Beginnings

In the previous post, I talked about the materials and equipment I use in creating slow stitched pieces. Today, in the third post in this series, I’m going to get into the detail of how to take those materials and actually get started on a new piece.

A painter might start with a blank canvas, a writer with a blank page, we have a plain piece of cloth. The possibilities are endless, which can feel scary.

How do you decide what to put on that cloth? How do you decide how to begin?

I’m going to show you a variety of ways, I’ve found, that makes it possible to overcome the fear of the blank cloth and take you forward. 

Just before we get into those details, I do want to take a moment to talk about the value of preparation. I acknowledge that for many people, preliminary sketches and test pieces are important. A great many expert textile artists work in this way. If this is a process that feels right and which works for you, then obviously you should use it. There are no right or wrongs here, go with what your gut instinct tells you.

For me however, preliminary planning has always had the effect of sucking every last iota of joy from an initial idea and left me producing something which is mockingly unlike the mental concept with which I began. I no longer worry at all about preparatory stages, instead, I’ve found a number of ways that lead me into creating a new piece that make me excited and eager. If you have had similar issues with planning, perhaps my approach could work for you.

Let’s see.

1. How big? Defining your blank page.

The first question I ask myself is how big do I want a piece to be when it’s finished and what shape? To be honest, this isn’t how I used to start, in the early days I just took whatever piece of base fabric I had and got on with it. But, I discovered that this could end up being a problem later in the process. 

What would happen was that I would make a piece, often stitching right up to the edges and then, once it was finished, I really struggled to mount it for showing. The problem was not being able to find a canvas or frame the same size, and/or not having enough material around the edges to stretch over the mount canvas.

Now, if you have no intention of showing your work, or if you are going to use it as a fabric to incorporate into something else, this won’t worry you. But if you think you might want to put your work on a wall, take this tip and decide to work to a standard canvas size. If you’re not sure about sizes, a quick look online at any art supplier, will show you the range of canvases available. By the way, I always buy cheap ones because they’re going to be hidden by the finished fabric and I don’t need them to be suitable for painting.

I will lay out my base fabric on the kitchen table and use a painting canvas of the size I’ve chosen as a template to lightly mark round on the base fabric. This will form the outer edges of my design.

At this stage then, you have a base fabric, with an outline of the outer edges. This is your blank page.

2. Way to begin #1 – Make some lines.

This is the first method I ever used to start an intuitively stitched piece. In fact, I used this back in the days when I was working solely or mainly in needlepoint.

All I would do would be to take a pastel chalk (anything really that you can brush off if you don’t like the result) and draw, usually quite quickly, a line from one side of the canvas to another. Always a curvy line, but that’s just me, you could draw any line.

Then I would stand back and look at that line.

Next, I would let my imagination think about where another line might go in relation to the first line. Would it cross it? Where? Would it mirror the first line, or be totally different? Then I would put the chalk on the canvas and draw another line.

I would repeat this process, looking each time at the lines already on the canvas and then adding another line. I would probably start with three or four lines. 

The result is that you have created spaces defined by lines. 

Once you have these lines and spaces, your next step is to think about what you will use to mark those lines in stitch and what you might do with the spaces. Will you fill them? How? Will you leave some empty? What colours will the lines and the spaces be? Do you want to put anything else in the spaces? Do you want to add more lines, either in one area or across a larger part?

Do you see how from a blank page, you now have something to work on? You now have something for your intuition to think about. You didn’t start knowing where you were going, you still don’t know what it will look like eventually, but you have begun and as you work, more will reveal itself to you.

3. Way to begin #2 – Choose Your Colours

If you know me in the flesh, you’ll know that I am usually dressed in jeans and a jumper. My wardrobe consists of mostly navy blue or grey clothes and white T-shirts. But when I work, I like to use colour, lots of it, and the shinier the better. 

So, one of the ways I like to begin a new piece is by choosing a colour or a group of colours to work in.

Most of us have favourite colours, although as I’ve just suggested, the ones you wear, aren’t necessarily a guide to the ones you want to stitch with. I would never dream of wearing green clothes, or gold or orange or red, but I regularly use these as the basis for a fabric piece. So, to begin, close your eyes and dream about your favourite colours. What comes to you?

Another way I like to approach this, is to think about the colours I see around me. I’m sure greens come up so often because I walk in the countryside every day, watching as the seasons change and as plants grow in the hedgerow. If you have flowers in your garden, what colours are they?

Another source of inspiration for me is the colours I see in my favourite stained glass windows. I particularly love the work of Tom Denny and find that the colour palettes he uses in stained glass, inspire me too. 

Perhaps when you read a glossy magazine, you are attracted to certain colours or their combinations? I sometimes rip pictures out of old magazines if they have colour combinations I like and want to remember. 

These are my colour inspirations, but you will have your own. Give yourself a little time to think about the colours you like and also perhaps the ones you don’t like. 

I amass my stash of fabrics and threads knowing now which colours are most likely to come up in my work. That’s why I suggested in the second post about materials, that you choose fabrics and threads in colours you like, rather than randomly. 

