canvaswork embroiderer initially made me look at these fabrics as though they had been embroidered. The colourful geometric designs echo the shapes and colours that I love to play with in my own embroidery designs. I imagined someone painstakingly working the modern piece in much the same way as I am working on a piece of Kogin embroidery at the moment. And as for the Chin piece, the possibility of it being embroidered blew me away because it was just too impossibly fine. But then I felt the same about the Afghan embroidery I wrote about in February this year and that was most definitely hand embroidered – so anything was possible.

As it turns out, both pieces are woven and the skill required to manipulate the supplementary weft threads is just as daunting as embroidering complex geometric designs with a needle. Of course, you could embroider these designs if you wished, but at this scale it would be incredibly time consuming and impractical. But there is something eminently satisfying about learning from one craft to inform another.

Historically, needlepoint evolved to mimic large woven tapestries. I love the fact that these gorgeous textiles from Myanmar will provide similar creative inspiration for one of my embroidery designs in the future.


Haute Couture and why I have revised my opinion

I caught up with a fascinating documentary on BBC iPlayer this week called “The Secret World of Haute Couture” by Margie Kinmonth. It was produced in 2007 (so has been around for quite a while now) but I found it absolutely fascinating. And I now have a completely new attitude (and respect) for what had seemed to me previously to be something rather frivolous.

I confess to being completely ignorant on the fashion front. In fact, on our recent trip to Cairns my daughter bought a necklace at the Night Markets and she asked me if I thought the interlocking C’s meant something special. I replied along the lines that it probably meant something but I didn’t know what. Later that week, I was shopping with a friend in Brisbane and spotted the interlocking C’s – on the front of the Chanel store! I can’t tell you how stupid I felt realising that I actually hadn’t known the logo for one of the most famous fashion houses in the world ๐Ÿ™‚

The Chanel Haute Couture Fall/Winter Collection in 2011

The Chanel Haute Couture Fall/Winter Collection in 2011.

So, the full extent of my fashion knowledge is derived from what I have briefly gleanedย  from flicking through magazines in the doctor’s surgery. My knowledge is meagre to say the least. And I confess that I was pretty prejudiced. I would look at elaborate creations on the catwalk and think to myself, “Who on earth wears this stuff? What is the point?”. Until I saw saw this documentary…..

The “haute couture” label is protected by law in France. Of course, it is often used to describe “high fashion” in a wider sense, but strictly speaking the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture includes only those companies who have been granted the designation “Haute Couture” by the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris. The label is reviewed annually and depends on a rigorous set of criteria. The key points are that haute couture pieces are designed to be one-off garments, exclusively tailored to fit one person, and made by hand using the very finest materials. Qualifying fashion houses must also present a full collection of haute couture garments at two shows per year.

Some of these garments are exquisitely beautiful, others ugly, and some frankly quite bizarre. A price tag of US$100,000 (or a lot more) for a single dress is quite normal. But what I have come to realise is that each and every garment is a work of art, painstakingly created by highly skilled craftspeople who put hours and hours of hand work into each unique design.

An outfit from the 2010 Spring/Summer Collection by Khaled el Masri.

For example, the outfit pictured above by Khaled el Masri is at first a bizarre representation of a female fencer. But take a closer look at the skirt. The gold surface design is exquisite and will have been worked entirely by hand to perfectly fit the shape and fit of the skirt. There must be hours and hours of work in such a creation.

And so I have come to realise that “haute couture” is playing a very important role in preserving exquisite craftmanship in a world where it might otherwise have disappeared completely. Without the rigorous standards set by the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris, the ateliers that produce exquisite work for a mere handful of designers (and only a few hundred customers) might have disappeared all together.

And it is so important that we preserve these skills. I am passionate about sharing my love of embroidery because I love the simple rhythm of stitching and the joy of making something with my own hands.ย  But nearly all my contact with embroidery to date has been as a craft or in the realm of textiles from around the world. To my shame, I hadn’t really stopped to think just how important it is to preserve the very highest standards of the art too.

So, I have a new found respect for the world of haute couture. Long may it preserve the skilled art of embellishment with needle, thread and beads, as well as stretching the boundaries of what is possible!

