Archive | Creativity

My wish for you? Go make some mistakes!

Hello Beautiful Stitchers! It is an utterly beautiful autumn day here in Perth and my fingers are itching to be stitching. But before I allow myself that luxury, I wanted to share an idea that has been making my brain buzz with excitement all day 🙂

As an embroidery designer I have worked hard over the last few years to find my own style – to bring together my favourite colours, stitches, fabrics, patterns and ideas to create something which is truly my own. The most wonderful comment came through on my Instagram feed yesterday which helped me to feel like I might finally be achieving that creative goal.

I always know which posts are yours, even before I see your profile name. I love your work!

I was doing the biggest happy dance, I can tell you. I was so excited!!! All the time and effort I had put into learning my craft, challenging myself to create my own designs, finding those creative intersections that really made my heart sing – it had all been worth it! And a really big part of that has been and continues to be making A LOT of mistakes.

Why mistakes I hear you ask? Well the mistakes have helped me to learn, they sometimes throw open unexpected doors, and they always stretch me to try something new – “Okay, so that didn’t work. But I still really want to create this vision I have in my head, so what can I do differently?”

Let me share with you an example that is challenging me right now. I really want to work out a beautiful and simple way to mount small pieces of canvaswork embroidery as jewellery. One of my goals is to use this as a teaching project, so it is particularly important that the mounting process needs to be easily reproduced in a classroom situation.

Step 1 – Creating the embroidery was fairly straighforward. I decided to work on Chinese silk gauze fabric using some divine flat silk threads. So far, so good.

A 30mm x 30mm piece of embroidery ready for life as an embroidered pendant.

A 30mm x 30mm piece of embroidery ready for life as an embroidered pendant.

Step 2 – With no jewellery experience at all I needed to find out how people were mounting embroidered pendants and brooches. There are lots of different examples and supplies available, but I decided that my first step would be to try a pendant tray – either square or rectangular. A lovely afternoon spent browsing options on Etsy found me ordering a mixed selection from an Australian supplier, Little Red Raspberry.

A selection of square and rectangular pendant trays.

A selection of square and rectangular pendant trays.

Step 3 – Now I needed to mount the embroidery in the tray. I laced the embroidery onto an acid free card base with a layer of pure wool felt for padding. The silk gauze is a very thin fabric so this worked quite well – there was no unruly bulk on the back of my work. But once I mounted it in the tray it was sitting too proud – and there was a line of unsightly white fabric showing at the edges. It really wasn’t matching the vision in my head just yet! But nevertheless, it was my first attempt and I knew I could easily fix the problem by lacing onto a thinner base next time around.

The edge of my pendant wasn't looking great on the first attempt - but I knew this would be easy to fix next time.

The edge of my pendant wasn’t looking great on the first attempt.

Step 4 – I figure that it is no good having an embroidered pendant or brooch if it is too fragile to wear, so it was time to wear it – yay! Ahhhhh – Houston we have a problem. After only a couple of hours, one of the threads had pulled loose.

Can you see the pulled thread? This is just not sturdy enough....yet!

Can you see the pulled thread? This is just not sturdy enough….yet!

And that is where I am up to at the moment. The short stitch lengths have survived the wearing test quite well whereas the long ones clearly have not. Perhaps I just need to change my stitch design? But I love the look of those long flat silk threads – the light plays so beautifully off them. Can I find a jewellery mount where the whole embroidery would sit behind glass? Or is there a spray sealant I can use to protect the embroidery? Or could you put the embroidered piece into the bottom of the tray and cover it with a glass cabochon? Or perhaps even fill it with resin? (The embroidery purists are gasping in horror at this point!).

I suspect that there are going to be many more mistakes and dead ends before I get this to work just the way I want. But that really is the point of today’s post. You have to keep making mistakes until the outcome matches the creative vision in your head. And will it be worth it? Absolutely!

In case you need some extra convincing, take the time to watch this wonderful video of Neil Gaiman’s address to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts Class of 2012.

In one of those moments of serendipity, this video turned up via my Facebook feed this morning. I was interested because I am currently reading Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking (Amanda and Neil are married). I hesitate to admit that until I read Amanda’s book, I had never heard of Neil Gaiman at all. But I confess that I have rapidly become a huge fan of them both – mostly because there is a wonderful honesty about their creative process. I could quote whole tracts of Neil’s speech verbatim, because the whole thing is so inspiring. But here are the snippets that are important for you today.

If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that. ….I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. ….And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

Wonderful advice from Neil Gaiman

Wonderful advice from Neil Gaiman

So, this is what I wish for you too. If you want to create your own embroidery designs and feel that you don’t have the talent or skill to do it, then please think again. The fact that you want to create your own designs means that you are already halfway there. Now you just need to give it time, do lots of creating, make lots of mistakes and learn from them. I guarantee that it will be worth it!


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 🙂 ). 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 🙂



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 🙂 ) 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.



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”. 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 🙂 )

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!