Work done for City and Guilds Level 3 Certificate in Embroidery with Distant Stitch.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Study Three Artists

Hans Holbein




Hans Holbein was a painter in Basel in the 16th century. He made two trips to London, where he stayed for several years each time.




Famed for his portraits, he used his connections in high places to gain lucrative commissions. On his first trip, he made good use of his friendship with Sir Thomas More to obtain commissions to paint many influential people at court. By the time of his second visit, Sir Thomas More had lost the friendship of King Henry VIII because of his opposition to the King’s plan to divorce his first wife Katharine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Holbein was quick to distance himself from his former friend and now allied himself to the powerful Boleyn family. He painted King Henry VIII many times at different stages of his life. It is likely that he also painted Anne Boleyn, but after her disgrace and execution, everything connected with her was destroyed.




Holbein’s portraits are extraordinary for the exquisite detail he shows of clothing, where every stitch of the embroidery can be seen clearly. One of the most popular and fashionable embroidery techniques of the time was blackwork. As the name suggests, this is embroidery in black thread on a background of plain white, although some gold and silver threads were also used. It was a counted thread technique and needed to be used on an evenweave fabric. The history of this technique is shrouded in the mists of history, but it is possible that its designs are based on pattern used in Arabian art.


The Moslem religion forbade its adherents from depicting people or animals in their art and so their rich art used patterns based on plant forms. When the Arabs conquered Spain, this art spread there. The similarity between the plant-based patterns of Arab decoration and blackwork would seem to suggest that this type of decoration developed from Arab art.




There is a theory that the technique of blackwork was brought to England from Spain by Katharine of Aragon. Whether or not this is true, trade around Europe and the habit of cementing relations with other countries by marriage would ensure that an easy cross pollination of ideas, art and culture was possible.




In Holbein’s portraits, blackwork was a pattern usually based on plant forms. The stitch used, known as Holbein Stitch because of his detailed portrayal of it, is a type of double running stitch to outline the motif, drawing with stitch in the way an artist draws with a pen or pencil. The lines of the design are stitched with a regular running stitch, keeping the stitches and spaces even in length. A second line of running stitch is then worked filling in the spaces. This ensures that the stitch looks the same on both sides. In this technique, two threads share the same hole and care must be taken to ensure that the line looks even. This can be achieved in the second line of stitching by ensuring that the needle enters the hole each time above the previous thread and leaves the hole below the previous thread (or vice versa, as long as it is consistent). This gives a regular very slight angle to each stitch, which is smoother to the eye than the irregular jumps which would otherwise result.


As blackwork developed through the years, it began to be used to show shading and variety of tone. These variations in tone can be achieved in various ways: by adding or subtracting elements to each pattern, by varying the thickness of the thread, by varying the scale of the pattern and by using different patterns. Su Mwamba’s delightful pattern for a blackwork portrait of Colin the cat (blog entry for 12th August 2008) ( shows how blackwork can be used in this way.










Bridget Riley


Fig 1. Bridget Riley with some of her work


Bridget Riley was born in London in 1931. She trained in drawing and painting at Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art. She is best known for her “Op art” work which she began in the early 1960s, geometric studies in black and white in which she explored how changes in the scale and angle and position of blocks of black and white could produce an almost dizzying sense of movement for the viewer. Viewers claimed that her work produced sensations of seasickness or vertigo and even compared their effect to sky-diving or the sensation of taking an hallucinogenic drug.



Fig 2.

Bridget Riley Movement in Squares 1961


In Movement in Squares (Fig 2.) the gradual narrowing of the black blocks gives the impression of the surface curving away from the viewer and gradually curving back out again, giving the effect of a fold in the surface. Even though we know that the canvas is a flat 2-dimensional depiction, our eyes are fooled into thinking that we are seeing a 3-dimensional shape. Riley uses the fact that when a surface of regular squares is curved away from us, it appears as if the squares change into increasingly narrow rectangles.




