Things I learned from City & Guilds

In this post I want to talk about some of the things I learned from City & Guilds. I completed the Diploma in Stitched Textiles a bit over a year ago, having previously done the Certificate, both with Stitchbusiness in Durham as a distance learner. Ideally, I’d have liked to do a course that I could attend every week, but there isn’t one anywhere near I live, so distance learning was the only option. However, the way Stitchbusiness organise it, there are distance learner weekends around three times a year, so there is some contact which I valued very much. Fortunately for me, they’re based in the North of England so attending the weekends was quite feasible.City & Guilds

The scope of both the Certificate and Diploma courses is vast; there’s a lot to do and it can seem overwhelming at times. I got through it all by focusing upon only a small part of it at a time, and just not worrying about all the things that remained to be done. Of course, I learned lots of new techniques and ways of doing things, but in this post I thought I’d just talk about what I consider to be the acquisition of really significant skills.

Planning and reconnaissance

An important thing for me was learning to think about, plan and research ideas before ever starting on projects. I think I got better at it with each successive project, but I’m not quite there yet. It’s very tempting when you have an idea (well, it is for me) just to hurl yourself at it, without thinking it through. However, C&G encourages you  to plan and to record the process of planning, to sample extensively and to undertake all necessary research before executing the project. This is a very useful and important discipline and I think it produces better results.

Keeping on keeping on

An inescapable aspect of stitching, especially stitching  by hand, is that it just takes a long time. I spent many hours on some of my C&G projects  and this takes some stamina. To get it finished you just have to stick at it. It’s hard to find sufficient time when you have a job and a busy life, and sometimes the process of completing a project just takes ages. However, if you just keep on doggedly doing as much as you can, even the most complex project gets finished eventually. C&G gives you plenty of practice in persistence.

Appraisal and self-evaluation

C&G encourages you to do an evaluation of the projects that you undertake, and to write about it. I found this a bit of a chore at first, and was inclined to gloss over it as just another bit of admin. However, once I started taking it seriously I realised that it was actually a useful think to do. Self-evaluation also includes the valuable skills of learning from your mistakes and being really critical about what you’ve done. I find it really useful now to think carefully about what I could have done better and to be stern with myself where I’ve taken shortcuts or haven’t finished a piece as well as I might.

Well, those are the three main things that occur to me at the moment. I think the C&G courses have been very valuable for me, and I was sorry in a way to get to the end of them. It’s good to have something structured to work. By the end of the Diploma I felt I’d done enough in this mode of learning, but I certainly enjoyed it while I was doing it.

Building my website: part 2

Quite a while ago I wrote a post about how I built my website. It was rather a labour-intensive and complicated process (easy enough if you know about these things, no doubt, but quite tough for the novice), so I decided to split the post in two. Picking up from where I left off last time: once I’d got my theme installed I was then ready to go…. but soon realised that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. There are various tutorials available online for using WordPress, and there is a vast and helpful community out there willing to help with queries. The problem I had, though, was that my ignorance was so immense that I didn’t know where to start in even framing my questions.

Messing about on YouTube one day I found a video made by a bloke called Bob, based in Seattle, who offers WordPress tutorials on-line. There’s the odd free one, but to really get plugged in to the useful stuff, you have to pay for Bob’s tutorials – and fair enough. (Click on the photo below to get to Bob’s website).Bob WP online

So I took the plunge, and started working through the tutorials, which I must say are excellent. Bob has a nice easy-going style and his explanations are comprehensive and thorough. With this help I was able to make sense of the WordPress dashboard (which is where you set up your design, establish a menu system, install plugins, use widgets and write posts). All this took me some time, but I plodded through it all determined to get it to work. The investment in Bob’s tutorials was well worth the comparatively modest outlay.

So where am I at with all this? You can see the fruits of my labours in the website. It’s not perfect, and I will no doubt make some changes to it over time, but I’m reasonably happy with it at the moment. I feel a sense of achievement in having got this far. Nowadays, if there’s something I don’t understand at least I know enough to be able to frame the query so as to stand a reasonable chance of getting an appropriate answer online from the community.

What I can’t do is alter the code that underlies what you see on the website. The Prose theme using the Genesis framework can be used by an ignoramus like me – I’ve proved it – but for some of the smart stuff you need to understand CSS code. At the moment this is beyond me, but I’m thinking that I’d quite like to do a course on it and really get to grips with this techie stuff. All in good time. For the moment I’m just happy with what I’ve got.

Would I recommend making a website this way? Well, I think you do need to be fairly computer-literate to start with, and willing to engage with some technicalities that may seem daunting at first. There is a significant pay-off, though, in doing it this way: I don’t need to rely on anyone else to update my website content. If I want to insert a new page, change the menu, add a gallery or update pages I can do it all myself. For me, this independence is worth the considerable investment in time.

