Sunday, March 31, 2013

Designing for the non-designer

There comes a time in most stitchers' lives when they decide that they want to stitch their own designs. But for those of us who can't draw or use computer design programs, what can we do?


I was much less afraid of design as a teenager. Somehow not knowing that much about stitching meant that I wasn't afraid to try something new. I remember making a chain stitch unicorn for a high school boyfriend. The chains filled the shape and made the leg muscles. The boyfriend didn't last. I wonder what happened to the unicorn.


In college, I was away in the Arizona desert on an archeological dig. To entertain myself in the non-working hours, I satin stitched a dog based on a sticker set that I was sealing my letters to my college boyfriend with. I sent him the dog when it was finished, but I don't think it meant as much to him as it did to me.


After that, my designing was limited to swapping out colors in patterns, combining border motifs and substituting sayings in samplers. I was very proud of the following sampler because I had to make up a few of the letters in the alphabet and that was a stretch for me.

Not only did I have to make up some of the alphabet for this sample, but I swapped out the house colors and made up the borders.


But, I've now had almost 4 years of Brazilian embroidery instruction and am almost ready to design a piece on my own. My first attempt was using a pattern from a stitched apron that I have been carrying around for years, and translating it into Brazilian stitches. I think it turned out pretty well. The flower came from The Art of Dimensional Embroidery by Maria Freitas and the hair was a stitch I learned while doing another of Freitas' patterns.

Here is the hand colored photocopy I've carried around with me for the last 15 years.
Here is my Brazilian translation.


I've been gathering photos and pictures and drawing things in a notebook during meetings and bus rides. I took a drawing class, and now I just need a little time to actually experiment with stitches and techniques before I begin designing on my own. Maybe in the fall I'll start a pattern for a Christmas card, although I think, like my angel, my first piece will probably be translating an existing pattern into something new. Even so, I am excited to start and see what happens.


There are many free designs on the Internet suited to adapt to Brazilian. You can download this one from French Knots.


You can tell from this sketch did during my lunch break that I still have a long way to go with design, but I may be able to work with this to produce something eventually.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A serious sewer!


We saw this car at the mall the other day. You have to be hard core to announce your sewing passion on a license plate!


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Brazilian embroidery--what is it?

I first learned of Brazilian embroidery in high school when my parents gave me Rosie Montague's classic book, Brazilian Three-Dimensional Embroidery, published in 1983. It is a Dover book with basic text and iron-on transfers. She made everything sound so easy, but you needed specialized rayon thread to work the embroidery. There wasn't any Internet in the '80s, and the local shops back east didn't sell it. It was 20 years later before I saw a Brazilian kit in a stitchery shop in Albuquerque, but the shop owner discouraged me from buying it, saying Brazilian was very difficult to learn on your own. Two years later, I moved to Denver, found a class, and have been exploring this technique ever since. But what is it?


Brazilian is a style of embroidery developed and popularized in Brazil, during the last half of the 20th century. It is characterized by high-relief, three-dimensional flowers nestled in a profusion of greenery and stitched in multiple weights of vividly dyed rayon embroidery thread. More recently, American designers have moved away from the classic floral and greenery designs toward a huge variety of surface designs. Everything from desert to underwater scenes to cute animals are being designed and stitched with Brazilian effects.


The three-dimensional effect of Brazilian embroidery is achieved through bullion and other knot stitches, rather than the wires and padding characteristic of stump work. The stitches, however, are not new. Bullions, cast-ons, french knots, satin stitch, couching, stem stitch and straight stitch will typically be used in a Brazilian design and have been used for centuries. But in Brazilian embroidery, these stitches are coaxed to ever more heights to produce flowers that can stand up to an inch above the fabric.


Part of the reason that Brazilian can achieve this three-dimensional effect is due to the rayon thread. I don't work much in silks, which have some of the same qualities of sheen and smoothness of rayon, but try making a 40- or 50-wrap bullion in cotton floss and you will soon be discouraged, whereas with rayon, the thread glides over itself. 40, 50 or more wraps can still be tricky, but they are doable.


Because Brazilian embroidery is so new, there is little information on its development, especially in English. Brazilian women began by dying their own rayon threads and experimenting with them before Vericore and Maticor began making them commercially. Both threads came in a variety of weights and a large number of colors. Montague provides a color chart at the end of her book that shows the large number of variegated and non-variegated colors that were in use by the early 80s.


The Internet provides many claims about who first developed the technique. If I could read Portuguese, there would likely be even more! But Madam Maia was an early practitioner and popularizer of the new technique, so much so that Vericore named one of its threads after her.


