Tuesday, 26 April 2016

My Embroidery Heroines : Erica Wilson.

Embroidery Heroines : Erica Wilson.

Recently I have been delighted to re-claim my needlework library which has been in boxes for a couple of years but a few books were too precious to ever be consigned to a box and have been my constant and trusted reference throughout my sewing career. Strangely however, it has  only been in their unpacking  as a whole, that I have looked back at the importance of those books which had been spared the burial, and sewing authoresses  with whom I had built a relationship over pages and through the assistance of stitch diagrams and decided that I would dedicate a couple of Blog articles to them.

Erica Wilson has been my inspiration from the start. I picked up my first of her books, ‘Erica on Embroidery’(first pub. 1975 when I was just 5!) in a charity shop. Her large, clear stitch diagrams, and easy explanations became the foundation of my own kits and as a newcomer to the art back then, so she taught me to understand exactly what was needed to help and inspire other new embroiderers.

Born in 1928 in Tidworth, Wiltshire(a place I know so well!), Erica was born into an itinerant high ranking army lifestyle and after spending her infant years in Bermuda, returned to be raised in England and Scotland. It is Erica’s far sighted mother we have to thank for seeing her daughters aptitude with a needle and so it was that Erica became a star graduate from The Royal School of Needlework. During her time afterwards as a teacher there, she accepted an offer to set up a needlework school in Millbrook, New York. She flew off in 1954 and what was meant to be a year, turned into a marriage to an equally talented designer of furniture, Vladimir Kagan, in 1957. Amid a life of bohemian creativity with her books numbering on the best sellers lists, several shops, regular columns and a BBC television series,  she raised 3 children and lived and worked next to Vladimir in the same upper Park Avenue apartment in New York for over 40 years before her death in 2011 at the age of 83.

I had never found any of this out until now and was intrigued to find her television appearances on You Tube! It was the oddest of experiences; she looked younger than her 40 plus years, tall, elegantly dressed, perfectly coiffured hair and with a still impeccable aristocratic English accent combined with the odd charming American word or terminology. I found her mesmerising; Oh! That I could manoeuvre a lap frame with such poise and grace! Yet as she was in the flesh, so are her books.  There is, or rather, was, nothing of ‘stiffness’ about her. Her mind-set, for all her formality of breeding or training was that if you have a piece of cloth – any cloth – and a piece of thread – any thread – and a needle, then you have the capability to sew.

I get the impression that Erica saw her riches of her enormous success as a happy accident. Her passion to translate what can be a very exacting and formal art, into a widespread pleasure for anyone to undertake, came in an era when bold colours and large designs could be worked and adapted with much less convention. She made Embroidery popular but not crass or tacky and she encouraged those she touched via her books or on the television to be their own designer. Her books are full of love ; love of her family (her  children frequently feature as both models and anecdotes , and her work is often combined with her husband’s amazing furniture), love of history, art and nature inspired in her designs, love of design and pattern, and love of her art and her wish to bring it to everyone. She never mentions specific brands of thread and fabric can be an old bit of ticking, pillow case or pair of jeans. Her embroidery is utterly egalitarian which given it is regularly quoted that she and her husband saw themselves in later years as ‘old hippies’ makes me think the  ethics were always there!  


Further research brought me to the last of Erica’s shops which still remains in Nantucket and is run by her daughter, Vanessa. Her other daughter, Jessica is a jewellery designer and her son, Illya is an artist. Sadly Vladimir passed away just this month. The Facebook (links via www.ericawilson.com) page for the shop is full of charming pictures and tributes to Erica and it is lovely that not just me, but all new generations of  embroiderers can find out about this remarkable lady – who knows – we may one day see her books re-published.

Her books can be found on Ebay and Etsy although her newer books from the 80’s are generally only available in America.

Crewel Embroidery 1962

The craft of Crewel Embroidery 1971

The craft of Silk and Gold thread Embroidery 1973

Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book 1973

Erica on Embroidery (Alsocalled  NeedlePlay)1975

Ask Erica : About the ABC’s of Embroidery  1977

16 Needlepoint designs from the new world of plastic canvas 1977

More Needleplay 1979

Erica Wilson’s Needlework to Wear 1982

Erica Wilson’s Smocking 1983

Erica Wilson’s Children’s World 1983

Erica Wilson’s Knitting Book 1988

Erica Wilsons Brides Book 1989

Erica Wilsons Needlepoint 1995

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off : Part 3 : Making the Kissing Ball

The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off  :

Part 3 : Making the Kissing Ball 

The Basics.

Finished Kissing Ball
This is a basic overview of how to make a Kissing Ball. There are not set colours or indeed, type of fabric and you may blow the patterns up to a bigger size should you wish to do so. I used some silk fabric remnants, 5 colours of silk thread and vintage pearl beads that I had in my vast collection. I used a sharp embroidery needle and a long, thin beading needle.
 An embroidery hoop to keep the fabric taut makes sewing a bit easier. This can be a simple, round hand-held budget one. They comprise of two rings, an inner one and an outer one in-between which you capture your fabric. The outer ring is then tightened with a screw and nut and the fabric pulled taut.
 If you are handy (or lucky enough to have a handy woodworking Hubby!) four lengths of wood glued together to make a square frame is also good. The fabric can be pinned tightly onto it with drawing pins. (Also check out Siesta Interlocking Bar Frames! They are fantastic for this type of project and very cheap!)

Transferring the design.