A glimpse of Living Colour: Madder and Friends

Here’s a detail photo of my textile piece, Madder and Friends, that was accepted for the Living Colour touring exhibition:Detail of Living Colour textile

The Living Colour blog is being updated every other day to include a glimpse of one of the 32 exhibits. Mine appeared earlier in the week.

As you can see from the photo this is a very simple construction. I’m a stitcher rather than a quilter (although I would like to get much better at quilting) so there is no clever piecing involved here. I started making this in the summer of 2013 and it took me around 6 months, working at it on and off. One of my intentions in this piece was to demonstrate how harmoniously these natural colours work together – hence the title ‘Madder and Friends’.

These started off as 7cm squares, including a seam allowance of 1cm. Each square that you see in the finished piece therefore measures 5cm. A strict stipulation for entry was that the finished piece should measure 100cm x 40cm. This means that this work comprises 20 x 8 squares – 160 squares in all. I took squares in progress with me wherever I went – some of these were stitched on long train journeys. Because they are so small they were very easily portable. I used a lightweight calico backing which was very useful in providing some body for the lighter weight fabrics, especially the habotai silk. I used a range of different stitching designs – no two squares are alike – but I tried to bear in mind the organiser’s requirement that this work should reflect both ‘Living’ and ‘Colour’ – I have tried to suggest life and movement in the stitching.

Although I was very careful about cutting the squares and piecing them, I was a bit anxious about meeting the dimensions requirement; there was an allowance of + or – 1cm which is not much. However, the end product was pretty much spot on. To get the cutting right I had to buying a quilter’s ruler showing centimetres rather than inches. It seems that most of the rulers available are in inches, which no doubt reflects the US influence in quilting. Fortunately, because I’m old enough to remember using what we quaintly referred to as ‘Imperial’ measurements I’m happy to use either centimetres or inches.

I’m enjoying keeping up to date with the Living Colour blog. The latest work to feature on it is by Di Flint, of Australia, and it looks lovely. Do have a look…

PS – Mordanting

I forgot to mention in last week’s post about mordanting that there is an exception to the rule that fabrics must be mordanted before natural dyeing can be successful. Natural dyes - indigoThat exception is indigo, for which the whole dyeing process is also somewhat different from that used for other natural dyes. You can skip the mordanting process when dyeing with indigo – you just put the unmordanted fabric straight into the dye bath. I’m still on holiday in the South of France at the moment, but one of the things on my ‘to do’ list for when I get back is some more indigo dyeing. I have a quilting project in mind that will use some natuarally-dyed blues and purples, so I intend to build up some stocks. More about this, no doubt, in a future post.

The picture in this post shows just a few of the wonderful shades that can be achieved with indigo dyeing.

Mobius strip problem

How can you have a Mobius strip problem with your knitting? Well, gather round and I’ll explain… At the K&S show at Alexandra Palace I bought a couple of hanks of a very beautiful yarn called ‘Manos del Uruguay Lace‘. It’s expensive, but lovely, made of silk, baby alpaca and cashmere, and I started to make a very complicated, lacy, cowl on a fine circular needle. It has 240 stitches, and you have to cast on exactly the right number or the pattern doesn’t work…. as I discovered when I realised too late that I’d cast on 242 stitches. I’m a patient soul, so I unravelled it and started again. This time I had the correct number of stitches, and I got as far as line 15 in the 20-line pattern, concentrating very hard. It wasn’t till I picked it up this morning, though, that I realised I had a Mobius strip issue with it. Because it’s knitted on a circular needle, you have to make sure that the knitting goes around in an even circle and is not twisted. Mine, however, did not – I’d made an error right back at the beginning when I started knitting row 1 and it has a twist in it as in the illustration here.Mobius strip

I gnashed my teeth and cursed a bit, but there’s nothing to do except pull it out and start again. Which is what I’ve done. Maybe third time lucky?

PS I’m using colour 7310 Orla. If I ever get this finished I’ll take a photo of it and write a smug post about it. But this won’t be for a good long while.

Mordanting – the boring bit

Mordanting is the crucial first step before dyeing fabric using the natural dyes I’ve described in earlier posts. And it really is a bit tedious, especially at first when you have to curb your impatience and go through the mordanting process in order to get onto the magical process of dyeing. But it really is crucial; if you don’t mordant the fabric first, it won’t take the dye (I’ve tried dyeing unmordanted fabric and it’s not worth the effort). I have one book about dyeing that I refer to constantly: ‘Wild Colour’ by Jenny Dean. Jenny Dean - Wild ColourShe describes a mordant as follows: “A mordant is a substance that has an affinity with both the materials to be dyed and the natural plant dyestuff. Acting as a bond between the two, a mordant helps the dye to become permanently fixed to the fibres”.