If you would like to see a whole range of images related to embroidery on clothing, follow this link to have a look at my Pinterest board.


Why handmade?

HandmadeI first drafted this blog post a few weeks ago, and as I quickly re-read it today, I thought the first sentence read “I have been thinking with my hands for as long as I can remember..”. It actually read “..making things with my hands…” but it struck me that “thinking with my hands” was actually a much apter description of what I do! And that is a pretty big part of the story, but perhaps I should start at the beginning…

I have been making things (thinking ๐Ÿ™‚ ) with my hands for as long as I can remember. My childhood was punctuated with a succession of craft activities. My Mum introduced my sister and I to huck stitching, crochet, knitting, cross stitch, embroidery, making candles, macrame, making clothes (first for our dolls and then for ourselves), painting plaster moulds, making stuffed toys, collage and more. And these are just the ones I remember – there were almost certainly more!

I simply can’t imagine my world without making something with my hands. It was such an absolutely fundamental part of my childhood. So, why was it so important then?

Well, we moved a lot when I was a child. My Dad worked in the mining industry and thirty years ago there was no such thing as fly-in/fly-out. When Dad changed mines, we all went with him. In retrospect this was an amazing experience. But at the time every new move meant farewell to one group of friends and all the hard work of carving out our niche in a new home. Making things with my family provided a continuous thread through all these changes (did you notice my unintended pun there?). No matter what happened, there was always the excitement of pursuing a new handmade activity. And the satisfaction of creating something with our own hands. Our moves took us a long way from family, but every year our relations were treated to a new range of Christmas gifts from our home workshop. I’m not sure what they thought – but we loved it :). Every piece we made was imbued with an extra sense of purpose when it was destined for a treasured grandparent.

As an adult, wife and mother, my life has continued to be punctuated by a series of moves around Australia and the world. Wherever I am living, making things with my hands (especially sewing as it turned out), brings exactly the same sense of satisfaction that I had as a child. I feel that same joy of disappearing into my own creative world for a few hours.

So, why is handmade so important to me now? I think it is because I know that wherever I am, I can find a measure of peace and security when I sit down to create. And then when a project is completed, I experience such a wonderful sense of satisfaction and joy. It really doesn’t matter whether anyone else likes my creation, because the process has already brought so much pleasure into my life.

But perhaps more importantly, I have come to realise that I do a lot of thinking when I am creating. Working with my hands is such a peaceful and secure place for me, so I relax and think more clearly. And as much as I love modern technology – playing games on my iPad; catching up with friends on Facebook; browsing on Pinterest; or learning from TED – it is not a place where I can free my mind to think clearly. My creative time provides a real sanctuary in which to relax, think, and emerge refreshed.

So go ahead and make some creative time for yourself. It might be something you have been doing for years or a brand new hobby that you have only just discovered. I guarantee that making time to “think with your hands” will bring an extra measure of pleasure to your life.



Some tropical inspiration

Well my little blog has been taking an unexpected holiday again. As school holidays approached my daughter went down with a nasty bout of pneumonia and all my efforts seemed to be concentrated on keeping her comfortable. And then my son had a school trip snowboarding at Mt Hotham so my daughter and I headed to Cairns and Brisbane for a week. We had a really lovely time and I thought I would share some of the inspiration I found there.

We were staying in a holiday apartment with my parents. We were on the 5th floor of our building, right on the Cairns foreshore. The views were stunning!

The view from our apartment balcony on the first morning - even the clouds were beautiful :)

The view from our apartment balcony on the first morning – even the clouds were beautiful ๐Ÿ™‚

In the evening we would generally take a walk along the boardwalk to buy an ice-cream. It was so much fun to pass people of all ages and nationalities, just sharing the simple pleasure of an evening stroll.

Muddy's Playground on the baordwalk in Cairns. At night, it took on an almost fairy-like quality.

Muddy’s Playground on the baordwalk in Cairns. At night, it took on an almost fairy-like quality.

Sunset in Cairns - bliss :)

Sunset in Cairns – bliss ๐Ÿ™‚

But the real surprise was the apartment itself. In this complex, each apartment is privately owned and decorated. We just happened to be in the apartment that had beautiful ethnic embroideries hanging on the walls, and splashes of colour and artwork everywhere. It was simply perfect for us because Mum and I are both passionate about embroidery. I felt surrounded and immersed in inspiration!