Fig 3. A flat piece of paper patterned with black and white squares


Fig 4. The same piece of paper as in Fig 3 above, but held so that it curves away from the viewer. The apparent narrowing of the black squares can be seen.




Fig 5. Bridget Riley Hesitate


In Hesitate (Fig 5), Bridget Riley again uses change of shape and tone to fool the eye into seeing the flat surface of the painting appear to undulate. The black circles, arranged in an orderly pattern, change shape to horizontal ovals and the vertical spacing between the rows narrows, giving the impression that the canvas is laid on a step, moving from vertical to horizontal and back to vertical again. Another interesting feature in this work is that the tone of the black circles alters, looking as though two diagonal streaks, where the circles appear to fade to grey, cross the canvas. The fact that the streak which starts in the bottom left hand corner changes to a shallower angle as it crosses to the right, seems to emphasise the apparent horizontal part.




Fig 6. Bridget Riley Fission


In Fission (Fig 6.), narrow curving lines in a repeated pattern snake down the page, giving an unsettling feeling of uncontrollable movement in the eye of the viewer, something akin to a feeling of vertigo. The lines seem to refuse to stay still, but seem in a constant state of motion.


It has been suggested that one of the concerns of the period was a perceived need for audience participation in a work of art. This would mean that the reaction of the viewer could become an integral part of the work of art itself. In her account of Bridget Riley, Misha Bittleston says: “Riley is fascinated with the act of looking and in her work aims to engage the viewer not only with the object of their gaze but also with the actual process of observation.” (




Fig 7. Bridget Riley Descending 1965-6


Descending (Fig 7.), is simply black zigzag lines on a white ground, but they seem to twist and move constantly and appear as 3-dimensional ridges on the canvas. When viewed from a distance through half-closed eyes, there seems to be a variety of tones of grey across the canvas, even though only black and white have been used. This effect is achieved by changing the length and spacing of the lines. If you look at a small part of the work through a paper window, it loses the effect of movement and becomes simply some zigzag lines. The effect depends on repetition. In describing her work in an interview Bridget Riley said:


“Rhythm and repetition are at the root of movement. They create a situation within which the most simple basic forms start to become visually active. By massing them and repeating them they become more fully present. Repetition acts as a sort of amplifier for visual events that seen singly would hardly be visible.”






Dijanne Cevaal




Dijanne Cevaal is a textile artist and teacher living in Geelong, Australia. I first became aware of her work through an article about her in the December/January 2013 edition of Quilting Arts. The cover illustration was a close-up picture of one of her pieces of work, one of her “travelling blanket” series.




When I read the article I had almost completed my functional 3-D object for Module 2 of the City and Guilds level 3 Certificate in Embroidery. For this I was making a kimono. As I carried on with the work (which involved a lot of hand stitching) I became aware that many memories and stories and much intensely personal symbolism was being stitched into the garment as I went on. I enjoyed the meditative quality of the long periods of patient hand stitching.


On reading Dijanne Cevaal’s article, in which she talked about one particular strand of her work, I became more and more amazed that someone I had never met, on the opposite side of the world, had a working method and thought processes so close to my own. I felt an immediate bond with Dijanne and, as I read on, a great feeling of recognition and familiarity. As I read the article I was keen to find out more and so immediately went online to check out Dijanne’s blog (


Dijanne travels a lot and always likes to have some stitching work to do while she is on her travels. These are usually small patches which she hand stitches, usually to record her stories and memories of things she has seen or experienced on her journeys. The patches are applied to a background often hand dyed and then quilted with a warm felt batting. The quilting is simple, rows of running stitch or seeding.




When she came across a picture of an African griot, or story-teller, she was impressed by his ragged tattered clothing all covered in patches and she imagined that these patches encapsulated all his stories. Dijanne wrote in her blog: “Griots are the keepers of stories and traditions in societies which retain their cultural memory through oral traditions. His coat is a fascinating array of patches and rough stitches and stitched and twisted ropes. No doubt he carried many charms and amulets as part of the attire”.