The technique followed immigrants to United States in the 70s and 80s where, in 1979, Ed and Maria Freitas began producing their own line of Brazilian embroidery threads under the name EdMar. Instructional books in English soon followed, with Maria Freitas's book, The Art of Dimensional Embroidery first published in 1982 (now in its forth edition) and Montague's in 1983. Both books provide clear instructions and inspiring patterns.


I'll write more about Brazilian threads and techniques in later posts, but to learn more on your own, here are some links to get you started.


Here is a free pattern I stitched from the Brazilian International Embroidery Guild web site.

The Brazilian International Embroidery Guild provides good information, instruction and free patterns on its web site.


Brazilian Embroidery Instruction by Loretta's Custom Stitchery provides some information on basic Brazilian stitches.


Christine Hause is a certified Brazilian embroidery instructor who provides classes and lectures on the technique. She is willing to travel and her list of classes and pictures of class samples are available on her web page.


Hause also is the proprietor of A Stitching Shop, where I get all of my Brazilian supplies and patterns. If you are in Denver, stop by. You won't be disappointed at the wide selection of patterns and the full line of EdMar Brazilian threads.


EdMar's website provides additional history on Brazilian embroidery, as well as information on their thread line and Maria Freitas' patterns.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Needlework Fiction--Tangled Threads

This is a first in a series on needlework fiction focusing primarily on embroidery fiction, but also on quilting, sewing, knitting, crochet, lacemaking and other types of needlework. As I gather more review, I will post them on a separate page for reference. Please feel free to let me know your favorite needlework-oriented novels and authors. The books don't have to be primarily about needlework, but needlework should beprominently featured in the novel.


***** 5/5 stars Check out GoodReads for more reviews of this book.

Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl's Story by Pegi Deitz Shea is a juvenile novel that follows thirteen-year old Mai from the Thai refugee camp where she lived for ten years, to Providence, Rhode Island where she and her grandmother join her uncle and cousins who emigrated five years earlier. The novel depicts the joy and pitfalls and confusion of the immigrant experience. Mai is excited to leave the refugee camp, but her grandmother is reluctant about starting a new life in a foreign land where the Hmong traditions are difficult to keep intact. The thing that binds Mai and her grandmother in this new life is pa'ndau, traditional Hmong story cloths. Mai and her grandmother made these for sale in the refugee camps and continue to make them in America. Worked in reverse appliqué, cross stitch and surface embroidery techniques, these colorful cloths tell the story of their lives, including the death of Mai's parent's in a Laos bombing, and are used to make traditional clothing. The symbols on the cloth harken good luck and fortune and tie Mai to her past as she makes a new life in Rhode Island. Tangled Threads is a poignant story that will help children and adults better empathize with immigrants in their schools and community. Well worth reading.


Resources about the Hmong embroidery and appliqué featured in this novel.

Dr. George J. Leonard shares the history of the story cloth featured on the cover of the novel. is a comprehensive site that displays many examples of pa'ndau, and provides information on the history and symbolism of the art form.


Here is a YouTube interview with a Laos refugee and embroiderer.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Crazy Brazilian!

Last week I mentioned one of my favorite guild projects--"Crazy Quilt Pillow," designed by Millefiori. I think I was the first in the guild to finish because I became addicted with the creativity of choosing the "seam" stitches. It helped that each line that designated a mock seam was lined with dots which made it easy to stitch evenly spaced stitches. Even so, it was a challenge to find the right stitches for each section and the right colors to blend with the patch motifs.


Here is an over view of the finished pillow. I admit to sending it to my mother for finishing and she did a fantastic job. Now let's look at some of the sections.


First is the central motif. The pansies are done over bullions to give them dimension, and there are a variety of roses done with billions, cast-ons, and satin stitch. Isn't the hedgehog cute? But it was hard to do bullions with two threads at once!


One of my favorite seam motifs is in the upper left. I HAD to stitch those cute baby birds when I saw them in a crazy quilt book. Isn't that a clever use of fly stitch?


There were a lot of bird motifs in the pattern. Here is one corner with some cockatoos. They were easy, but quite effective. In this corner, you can also see how I finished the border and three of the corners with a stem stitch swag and clusters of beaded flowers. You also see above the birds my husband's and my initials. It was fun designing a few of the patch motifs myself.


Here are two more patches I changed from the design. The lower one was inspired by the humming bird charms. The pattern called for some birds motifs, but I didn't like them and the hummingbirds were perfect substitutes. Once I had them though, I needed flowers for them to drink from.


The upper motif is a rabbit shrunken down from Grandma's Bunnies. Anyone who knows me knows that bunnies are not optional in a piece like this. I stitched him with Boucle to make him fuzzy, did a turkey work tail, and a bullion carrot topped with drizzle stitches for the carrot greens. So cute!


