Here’s a tiny ‘doll’s house sized’ sampler that I made for a friend of mine, for her birthday. It’s not that clear from the photo how small it is – it’s about two and a half inches across. I stitched it with one strand of Anchor stranded cotton, on 32 count evenweave fabric. The phrase ‘Tot de Ene’ is in Dutch (because my friend is Dutch!), and it means ‘Towards the One’. She is a Universal Sufi (same as me), and on this spiritual path, we often say this phrase, as it’s the beginning of the Sufi Invocation:
Towards the One,
the perfection of love, harmony and beauty,
the only Being,
united with all the illuminated souls
who form the embodiment of the Master,
the Spirit of guidance.
The heart with wings is a Sufi symbol which signifies the idea that when the heart is responsive to the light of Sacred Unity / the Divine / God, it is liberated.
A few years ago, I used to attend a Unitarian Chapel near where I live. For a couple of years, I got really ‘into’ the Chapel, and got involved in various groups, Committees, and so on. The Chapel was in a modern building, and looked quite bare inside – quite like a classroom, really – with chairs in rows rather than pews, and only a couple of framed prints on the walls.
So, I volunteered to make an embroidered wallhanging for the Chapel. I discussed what might be suitable with the Minister, then searched online for a suitable piece of text.
Unitarians are not just Christians who don’t believe in the Trinity, these days – Unitariansim has broadened out during the past fifty or so years to include people ‘of all faiths and none’, as the blurb on the leaflets goes, so I had a very wide range of texts to choose from for the wallhanging. I settled on part of a piece of poetry from a Buddhist monk and philosopher called Dogen Zenji, who lived from 1200 to 1251. It seemed to exemplify what Unitarians of all types believe:
Do not listen to the ideas of others, but learn to listen to the voice within yourself.
It seemed ideal.
So, I went shopping for some linen for the embroidery, and some apple green velvet for the backing fabric. I raided my (huge!!) stash of Appleton’s crewel wool and Anchor stranded cotton for the threads to stitch the wallhanging with, and then set to working out the design.
I wanted the piece to have a kind of Jacobean feel – like Tree of Life wallhangings from country houses, only more delicate. I wanted it to be interesting to stitch, as I knew it would take a long time and I didn’t want to be bored to death stitching it, but it also needed to have impact from a distance, so the blocks of colour needed to be quite bold.
I worked the lettering first, as I wasn’t sure if the technique I had chosen would work, so if it was going to fail, I wanted to know that before spending weeks on doing all the rest of the embroidery! I used a padding technique described in Susan O’Connor’s wonderful book ‘Monograms – the Art of Embroidered Letters’ (which, annoyingly, was only in print for about 18 months, and is now hard to find, but if you get the chance, then buy it, as it’s great). The technique involved working a split stitch outline first around the letter, then working loose stem stitches in rows thickly all over the inner area, at right angles to the direction that the final close satin stitches would be placed. I used two strands of Anchor stranded cotton for the lettering, and each letter took about an hour.
The floral swags above and below the lettering were great fun to do. I only vaguely planned the colour scheme before I started stitching, so I surrounded myself with embroidery stitch manuals as I worked, choosing different stitches all the time.
When the stitching was finished, I pressed it gently on the reverse side, over a thickly padded ironing board, then attached the embroidered piece to the green velvet. I made tabs to hang the wallhanging from, so that a wooden pole could be slotted through later.
The whole piece took about a year to do.
But here’s the problem: six months after I gave the piece to the Chapel, I stopped attending services there, as I felt that, spiritually, I had outgrown Unitarianism, and, due also to other issues around the Chapel, felt I needed to move on. But the wallhanging stayed there. Part of me wanted to take the wallhanging back (as my leaving wasn’t done under the most pleasant of circumstances), but I knew I’d given it willingly at the time, so it seemed unfair to demand it back. I just hope that the people who may see it, get something out of it. Recently, I’ve heard that the Chapel may close, as the congregation has dropped to less than ten, and the Minister has moved on with no permanent replacement in sight.
I’ve ‘lost’ embroideries of mine before, for various reasons, and each time it hurts! I think this may be a lesson in trying to not be attached to things, but it’s not easy!
A couple of weeks ago, I went to Sacred Arts Dance Camp in Oxfordshire. 300 people camping in a field, cooking over open fires (great when it’s sunny – not so much fun when it’s raining 🙂 ). For about five hours each day, on and off, we did Dances of Universal Peace in a Big Top, which was wonderful. Other things like crafts, yoga, circle dancing, taize singing, etc., were also going on throughout the week.
Many people who do the Dances are Sufi, although you don’t have to be. I am, so when I see something that links Sufism with embroidery, I am bound to be interested!
On the Wednesday, there was a craft market, and someone there was selling embroidered bracelets/cuffs with the Sufi emblem of a heart with wings beaded on them. I thought they were great, but they were about two inches wide, and too ‘chunky’ for my slim wrist. So, when I got home, I decided to embroider my own version, on a daintier scale.
I first drew out the motif I wanted, to fit a one inch wide band. I selected some materials – some cream close-woven cotton fabric, some Anchor threads, thin gold Ophir thread, and some tiny red and gold beads. And a lovely piece of red metallic kid leather that I’ve been hoarding, waiting for the right project to present itself. In the end, I didn’t use the beads or one of the thread colours.
I transferred the design from my pencil drawing to the fabric by tracing the design onto thin tissue paper, then placing it on the fabric and stitching through it onto the fabric with small running stitches with sewing cotton, then tearing off the paper.
For the central heart motif, I cut a tiny heart shape out of red felt, and a larger one out of the red kid leather. I stab-stitched the felt heart on, then did the same with the leather, to make a smooth padded shape.
Then I worked lazy daisy stitches with the gold thread, starting at the outer edge of the wing and working towards the centre. I did these freehand, and one side has more ‘feathers’ than the other, but never mind! Then I worked a second row, finishing with a third row just of satin stitches. At that point, it looked finished, so I didn’t bother adding beads, etc., as I’d originally planned to.
I backed the embroidery with a piece of the same cotton fabric, stitching it into a tube and turning it, before adding two tiny press studs for a closure.
The finished bracelet will hopefully look good with a red and gold salwar kameez that I’ve got, at the next Dance Day that I go to.
I’ve spent a good few days thinking about the design for the front flap of the envelope folder that I’m going to embroider. I want it eventually to be quite heavily covered in stitches, so I’ve got to make sure that the fabric’s foundation is strong enough to take dense stitching.
I’m using my favourite method for transferring the design onto the fabric, which, fortunately, will help to strengthen the Dupion silk fabric at the same time – I made a tracing of the design, then used a light box to re-trace from the paper tracing onto cotton batiste, turning the tracing paper over first to reverse the pattern. Then, I placed the cotton fabric on the back of the blue silk, stretching both into my hoop at the same time.
Now I’ve got a good few hours of work to do, going over the pencilled lines on the cotton fabric with tiny running stitches, to get the design to show on the *front*. It’s time-consuming, but actually quite a nice part of the project – while I’m slowly doing all this transferring of the design, I can really ‘get into’ the design itself, and plan exactly which stitches I’m going to use for each part. I could do all the running stitches in one colour of sewing cotton, but I make it more interesting by choosing sewing cottons which match, as closely as possible, the embroidery thread shades that I’ll later stitch with.
Maybe I’ll unpick each length of cotton as I go (usually I do anyway), but if the odd piece gets left in, then it won’t show much if the shades are similar. Anyway, it makes the design tracing stage more fun.