An ethnic cross-stitch hanging on the wall of our apartment (behind glass so please excuse the reflections).

An ethnic cross-stitch hanging on the wall of our apartment (behind glass so please excuse the reflections).

Another beautiful embroidery - this time in metallic threads and sequins.

Another beautiful embroidery – this time in metallic threads and sequins (again behind glass – sorry).

On Tuesday we took a trip on the world famous Kuranda railway. I love that spectacular hue of green you find in tropical rainforests. And we visited the Butterfly Sanctuary, which was simply enchanting.

Our train disappearing into the tropical greenery on the Kuranda railway.

Our train disappearing into the tropical greenery on the Kuranda railway.

This beauitful butterfly landed on my brother-in-law's arm - AND stayed there long enough for us to get a photograph.

This beauitful butterfly landed on my brother-in-law’s arm – AND stayed there long enough for us to get a photograph.

Wednesday found us on a boat to Fitzroy Island. We had such a lovely day just snorkelling and lazing on the beach.

The idyllic beach at Fitsroy Island.

The idyllic beach at Fitzroy Island.

The patterns in this old coral are wonderful.

The patterns in this old coral are wonderful.

And then on Thursday we went shopping. My Mum had found Vivienne Francine, a Cairns based designer on their last trip and she knew that I would love her clothes. Well I confess I had a ball! I tried on eight or so dresses and I could easily have bought aboutย  six of them. But I had to get it down to two ๐Ÿ™‚ Vivienne was lovely too. She has an amazing eye for colour – her fabrics are just stunning. I had sooooo much fun choosing – which is unusual for me because it is rare to find a shop where everything fits me so well and feels so right. In the end, Mum and Dad bought me one dress as an early birthday present and I bought one for myself. Now I just need the weather to get warmer in Perth so I can start wearing them!

The funniest thing about this trip was that as usual, I had carefully packed a supply of sewing to keep idle hands busy…..and I didn’t work a stitch all week! I also took my knitting, and I think I managed about three rows ๐Ÿ™‚ But sometimes it is good to give your hands and eyes a break, and this week I am full of enthusiasm and motivation again.


Why do I blog?

Starting a blog is a pretty daunting thing. I find myself wondering, will anyone ever read this and why? Am I making it interesting enough? What could I be doing to make a better job of it? And on bad days, why am I even doing this – no one will ever read it.

Why blogIf like me you have a tendency to Pollyanna-ism (the eternal optimism of Eleanor H. Porter’s delightful character), a bad day is usually followed by a day where you take yourself in hand and start searching for people who can help. People who have “been there, done that” and can pass on the wisdom of their experience. And then, if you are a lucky, a flash of insight follows and you add yet another little piece to the beautiful jigsaw that is your life.

I have been writing my blog for almost five months now, and I went in pretty raw. I didn’t want to “follow a formula” or write according to “somebody else’s ideas”. I just wanted to write for myself about the things that inspire me. As it turns out, my inspiration comes from a pretty diverse range of sources: a tidy sewing room, gorgeous ethnic textiles, thoughts on philosophy, or just a sunny autumn day. I have only written blog posts about things I really wanted to write about. But even then, I have held myself on a pretty tight rein – writing “carefully” and taking care to write “right” (it is hard to shake off the habits of a former life as editor of a science magazine).

Last year I found April Bowles-Olin of Blacksburg Belle and I have been following her ever since. April’s mission in life is “to help creative entrepeneurs build successful businesses around the lives they truly want to live”.ย The thing that stands out about April is that she writes with her heart – you feel like what she is saying is real and meaningful to her, and thus it rings true for you, the reader. In fact, often as I read her posts I feel like she could be writing just for me!

Last month, April ran a fabulous course called Build A Successful Creative Blog on CreativeLive. I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that her course came at the absolute perfect time for me. I had been writing my blog for a few months and was ready to find out all the things I could be doing so much better! Two things really stood out for me.