She was both inspired by this picture and beset by doubts as to how she could best use the inspiration in her own work:


“I tried looking hard at the griot postcard and seeing what I could see. Obviously the rough stitching attracted me- they are so expressive, and so much the voice of the maker of this coat. It lead me to thinking how do you use stitch and how can you make perfectly ordinary stitches like running stitch be expressive and a mark making tool as hand writing and drawing is? My stitches are always reasonably neat, though big- is the neatness how I mark make? and if it is what does it look like? Does it convey anything other than neatness? Is the expressiveness of stitch determined by rhythm- I certainly can see a rough rhythm in the stitching of the griot’s coat- but it is a syncopated and improvised to suit the need. How do you carry that lesson into your own work and what rhythms lead my hand?”




She found the answer in her traveller’s blankets which beautifully convey her own personal stories. In the rhythm of the stitches, one can hear the rhythm of the story teller’s voice, in the changing colours, we hear its changing tones from quiet passages to exciting ones. In the spacing of the patches and stitching we hear the varying pace of the story.


On studying Dijanne’s work, I became more and more excited as I realised that the kimono that I had made had my own stories, hopes and wishes encapsulated in it and that I too had used stitch in a similar way to Dijanne, to use the rhythms of the stitches to tell my own “ballads, songs and snatches” in the voice of Gilbert and Sullivan’s wand’ring minstrel. Dijanne’s work gave me both an insight into aspects of my own work which until then had been unconscious, and also an hint of the direction in which I might be heading.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Module 2 Chapter 12 Kimono completed!


Something approximating 140 hours in total and at last this huge but immensely enjoyable project is completed.  Apart from the writing up that is.  I have all the information on costing, time taken and so on, which I shall organise and post later, but right now I need a bit of a break!

I cannot believe how much joy this project has given me and I am delighted with the results.  The fact that I have been able to put so much of myself into the project is something that has pleased me very much and a definite sign to myself about the direction in which my work is progressing.  In other courses I’ve done, the projects have really belonged to the tutors but this is definitely my own.  Thank you Sian.  You have given me suggestions, encouragement, advice, criticism, ideas to try (and even a gentle kick up the backside when I needed it!) but without ever taking over my project.  A sign of a really gifted teacher.

I have asked my niece, a professional photographer, to take some really good photos of my kimono, but for the moment, here are my own efforts.


The back of the kimono:

2.12.KB1 overview

In the back and left front of the kimono, I used hand running stitch to secure the patches.  I used vertical stitches on the left front and horizontal stitches on the back.  In order to pursue the idea that Nanki Poo was really a rich, high status young man, who was only pretending to be a poor, ragged minstrel, a few rows of stitching at random are done in pure silk thread  (the rest is cotton).  I used machine stitching to secure the patches on both sleeves as well as on the seminole patchwork block.


2.12.KB2 left sleeve

2.12.KB2 was made by weaving strips of shibori-dyed fabric and commercially dyed dark blue fabric on a base of lightweight iron-on interfacing.  The strips were then secured by stitching lines of zigzag stitching both horizontally and vertically at each side of each strip.


2.12.KB3 detail of left shoulder

The above block (2.12.KB3) was made by ironing random strips of fabric onto lightweight iron-on interfacing.  To secure the strips, vertical rows of machine stitching were done with variegated thread, using a zigzag stitch and altering the stitch width as I sewed.

2.12.KB4 “virtual patches”

2.12.KB4 was made by printing and stitching a rectangle of commercially dyed dark blue cotton to simulate applied patches. 

2.12.KB5 Sashiko

The block in the centre right of 2.12.KB5 is a traditional Sashiko stitch.  It portrays the hemp plant, which is very hardy and grows vigorously.  It is meant to signify a long and healthy life.  It is often put onto children’s garments, in the hope that it will impart the plant’s strength and vigorous growth to the wearer.  I hope it will give me the strength and vigour to get through the other 6 modules in the Certificate!


2.12.KB6 block-printed cotton

During the course of this project, I attended a drawing workshop, where I did a detailed drawing of feathers.  Inspired by this drawing, I made a print block from Fabfoam and used it to print feathers onto plain white cotton.  2.12.KB6 shows the result.

