15th June 2020: Some thinking about making and drawing

It has been a few weeks since I last wrote in my journal. I have been doing some drawing and some embroidery, but I have been quite restricted by the pain in my back – I cannot seem to find a comfortable working position at home, all the furniture is the wrong height to do anything for very long and I cannot switch between tasks due to lack of space – I miss the studio!

Anyway, I need to reflect on what I have managed to do. Firstly, I have been drawing almost exclusively on my iPad. I’ve noted before that, although the surface is uniform (stylus on glass), I’ve found the cleanness of line I’ve been able to achieve with it, and having control over things such as smoothing and snapping, to be incredibly effective for making embroidery designs. I have spoken before about my drawing process being one of layering, retracing and refining shapes – taking a photo or rough sketch and redrawing it over and over to create a design to transfer onto cloth. Working with the iPad make this layering and redrawing process much easier. I like the portability of it (Not having to print out photos to work with or having to carry multiple paper types, drawing mediums etc), the fact I can zoom in and out (making it far easier to put in fine detail) and that I can record my screen as I draw (I have been able to capture the whole drawing process from start to finish). It also seems to have bypassed my ‘fear’ of the blank page. My drawing has always been quite tentative – it takes me a long time to even put pen to paper and I have always had this fear of making a ‘bad drawing’ – there is something in me that always wants perfection and this can often be stifling, it is possibly why I prefer stitch as a medium as I can unpick anything I am not happy with. The iPad seems to have sidestepped this ‘fear’ of blank pages, I am not afraid of making mistakes on it because I can undo or adjust or perhaps there is something in the knowledge that it is not a ‘physical’ thing… it is quite hard to articulate it, but the result is I suddenly find myself drawing a lot more. And there is the fact that I can potentially print off multiple copies and change the scale easily.

This got me thinking about the Blackwork motifs – the designs drawn onto the cloth – about the stylised natural forms and the probable use of pattern books. I’m thinking about my drawing process as one of transforming life drawings and photographs in the stylised designed for stitching, about how my process (aided by modern tools) compares to the historical one, I realise I need more research into this as I’ve read contradictory things about the designing and transferring of designs for embroidery in the 16th/17th century – while there is evidence for the use of pattern books and the employment of artists to transfer designs onto cloth ready for stitching, I have also read that creating designs for embroidery was done by the embroiderers themselves.

What I can say for certain is that I am the creative agent in the entire process of producing an embroidery – from gathering the original references (life drawings and/or photographs), drawing and developing the designs, transferring to cloth and stitching.

I have been attempting to ‘stylise’ the cherry blossom form into something more like the formal abstraction of the earlier Blackwork motifs, but I found myself always drifting towards a more naturalistic style – maybe this is something I cannot escape, as my own contemporary Blackwork practice leans more towards naturalism. But I wonder if it is even worth while trying to replicate the historical stylisations in my designs? I do not actually think so, I am not really trying to recreate Tudor designs – I have access to a large range of original design motifs to draw on should I wish to.

iPad drawing: cherry blossom forms as design motif and a stylised rendering of a photo trace

But I think this notion of stitching being a separate process to the design might be an interesting one. I have already had the idea of collectively restitching an original motif, but I think there might be a contemporary response here as well. What about asking other artists to design a motif for me to embroider? Making a collaborative work, trying to capture something of the relationship between the designer/drawer and the embroidery?

The other drawing I have been doing on my iPad is a trace diagram of a coif (T12-1948). Using the best photograph I have and scaling it up to 1:1, I am attempting to trace the stitches. My first thought in doing this was that I could use this as a transfer for making a full reconstructed copy in embroidery. I stitched some of the pattern right back at the beginning of my research and noted the pattern scale was wrong.

First experiments in copying stitch scale (December 2018)

By doing a one-to-one trace drawing, I can see the stitch scale more easily and match the materials (simply a case of noting the stitch length and scale). But I have also noticed a couple of things in the making of this trace drawing. The first is the sheer amount of time it is taking, being roughly 25 x 40 cm overall with pattern stitches of a few millimetres, drawing each stitch is taking some time and has been hugely helped by the ability to zoom in and out. I think this drawing at one-to-one scale would have been incredibly difficult to execute on paper (though it might be worth trying it) and the use of digital tools is proving to be invaluable. The second point to note is some of my uncertainty about this drawing and what I am trying to capture. I have drawn the motif outlines in different weights of line, one denoting the braid stitch tendrils and the other the stem stitch outlines of the flowers, leaves and insects – but I have not drawn each individual stitch, just the path of the motif – indeed, I have drawn them as continuous lines ignoring any decayed areas and joining the holes, and I have used regular line weights, not the variable width of the stitching. I think what I had in mind here was that I was trying to follow the motif as it would have been drawn onto the cloth and so use it as a transfer. But now I am drawing in the patterns, I am following the irregularities of the stitches and I am a little undecided as to how to show the areas of stitch decay – do I fill them in? Mark the holes? I have tried a couple of different things including filling in the decay area in a different colour. But I need to decide what the purpose of this drawing is. I do not think I am trying to capture the embroidery as it is (this can be done far more efficiently with photography). So perhaps I am treating it as a diagram in the knowledge that are perfect replica will never be possible, even if I were able to perfectly match the threads and cloth weave scale, the slight differences in the weave would inevitably give a slightly different pattern fill.

The final thing to note about this is the quality of the photos I am working from. I’m using a full photograph as the basis for my drawing, but I am referring to close-ups to see the stitch detail. This is saying something about the quality of recordings and access (though I need to think it through some more), especially considering being told this week I may not get back into the archive until March 2021!

Making an trace drawing On the iPad (close up) T.12-1948
Making an trace drawing On the iPad T.12-1948
Trace drawing on the iPad – motif and pattern layers

The other thing I have been doing this last two weeks is making material samples with different combinations of cloth, thread and needle. Attempting to be systematic about this, I have noticed how these materials behave when they combine, and I am noting my reflections in handwritten notes in my sketchbook). I have noticed that’s slight mismatches, such as thick of threads on fine weaves at small-scale stitch lengths, make the process of stitching much more difficult – the needle needing more force as the stitches build up, the threads being more prone to knotting and fraying. It’s almost like the materials are fighting and you have to force them to behave as you wish, and I’m reminded of Ingold ideas around the materials and tools being ‘agents’ (wrong words) in the process of making. I have also noticed that these mismatches (together with a very close looking I’ve been doing in the trace drawing) might in some way reveal something about the texture of the original Blackwork – The linen weave is often much finer than the threads, so perhaps the ‘rounded‘ stitches and slight mistakes in the pattern might be a result of this?

The other thing I have been considering while stitching these material samples and making the trace drawing is that embroidery, even county thread, it is not a regular exact pattern, it is a gesture following a pattern but adjusted to respond to the behaviour of the materials. The artistry of embroidery lies in the skilled perception of the embroiderer to the materials in creating the motif. And I do not think this can be coded. So, how am I going to use the digital? As an abstraction? Recognising that, although the Blackwork embroidery is organic, there still might be something to be gleaned from thinking of the patterns and stitch path as mathematical/geometric forms (frictionless balls in a vacuum! Hahaha!!) or using digital tools to record and present the handmade process (much like the iPad drawing recordings) or even purposely making something digitally handmade that interacts.

Blackwork embroidery material and scale tests

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