There are several substances that are used for mordanting, but, just to complicate matters, the substance you use depends upon the nature of the fibres you want to dye. Animal fibres (wool and silk) can be mordanted with alum. It’s fairly safe, provided you don’t swallow it, and it can be obtained readily. I follow Jenny Dean’s recipe which involves heating up water and adding a solution of both alum and cream of tartar. Once the substances are thoroughly mixed with the water, you can add the fibres. Because it’s not a good idea to heat wool or silk for any length of time, I bring the mixture to the boil, gently stirring the fibres around to make sure the mordant is fully absorbed, and then turn off the heat and leave the pot for a minimum of 24 hours. Then I rinse everything out and hang the fibres out to dry. Really, it’s just not that difficult, and it consumes very little time. An alternative to alum is to use oxalic acid as a mordant for animal fibres; oxalic acid is obtained by boiling up rhubarb leaves. Now this really is poisonous, so you have to be quite careful about using it. As we have rhubarb in the garden I tried this method in the summer, and found that it produced an unexpectedly vivid yellow ochre colour, just by mordanting. I like this so much I kept some of it for use and you can see a bit of it in my latest Paul Klee-inspired work (see previous post on 30th January).

For mordanting cotton and linen (plant-based fibres) the process is similar, but the mordanting substances are different. You can use tannin – I have some extract of tannin but haven’t yet tried it. Or you can use aluminium acetate, which is what I’ve used so far for plant-based fibres.

I use silk, wool, cotton and linen in my stitching work, so I make sure that I keep supplies of all of these, mordanted and labelled so I don’t lose track of where I am. In another post I’ll write about my record-keeping for dyeing. I’m fairly systematic, and I like keeping a detailed record of what I’ve done. But more about that another time….

PS: Usually when I mention a book, I provide a link to the Amazon page so that you can get some idea of the price of the book, its availability and reviews. (I’m not advocating actually buying it from Amazon, you understand. Lots of people disapprove of Amazon because of e.g.  its tax avoidance practices and its dominance in the market and I respect those views.) However, when I look up the Wild Colour book, I see that there is one new copy for sale for a staggering £185. I assume, therefore, that it is out of print at the moment. So I haven’t provided the link this time, but if you go to Amazon you’ll find seven 5-star reviews of the book. If you want it, you may be able to find a second hand copy, or if you have a public library service where you live, you might be able to get it that way. I think it’s definitely worth a look. I have used it extensively, and would happily give it 5 stars.


An update on “Time”: Living Colour

I’ve been travelling for the last few days and haven’t had access to anything other than my iPhone. A few days without a computer is a blessing rather than a curse, but it did mean that I wrote today’s post (‘Time’) in the middle of last week before I left, and scheduled it for publication today. In that post I was in a rather sombre frame of mind, I guess, wondering why I spend quite so much time doing things like stitching.

Well, just as I was about to set out on my journey on Thursday morning, I did a final check on my email and was thrilled to ribbons to find one from Brenda Gael Smith who is curating the Living Colour touring textile exhibition.

Living Colour 2014

Brenda congratulated me on the selection of my textile work for this exhibition – one of 32 entries selected from a total of 177. I haven’t previously mentioned on this blog that I put in an entry for Living Colour in the middle of last month. I’ve never done anything like this before, and I’ve not had any work exhibited previously. So I’m sure you can understand why I might be so pleased.

Being due to leave the UK for several weeks, I had to put on a turn of speed to get the work despatched to Brenda. This necessitated a detour from the M6 Southbound, to buy a padded envelope of appropriate dimensions at Staples, packing the work up in the hotel on Thursday evening and then a rapid trip to the post office on Friday morning. However, it all worked out without mishap, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it arrives safely in Australia within the next couple of days.

So what’s it like, this great work?  I don’t have a photograph of it to hand (I’m not writing this on my own computer with all my stored pictures), but Brenda is publishing previews of the selected pieces of work in the period before the exhibition opens, and there will be images of all the works on the Living Colour website before too long (click on the link or on the Living Colour logo above). A brief description of my work: it’s 100cm x 40cm (which are the prescribed dimensions) and it’s constructed out of squares of my naturally-dyed fabric. There are 160 squares in the piece, all of which I have embroidered. It took ages, and I’ve been busy on it for months. The title of the piece is ‘Madder and friends’ and it demonstrates how easily and well naturally-dyed colours go together. The predominant hues are variations on the reds/browns/pinks that you can derive from madder, but there are also some squares dyed in logwood and goldenrod (the ‘friends’) to provide contrast.

The acceptance of my piece into this exhibition does make me feel that all the time I’ve spent on stitching, especially over the last few years, has not been wasted. In any case, as I said in my post earlier today, I’m going to carry on regardless but it’s just really nice to have some external validation and recognition.