First, I am not writing this blog for me,


Sorry – I shouted that bit, but it is pretty important! Why? Because I believe passionately that every single one of you has the capacity to be creative. I want you to read my posts and think to yourself, “I can do that”. If I had a dollar for every person who has told me “I can’t create my own embroidery designs”, I wouldn’t need to run this creative business at all – the money would be rolling in.

But I am here to tell you that you can create your own embroidery designs (or whatever else takes your fancy). And the purpose of this blog is to show you how I do it, where I find inspiration, and why I absolutely know from the deepest part of my heart and soul that


(I wasn’t shouting that bit – just singing it out loud so that you will start singing with me ๐Ÿ™‚ )

The second lesson from April’s course is that blogging is quite different to writing for print media. Blogging is all about community. When I shared this insight with my 14 year old son, he thought it was hilarious – “Yeah Mum – of course”. As a digital native it is absolutely obvious to him that the Internet is all about connections. But I was raised on a diet of books and hours spent in libraries, and it just hadn’t sunk in before that writing for a blog is quite different.

Henry Mosler (American genre artist, 1841-1920)  Quilting Bee. Women have been working together creatively for centuries.

Quilting Bee by Henry Mosler (American genre artist, 1841-1920) . Women have been working together creatively for centuries. It just so happens that our kitchen table now extends around the globe.

So whilst I sit here every week, writing about embroidery and creativity, I really want you to join me on the journey. A blog grows just one reader at time, into a thriving creative community sharing ideas and passions. So please, leave a comment to say “hello” and tell me what lights your creative fire. If you have friends who might be interested, then please share this post so that they can come and say “Hi” too. And if you haven’t done so already, subscribe to my blog using the form in the sidebar.


Learning from my students – again!

Do you remember that I wrote about painting on canvas a few weeks ago? Last week I ran the second class on that project where we got down to designing the embroidery and commencing stitching, and then yesterday we were together again to see how everyone was progressing. I am absolutely thrilled at the diversity of designs that are being worked and will make sure I take photos next week to show you some examples. But in the meantime I have learnt a really interesting and quite unexpected lesson….

Last week I prepared by making sure that I had a detailed chart of my design as well as a stitch guide to match it.

Chart and stitch guide for modern canvaswork journal cover.

Chart and stitch guide for modern canvaswork journal cover.

I gave these to my students as resources – to be used as inspiration rather than a pattern to be copied. At the beginning of the lesson, I also gave them a blank sheet of graph paper so that they could roughly sketch out their design before they started stitching. I made sure that the graph paper was designed to be 14 lines per inch so that it would correspond exactly with the 14-count canvas on which they were all stitching.

But most of them were slow to get started on this sketching/designing phase – they were almost reluctant to put pencil to paper. Until one of them said to me, “I think I might skip this step and just work my border directly onto the canvas and then see what I want to do next”. In my usual fashion I replied, “Of course! Go for it – whatever works best for you – this is all about play and creativity”. And pretty quickly most of them had skipped over doing any sketching and were busily working their outer border. A couple of students did continue with their planning and design phase, but most just went straight ahead and started stitching.

I didn’t think much more about this until this morning when I delved into one of my new favourite books, “Show Your Work!”, by Austin Kleon. Austin talks about how it is really important to share the “process” of your creativity and not just the “product”. And it suddenly struck me….

I almost never sketch out a design before I start stitching.

Sure, I have an idea of what colours I want to use, what form the final piece will take, and I will have done a bit of arithmetic to calculate how big I want my piece to be and thus how many threads wide and tall I will be stitching. But…..

….most of the design process happens on the canvas as I am stitching.

Somehow, in turning this project into a class, I had felt that I needed to make the process more structured for my students by introducing a sketching/designing phase. And yet I rarely do this myself….and most of my students were much more comfortable when they too started developing their designs straight onto the canvas.

So, why had I felt the need to impose a step on my students which I don’t normally do myself? Well, the truth is that I hadn’t examined my own creative processess very closely. The end of a project always looks so ordered and this is emphasised when the final design is recorded as some sort of chart, stitch guide and thread guide. I had fooled myself into thinking that the creative process was somehow much more ordered than it actually is, and thus I was teaching it that way! But in Austin Kleon’s words,

“Process is messy”.