2.12.KB7 Seminole Patchwork

Towards the right of 2.12.KB7, you can see a seminole patchwork block.  In it, long strips of fabric have been stitched together and then cut into strips at an angle before being moved around and stitched back together.  The fabrics are a mixture of block printed fabrics, shibori dyed fabrics and a commercially dyed dark blue.  I wanted a contrast for this block from the horizontal lines of shibori stitches I had used on the rest of the back.  I had a second seminole block which I used to experiment until I found something I liked.  I settled on machine stitched lines of sewing, in a fine, shiny variegated rayon thread, using a narrow zigzag with a longish stitch length, so that the stitching could seem to appear and disappear.  I didn’t want it too dominant, since the sashiko hand stitching on the rest of the back was so bold.

2.12.KB8 More Sashiko

2.12.KB8 shows a Sashiko pattern I made up, again inspired by my feather drawing.  I liked how this stitching turned out and it looked quite light and fluffy, reminding me of down feathers.  Living in the North-East of Scotland and being a cold, shivery creature, warmth and cosiness are important to me, signifying safety and protection and so this is what this Sashiko pattern signifies for me.  I hope that my kimono will give this protection and warmth to the wearer.  Just above and behind the Sashiko block is another piece of block printed cotton, this time a home-made block inspired by the birds’ footprints in the snow around my bird table.


2.12.KB9 back of right sleeve

This is a quieter part, still with random applied blocks, but with less contrast of tone as a rest for the eye from the busy-ness of the rest of the pattern.  Dyed and monoprinted fabrics are used, secured by quietly regular lines of straight machine stitching.


The front of the kimono:

2.12.KF1 overview of kimono front

The left front of the kimono is formed from random patches of fabrics: shibori dyed, monoprinted and block printed.  Vertical rows of hand running stitch secure the patches.  There is quite a bit of contrast within the left front although the overall tone (half closing the eyes) is fairly light.  To add variety, I made the right front darker and quieter, formed from strips of hand and commercially dyed fabrics woven together and secured by machine stitching in the same way as the left sleeve.  There is less contrast between the two fabrics in the right front than in the left sleeve and the resulting squares are smaller in the right front.  I wanted the left sleeve and right front to reflect each other but not be identical (the same but different).  The same is true of the left front and right sleeve.  I hoped thereby to give a rhythm going through the kimono, reflecting the rhythms in the minstrel’s “ballads, songs and snatches”.  I also tried to achieve this rhythm in the placing of the patches on each part of the garment.  I made the collar plain dark blue to be a quieter contrast.


2.12.KF2 front of right sleeve

As can be seen above in 2.12.KF2, the front of the right sleeve is a bit busier and more colourful than the back, while still being light enough to give a contrast in tone with the right front.  Fabrics used are dyed and monoprinted fabrics as well as one piece of Sashiko stitching.  It came from a drawing of the way the feathers sit in layers on top of one another on a bird.  I was able to get a close-up photograph of a swift which had stunned itself by flying into a window.  Just after I took the photograph, it flew off, quite recovered.  To me then, this Sashiko block represents the freedom to fly, to express what is in my nature, without restrictions.


2.12.KF3 detail of left front

2.12.KF3 above and 2.12.KF4 below show some of the patches used in the left front.  Some are shibori-dyed, some printed from home-made print blocks, some are monoprints, one is a print from a real feather, one is a lino-print and one is formed by dipping a feather in white paint (acrylic mixed with fabric medium) and flicking it at random over a piece of dark blue cotton.

2.12.KF4 detail of front


Finally, above, an overview of the kimono, laid out with the back uppermost, to show how the pattern flows from the back to the two fronts.  I was particularly careful to try to balance the pattern when one pattern piece joined another, so as to have the rhythm continue over all parts of the garment.  I am pleased with how it has worked out.


Details of costings, health and safety measures observed, etc., to follow soon, along with more photos.