I’ve been thinking about the time I spend doing things like stitching, writing this blog, looking at art, reading other peoples’ blogs, drawing, painting, going on courses, trying to improve at what I do. It’s a whole lot of time, although in most weeks I don’t spend as much time as I’d like in doing these things. Sometimes I wonder about the value and the point of it all. I’ve got shelves full of sample books, portfolios full of drawings, sketchbooks, drawers full of materials and so on – probably like most of you who spend your time doing these things. Why do we do it at all? In former times, ladies of leisure spent their time doing what is referred to as ‘work’ in Jane Austen novels – i.e. producing vast amounts of embroidery of, presumably, rather variable quality. When I’m busy working at the day job I sometimes think how nice it would be to be required to do no more than sit about producing dainty embroidery…. but the grass is always greener on the other side. In Jane Austen novels none of the women takes the business of embroidery seriously because they’re mostly engaged in the really serious business of getting a husband and thus securing their economic future. So, on the whole, I’d rather be me, plugging away at the job, earning my own cash, and being independent.

But it’s difficult to strike an appropriate balance between work and the other things in life. And why am I spending my limited resources of time and cash on something that, to the outsider, might look OK but would be widely regarded as useless? I’m not being negative about this; I’m going to carry on stitching etc with serious intent. I just wonder, that’s all….

More about colour, especially chromatic greys

In my post earlier this week I was talking about greyscales in the context of learning more about colour. For some time now I’ve been very taken with the chromatic grey range of colours. One of my first Pinterest boards was on the theme of chromatic grey, and I’ve really loved looking for examples of it. ‘Chroma’ means colour or hue, and I’ve come to realise that greys are very rarely neutral. They usually contain colour in greater or lesser saturation, and sometimes their true nature doesn’t emerge until you put them with other greys. The nature of chromatic greys was brought home to me by my experience of doing a sample based on the work of Chuck Close, the American artist. I picked most of the greys out of my stranded cotton selection, with a view to producing a very understated and subtle combination of colours. But as shown in the photo of the finished sample below, it actually turned out to be a riot of colour, relatively speaking: Cross Stitch sample inspired by Chuck Close Below is a close up of the sample showing the (small) size of the stitching:Cross stitch sample - close up One of the things that struck me forcibly when I was working this sample was just how much your eyesight gets compromised once you get to a certain age. I enjoyed this piece very much and I like the effect, but it was tough going. Following this experience I gave in to advancing years and bought a magnifying light. This is quite a costly option (although a good deal cheaper than getting new glasses) but it’s proven to be worth every penny. Anyway, getting back to the issue of chromatic greys… most of the several colours I used in this sample looked grey when seen in isolation. It’s when you put them together that their colour character really starts to emerge. It’s such an interesting process….. and I’m hoping that working on the Hornung book (see the post earlier this week) will help me to understand these colour relationships a little better.

Learning about colour

Last time I was at Tate Modern I bought a book by David Hornung: ‘Colour’.David Hornung - Colour

Here’s the front cover of the US edition – the UK front cover is identical except for spelling ‘Colour’ differently. As the description implies, this is a practical workbook about colour. I find that using colour is one of the most challenging aspects of putting a design together. I tend to use trial and error, for example, when selecting thread colours, but I’ve often thought I would like to understand it better. This book looks quite impressive on a quick read-through, so I decided I’d have a go at the many exercises in it.

David Hornung recommends using gouache for the exercises, and helpfully provides a full list of recommended colours in different brands. The one that seems mostly widely available in the UK is Winsor and Newton, and I already had a few of these. So I ordered the missing colours, some smooth-ish watercolour paper and got cracking. The first thing I tried to do was to mix a supply of warm grey and cool grey using Ultramarine and Sepia – more of the former for cool grey, more of the latter for warm grey. Then, in theory if you mix equal amounts of the warm and cold greys you should get a neutral mid-tone grey with no particular colour tendency. Well, that’s what should happen. I found even mixing these greys surprisingly difficult.

The next step was to mix the greys with white in varying quantities to create a greyscale. I knew because I’ve tried this before, that it’s very difficult indeed. I had two separate attempts at the exercise and wasn’t happy with either version. I think part of the trouble is learning how to handle the gouache. Getting a smooth, thin, even coverage of the colour is by no means straightforward. Below is one of the attempts at greyscale: Attempt at greyscale

On the RHS is the cold greyscale, with the warm greyscale in the middle and the neutral one off to the left. Not very impressive is it? The cold grey is too blue, and the gradations from light to dark are pretty unconvincing. Oh well, perhaps I’ll have another go. For the moment I’ve moved on to the first proper exercise, and I’ll report back on that as soon as I’ve finished it.