When I use colour as a starting point, I usually have a strong feeling for a particular colour or palette (combination of colours) before I get to the kitchen table. I find that I sometimes dream of certain colours, or quite often when I’m coming towards the end of working on a piece, I’ll have a strong urge to make the next piece in a particular colour. I’m not at all sure how this happens, but it frequently does. It may be the same for you.

So, if colour is taking the lead, I will once again begin with my outer edge marked on the canvas in a chalk pencil. Then, I will go to my stash of fabrics and threads and carefully choose from the stash any fabrics or threads in the colours I want to work in. I then put these on the table and put the rest of the stash away. 

Next, I will go through the chosen fabrics and lay them on the table, layering different pieces against others, playing around to see which ones work together for me and which ones don’t. I start with the fabrics, but you could begin with threads if they inspire you more.

Sometimes it helps to find contrasting colours and lay those over your chosen shades to see what effect they produce.

My advice, especially if you have a large stash of fabrics, is not to try to use too many in one piece. The temptation is sometimes there to include everything, but this rarely looks as good as if you keep it under control. Less may be more, as they say.

Play with the fabrics until you’re really happy that you have combinations that work for you. Take your time, this is meant to be enjoyable. I’ve spent hours doing this over the years. What fascinates me is that I will often go back to the same fabrics, but each time find a new combination that I want to work with.

I usually use fabrics rather than threads to begin this process, but occasionally I have worked exclusively in coloured threads. If using threads, I would first choose the colours, then draw lines as described above in 1. Lines. Then proceed to stitch with the threads I’d chosen, using threads in those colours to fill in the spaces.

More often, I will go from choosing the colours to working out a design using my next suggested start point – shapes.

4. Way to begin #3 – Shapes.

In that oddly synchronistic way that sometimes happens, just as I was trying to think about how to put this process into words, I chanced to see a post from an artist who I find enormously influential, Cat Bennett, describing a technique that she uses, and it so completely explained Shapes, that I’m going to repeat it here. 

Cat Bennett suggests an art practice where you take paper and carefully paint it in solid colours. When it is dry, you take the coloured paper and cut it into pieces. Then, take another sheet of paper and lay out your coloured pieces in any way that you like. As simple as that. Just play at arranging them. Try out lots of different ways. Eventually, if you want, stick the pieces down and you will have made a simple collage.

To all intents and purposes, this is what I do, except that instead of painted paper, I use scraps of fabric. 

Once I have selected the colours I’m going to include, I cut the fabrics into pieces, then I lay them onto the base fabric, trying out different positions until I find a layout that feels right. In Cat’s example on her website, she is using simple squares and rectangles, and again, sometimes that’s exactly what I do, although perhaps more often, I cut out curvy pieces, leaf shapes and circles.

These are the shapes that seem to come up in my imagination, but there’s no reason for them to be this way and if you try yourself, do whatever feels right to you.

Many of the recycled sari silks that I use are printed with designs, and I find that sometimes these are easy to combine, but at other times they just don’t sit well together. When you choose fabrics for your stash, don’t worry too much about prints, but try to have enough plain colours to balance the prints – unless of course, you find the mix of many prints exciting! 

Once you have arranged your pieces of fabric into a pattern that you’re happy with, carefully pin the pieces to the base fabric. I do sometimes use a little dab of fabric glue instead of pins, but beware that the glue will sometimes leave a permanent mark on the fabric, and also, I’ve found that it won’t stick all fabrics. So, if in doubt, use pins.

There is one other way to begin that I have used on occasions, which is linked to ’Shapes’ and that is A Painted Background.

5. Way to Begin #4 – A Painted Background.

Although I am most at home in stitch, I do, every so often, play with paint. There’s sometimes an urge to splurge the paint, to get a brush, or fingers or pencils and spread paint onto paper (or actually, as I don’t really like working on paper, onto canvas or board. 

Almost without exception, what results is a brown blur, but never mind that. I have a theory that working in slow processes occasionally leaves us with an excess of ideas, however poorly formed, that need to come out, choosing to use a method that gives quick results, helps stop the pot from boiling over.

Why am I telling you this? Well, there have been a few times when I have decided to paint the base fabric rather than do a collage or start with lines. I have acquired several different types of paint over the years of occasional splurging, and I’ve found that diluted acrylics or fabric paints work reasonably well, and I have had great fun using a set of Inktense blocks, washed over with water.

I can’t offer much by way of guidance here, if you choose to experiment in this area, you are as much in the know as me. If you have paints or inks, or indeed any other medium that you think might work, feel free to try it out. 

On the occasions that I have tried this, I’ve found that it pays to keep the colours thinner, so as not to stiffen the fabric when it dries to the point where it’s difficult to stitch into. Other than that, I’d just repeat, try it and have fun.

Oh, and I should say that the painted backgrounds have all been totally abstract, no attempt at depicting anything, mainly me playing with colour and some metallic paints to see what would happen.

I’m guessing that this would suit anyone more at home in paint, or perhaps with a stronger vision of what they want to depict, but it’s only my guess.

So, there we have it, a handful of suggestions for ways to get started. None of these requires any artistic experience or flare, all you need is the willingness to play and to take a little time. In the next post, I’ll explain what happens next, as I move from this initial stage of putting a base layer down and finally begin to stitch.

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