Print off the above templates and shrink according you the size you wish, making sure both designs arethe same. Mine were about 5 inches – so quite small. Trace the design onto your fabric using a fine pencil. Most silk and linen is quite fine and see-through but you can also use a commercial light box (available cheaply at craft shops or on line), or place the fabric and template on a glass table with a light shining from underneath to light up the lines of the template. Taping to a glass window also works but is a bit tricky.

The solid line of each panel is the inner line within which you sew the design and is folded and sewn along when putting the ball together later. The broken line is the outer line over which the pattern is cut once all the panels are sewn.

I did not back my fabric with calico as is customary when embroidering.

 To Start and Finish your threads.

For tiny pieces like this I don’t mess about with waste knots….use a simple knot at the end of the thread and trim off the end of the thread from the knot. When the thread runs out, finish your threads by neatly finishing through your stitches at the back.

Sewing the patterns.

Please forgive my lack of stitch direction chart ; it takes an  inordinate amount of time I simply don’t have to produce the charts like those in my kits, so further investigation on You Tube and a good stitch book will give clarity to my instructions here on the Blog. I do apologise for this. I hope that you may follow much from the pictures I show.

I have simply used Stem Stitch for stems, Silk Shading within all the solid parts of the designs such a ribbons and petals, and French Knots within the centre of the flowers. The black and white pictures of the original designs give an idea of light and shade and where to change your threads from light to dark shades or visa versa. I used a single strand of embroidery thread throughout and I also had to use a magnifier so you may wish to work in a bigger scale! Because of the tiny nature of the design, I did not Split Stitch the edges of the Shaded areas as is customary, however if you decide to work on a larger scale, use 2 strands for your Stem Stitch and French Knots and Split Stitch the edges of all the areas you work your Silk Shading as you would normally.

A note on Silk Shading.

Silk Shading is very much an art form and because of the tiny nature of the design, many formal rules have gone out of the window! The main thing is to work the way you see fit and in a manner which gives you the results you want.

Start each leaf from the base at the stem towards the tip following the curve of the leaf. Each flower petal is worked in the direction of the numbers of a clock ie. the stitches on the top petal stand upright and as each petal moves around, so does the stitch direction. There is nothing wrong by marking the direction of the stitches with a pencil. Ribbons are the same ; work around the curve of the ribbon.

Make your stitches as random and blended as possible, splitting into the threads that you work over with your needle by a good two thirds of their length so you aren’t making any nasty ‘ridges’ of sudden colour.

Work the stitches at the edges over the outlines and ‘tuck’ them behind each other to give a nice fluid outline.

A note on French Knots

Here you have the advantage if you have been taught via my kits, but I will add the note that you only use one wrap – despite what books tell you! I have shaded the centre of the flowers with both dark and light yellow.

A Note on Stem Stitch

Keep these tiny and neat, tucking each stitch behind one another.

Adding Beads.

I used old pearls but as long as the outline of the pattern is covered, you could use sequins or just sew them with Satin Stitch using a gold thread.

Making a Twisted Cord.

You can use a lovely velvet ribbon as a holder but a cord is very easy to make as follows….Using some rayon (shiney) crochet thread or matching silk, place about 5 full strands (containing 6 threads)together measuring around 60-70cm. Catch them all together and holding each set of ends in each hand, twist them together. Try not to let go of them! When they become tight and are about to knot, fold them together by taking them all in one hand and using the other to pull the cord straight. Let the threads go loose whilst still holding the ends and they will spiral together and form a cord. Tie a knot in the end to the desired length.

Sewing Together and Finishing.

When you have finished, cut around the dotted outlines ready to sew together!

This is the trickiest part but once you get the hang of the stitch, you will find it really easy. The Stitch used to sew the panels  together is called Ladder Stitch and it is a wonderful stitch to learn as it is incredibly versatile and used in Box Making and any situation where panels need to be sewn together without the stitches showing.

 Each panel is sewn together along the solid line which surrounds the design. Both Silk and linen is lovely and soft and creases nicely in order to follow the shape and sew the ladder Stitch. Pick up two panels  and fold the outer fabric of each inwards to the solid line and press it firmly between your finger and thumb .Place them together, right sides outermost making sure the tip of each segment lines up exactly together …...

 Ladder Stitch
1. Secure a knot in the bottom of the thread and with panel edges pinched together, bring the needle up through the crease at the tip of the panel nearest to you

2. Pull the thread through towards you and on the crease of the opposite panel take a tiny stitch along the crease pointing towards the line of the seam.

3.Pull the thread through lightly and come back placing the needle into the crease nearest to you again. Don’t pull the stitch at this stage.

4.Keep creasing the panels along the curve of the line with finger and thumb and carry on taking tiny stitches in the creases from each side alternately.

5. Every couple of centimetres pull the thread down to pull the stitches together and close the seam. Magic!

6. When you get to the end of the panel, pick up the next one, fold along the line and match to the tip of the next folded edge and repeat the Ladder Stitch down the next seam.

7. As the ball forms, at about 2.5 cm before finishing the final panel, fill the ball with toy stuffing (and  or scented pot pouri). Pack it well to get a good solid ball shape.

8. Continue closing the seam with Ladder Stitch but just before the top where all the panels  meet at the top, take the cord, or ribbon, fold and place the knotted ends into the top of the ball and finish the last few stitches, catching the thread through the cord or ribbon to secure it. The looped cord or ribbon should be nice and central.

Original Kissing Balls - See Explanation in Part 2