Everyone in the guild did this corner motif differently. They used different colors and different stitches, and each one turned out beautiful. Isn't the gold-headed worm cute? And of course, you must have a spider web in a crazy quilt--I don't know why.


These owls are the reason that many of us wanted to do this piece. They were so easy, but so cute! Done with cast-ons, turkey work, satin and straight stitches. They are really expressive.


Can you spot the little lady bug in this bunch of cast-on roses? There were so many little things that made this pattern fun. The snow balls made from double cast-ons were an eye opener for me, as we're the little turkey work filled pods. There were many new techniques to learn, but so much personal freedom in color choice and the choice of seam stitches, that this piece never got boring and was always fun to stitch.


Here is the final corner. The large fly stitch leaves with the clusters of copper-colored beads were done in Cire, one of the EdMar threads I don't use very often. I love the sheen of it. It shredded a bit, but it is a beautiful thread I need to use more.


So now you can see why I am excited about moving from a printed crazy quilt pattern to the pieced pumpkin. I get to try out these stitches and techniques on something more representative of a real crazy quilt and I am expecting nothing but fun in the endeavor.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Stitching together--pumpkin class

Stitching today is a solitary enjoyment.  We work in our living rooms or sewing rooms with tv and audiobooks for company.  It wasn't always that way.  Prior to tv, women would stitch for entertainment and stitch in groups. Those quilting bees may have been practical, but they sure sound like fun too.

Guilds and classes provide the camaraderie that can inspire us today and help us expand our stitching repertoire.  I am lucky to be a member of a great Brazilian embroidery guild that meets once a month. Unfortunately, I am not working on the guild project for this year--an ambitious Christmas sampler. I had too may other projects already begun.

But, I missed working on a communal project, so I signed up for pumpkin class. We are using a Crabapple Hill pattern with a variety of surface embroidery techniques. Pumpkin class will last six months. In January we  learned how to paper piece the crazy quilt panels.  February through May we will stitch and in June we will assemble the pumpkins.

I've always wanted to work on a crazy quilt, but this is my first attempt. Instead of cotton, I'm using a combination of real and synthetic satins and velvet. I probably will design my own motifs in addition to using some of the ones in the pattern.  That's the fun of going crazy!  I'm not expecting it to be a masterpiece, but I do hope to build on some skills that I developed during our last guild project--a crazy quilt Brazilian pattern. It was a project I adored. I'll feature it next week and update you with more on the pumpkin as I make progress.

Happy stitching!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book Review: What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America

My father is a historian and history teacher so we spent all of our childhood vacations in museums or touring historic houses and forts throughout upstate New York, where I grew up. One of our few vacations out of state was to Colonial Williamsburg. I loved everything about that vacation, from the beautiful buildings, to the women dressed in Colonial dresses, to the red earth of Virginia. The summer humidity gave me migraines, but walking through Williamsburg was the equivalent for us of an enchanted amusement park. So when I saw this book written by one of the costuming curator's at Colonial Williamsburg, I had to get it. And I wasn't disappointed.

What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America by Linda Baumgarten is a beautifully organized and illustrated text book and great reference book for anyone interested not only in the clothing, but in the lives of men and women in 17th through 19th century America. The book is well researched and answers questions that anyone who has delved into either historical literature or first person historical accounts may have—questions such as “what is stuff?” (answer: a tightly woven wool, often with a glazed surface, usually used to make dresses for working class women), “what did slaves wear?”, and “did pregnant women really confine themselves for 9 months?” are all answered by this book with reference to clothing orders, books, letters, journals, advertisements, and the clothes themselves. What is best about this book is both how it explains the possibilities and limits of using clothing to understand past lives.

One of my favorite discussions was how curators at Colonial Williamsburg unraveled the mystery of this early maternity dress.


Most useful, are the interspersed discussions about fabrics—their names, patterns, dates, origins, and uses. Fabric names have changed over the years—so "cotton" may be made of wool and "checked hose" don’t have checks on them. This is information is extremely useful for beginning researchers. Also, the photographs are plentiful and detailed. They clearly illustrate the points made in the text.

Photos are lavish and explain points in the text very well.


I found the Introduction, chapter 1 and chapter 6, which discussed the Williamsburg clothing collection, collecting in general, and the use of alerted clothing, to be more textbook-like than the rest of the book, but I learned things in each of these chapters, so they are worth reading even if you are not so academically inclined. The rest of the chapters were pure magic, transporting the reader into the past in a very intimate way. It is a book I will return to, both for its beauty and its information.

Shorty after reading about men's banyans (Colonial housecoats) and caps I came across a 17th century example at the Rhode Island School of Design.