Embroidery is a three-dimensional, textural, and colourful art and elements often play off each other in unexpected ways. I need to see each element on the canvas before I add the next one. Of course, sometimes this means that I work something that I do not like and then I need to unpick and try again. But that is a really important part of the design process, and my students clearly showed me that they were much more comfortable with this way of working too, especially in a class that was deliberately designed to get their creative juices flowing.

So once again, teaching turns out to be a learning process for both teacher and students. I have learnt so much about myself because my students have helped me to understand my own creative process better, and this will in turn helps me to be a more creative embroidery teacher. How cool is that?

If you have a story about how students helped you to understand yourself better, then please share it with me via the comments below – I would love to know that I am not on my own!


Embroidery from Namibia

I cannot tell you how lucky I am to have a husband whose job takes him to different parts of the world, because whenever possible he brings back beautiful textiles for our whole family to enjoy. The latest trip to Namibia was no exception – just look at this magnificent tablecloth he brought back!

Beautiful hand embroidered tablecloth from Namibia.

Beautiful hand embroidered tablecloth from Namibia.

It is really hard for a photograph to do justice to such a large piece – it measures approximately 1.5m x 1.7m! So let’s look at some of the motifs in detail….

Woman killing a snake!

Woman killing a snake!

Traditional hut with fence and a bird.

Traditional hut with fence and a bird.

Wonderful elephant!

Wonderful elephant!

Aren’t they fantastic? I love them – they are whimsical, colourful, and naive and yet when all seen together they form this exquisitely cohesive whole.

But I love this piece even more for another reason. It is a simply wonderful teaching piece for my children’s classes. They can see in these designs that very simple shapes and lines can be stitched with a simple repertoire of stitches to create really fantastic pieces of embroidery.

My plan is for each child to embroiderer a cushion cover using these African designs as inspiration. And I really want them to see that the stitching doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. The elephant’s trunk above is far too big for his body, but he looks brilliant nonetheless! And the giraffe below is not filled with exquisitely smooth satin spots, but he is still quite clearly a very elegant giraffe.

A delightful giraffe!

A delightful giraffe!

And what about this cool windmill showing the water being collected in a tank and trough – with just a few simple lines the stitcher is telling a whole story about the preciousness of water.

I love this simple water story!

I love this simple water story!

I will be sure to share with you some photos of the children’s own versions of simple embroidered pictures after we have had the class later this month. In the meantime, please be sure to let me know if you have a treasured textile that inspires you – I would love to hear about it:)


Experimenting with paint on canvas

Where do the weeks go? I have been busy teaching, kids and adults alike, and my blog is sadly neglected….again ๐Ÿ™‚ But I have been having so much fun, so just had to share it with you!

This week I taught the first of three sessions on modern canvaswork to my local branch of the Embroiderer’s Guild of Western Australia. The goal is to produce a piece like the modern book cover I mentioned in my February post on creativity.

My journal

A5 journal cover in modern canvaswork.

So, our first session was all about painting the canvas and playing with Tyvek. I’ll be honest – I felt like an impostor. I am not an expert on painting on canvas – I just know what works for me. And as for Tyvek, I am only passing on my limited experience after learning it from someone else several years ago.

To help overcome my lack of confidence, I made doubly sure that I was well prepared. I had boxes of paint which I had tested in a number of different ways; I had samples of a variety of painted canvases; and I had a lovely pile of experimental Tyvek pieces.

Prepared for anything!

Prepared for anything!

Of course, we didn’t use anything like half of the materials I had brought with me….BUT from a teaching point of view I was prepared for any eventuality and thus I felt more confident. And the really great thing was that it reminded me about another great role as a teacher. You don’t always have to be the expert – sometimes it is just as good (better perhaps?) to be a facilitator. My students had everything they needed to just play with all the techniques and materials that I provided. And all of them, without exception, produced something completely different from everyone else. You could just about touch the creativity sparkling in the air! I loved it…

Many of these students have been embroiderering for many years and their stitching skills are simply exquisite. It was so much fun to share an afternoon of something completely different with them. I can’t wait for the next lesson in two weeks time when we will start designing and stitching.